Your Hand in My Hand

Once in a Lifetime
Tuesday 22
nd February 2022

We left the hotel at midnight, each of us given a packed breakfast for the journey. We then drove a short distance to a meeting point on East Al Bandr Street, not far from the Unfinished Obelix.

Due to "security issues" all overnight journeys from Aswan to Abu Simbel had to be accompanied by a military police escort, so it was standard arrangement to travel down as a convoy. 

Before we set off a coach full of armed officers pulled into position at the front of the queue. Flashing blue lights added to the feeling of emergency. It felt like we were about to drive through a War Zone. Julie's eyes were full of fear but at the same time trusted me when I suggested it was more an "show of strength" rather than an actual red alert situation.

Just as I had calmed her down a plain clothed but well armed security officer joined us on our minibus, just for that extra bit of showmanship. "We're in safe hands darling"

At precisely 1am we set off slowly through the streets of Aswan, in a procession over the Old Aswan Dam, and then South along highway 75 into the dessert.

We soon lost the flashing blue lights which was a relief. We then tried to get some sleep. I had shoved a pillow inside two Intrepid Travel cotton bags creating a sort of bolster cushion. In theory it was a great idea but in practice it was too hard to be comfortable.  Sleep was difficult to come by but I'm sure we got a few fragments here and there.

The driver drove past a schedule halfway stop without stopping, to gain some time. We were effectively in a race to get there as soon as possible. The later we arrive the larger the queue would be to witness the spectale of the alignment of the sun and sanctuary. 

Around 3am curiosity got the better of me and I had a look inside my packed breakfast. I wasn't hungry and was even less hungry when I saw a foil container filled with cold fries! It was a added bonus for the vegetarian apparently. I couldn't think of anything worse!

A little later we were grateful for the other stuff as we enjoyed some croissant, a bread roll with cream cheese and some more cheese. 

After several hours of darkness we got excited to see civilisation again as we reached the outskirts of the town that is Abu Simbel.  It was 4:40am precisely when we pulled into the car park for the temple site. Without wasting a moment we got out and started to walk towards the entrance. Whilst Hany went ahead to buy the tickets we all used the facilities, rummaging our pockets for the five cents to pay the toilet attendant.

Refreshed and with our tickets in our hands we walked through the turnstiles and  security following the path towards this man made mountain. It's miraculous to think that what we were about to see had been relocated.

Having had the experience of submerging Philae Temple they already knew the consequences of building the Aswan High Dam. They knew it would flood the plains so much that it would create one of the largest man made lakes in the world. They knew many Nubian comunites would have to be forcibly reloacted. They also knew that the great temple of Ramses II would be under water. But to control the water was more important. o eerthing and everyone else had to move.

The nearer we got we could increasingly hear music, a hypnotic beat that sounded so familiar. We had been listening to some Egyptian music before coming on this trip, especially collective known as The Egyptian Project and a female performer called Dina El-Wadidi . 

Then we turned a corner and saw for the first time the colossal statues of the temple. It was a moment that took the breath away. The pyramids may have been awesome but this was way beyond spectacular.

Even Hany was visibly excited. He may have seen the temple numerous times before but only once in the dark, illuminated by the floodlights. It was special.

There was a real buzz around the place, a proper festival atmosphere as thousands of people were gathered for the event. (They estimated over six thousand people attended) A large screen had been put up for those who didn't want to make their way inside to see the moment when the sunrise lights up face of the statue of seated Ramesses II in the temple's sanctuary.

We decided we were going in.  For Julie and I, our last four days have been building towards being right here right now. There was no point in travelling all this way to watch it on a big screen.

 A very long queue snaked away from the entrance and we settled ourselves in place for the wait.

We had almost an hour before sunrise so I went for a walk to take a few photos of the statues. There were four identical images of the seated pharaoh, Ramesses the Great, over 20 metres tall. Unfortunately one of them, the second on the left, had collapsed. The broken pieces remain at the foot of the statue relocated as they were found. 

It's believed that today celebrates the pharaoh's birthday. The solar alignment repeats itself on the 22nd October which honours his ascencion to the throne. 

Abu Simbel was far South, only some 50km from border with Sudan, at the second cataracts of the Nile, traditionally where a distinction would be made between Upper and Lower Nubia, far beyond what was considered to be Egypt. Ramesses had conquered many lands and this temple was built to put down a marker, to both impress and intimidate, portraying himself as a living god, which of course all Pharaohs claimed to be, and to boast about victorious battles.   

