“Wait there on the chairs!” says the security man from the airport. We sit for almost an hour, other tourists sharing the same fate. It is not because he has something else to do, he just talks with his colleagues, but I think this is a new policy (at least for me), they control things better in groups. We fly to Cairo to change the airplane (actually, it is the same one, with the same stewardesses, and almost the same passengers) so we could go to Aswan.
Again I have to face my fears, my own prejudices. This is a time of unrest, of social change, of political games. It is a Muslim country with 5-10% of Coptic Christians. Don’t we invite trouble just by being here? The number of tourists coming in is down, aren’t we a source to be ripped off? Are they really going to take us to the hotel or somewhere else? In whom to trust?
Outside the airport there are several taxi drivers, waiting for a client. Between them is Mr. Samir, who has in the middle of his forehead a crest, the consequence of many prayers (the Muslims pray by touching their forehead to the ground). That little voice in my head says “Him, you can trust him! No, no, no, no, I take it back. What if he is a fanatic?”
But I don’t listen it anymore, Mr. Samir is talking politely with Mihai and he is inviting us in his seven seat car, a Peugeot from 1974. It is a long drive and from time to time he tells us that, somewhere in the darkness, we’re passing the High Dam, or the Philae Temple. We arrive at our hotel,
that looks more like an apartment building, on a busy and noisy street. They greet us in Egyptian Arabic and give us the keys, but if we want information we have to wait for the English speaker.
The image that appears when we open the door takes us aback: shabby and dirty. Half empty bottles of water and some flip-flops give me the feeling that we are in somebody’s else apartment. The bathroom has a wide river made by leaking faucets. The ventilation that blocks the only window and the light, doesn’t work. There are mosquitos and cockroaches (as I would discover in the night time). To plug the fridge would be electrical suicide and keeping food in it would invite a health hazard. The furniture is held in place by telephone wire, the wall to wall carpet is stained, the mattresses are lumpy. The only clean thing here is the bedding and the towels.
It is too late for this evening but we’re seriously considering to move the next day. And then we meet Mr. Galal, Mr. Mohamed Galal. He is the English speaker and the manager of the hotel. He has two boys and a girl and his wife teaches Arabic at the middle school. On his forehead there is a familiar sign. We will get to know him better in the days to come, but for now he takes us somewhere to eat and to be sure we get the Egyptian price.
|Kofta, grounded beef with condiments, grilled, served on a bed of cilantro, with flat bread and tahini, hummus and salad.|
He offers us a bottle of water, when we ask if the water is safe to drink. He will bring the internet from home (the one from the hotel is in a state of permanent repair) and falafel for breakfast, he will pay for a felucca ride in the sunset, he will bring fruits, he will transport us with his car where we’ll need it. In his words, he is Mihai’s younger brother from Egypt. This behavior raises all my antennas! I’m second guessing his every move though I have no reason. I will understand only after we will leave Aswan: Mr. Galal is an exponent of his culture.
We have to start slowly. Ioan is recuperating from a 24h viral stomach bug that affected his birthday. We try to make each one’s birthday special, to be somewhere, to do what they want and how they want. We celebrated his twelfth birthday in Lhasa, Tibet (it seems so long ago). Tsewang made a cake and we visited the most important Tibetan monastery. For this one he wanted to go snorkeling above the Blue Hole, one of the major attractions in the Sinai Peninsula and top five diving experience. In the morning he had a better idea, how about we stay “home” and have fun together? We enjoyed our breakfast, we talked, even played, and by the afternoon he already had a cold and fever.
|Finally, enjoying his "cake"!|
There are different opinions on what ‘slowly’ means. If you ask Ileana, she would tell you that she sleeps in, but Mihai, he schedules just one thing for that day: the Nubian Museum. There is one more decision to take: do we hail a taxi or walk? Given that is 15 minutes away, and we want to see the real life, we start walking.
|The Nile river on our right...|
|The street on our left....|
There is a men’s majority, dressed in their long coats, white or sandy-colored, wearing a loose turban or just a fez, sandals on their feet. They are waiting for a business opportunity in the shadow of a tree. The moment they see us, they start moving, looking furtively around, to see if they have competition. “Kalesh ride! Just five!” Kalesh is a horse buggy, but what is “just five” we have no idea. Is it just five minutes, five Egyptian liras, five dollars or euros? Anyway, Mr. Galal said not to take one, because some tourists had unpleasant experiences, “just five” turning out to be five something for every minute or step of the horse.
