Your Hand In My Hand

No Sleep 'til ... Abu Simbel
Monday 21
st February 2022

 

In the small hours of the night we were woken up by the banging of our fold-away table. At first we weren't too sure why but the pattern repeated itself several times. We seemed to be hurtling down the tracks like a runaway train then all of sudden the brakes were pressed causing the whole carriage to jolt, and the table to flap up and slam shut.

It happened a couple of times over about an hour, keeping us awake just as we were drifting back to sleep.  Eventually I got down from my bunk and opened up the table. It stopped the banging at least but getting back to sleep was difficult. The jolting continued throughout the night.

Every now and then we would come to a stop, either to allow another train to pass or we were at a station. At one of those stops I was on the toilet leaving a deposit. I later discovered why the sign asked you not to use the toilet whilst at a station. Eventhough you sat on a western style flush toilet it literally was a hole through the floor onto the tracks.

We were exhausted but managed to fall asleep briefly before being woken up at 5am by a call to prayer whilst stopped at the station in Sohag, a city on the West Bank of the Nile, some 160 miles North of Luxor.

By sunrise, when the light came streaming in through our window, we gave up on sleep. Deciding instead to get up and get dressed.

At 7:30am we were sat in the club car with a cup of tea and watch Egypt fly by our window, We had by now reached Qena, a city on a significant bend in the Nile. At  some point we must have crossed the river as we were now on the East bank.

The windows of the club car were cleaner than our room as if they had actually been washed. We looked out over the countryside of lush green fields fed by irrigation channels from the Nile. In the distance was the Gebel el-Gir plateau, part of the Western Desert plateau where 60 miles further South were the Valley of the Kings. 

We returned to our room and converted our bunks back into seats and started to pack our rucksack. Not that we were anywhere near reaching Aswan. The train was running behind schedule.  It was 8:30am when we passed through Luxor. We must have experienced some delays overnight because we should have been here at 6:00am.

About an hour later breakfast arrived. It was as Hany described it, "Bread, with bread and then some more bread".

"More like Breadfest than breakfast" was Julie's witty contribution. She has a talent for puns and one-liners!

We both went for the bread roll with some cream cheese and the processed cheese/ham. It served its purpose. We had brought our own croissants which were a bit dry without any coffee to wash them down.   You have to pay extra for a warm beverage.

Packed and ready to leave we had nothing else to do but stare out the dirty windows hoping to catch a glimpse of the Nile as we trundle down towards Aswan. 

We caught glimpses every now and then through the trees or in between houses but nothing amazing.  

Eventually that moment arrived, after Edfu, at a point called Mahattat al Siraj. From here the tracks ran alongside the Nile for a considerable length of time. It was quite an exciting moment. I know we had seen the mighty river in Cairo but here it was in its natural habitat.

I hurried down the corridor to the opposite end of our carriage, near the toilets, where I found a clean window and got a few photographs of this wide ribbon of blue cutting through the arid desert on one side and fertile green lands on the other.

An hour or so later the tracks cut through the limestone rock rising on both sides before passing the mud brick houses of Al Kattarah.  From there on in there was an almost constant presence of dusty settlements,

We rolled into Aswan just before midday, after a 16 hour long journey covering over 900km of train tracks. Hany came down the corridor. "Crosscheck, please, phone, passport, money" reminding us not to leave anything behind.

We then followed him off the train onto the busy platform and out through the station terminal.

There was a high police presence in the square to the front of the station.  A real show of strength. Deadly terrorist attacks are very infrequent but they have happened. A visible security force is the confidence the tourist industry needs to encourage people to return to Egypt.   

The square was basically sealed off and only authorised vehicles were allowed to enter. We walked across the square to our minubus, loaded it up with our luggage and hopped on board. We then waited for security approval before leaving the square.

We drove down to the corniche, the waterfront promenade. Hany pointed out our hotel for the next two days. It was called The Obelisk and was by the side of the Nile. We couldn't wait to be relaxing by the pool watching the feluccas sail up and down the river.

But wait we had, because we all agreed a preference to visit the Temple of Isis at Philaea first and then check-in the hotel.

It was only a short drive away.