The sky was slowly getting lighter as the sunrise approached. When it became light enough, dancers arrived and performed traditional routines to entertain the crowds. Three different dance groups turned up, accompanied by their own seperate musical troupe. Not only was there a bit of a dance-off but each separate group of musicians were banging out their own tune, all blowing their own trumpets. It created such a swirling cacophony of sound that my hairs stood on end.

The excitement surged as the sun revealed itself on the horizon. We stood and watched as it slowly rose over Lake Nasser. Sunrise was officially 6:27am.  

The queue began to move as people were slowly being allowed to enter the temple. Hany had already told us that the phenomenon of the light streaming all the way to the back wall of the sanctuary only lasts about fifteen to twenty minutes.

We continued to respectfully wait our turn near the back of the queue. The clock was ticking. Time was running out. We hadn't moved much in the last five minutes.

After another frustrating few minutes of painfully slow progress we heard Hany say "Let's go!"

In a blatant queue jumping manouvere we followed him in making a b-line to as near to the front of the queue as possible and pushed our way in. Any thoughts of social distancing went out the window but we at least kept our masks on. I was at the front, spearheading our incursion, so determined was I not to miss a thing. I had a hold of Julie's hand and I wasn't letting her go as we forced our way in.

Thankfully we blended seamlessly with out any trouble. I couldn't believe that nobody shouted at us!  

The sun had risen for ten minutes by the time we eventually walked between the statues and inside the temple. There was no time to stop and admire the detail. That could wait for a return visit later in the day. 

Inside the temple, we turned immediately left and followed the flow of people. Some were stopping to admire the carvings on the wall and take selfies. However, as impressive as they were, Julie and I stepped past them. We were on a mission.

We soon came to a stop. From then on in the queue shuffled along slowly. I checked the time. It was 6:41am, now fourteen minutes after the sun had risen. We could see the sunbeam streaming directly into temple. We still had time but only just.

As we turned the corner we were faced with a scrum outside the entrance to the sanctuary. Everyone trying to get a photo. There were a few officials present asking people to politely move on and it was refreshing to see how most people were being respectful. I joined the back of the melee as Julie stepped beyond it to wait for me.

The adrenalin was pumping as we all jostled for position, gently nudging eachother out of the way. After a few miserable attempts at getting a clear photograph a gap suddenly opened up in front me. No one stood in my way, allowing a second of awe before remembering I needed to capture the magical moment.

The time now was sixteen minutes past the sunrise. The beam of light was concentrated into a brilliant rectangle spotlight projected onto the wall against which four statues were seated. There was another, less bright but much larger rectangle of light covering most of the wall.. 

Five or ten minutes earlier I think I would have seen the sunbeam illuminating the face of Ramesses seated second on the right, but now it was shifting towards Re-Horakhti, the god of the rising and setting sun seated next him. To the left of Ramesses was Amun-Re, the god of the sky and air, missed by the intense beam but shone upon nevertheless by the floodlight.

And then there was Ptah, a creator god and patron of craftsmen but here in Abu Simbel is also refered to as the god of darkness, who was sat in permanent shade during this event.

I'm sure the sequence was of course intentional, placing Ramesses as the first to see the rising sun, the first amongst the gods.

With the moment captured I moved on to allow those behind me their opportunity to witness this solar event. I turned back to see Anthony right in the middle of crowd vying for a glimpse of the solar show. 

The sun was still streaming into the temple filling the large hall with its rays. People were still streaming inside hoping to see the alignment in action. I was so glad that Hany took the decision to queue jump! As disgraceful as it was, we would have still been outside.

Happy having see it with my own eyes, I rejoined Julie. We then continued with the flow to leave the temple. Now, not in any rush, we took our time, stopping to have a closer look at the carvings on the wall. Images of gods and pharaohs were everywhere. The general theme celebrated victorious campaigns against the Hittites specifically the Battle of Kadesh, near modern day Lebanon.

We returned outside into the brilliant sunshine.  We had spent little over ten minutes inside but loved every second of it. 

The Great Temple of Ramesses (the Great) was not the only temple here. A short walk away,  cut into another mountain and also relocated here was the Temple of Hathor which also honored Nefertari the chief wife of Ramesses.  (Apparetnly he had eight!)

Despite it's second class billing being called the "small temple" this lesser celebrated temple had a stunning facade in its own right.  Six colossal statues stood ten metres high. Queen Nefertari stood side by side with Ramesses in an unusual display of equality. Normally any queen or consort would be represented no higher than the Pharaoh's knees, as they are in the Great Temple.

