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Cruising the Nile

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Saturday, 26 December, 2009

Aboard the “Ra II,” somewhere between Kum Ombo and Esne, Upper Egypt

I haven’t written in a more than a week and it’s time to catch up—again. There are several reasons I haven’t sat down to post a blog in a while although I have been at the keyboard for other reasons. The pace of work at the library has picked up considerably now that my time there is dwindling and all of a sudden there are all these things that ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY MUST BE DONE before I return to the States. On top of that, Vibs has arrived and we are taking a long-planned vacation together. We are in the midst of that trip and that is the other reason I haven’t been posting. Until now.

Vibs arrived in Alexandria on the 19th and we spent about four days wandering around and seeing a few sights in that city. Mostly we walked the neighborhood streets and allowed her time to adjust to the time difference, a big adjustment as I well know. One morning we went out to the peninsula known as Ras al-Tin to tour the citadel of Qait Bey, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt who constructed the citadel in the 1480’s on the foundations of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria. We went to dinner at the famous Fish Market restaurant one evening and had a memorable feast followed by the best Arabic coffee I’ve ever drunk. Another day my Arabic tutor took us to al-Muntaza, the site of King Farouk’s summer palace, where we walked part of the extensive gardens along the seacoast and returned to downtown Alexandria for yet another meal of fish.

Last Thursday, we boarded a train for Cairo, spent Christmas Eve in an airport hotel, and then took an early morning flight to Aswan, the last major city in southern Egypt before you reach the Sudanese border (still another five hundred miles farther south) and the site of the famous high dam built under Nasser. In Aswan, we boarded the cruise ship “Ra II,” and began our four day trip down the Nile (that is, North) to Luxor. This is a very touristy thing to do and, next to the obligatory visit to the pyramids at Giza, probably the most quintessential Egyptian experience for non-Egyptians.

Vibs had received a gift of Florence Nightingale’s account of her trip up the Nile in 1849-50 (Letters from Egypt: a Journey on the Nile 1849-1850) and brought it along with her so I could read it. The differences between Flo’s experience and ours are astounding and so disparate as to belong to two different universes. Hers was truly an Adventure, with a capital “A” while ours is merely part of a huge commercial operation which brings billions of foreign exchange into Egypt every year. This is not to say that the present-day cruise has any less of a romantic air about it; it’s just a lot more organized and much less dangerous than it was 160 years ago. There are 350 cruise ships plying the Nile today, with an average passenger load of 100 people. That means that at any given time, about 35,000 people (not including crews) are floating on the river. Multiply that number by the number of cruises conducted each year (an average cruise is between three and seven days in length) and you get an idea of how many people do this each year. Inside a month, all of Des Moines could be accommodated.

Most of the ships are essentially floating hotels, with restaurants, bars, night clubs, swimming pools, hot tubs and all the “mod cons” you could want, even a laundry service. The “Ra II” is a pleasant ship with nice staterooms and an airy top deck, part of which is covered with canvas awnings and part of which is open to the sun. We boarded around ten AM on Christmas Day and settled in. Our guide, Osama (no, not THAT Osama) told us what the plan was and what our options were. We were invited to join a tour of Aswan, including the open air market, but declined in favor of a walk along the Corniche and a nap in the afternoon. Dinner was very pleasant and we had a good sleep in our narrow berths. Sunday morning we began our itinerary with a coach tour. Our first stop was the Temple of Philae, part of which was constructed by one of the Ptolemies, the successors to Alexander the Great, who ruled Egypt until the Roman conquest around 40 BC (Cleopatra, Marc Anthony, Julius Caesar and all that…). The Ptolemies had a policy of currying favor with the native Egyptians by honoring the gods that they worshipped and even building temples in their honor. The Temple at Philae is one such building, dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, to whom the island of Philae was sacred.

Like Abu Simbel, the Isis Temple was taken apart and reconstructed because its original location was covered by the waters of Lake Nasser, the lake formed by the high dam. The difference between this temple and the monument of Abu Simbel is that the Temple of Isis had already been inundated due to the construction of an earlier dam by the British in 1902. It lay underwater for seventy years until Egypt asked UNESCO to rescue it (along with sixteen other historic buildings) when the high dam was being built. So a coffer dam was constructed around its island, the water pumped out and the entire structure cut into 40,000 pieces and reassembled on an adjacent island above the new water level. The water and silt stains are still visible on its sandstone blocks.