On the way Hany asked us all who was interested in going to Abu Simbel tomorrow. He needed a minimum of four people to make the trip feasible. I had actually contacted Hany a couple of weeks ago to register my interest, to the point I would have paid for four people to make sure I got to Abu Simbel. Personally, this journey was all about reaching the Great Temple of Ramses II, specifically tomorrow because our arrival coincided with the Sun Festival.   

He gave everyone three options; to stay in Aswan and have a day of leisure; travel to Abu Simbel very early in the morning; or travel overnight to arrive before the sunrise to experience the magic of the Sun Festival.

I described it as a "once in a lifetime opportunity". We were in the right place at the right time. You could tell even Hany was excited. He'd only been there during the Sun Festival once before in his life.

 In the end the whole group decided to go for it. 

The minubus parked up and we all got out. After fending off the hawkers all trying to sell us exactly the same black and white Arab scarf, we crossed a square towards the pier. From here small boats ferried tourists across the resevoir created by the buildng of the original Aswan Dam.  

We were handed life jackets which we had to put on before we could get onboard. It's a health and safety requirement of Intrepid. Not many of the boats provided them.

With a captured audience one of the men came around with a basket full of  bracelets and bangels. We decided to buy something off them. We didn't really want anything but picked up a simple beaded bracelet and a small guide to the gods of Egypt for one of the grandkids.

As we sailed towards the temple Hany gave us a little bit of the background to the temple. The original location of the temple was on a rocky island a short distance away in amongst the first cataracts, a feature where the Nile ran over a shallow bed of boulders and rocks creating white water rapids. 

In 1902 the British, who had occupied Egypt 20 years earlier, built a dam at the location of the first cataracts which resulted in the flooding of the Philae temple. Much of it was constantly under water. Victorian visitors talked of columns rising from the water.

Being submerged was causing damage. So in 1960 as part of a wider project when the High Aswan Dam was being planned UNESCO stepped in and funded the process of relocating the temple to Agilkia island. It was the closest to shape and size to Philae island.

It was an incredbile feat of engineering to dismantle and reconstruct on such a massive scale. What we see today looked like it had been there for thousands of years not just sixty.

It took us less than 15 minutes to reach the small wooden pier on the island and we clambered off the boat. 

Hany took us first to the long colonaded forecourt, with an impressive row of columns running down both sides towards the temple.

"This temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis" he began. "she wears the headress of the sun disc between cow horns"

The oldest parts of the temple date back to the reign of  Pharaoh Nectanebo I in the mid 4th century BC. He was the last of the true Egyptian Pharaohs.

The temple grew through the centuries of the Greco-Egyptian Ptolemy dynasties, especially pharaoh Ptolemy II, who buit most of what we see as the main temple.

We moved closer, for a better view of the reliefs carved onto the wall of the first pylon, the two large 18 metre high towers with a entrance in the middle between them.  On the Western tower there was an image of Ptolemy XII, grasping his enemies by the hair, with a club in the other hand ready to strike them. Facing him on the otherside of the entrance was the goddess Isis.

He also brought to our attention to the black line, between one to two metres high. It was a tide mark showing where the water rose when it was flooded.   

We entered though the door in the West tower and then entered the Mammisi, the birth house, a temple within the temple. It was dark inside. Our eyes took time to adjust to the dim light.  The walls were covered in hieroglyphs and reliefs. The tide mark clearly visible. 

Stepping out of the Mammisi into the inner courtyard we could see how the "birth house" was bolted in between the first and second pylons. 

The second pylon was very similar to the first but had different scenes carved into its walls. Here, on the East tower, the pharaoh is offering incence to Isis and Horus, the falcon headed god and son of Isis and Osiris.

We also noticed this massive stelea to the right. It was a carved into a piece of rock that stuck out of the original island. It had to be cut out whole to be move here.

Gently rising  steps brought us up to the entrance of the Hypostyle Hall. "This is the most complete temple" explained Hany. Most of the roof was still intact, held up by ten columns, some but not all, covered in hieroglyphs, as were the walls. 

Possibly a reason for it surviving mostly intact was its continued use as a place of worship long after the pharaohs had lost their powers. After the Romans, who went local continuing the cult of Isis, came the Byzantine period who abolished pagan worship. The Temple of Isis then became a church and the Coptic Christians moved in. There was even a small Christian altar in the hall, as well as several crosses carved into the walls from during their tenancy.

