Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Some Egyptology

There are two kinds of people in the world. The ones fascinated about Egyptology and the ones who are not. I don't know where are we. We got tired of reading countless articles in National Geographics about Egypt, we have no desire of learning all about the thirty dynasties and all the names of the 332 or so pharaohs that we know about. But there is so much to imbibe from those three thousands years, and it is so simple to get the basics of it.

It all starts with the Nile. This is a river in Africa. The longest in the world. People spent a lot of time trying to figure out how long it is, they still don't know for sure. It crosses ten African countries, the last being Egypt.

There is a river in Africa called Nile

Monsoon rains in the mountains of Ethiopia brought seasonal flooding that would leave a thick layer of alluvial soil on the banks of the river. The high yield, further enhanced by a couple of groundbreaking inventions, like the hoe, and various irrigation methods, made the Egyptians the first group of people to practice agriculture on a large scale. They became rich in the process and a sophisticated culture and society was developed.

Everything was dependent on the annual flood. When the water was plenty, everybody was happy and nourished. When it was too much the floods would bring destruction and death. A bad year would bring hunger, but several dry years would bring famine and the collapse of the whole system, failure of the central authority and occupation by foreign powers.

They developed advanced technology to manage the water. The nilometers, deep stepped pits by the side of the river, would allow the measurement of the rising waters, predict the crop yields and determine the taxes that farmers would have to pay later. Canals where dug to move the water to extend the arable land and also to divert it to protect the cities and the temples from high floods. Saqia, an animal powered waterwheel, was invented to move greater amounts of water. During the dead times of the year, when there was no work in the fields, the pharaohs hired the farmers to work on various construction projects, just like President Obama's employment schemes during the most recent recession. So they built palaces and temples, pyramids and other sophisticated tombs.

The river has six cataracts, regions of low water and stones that make navigation difficult during most of the year, and sometimes impossible. They are counted backwards against the river flow and for our story the only one that is relevant is the last one, called the first cataract. This is the place that was usually the demarcation between the old Egypt and Nubia, with the famous city of Aswan, our first destination when we arrived from Sinai. A small city of about 300,000 people, it has been there for thousands of years, a border town and the quarry place for the best granite monuments in Egypt. The Egyptian obelisks that one can see in Luxor, Rome, Paris, London or New York are all made of stone from here. Aswan is also famous as the place that was used by the Greek geographer Eratosthenes to determine the circumference of the Earth in the third century BC. He got it surprisingly close to today's numbers!

This area has changed hands many times during the centuries. For most, the two nations had a peaceful collaboration, trading crops for gold, ivory and animals. At times the Nubians conquered parts of Egypt, other times the Egyptians took over. During the kingdom of Kush the Nubians installed their pharaoh in Egypt, starting the 25th dynasty. The whole region was sprinkled with countless temples and the interaction between the two cultures is there to be seen even to this day. In 1902 a dam was built by the British at Aswan and some of the temples were flooded. The dam was supposed to regulate the flow of the Nile and prevent some of the worst flooding. In a few years it was clear that it was not big enough and the dam was enlarged. It was still not enough and in the 50s the Egyptian government developed a project for a new dam. Despite international concern they went ahead with the construction creating the largest artificial lake in the world, lake Nasser. It was built with assistance from the Soviets, we learned about the High Dam of Aswan in elementary school, maybe laced with some propaganda about the strength of communism.
Sitting on the High Dam of Aswan
There were and there are strong concerns about the environmental impact of the dam, there is no silt passing through now, the waters are infected with bilharziasis, but the human impact has been tremendous. The modern Egypt could not have existed without it and maybe millions of lives have been saved by preventing the periodic devastating floods or famines.

What might not have been much factor in the decision to built the dam was the permanent disappearance under the waters of countless treasures of the ancient world. The international community started a race to save whatever they could, there is little mention, even here, of an active Egyptian involvement. It is a fascinating story to be learned in Aswan. The Nubian Museum tells it all and some information panels on the High Dam give some additional perspective. As many as 60 ancient temples were flooded. Eighteen of them were moved piece by piece to higher ground. The helping countries got rewarded with ancient artifacts and four countries received one full temple. We've seen the one at Metropolitan Museum in New York, but we've only learned and understood it's story now.

The biggest challenge and the highest achievement was the salvage of the temples of Abu Simbel. Built by Ramses II from 1274 BC, in a hill at the Southern border, the colossal Great Temple was dedicated to the deified pharaoh himself and to a couple of other gods. The four gigantic statues at the entrance were thought of as sentinels of the borders, meant to scare and impress whatever enemies: "rebellious subjects of mixed allegiance and the Kushite empire." We visited from Aswan, an interesting day trip. The wake up call was at 3 am. The hotel packed our meager breakfast, the same as usual, and we got in a 16 person minibus. We were among the lasts to board, there were a couple of other stops at nearby hotels and then we went to a meeting point where at least 50 big buses and minibuses were waiting for clearance from the military to get on the road. We knew we can only travel in a military convoy and I imagined a snail pace line through the desert. It wasn't like that. Once it started it was a race, the two way-two lane road was being used in one direction only and everybody was going as fast as possible. There are 280 km in the desert. After leaving the city behind there was no source of artificial light and the clear night sky filled with stars was absolutely magnificent. A little later we saw the sunrise in all its splendor.