One reaches the island by small boats, either sail or motor powered. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering around the site in the early morning cool, taking pictures and trying to make sense of the hieroglyphics and pictures that adorn the walls of the larger structures that make up this temple complex. The Romans followed the Greek practice of showing respect to the ancient Egyptian deities and added their own buildings to the assemblage. Thus, you have a range of architectural styles and traditions within a relatively small area and another example of the sort of syncretism that so deeply characterizes the culture of this part of the world.

A short trip back across the waters of Lake Nasser brought us to the bus, which we boarded for our next stop, the High Dam across the Nile. Construction of the High Dam ended the cycle of yearly Nile floods and corralled the famous Nile crocodiles behind it. The dam was built with United Nations support and initial assistance from the US, but when the US wanted political influence in return for its investment, Nasser said “no, thanks” and nationalized the Suez Canal to help pay for its construction. That precipitated the 1956 Sinai War and led to an invitation to the Russians to come and complete the work. They remained until Anwar Sadat “invited” them to leave in the late 1970’s, I think. The dam is an impressive structure and we enjoyed the fifteen minutes we were allowed by the security forces to look around.

Our final stop in Aswan (the name means “the elephants,” incidentally, and is taken from a rock formation on the northern end of Elephantine Island, the site of the original settlement here. The formation resembles a herd of elephants when viewed from afar) was a perfumery, or rather an essential oils factory. Now, I had already had some experience with this business and was a bit wary, but the group was treated with respect and was given no hard sell to purchase anything. We were presented with small samples of about seven of the fragrances made by the firm and were then offered a variety of “package deals” featuring different essential oils in different sizes. We actually found a few that we liked and bought three: sandalwood, myrrh, and peppermint. Aroma therapy for Winter in Des Moines.

Our final experience of the morning was a felucca trip around the northern end of Elephantine Island to an adjacent island called Gazirat al-Bustan, once the property of Lord Kitchener. On the way, we sailed past the mausoleum of the Aga Khan, the religious leader of the Isma`ili Shi`ites (also known as “seveners), who recognize the Aga Khan as their hereditary spiritual leader. To the rest of us, he is best known as Rita Hayworth’s father-in-law. The tomb lies across from Gazirat al-Bustan, the garden island, where we now disembarked. The gardens are home to variety of trees and shrubs collected and planted by Lord Kitchener. Now quite mature, the plantings create a very elegant colonial specimen garden on the northern part of the island. It was most pleasant to spend an hour or so amidst the shade of palms and tamarinds, among the colors of bougainvillea, hibiscus and other flowering plants. At the end of our visit, a motor boat took us around the southern tip of Elephantine Island and back to our ship’s berth.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch and, while we were eating, we set sail for our next stop, Kom Ombo, a temple sitting right on the east bank of the Nile about forty miles north of Aswan. The ship’s progress was sedate and watching the river slide past under the afternoon sun was a delightful, even serene, experience. The importance of the narrow strip of green running alongside the Nile through desert becomes much clearer when seen from the deck of a Nile liner. The cultivated area is limited to the narrow flood plain adjacent to the river and the proximity of the arid lands is emphasized by the high sand-covered bluffs beyond. It is somewhat of a surprise that human habitation seems to be ever present here, but when one considers that there is no place far from the river where human life can be sustained, it makes sense that everywhere the banks allow for cultivation, people will be found.

In late afternoon, we round a bend and find the Temple of Kom Ombo awaiting us on the eastern bank of the river. Our sister ship, the “Ra I” is already tied up at the shore. By the time we tie up and debark, night has fallen and we set off up the street at a dog trot in order to gain entrance before the place is closed for the night. Kom Ombo Temple was dedicated to two ancient Egyptian deities, Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the “good doctor.” Egyptians of the pharaonic times (and perhaps later) came here to pray for healing and to have their maladies treated by the priest-doctors in residence. Here, as at Philae, the Greeks and Romans renovated, rebuilt, and refurbished the structures comprising the temple.

By the time we arrived at the site, the sun had set and the temple was illuminated by a lighting system that threw dramatic shadows everywhere. There were several boatloads—literally—of people there and the crowds added a festive air to the visit. The ancient building became less of a lonely relic and more of a vibrant, living space because of the presence of so many. The scale and power of these places is breathtaking; one cannot but marvel at the industry and commitment necessary to undertake construction projects of this magnitude using only hand tools and the most basic of mechanical aids—the pulley, the inclined plane, and the wheel.

After an hour or so poking around the ruins, a leisurely walk brought us back to the Ra II, where we enjoyed a cocktail in the lounge and then a tasty dinner. Coffee on the sun deck, gazing over the sleeping Nile and Kom Ombo bathed in soft light brought our first full day on the Nile to a relaxing end.

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