There are the felucca owners who want our business, forty liras for an hour, but for us, a special price, thirty liras. It is still double of the real price! At this point in our trip we are unfazed, if we want it, we barter, if not, we just walk away.
Women are present too, but they are passing by, on their way. Many of them follow the recommendation of covering one’s hair and body: from a loose shawl to niqab that cover the whole face (these ones are different from those seen in Saudi Arabia, they have a different cut and there is a linking above the bridge of the nose); from jeans with a short dress to a tight form fitting and colorful abaya, to a black covering all.
The Nubian Museum turns to be an elusive one, we are walking for more than an hour in the raising temperature. But we are rewarded with the remains of a civilization. In its history Nubia fought with Egypt, the northern neighbor. Sometimes it won, sometimes it lost. Present time caught it as part of Egypt and its territory was covered by the lake Nasser’s waters. The sparse population was relocated, their artifacts salvaged and exhibited here: scratched or three colored pottery, jewelry, statues, even a whole silver horse harnessing (I don’t know what is the meaning of the blue sheep skin, but it can be seen on the dashboard of many cars).
The village life is represented through the everyday objects, colorful painted houses with glazed pottery embedded in the walls, siqua (the well from which water was extracted by oxen).
|The Nubian women wear an abaya made from lace-like material.|
The museum, which won an architectural prize for preserving the elements of the culture, has a garden in which petroglyphs, and houses, and Muslim tombs are exhibited.
After a yoghurt and flat bread lunch, the parents leave for a felucca ride and the children remain in the hotel (it is Ileana’s turn to suffer from the stomach bug). We are riding in “Bob Marley”, a white, wide, flat bottomed boat, with a mast that holds the triangular sail. There is a small breeze, barely breathing, pushing us toward the middle of the river. The Nile is surprisingly clear, I can see the plants moving with the flow, and, it seems, drinkable (our sailor quenches his thirst with it). Somewhere we can hear voices singing “Alouette” and we track them to a couple of boys floating on a makeshift boat, pestering tourist with their French knowledge for some change. It takes quite a long time to sail toward the Elephantine Island, where the Botanical Garden is, and we enjoy the quiet ride (though we could hear the cars in the background and the motor boats, speeding people on the other side).
|These oars are square! And heavy! And when not in use they hang next to the mast!|
The next morning we wake up very early, just minutes after our noisy neighborhood tavernas closed their doors.
|Chairs made of palm fronds, cushions, rugs, trees are the nocturnal decorum for heated conversations on secret subjects (at least for us)|
A mini-bus picks us and drives to the place where a convoy is forming. Officials dressed in white shirts with black sweaters talk in walkie talkies, people are hurrying to their choice of transport, and we all start toward the exit. The two line road is just one way at this hour, toward Abu Simbel. There is an incredible sky, almost black, with so many stars, it seems unnatural. Though it is the Northern Hemisphere, the one in which I grew up, the one that I missed while looking at the Southern Cross, I recognize only Orion. After a while, one side becomes bluish, then milky, then pink, then out it rolls the fiery sun.
In Abu Simbel are two of the few fortunate temples that escaped drowning in lake Nasser. For thousands of years they’ve met the gaze of travelers, telling about the greatness of Egypt. People are still impressed by the size and architectural design, even if it was cut up in huge blocks, numbered and lettered, and rearranged on a man-made mountain. They were saved by the international efforts of UNICEF and science people from many countries, along with other temples, for each a different problem and a different solution.
|Picture of a picture of their original position|
|Where they were, the water line and their new position|
For now the sun rays color the stone with an orange hue. There are people everywhere, guides talking to their groups. We make our way toward Ramesses II temple, a first line of owl and falcon statues guarding the four seated statues of the pharaoh. One is broken by a natural occurrence, its torso and head lying at its own feet. A small entrance, with Nubians and Syrians slaves in bas-relief, leads us to the inside of the temple and the story of a culture.
