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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Monday, March 15, 2010

Transplanted Antiquity - Abu Simbel and Philae

Travel Date 28th March 2008
Click on any picture to see a large version

I leave for South America in six days time and I have suddenly realised I still haven't finished Egypt or Mexico from my 2008 trip. Not to mention the UK and USA from then and previous trips. So I am going to cheat just a bit. Erudite and scholarly Egyptologists have written wonderful reports on Abu Simbel and Philae and the several other ancient sites in Egypt. I will provide a simple over-view, lots of photos, and some links to those other reports.

I went to Egypt for the ancient sites but it was the experiences with and observations of the people and the culture – positive and negative – which became my real interest.

First, Abu Simbel.

As I mentioned earlier I was met by Emad at the train station. He was a refreshing change of style from my earlier encounters with Osoris guides and staff. He did the very best he could to make my time with him pleasant and interesting. He accompanied me to Abu Simbel; I flew there and was driven back to Aswan. Originally I had intended being driven both ways but I made a last-minute change to fly one leg. If you decide to go I recommend flying both ways; the road is one of the more boring trips through a desert you could experience. Although mine was more terrifying than boring, as I'll mention later.

Later I toured the old sections of Cairo including the Coptic churches. I had a fascinating discussion while I was waiting for the plane at the Aswan airport with a Coptic Priest who spoke excellent English. Again my pre-conceptions about a country were shattered. I had not been aware that Egypt's population is about 20% Christian and most of those are Coptic, which is an ancient form of Christianity from the earliest times of that faith. More on that later when I describe those churches and a bit of their history.

To a retired RAAF engineer the signs of a military presence at the airport, while mainly discreet, were hard to miss. Aswan reminded me of our similar combined military/civil airports such as Canberra, Newcastle and Darwin: civilian airport on one side of the strip, military on the other. The strong military presence was not surprising so close to the high dam and also not far from Egypt's southern border with The Sudan.

The flight was uneventful and safe. En-route the terrain from the plane window was unsurprisingly arid, apart from the broad reaches of Lake Nasser.

We arrived in Abu Simbel around lunch-time. It was not as hot as I had expected. Luckily the place was not crowded because others were either at lunch or had already visited at dawn to beat the expected heat.

Abu Simbel is about 280km south of Aswan on the west bank of Lake Nasser.

It was built by Ramesses II, or more precisely by his subjects, more than 1200 years before the birth of Christ. It, and the associated smaller temple of Nefertari, is a temple to both the gods of the time and himself. It's logical if you think about it. If you want to keep your subjects in line, what better way is there than to keep them working hard building a temple to you?

For a detailed description of the history of the ancient site see this excellent article by Marie Parsons: Abu Simbel.

When the building of the High Aswan Dam became an economic necessity it became clear that something would need to be done to preserve some ancient structures that would be lost under the waters of the future Lake Nasser. The task was beyond local resources and became a joint project with UNESCO.

I found an amazingly detailed description of the whole process of the enormous project on-line here: The Salvage of the Abu Simbel Temples. To me, as an engineer, it is fascinating to read. But if you aren't an engineer you may find it a little dry.

I have mixed feelings about the re-constructed ancient sites such as Abu Simbel and Philae. I agree that to have lost them forever under the waters of Lake Nasser as it filled after construction of the high dam would have been a tragedy. I also agree that the transportation and re-construction was one of the great archaeological engineering achievements of modern times. But somehow, despite their magnificence, the relocated sites don't seem to fill me with the same sense of awe that I experience when I wandered the Pyramids, Petra, Angkor, Mycenae or similar ancient sites.

I was not allowed to take photographs in the interior of the temple, hence all the exterior views. The technique of carving directly from the sandstone of the surrounding hills made it difficult not to compare with Petra, although Abu Simbel pre-dates Petra by a millennia.

Although Abu Simbel was certainly impressive, I don't think I would bother going if I was planning my trip again. A long way to go for a brief visit.

The ride home was, to put it simply, terrifying. It started innocuously enough. The cars and buses all slowly filled with passengers in the Convoy Assembly area. All the Egyptians constantly reassured the tourists that there was no need for concern, there were no terrorists or robbers likely to attack the convoy. We did wonder why they needed to keep saying that...and why we needed to travel in convoy...

But it wasn't terrorists or brigands I needed to worry about. My car, containing a happy, cheerful driver, with me beside him and Emad in the back seat, was fairly close to the head of the queue behind a small white minibus. As soon as we departed my driver and his friend driving the minibus decided to beat everyone else back to Aswan. But the drivers in front of us had the same idea.

The road was in pretty good condition and there was no other traffic on it - but I reckon they were also trying to beat the plane back. That car was never designed to travel for over two hours at that speed. After Naples and India I never thought I would be scared in a car again. I was wrong; but when I asked the driver to slow down he smiled and didn't change a thing. So I asked Emad to ask him in Arabic - with the same result. Eventually I just gave in to the inevitable and hoped that death would be instant when the crash came.

Well, it didn't and I survived. The 280km trip is supposed to take about 3 1/2 hours; we made it in closer to 2. I asked Emad to carefully explain to the driver why the baksheesh at the end of the trip was a lot less than the usual tip. The odd thing was that the driver seemed to understand English then...

We crossed this canal en-route, one of several supplying the towns around Lake Nasser. The other photo is typical of the distant views of villages; never near the main road, always a km or two in the distance across rocks and dust.

Philae, on the other hand, while also being a transplanted site was also a pleasant couple of hours not far from Aswan. I not only enjoyed the relaxed and uncrowded wander around the site but also the boat trip there and back.

Emad took me to the wharf and arranged for a private boat to take us out to the island. The boatman had a boy to help and another guy who seemed to be a friend of his along for the ride. The boat there and back was a nice, relaxed way to travel.

Again I will link to Marie Parsons for her description of Philae, together with Jimmy Dunn. For the full story read these:

The Temples of Philae on Agilika Island, Part I: Before the High Dam

The Temple of Philae in Egypt Part II: The Approach to the Temple of Isis

The site includes some Roman ruins as well as the ancient Egyptian sites. It also had this odd carving which I recalled later when I saw the carvings at Ek Balam, Chichen Itza and Teotihuican in Yucatan and near Mexico City. Hmmm...

That, and the love of the pyramid structure and arranging structures to align with astrological events does make me wonder about the possibilities of some form of communication across the Atlantic in ancient times.

The story is better told on those links, so I'll close with a random collection of pictures, starting with an interesting pair of stones showing how the masons keyed them together and an enormous grinding mill-stone.

The small niche in the second picture is a Coptic Christian altar and prayer position. Several of the ancient Egyptian sites have these small Christian sites inside them.

Cheers, Alan

1 comment:

  1. Abu Simbel Temples are amongst the most interesting Pharaonic Temples.The most remarkable feature of the site is that the temple is precisely oriented so that twice every year, on 22 February and 22 October, the first rays of the morning sun shine down the entire length of the temple-cave to illuminate the back wall of the innermost shrine and the statues of the four gods seated there.