Sunrise in the Sahara desert
There is a huge parking lot at arrival, the town of Abu Simbel is small, with some hotels and a little airport, almost everybody arrives at the parking lot, gets to the temples and back on the buses for the return journey. It is neat, well organized, and despite the fact that everybody comes about the same time it didn't seem crowded. The temple was built in a hill and when they moved it they built an artificial one, almost identical. You come in behind it, see the huge lake, and after a bend in the path the temples appear. The great one, on the left, and on the right, further behind, the temple built for the queen. They are impressive, but the first impression might be that they are not that big. Coming closer I realized that a 20 meter statue is quite humongous. They recreated it exactly as it was, a technical marvel, the colossi where carved directly in the mountain and they had to cut them in smaller, 1000 tones pieces to move them. I could hardly see any marks left. I was a little surprised. The second statue fell some three thousand years ago, the trunk is on the ground, why didn't they put it back together when they moved it? Strangely, whatever reason they had, it seems right the way it is. After taking a few pictures, we entered our first Egyptian temple. A huge hypostyle hall, a large vestibule, numerous side room and in the end the sanctuary. The walls have carved and painted stories of famous battles. We would see later the same design all over Egypt, and we learned a new word, hypostyle, made of two greek words and meaning "a roof resting on many pillars."
The Great Temple at Abu Simbel

A view from the side, the temple of Nefertari with the Great temple in the background

While crowded at first, the temple cleared a little later and when we returned after another half an hour we were the only ones there! We just visited the adjacent temple for Queen Nefertari, Ramses II favorite wife and we stopped for another tour. Pictures are not allowed inside, but since we were the only ones the guards let us take a couple from the entrance.
In the door of Abu Simbel Great Temple
It's absolutely stunning inside!

By 9.45 am we were back at the minibus, most of the other tourists already left. The road back to Aswan was empty, a lone band of asphalt cutting the Sahara dessert. Most of the time, it was just as we imagined it: a flat expanse of sand and nothingness. It was beautiful and, surprisingly, almost all the time we could experience the mirage. An endless surface of blue water shining in the sky, there was no doubt, that could only be some sea or a really big lake, with some little palm trees on the edge. And moments later, I would have to admit, over and over again, that there is no water, just golden sand. It was magical, but disconcerting and exhausting, I was glad to eventually see some dunes and hills and a little later the start of vegetation around Aswan.

The next day we took a trip around Aswan to visit another couple of temples: the famous one at Philae, and the less known one at Kalabsha. Both are much newer, from the Ptolemaic period (300 BC) and have been moved from the original locations. Philae is phenomenal, probably the main objective to see in Aswan.

Philae temple

The face of Isis was carved out to insert the Virgin Mary's face...

Kalabsha is out of the way, nobody goes there, we were the only visitors. The car took us on a back road, we passed some check point where they inquired about our nationality. We said Romanians and we were allowed to pass. The driver could not explain why it matters and if there are any tourists not allowed because of their nationality. A couple of minutes on the country road, by the lake, the driver found a boat, the only functioning one, that took us to the island and returned for us an hour later.
Interior court in Kalabsha

The monument to the Soviet-Egyptian Friendship viewed from the Kalabsha temple...

We left Aswan on a cruise ship, we stopped at two temples on our way. The boat departed a few hours late and arrived at Kom Ombo in the dark, around 6 pm. This is a unique site with a dual dedication to the local crocodile god Sobek and Horus the Elder. Dual dedication actually means that everything is duplicated and perfectly symmetrical, two hypostyle halls, two sanctuaries, two everything, except only one full moon! Wandering in the halls, between the columns flooded in light, looking at the carvings, we had time and we had fun. It was wonderful. In the end we stopped in the local crocodile museum, since they had a crocodile god they had mummies of several huge reptiles and a lot of related artifacts.
We're taking off on our Nile cruise

Details at Kom Ombo

Full moon at Kom Ombo

Next morning we visited the temple of Edfu. Built further away from the river and protected better from damaging floods, this is the best preserved temple of Ancient Egypt. Part of the fun was riding in a calésh through the city of Edfu.

Edfu in the morning

Behind the Edfu temple

By the time we reached Luxor, the former capital of Egypt and the place of the best touristic attractions we already knew quite a lot about the Ancient Egypt. We became somewhat familiar with their gods and their legends. I overheard an excited Egyptian guide explaining to a western couple that the story of Isis and Horus is surprisingly similar to the "legend" of Mary and Jesus and the immaculate conception. In any other place it might have been the outmost heresy, here it was just shocking. Interesting, probably the most enduring Egyptian invention was the hell. They invented it about 1600 BC, with all the horrible descriptions and details, the Greeks took it further with Cerberus and Hades and from them the Christians took it to new lows and used it for a couple thousand years. Now, I learn from the Economist that not even the Catholic Church believes in the hell as invented in the times of pharaohs, they describe it just as a place "removed from God." Oh, how many fascinating things come up during travel.

We are still ready for more.

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