A funny thing happened as we started our Nile River cruise: our boat didn’t go anywhere. Well, that’s not exactly true, but we spent the first three nights of the seven-night cruise tied up a few miles north of Aswan. We took two short trips on the river but didn’t actually move downriver toward Luxor until our fourth day. A little strange for a river cruise, but there was plenty to see those first few days.
Day 1 was a very early flight out of Cairo down to Aswan. We knew the cruise company was going to pick us up at the airport but weren’t too sure what would come after that; we would get in by 8:00 AM and didn’t expect they’d have our room ready on the boat that early. To our delight, though, they took us right to the boat and let us on, much better than having to cool our heels waiting. The only strange thing as far as we were concerned was the distance from the Aswan airport to the city itself, something like a 45-minute drive. What’s that all about? Here we are out in the middle of the desert where there’s a whole lot of nothing, everything is flat and dry, and they put the airport way out there? Strange.
So, after checking in and chilling out for a bit it was time for lunch and then an afternoon journey first to the Aswan High Dam and then on to our first temple. The High Dam was built in the 1960s and, along with the Hoover Dam and Three Gorges Dam in China, is one of the largest in the world. The annual flooding of the Nile River, based on annual rains in its East Africa drainage basin, made the Nile River flood plain one of the most important agricultural centers of the ancient world. Strange as it is to contemplate given its massive desert, Egypt was known as the “breadbasket of Rome” during the empire’s heyday. But at the same time the flooding could be disastrous: unusually high floods could ruin an entire year’s crop while low floods could leave farmers unable to plant adequate fields. Thus damming and controlling the floods was a major priority after the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 and the start of the Egyptian Republic.
One thing I learned in all this was that the High Dam – the construction of which I have vague memories of from my childhood – wasn’t Egypt’s first dam on the Nile. Way back in the late 19th century, when Egypt was a protectorate of Victorian England, the English built what is now known as the Low Dam a few miles downriver from today’s High Dam. It was a nice little bridge, but wasn’t at all up to the job of managing the mighty Nile.
So we drove down to the High Bridge with our guide Rena and discovered that, well, there’s really not a lot to see. You get a nice view of the northern edge of Lake Nasser, one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, but as it’s some 300 miles long it’s really just a tiny speck of the lake. What you see, though, is beautiful, as blue as any lake water I’ve seen save for perhaps Lake Tahoe. Sadly we didn’t see any crocodiles though; there are thousands of them but again, it’s a big lake.
Next stop was the temple at Philae which, a temple to Isis, one of the great goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon, built about 250 BC under the Greek Ptolemaic rulers. It was said to be one of the burying places of Osiris, husband of Isis, and thus was a major tourist destination in its time; indeed, it was so holy that birds didn’t fly above it nor did fish swim near it. That’s their story, at least.
This was the start of learning about Egyptian temples but for me the most interesting part of it was that in the 1960s UNESCO led a successful effort to move the massive temple. The island it was situated on was just a bit upstream from the Low Dam, constructed in the 1890s and was nearly always at least partly under water. As that was not sustainable over the long term UNESCO had this fantasy of cutting the temple up block-by-block and moving it to high land about half a kilometer away. And astonishingly to my mind at least that’s exactly what they did. The various buildings were chopped into 40,000 pieces, moved a bit, and reassembled. Amazing.
Day 2 was a trip to Abu Simbel, massive temples just north of Egypt’s border with Sudan. To get there you drive back out to Aswan’s distant airport and take a 30-minute flight, then drive out to the temples. All I can say is “Wow!” I thought the temple at Philae was impressive, but wow. They date to the 13th century BC, built during the reign of Ramses II as a monument to, well, himself, and his favored wife Nefertari. The exterior was carved out of the mountain while the interior is just chock-full of carvings and art and all that. And did I mention that it is well over 3,000 years old?
And then on top of all that these temples, too – a big one for Ramses, a smaller one for Nefertari – were also moved, in this case to avoid being submerged when the High Dam was built. This was even more difficult than moving Philae, as the (massive) exterior had been carved directly into the mountain. But over several years and at a cost of some $300 million in today’s dollars, UNESCO again led the effort to save these historic treasures, moving them to high ground and replicating nearly identically the setting of the original site. Really impressive, but then it would have to be to justify flying all the way down there just to see them.
One sad thing to note here is the impact Egypt’s 2010 revolution has had on tourism and thus on the lives of people dependent on that tourism. Our guide here told us that once there were 17 flights a day into Abu Simbel while now there are only three or four. They say tourism is starting to pick up again but it’s sad to see people paying such a high price for finally turning out someone like Hosni Mubarak…
Day 3 then was another temple, Kom Ombo, a dual temple to a crocodile god (Sobek) and a falcon god (Horus) that dates to about 150 BC. This time we sailed to near the temple and then, after our guide Rena did her usual great job of explaining things and showing us how to read hieroglyphics, we sailed back to Aswan. For me the highlight of the day was a tour of Aswan’s botanical garden. We took a “falouka” – the Egyptian sailboat – out to an island and discovered this lush garden. We’ve been in botanical gardens in poorer countries that are just sad but this was nice.
Now, after our first three days around Aswan we sail north. More river, more temples.