There wasn't a queue to get inside as we walked into a hall cut into the rock supported by six square pillars. Each pillar had the face of the goddess Hathor and painted scenes on the sides such as the offering of incence or wine. Hathor is often represented as a cow but when shown in human form she often retains her bovine ears. 

On the walls of the hall were more impressive carvings such as Ramesses offering flowers to the goddess Hathor. 

But it wasn't all love and light. There was a carving celebrating Ramesses' strength and power showing him about to strike a cowering Nubian prisoner.

It had a similar layout as the Great temple, a large hall with pillars a vestible and an inner sanctuary, but living up to its name, it was a rather small temple.

We returned outside and walked out towards Lake Nasser. The sun had well and truly risen now. There was a seated area, where guests would usually sit for the Light and Sound show every evening. From here we could see the temples, both great and small.

After the adrenalin rush it was good to sit down and just soak it all in.

After a while I decided to return to the Great temple for a closer look whilst Julie stayed put.

The crowds has now dispersed. With more time to admire the colossal statues I stood open mouthed in awe at their beauty. To think they were carved out of the rock over three thousand years ago is unbelievable. It's thought to have taken twenty years to be completed in 1244 BC.

It was also unbelievable to think that in 1967 they were cut up into interlocking pieces and relocated here like a three dimensional jigsaw.  

I stood here thinking about the story of the Great Belzoni. He sounded like a circus act but he was Giovanni Belzoni, a renowned Italian explorer who in 1817 excavated this site, clearing away the sand. By the 19th century it had been all but lost to the desert.

A few years earlier it had been "discovered" by Swiss exploer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt who incidentally had also found the temples in Petra. He simply noted their existence and their locations but it was Belzoni who unearthed the Great Temple of Ramesses and was the first person to enter the temple in perhaps a thousand years.   

The temple was sometimes known as the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved of Amun" although the god being honoured and represented at the front of the temple was actually Ra-Horakhti.

As the unification of gods Ra and Horus Ra-Horakhti is portrayed with a falcon head crowned with the sun disc. His statue stood in a niche above the entrance which could easily be overlooked, distracted by the majesty the Ramesses'.

 Ramesses II, the Great, was also known by his royal throne name of Usermaatra, a name combining the words "user" (feather), "maat" (goddess of truth) and "ra" (sun god). Apparently the statue in the niche is seen holding a feather in one hand and an image of Maat in the other, and of course the sun disc of Ra, so even in the dedication to the gods there was a subliminal message that it was really all about him.

We went inside and could now freely walk down the centre of the hall, between the eight statues of Ramesses who stood in front of the pillars holding up the roof. With arms folded this represented him in his deathly form, like the god Osiris, even though Ramesses was very much still alive when the temple was completed.  

The hall was an incredible sight in their own right. The statues to the South (or to the right, whilst looking out towards the front door) wore the white crown of Upper Egypt whilst on the opposite North side he wore the double crown, incorporating the red crown of Lower Egypt. 

Then there was the ceiling, by a repeated image of the vulture goddess Nekhbet spreading her wings, its black colour still dark after all these years. 

I then walked up to the sanctuary, where no one stood in my way. I had all the time in the world to look and study the statues and the images on the walls. Of course now the sunlight filled the entire room, even Ptah the god of darkness could see the light, or some of it at least. He still wasn't directly in the sun.

I noticed that Ptah was the only one not resting his hands on his knees, instead he held something in his hands. He had also lost his head through what loooked like an act of vandalism.

It was soon time for us to return to where we had arrange to meet up with Hany. Whilst we waited we saw Marilyn sat on a bench admiring all that was in front of her, from the fragments of the ruined colossal statue, to the smaller images of Nefertari, Tuya (the mother) and various children.

By 8:00am we had all gathered together ready to leave. As we returned along the path to the exit people were now flooding in. These would have been those who opted for a few more hours in bed and miss the Sun Festval. The dancers had left, the music had stopped, the sun had already risen but at least the temples were still as incredible. 

 Whilst we waited for everyone to visit the toilet Michelle briefly showed some interest in the wooden carving of a camel this man was touting. It wasn't what she wanted but this guy was having none of it. He tried to pester her into submission. He was a tall heavily built man and Michelle was begining to feel intimidated by him. She tried ignorning him and stared at the floor but he didn't give up. In fact his behaviour got increasingly aggressive, to the point where I had to step in and ask him to move on.

He eventually backed off only to bother her again as we walked through the tourist market. We all kept walking trying our best to ignore him. In the end he gave up launching into a tirade of angry words. I don't know what he said but the other traders looked visibly shocked by his outburst.