We continued into the sanctuary, the heart of the temple, the holiest of holy, where only the High Priest could enter. A granite pedestal stood in the centre where a gold statue of Isis would have stood,  looking out through hall, to the courtyard.  That statue now stands either in Paris or Florence?

Hany brought our attention to a slight flaw in the relocation. The alignment was out. Apparently the island was slightly shorter than the original so the only way to fit in the entire colonaded forecourt was to skew it a little.

"The temple would have been constructed from the inside out, starting with the sanctuary" explained Hany. Each doorway would follow in a straight line, through the hall, the second pylon, across the inner courtyard to the first pylon and beyond into the forecourt. The symmetry perfect.

From the first moment you entered the temple you should be visible to the gods.

There were some wonderful carvings on the walls of the sanctuary, despite an attempt to deface them. Many had their features hacked away, faces, limbs erased by crude chisel marks. Probably the work of the christians no doubt, eliminating the false gods from what had by then become a church. Thankfully their vandalism was only half hearted as most of it was left intact.

The hieroglyphs were incredibly delicate, cut out in bas-relief as opposed to cut into the rock.  

Somewhere here is one of the last known examples of ancient hieroglyphs carved into stone.  A High Priest called Esmet-Akhom carved an inscription dated 394AD. Over time the knowledge and undersanding of the hieroglyphs was lost.

We moved from the sanctuary to explore other rooms. They were all richly decorated.  Not all the carvings were defaced. One example showed the goddess Sekhmet, the goddess of war, depicted with a lion's head and a sundisc with a cobra above her, holding the ankh the key of life in one hand and a wadj or papyrus sceptre or staff in the other.

We left through a side door and walked out towards The Temple of Hathor, a small free standing structure set apart from the Temple of Isis. It was originally built during the 2nd century BC by Ptolemy VI.

Then we continued towards the larger Kiosk of Trajan built during the Roman period, at the turn of the 2nd century. It's sometimes also refered to as the Pharaoh's Bed. I'm not too sure why? 

"You now have some free time" said Hany, to explore the site ourselves but Julie had seen enough and was happy to take a break. Fatigue was setting in. We walked across to the cafe and sat down at the water's edge. It was a very pleasant spot.  

After Julie had settled with a bottle of diet Pepsi I headed back towards the temple for a quick scoot around. "Watch you don't trip over!" she said, knowing that when I'm in photo-mode I don't look where I'm going, and that she is usually my extra pair of eyes.

Instead of exploring places where we hadn't been I decided to revisit those we had already seen. I thought a second look would reveal things I hadn't notice the first time around.  

In front of the main entrance of the first pylon there were a pair of lions. They had been defaced. Perhaps they were sphinxes, although they weren't lying down in the classic pose, but sat upright.  It's possibly the half human half animal may have offended the congregation. Or maybe the thought of worshiping a lion was offensive.

Anyway two christian crosses were carved either side of the entrance.

I could see, through the doorway, an image carved onto the second pylon that had all its detail removed, all that remained was the shell of the form. In fact most of the images on the pylons had been hacked away to a certain degree, leaving only their outline. 

However, above the main entrance, on the side of the East tower of the first pylon I spotted some reliefs that had been untouched, their features left intact.

I then popped inside, taking a closer look at the hall, the sanctuary and the various ante rooms, admiring the exquisite carvings, only this time not knowing at what I was looking.

I then returned outside, the way I came and headed over to the colonade where Maralyn had found a quiet spot to relax. I still had plenty of time to further explore the site but decided to make my way back to the cafe and join Julie.  

One last look back at the temple I noticed the doorway to nowhere. I had obviously seen it before but not paid it much attention. Stuck onto the East tower of the first pylon was this entrance at a right angle to it. It's called the Gate of Ptolemy II because there's an inscription over the lintel.

There were a few column bases and a low wall little further on, as if it could the entrance could have have lead to this small ruined temple.

Back at the cafe I sat with Julie, and Michelle who had joined her. We talked about Mental Health issues and sociopaths whilst we waited for the rest of the group to turn up.

Eventually the rest of the group gathered at the cafe and it was time to leave, back to the landing, onto the boat and back to our minibus. 