The story of the universe, of its gods and goddesses, of this pharaoh and his accomplishments, written with hieroglyphs and painted on every surface in three rooms, each one smaller than the previous. Two times a year a ray of light illuminates the innermost sanctuary and the statues of Amun, Ra-Horakhti and himself (the fourth one, representing Ptah, the god of the Underworld, is for always in the dark).
Nefertari’s temple is built in a similar manner, only it is smaller. She was the beloved wife and his love declaration is for everybody to see: her statue is the same size as his! Back in those times the wife was represented as tall as his knee. We take pictures of the outside, we visit the rooms, take it all in. It doesn’t look like this morning, because of the high sun, the stone is a whitish yellow and the statues almost lost their features. We return “home” tired but happy.
Our last day in Aswan we spend it visiting some of the other highlights:
To reach the next one we have to pass by men selling jewelry, pick a boat, haggle for a lower price, climb into it, hope it doesn’t die in the middle of the lake and enjoy the ride toward the island.
The Philae Temple, dedicated to Isis, reveals itself, its walled courts, the perfect contoured scars left by the Christians after erasing the portraits of the gods.
|This pharaoh holds from the tufts of their hairs his new slaves|
We can’t help but overhear the stories told by the guides: how Osiris was killed and Isis, his wife, gathered his cut up body, mummified it, gave life to it again and gave birth to Horus, the one who will avenge his father, by fighting and killing Set, the bad god. Here it is Horus, represented as a child, stark naked and suckling. The Christians carved out Isis face and put instead one of Virgin Mary.
And, the Egyptians were the first ones to use the flowers as a symbol of love! Yeah, if you consider that Ancient Egyptian culture has extensive remains, and older cultures have just a few, truly the first ones to use flowers as the symbol of love were the Egyptians.
|I presume the one with the wings is Isis, protecting Osiris, I don't know who is the one with the offerings, and in between them papiri flowers!|
We also visit the High Dam, the one responsible for a better life in the last decades in Egypt. It has this name to be differentiate it from the Lower Dam built by the British at the beginning of the 20th century. In a way it is disappointing, there is a large amount of water on one side, a tiered hill ending in the Nile on the other side of the four lane highway. An informative panel gives us a clue about the layout, how deep, how long, how much, but no opportunity to visit the turbines, no ecological concern for the silt that can't reach anymore the lower course of the river. Just the faded politics of yesteryears and the Russian input of money and labor, framed in a Friendship Monument.
Close by, on a man made island, there are other temples. Kalabsha is almost complete, its missing roof replaced by linked wire, to keep out the pigeons. They don’t seem to understand and work hard for their nests. The guardians survey our little group and send forth one of them to open the doors for us. He shows us the Nilometer, a device invented for calculating taxes. There are different ones along the Nile, but the principle is the same: a rounded well with stairs, connected with the river. When it flooded, the water level raised, would mark a notch, making possible to predict the amount of crops, and through extension, to establish the taxes for that year.
I don’t remember the names of the other ones, but they were small, just a few columns, or sculptures. I liked the delicate paint.
Finally, we’re leaving Aswan. Mr. Galal picks us up from the hotel and drives us to the one floating on the Nile river. He takes care of us, talking with the manager, verifies that we have everything in our rooms. Then he gives us a pep talk, not to believe strangers, to be careful what we eat, to look if things are the way they are presented. He keeps touching the lower eyelid, his mouth, his chest with his index finger, I’m wondering if he has a problem, but no, its his way of underlining the importance of watching our surroundings. He wants to come to Luxor, he can make it as a business trip, to be sure that we are OK at the next hotel. Mihai is afraid that we will have a physical 6th person and he doesn’t know how to talk him out of this trip. Eventually, we say good bye.
|Maa salaam Mr.Galal!|
We’re ready for our next adventure: cruise on the Nile!