In some small way he could be forgiven. I know times must have been absolutely desperate after the pandemic brought tourism to a complete stop but being so aggressive towards the hand that feeds was not a good sales tactic.     

Back in the bus we got on the road and made our way back up the dessert highway to Aswan. "This is the Sahara" explained Hany and continued "some people say sahara desert but we wouldn't say that because sahara means dessert. It would be like saying the 'desert desert' or 'sahara sahara' . It would make no sense."

It wasn't the picture postcard rolling sandunes of the Western Sahara of Morocco but a more desolate landscape, a flat empty space with a few rocky hills breaking through the monotony.

I hadn't noticed earlier but we had two drivers. One did the overnight shift, whilst the other drove us back. It was very responsible of them.

The armed security escort had left us. Broad daylight was now our protector. 

With no rush we stopped at the halfway point for a comfort break. Brightly decorated in Nubian colours Cafe Coffee Egypt was literally the only place to stop in between Abu Simbel and Aswan. 

We all stretched our legs and used their facilities for 5 lei. They did have a freezer full of ice cream and fridge full of cold drinks but we didn't buy anything. Perhaps we should have, if only to impart some business their way.

It felt very isolated. It really was in the middle of nowhere. There was hardly any passing traffic. The only sound we heard was the crunch of the coarse sand as we stepped over it.

Back in the bus we continued our journey across the Sahara Sahara. At one point we thought we saw Lake Nasser, but it was just a mirage, an optical illusion where the sky was reflected off the hot desert surface. It was surpring how much like water it looked!

Shortly after midday we had reached Aswan as we drove over the Old Dam, returning straight to our hotel. We had nothing planned for this afternoon except a few hours of rest, relaxation and hopefully some sleep. But first lunch.

We decided to eat at Salah El-Din, a restaurant conveniently a short walk away along the corniche. After caerfully stepping down some freshly mopped marble tiled steps and through a large empty function room we walked outside towards a barge floating in the Nile. There was no one else eating which is always a concern but it was too late now as an extremely welcoming waiter showed us to our table.

We ordered a bottle of Egyptian wine. It's not really known as a wine producer so we were a little apprehensive. It wasn't cheap at 330 lei.

It arrived in an ice bucket, albeit a Heineken beer bucket, but there was plenty of ice to keep it chilled. The waiter lifted it out and showed us the lable. "Do you know where he is from ?" he asked.

There was an image of the bearded gentleman wearing a head scarf and the name Omar Khayyam. We had drunk a bottle by the same name before, over thirty years ago. Our local Indian restaurant in Holyhead was called Omar Khayyam and we always remember they served wine of the same name.

Before I answered "India?" he answered his own question "Turkey"

He then asked the inevitable question of "Where are you from?" I knew the answer to this one but he had never heard of Wales.  I name dropped Gareth Bale, probably the most internationally known Welshman of our time "he plays for Real Madrid" I added. But it didn't help.  

I even google translated "Wales" into Arabic. Nothing. So we all agreed to give up on that one.

The food arrived. We had ordered several salads and a potato tagine. The stew arrived in a similar earthenware pot as last night but it was nowhere near as nice. The baba ghanoush wasn't that great either. It was more tahini and less smoky aubergine.

We left Salah El-Din and went in search of a department store to buy some extra clothes. There was one on the corner, a little further up the corniche called Al Nasser.

Crossing the road was challenging but we made it.

Al Nasser turned out to be more of a sports shop. There were plenty of "active wear" but not much of the essentials like underpants. I did however buy a pair of flip flops and a football shirt, not of the local team but El Ahly, a team from Cairo who were the current Egyptian and African champions.

On the shirt, beneath the club crest was the bold statement "Team of the Century"!

Back in our hotel room we washed a few items of clothes in the basin and draped them over the chairs on the patio outside our window. Then it was down to the pool.

After a few minutes of admiring the view I sat on my lounger writting my journal then fell fast asleep with the pen still in my hand. I slipped into such a deep sleep. After half an hour Julie struggled to wake me up to suggest we returned to our room.

We put on the TV and settled on an old black & white film featuring a very young Egyptian actor by the name of Omar Sharif. I only lasted a few minutes before drifting back to sleep. 

We didn't have long before it was time to join Hany for supper. He had earlier talked about tonight and gave the restaurant a glowing review. "If you would love to join me, then please." How could we refuse. He certainly had great enthusiasm for food.

 We left the hotel and crossed the road. It was a lot easier now, the traffic was a lot lighter. He was taking us on an "orientation walk" also known as walking to the restaurant. The route took us through the tourist market.   "The quality here is poor and the prices are high." he said, discouraging us from buying anything.