We pulled up outside The Hotel Obelisk, all of us properly excited to be on the Nile.  We walked down a white marble tiled path towards reception and checked-in. It looked really nice. The rooms were all dotted around in the form of small chalets and we got the keys to room 303.

We didn't stay in the room for long as we got changed and headed straight out to the pool. It had a great view of the boats sailing up and down the river, and the Movenpick hotel across on Elephantine Island in the middle of Nile, and then beyond all of that the desert hills on the West Bank with the domed tower of Qubbet el-Halwa at the peak, above where the Tombs of the Nobles are found.

We were starving hungry. It was well past 3pm and we hadn't eaten since our breakfast on the train. Browsing the poolside menu we saw a cheese toastie.  Hany had told us to only have a light lunch because tonight we were going to have a feast. With that in mind we decided to share one toastie with a portion of fries.

No one came to serve us at the pool so Julie went to reception to ask for some service. Then two waiters arrived at once. The one who got the job was absolutely charming as she took our order.

The cheddar was clearly the plastic variety but it really didn't matter, we were running on empty, and it kept us going for a few more hours. So it served its purpose.

A little late I had a dip in the pool. The water was freezing but I liked it.  It was reinvigorating. Julie dipped in a toe but was having none of it.

We returned to our room to get ready for this evening's meal with a local Nubian family.

We had a rendevouz at 5pm at reception from where we walked down to the river. The sun was low in the sky bringing its warm glow to the sails of the passing feluccas.

We all got on board a boat, similar to that we used this afternoon, a small tourist pleasure boat, large anough for tweny people, powered by an outboard engine. Oddly enough we weren't wearing lifejackets this evening but it was nicely decorated. 

 

Hany introduced us to JJ (or JayJay) the owner of the boat. He retold a story of how they met.

Many years ago, the circumstances were a bit sketchy, but Hany was with some Australian tourist, swimming across the Nile to the Elephantine island when he was caught by the current and got into difficulties. JJ came to his rescue and they have been good friends ever since.

A few minutes upstream we sailed past the Old Cataract Hotel, an Aswan institution, built by the tour company Thomas Cook & Son in 1899, and famously resided by Agatha Christie for most of 1937 when she wrote her Hercule Poirot novel "Death on the Nile".  Its guests include presidents and royalty.

We sailed close to the tip of the Elephantine island where Hany drew our attention to hieroglyphs carved into a large piece of granite, just lying there. It looked like some ancient Egyptian graffiti.

There were a few temples on the island, dedicated to Khnum, the ram headed god, and his wife Satet. It was also the location of an ancient fort called Abu, a word that means both elephant and ivory, more than likely refering to the trade in tusks.

We turned around and made our way back to a small ferry terminal for the island.  

We followed JJ who became our guide for a walk through his village of Koti. The first house we stopped outside was a vary grand detached three storey property. It was positively palatial with a balustraded balcony and a gated garden. 

"He's done alright for himself" I thought but we moved on.

It wasn't long before children came running towards us shouting "Candy! Candy!". They were all  disappointed because none of us had any sweets to give.

As we walked away one cheeky little girl called out to me "Bye-bye grandad!" 

We continued to follow JJ through the village which had now become a little more traditional with white washed walls and a recurring motif of blue and orange triangles.

The Nubians were the original settlers in these parts. The region extended from Aswan along the Nile as far South as the fifth cataract near Khartoum.  The height of their civilisaton was the Kingdom of Kush which during the 8th century BC even ruled over Egypt, as the 25th dynasty of pharaohs.

JJ explained that whilst their language Nobiin survives and thrives, it has no written form, it exists solely as an oral language.  Dictionaries have been compiled using latin and arabic text in an attempt to capture the sounds of the words but a move to revive an old Nubian alphabet have so far been resisted by the community.

 

We followed JJ through narrow back streets where children played without asking for a thing.  They were too busy having fun.

Some of the houses here had not been rendered so we could see how they were crudely built from mud bricks and others from white lime bricks.

We eventually came to an open door "Welcome to my home" said JJ.

We offered to take off our shoes but he wouldn't have it. "No, its ok" he insisted.