All the while traders were trying to catch our attention, desperate for us to stop for a "looky looky".  It was quite easy ignoring most of them as they weren't selling anything interesting but the basket full of herbs and spices stopped me in my tracks.

I didn't want to buy any, I just needed to photograph it. Thankfully the store owner was stuck behind his perfectly formed mounds of dried mint, chillies and dates so he couldn't reach me before I had moved on.

We turned up Al Matar street where we came across a thing we never knew existed, a games cafe. Kids and sad adults without a life could come to the cafe and hire a console, a Playstation in this instance, and play their favourite games at a fraction of the cost of owning one and buying the games. 

It was actually a great idea. Although we found it funny.

What made us laugh was that it was called Harley. It's the name of our grandson who, as it happens, loves his gaming.

A little further up we reached Restaurant Al Masry.  "This is one of the most famous restaurants in Aswan" explained Hany "It serves traditional meals" he continued, rubbing his hands with glee.

He was right, the menu was very traditional with lamb, chicken, even pidgeon on offer. Unfortunately there wasn't a lot for the vegetarian.   There was a potato tagine on the menu, so at least I had something other than the soup, salad and which came with all the dishes whether you wanted it or not.

I was so unimpressed by my meal that I didn't even bother taking a photograph of it. It tasted like a tagine out of a tin!  At least Julie enjoyed her grilled chicken. It was probably what this restaurant did best.

We sat opposite Anthony who toyed with the idea of trying the pidgeon. He had never eaten one before. His mum explained he was such a fussy eater as a child, surviving on chicken nuggets and chocolate milk.  He was a very interesting young man, he was even studying Arabic in school.

I must admit I encouraged him to "just go for it" and he ordered the "stuffed" pidgeon, which was midleading as the bird wasn't stuffed but was instead the stuffing inside flatbread. Unfortunately they couldn't provide it so he had to go for the grilled pidgeon instead wihch was a bit more hardcore.

When it arrived it looked like a roadkill on the plate. It was flat and much smaller than expected. There wasn't a lot of meat on the bone either. At least Anthony could tick that one off his list. I don't think he'll be in a rush to try one again.

Once we had eaten and paid our bills we left the restaurant and went our seperate ways. A few followed Hany into a Spice store, others headed back to the hotel. Julie and I decided to walk a little futher through the tourist market.

After a while  we stopped at a coffee shop and ordered two cups. The coffee was served in very quirky clay pots with colourful shapes such as a triangle and trapeziums. They may or may not have represented temples and pyarmids in a very crude simplistic way.

We had front row seats as we people watched. 

A soap opera performance played out right in front of us as a couple with bumbags, socks and sandles and a sticker on their chest were being hassled by this trader desperate to sell them something, anything. Similar to Michelle this morning, some interest may have been shown initially but the store keeper was not taking "no" for an answer.

We could hear them coming closer, bickering as they walked. By the time they reached us he gave up. Throwing his arms in the air and giving a loud despairing huff.  He turned to the coffee shop owner and moaned (I guess) about the lack of any business from rich tourists. There was a look of disdain in his face.

He then turned to us. "Where are you from?" he asked, his eyes still wild. We smiled to put him at ease,  said "Wales" and showed him the Arabic spelling. We were corteous to him and he with us but you could tell he was still wound up.

"Are you here on a cruise?" he then enquired. I explained how we had travelled on the overnight train from Cairo, then an overnight bus to Abu Simbel. There was a hint of respect for us as he walked away, returning moments later with a handful of sesame coated almonds.

"It's a gift" he said "because I like you."

It was literally a handful, in his hands, dropped on the table. We thanked him but there was not a  chance of us eating them.

After we finished our coffee we went over to his stall. He was busy with another tourist and we could have walked away but we felt compelled to send some business his way and bought some more of the sesame coated almonds, a large bag of them. I only had 50 lei left in my pocket but even knowing this he still tried to sell us more than we could afford.

The almonds were sticky in the evening's humidity. Not that either of us wanted to eat them anyway. Penniless we continued to walk through the market before turning for the corniche. This young boy approached us trying to sell some cheap plastic rubbish. I turned the tables on him and tried to sell him the bag of almonds. His confusion was priceless. In the end I just gave them to him!

Back on the front, the corniche, we crossed the road towards a fabulous view of the hill on the West bank with the tower at the top. The entire hill had been lit up. It looked incredible.

A few minutes later we were back at the hotel and straight to bed. It was only around 8:30pm but we were absolutely shattered.

  Next Day >>>  

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