 

We passed the kitchen where his wife and her sister were busy preparing the food for this evening. It was no easy task to feed over a dozen people. Whilst we waited JJ encouraged us to have a look around. In the front room his sons, and the neighbour's son were having some tuition. We said hello. They were studying mathematics.

"What would you like to be when you grow up?" I asked. After the teacher translated both JJ's sons said "Doctor" whereas as the neighbour's child said "footballer".

"Ah, just like Mo Salah" I replied.

I did the responsible thing and told him to focus on his studies "because all the best footballers are the clever ones"!

We all gathered in the back room where a large table had been laid. I looked out the window, which you had to stand up to see. They had a great view of Aswan out over the rooftops towards the East Bank and especially the massive Coptic Cathedral of the Archangel Michael.

It reminded me that according to the Ethiopian Christians the Ark of the Covenant, the gold chest that stored the stone tablets on which the ten commandments were carved by Moses, was kept briefly on Elephantine island en route to Axum, according to Ethiopian, its final resting place.

 

We all sat around the tabel, looking at the colourful fruit images of the fabulous wipe clean table cloth, getting hungrier by the minute.  Not a moment too soon the food arrived. A plate of salad and noodles came first quickly followed by a fine looking silver soup urn.

I ladled out a bowlful of a delicious lentil soup, complete with added croutons. Even Julie enjoyed it despite lentil soup not really being her cup of tea. 

Next came two stews, served in wonderful earthenware pots. The first was a potato tagine. The flavours were rich and intense, restaurant quality without question. It was served with a flatbread that reminded me of the Ethiopian injeera, made from a fermented dough.

The other dish was even more gorgeous, an aubergine mousaka, not a layered dish with bechamel sauce that we would be more accumstomed too in a Greek restaurant but a stew of potato, green pepper and aubergine with copious amont of olive oil. It was sensatonal and I could have easily eaten the entire bowl, especially if I had some crusty bread to hand. 

For the carnivores there was a bowl of a ragu made with mince to create a spag bol with the noodles. Also plenty of grilled chicken. There was more than enough food. 

Once we had finished JJ thanked us for our company and told us a little about himself. He shared a photo of his engagement to his wife back in the day when he had dreadlocked rastafarian hairstyle. He recalled how his future mother-in-law had pleaded with him to cut it all off. They reached a compromise and he cut it to a respecful length whilst still keeping his dreadlocks. 

His wife joined us at the table. They had four children, a daughter called Ferial who was about to go to University here in Aswan to study Engineering, which pleased her mother who had to move to Luxor at her age for the nearest University. There was an older son in which JJ was less than impressed with. "He's lazy" he said. Then there were the two sons we met earlier, receiving tuition.

JJ kept on talking. "I hope you understand my English" he said "I learned from the tourists when sailing my felucca". We understood him well but he was beginning to loose the crowd. We were all getting tired.

To finish the evening JJ's son Ahmed and the neighbour's boy came through with a large tambourine like drum and gave us a short medley of Engligh nursery rhymes.

Before we left Ahmed saw me scrolling my photos on my phone and was interested in having a look. Julie then went further back to photos of home. He repeated the words as we pointed them out "tree, house, dog" It was a really sweet moment.

 It was time to leave so we all helped by carrying the dishes to the kitchen but thankfully we didn't have to do the washing up. We thanked JJ and his wife for their wonderful hospitality. 

It was now about 7pm and dark outside. We followed Hany back down to the pier. There were some dim street lights but the alleys were mostly in the shadows. We all switched on our phone torches to help with finding our steps.

It didn't take us long to reach the Perfect Cafe by the ferry terminal. It was just a small shack selling coffee. I fancied a cup but decided caffeine wasn't a good idea if I was hoping for a few hours sleep before our overnight journey to Abu Simbel. 

Our boat was ready and waiting to ferry us across the Nile directly to our hotel where we all returned to our rooms with a rendezvous in the foyer planned for midnight.

We had set an alarm for 11pm in case we fell into a deep sleep but that never happened. We drifted in and out of being awake until it was time to get up.

Despite having not been properly asleep it was still difficult to drag ourselves out of bed. It felt unatural. "It'll be worth it" I said encouraging Julie. "It better had be" she replied.

  Next Day >>>  

ęCopyright 2000 - 2022  Colin Owen