Tuesday, January 29, 2008

December 28, 2007

We’ve been in Aswan 3 days, and are staying at a hotel a kilometer or two out of town, but luckily, there is a shuttle bus. Aswan is nice, about the size of Luxor, so very walkable on foot. The souk here is very large, and has less touristy parts, meaning that people who live here also buy some things in the market here.

Our trip here from Luxor wasn’t the greatest. We flew out at 9 PM, and it was just way too late for Maeve, who imploded on the flight. We finally got her to stop crying, but Mike and I were both wiped out. We couldn’t stay late in our rooms in the hotel in Luxor because Sarcosy, the French prime minister, was staying in the hotel starting the day we checked out. So we spent the afternoon by the pool, and managed to get Maeve to sleep a bit over an hour, but this wasn’t enough to last until 10 PM. This is the second time Maeve has imploded on a flight, not so bad given the amount of traveling we’re doing and how difficult it is for her, but it’s basically a bad experience for all to have an uncontrollably crying baby.

Our first day in Aswan we all slept in, and then went into town to do some shopping and arrange excursions. We went by Karnak travel, which we’d scoped out in Luxor to by our Abu Simbel excursions. This is a temple 250K south of Aswan, near the Sudan border. It’s an all day car ride trip down, flights are also available but booked out this week. So, we went into Karnak travel and the office was so smoky Mike couldn’t stay inside and took Maeve out. Then we tried to pay with a credit card and their machine wasn’t working. So we went next door to American Express and bought the same tours for $5 less per person, with a credit card and in a non-smoky office. We’re taking turns traveling down to Abu Simbel – the other couple will stay with Maeve and hang out in Aswan. No more imploding babies, please. Maeve had a great time moving brochures from Mike to Carolyn while we completed the travel arrangements.

We walked a bit in the souk and saw a number of bakeries where they were pulling out steaming pita bread and putting them on wooden racks to cool off. There were long lines at the bakeries – Carolyn and I were in line at one while Mike and Paul went to a nearby fruit stand to buy bananas. Some Egyptian came by and facilitated our purchase and we got some yummy pitas, paying only 1 Egyptian pound more than the price for the expediting. The pita were yummy – we’re also buying yogurt, fruit, juice etc to self-cater. The cheese we buy is a variety of La Vache que Rie, little processed cheese wedges that are ubiquitously sold here. Maeve really likes these and scarfs four wedges at a meal – she’d eat more but we cut her off.

After the afternoon nap, we headed uphill out of town from the hotel to get dinner at the Nubian House. It was a farther walk than we thought, about 15 minutes, but doable. It’s comfortable weather here, but I can see how it must be really hot in the summer, as we’re located right on the tropic of Cancer. The restaurant had a wonderful view over the Nile – the Nile here seems much narrower – mostly because there are lots of islands and hills close in on both sides, so there is very little arable land. We weren’t able to actually eat there, as they weren’t going to be able to feed us for at least an hour – their kitchen was booked with tour groups, I suppose. There were little boys outside the restaurant running around with “baby crocodiles” that you could touch for baksheesh. So we walked back to the hotel and ate on the terrace there, which turned out to be great. We got Maeve a strawberry milkshake, which here does not include ice cream. We discovered that she liked this in Luxor, when Paul ordered one and then Maeve drank it all. This has become part of her dinner – a habit we will probably change when we’re not traveling, but for now it means very heavy overnight diapers and a well-hydrated baby.

Yesterday Mike and I went to Abu Simbel and the grandparents hung out with Maeve. We went in convoy at 11 AM - there’s also a convoy at 4 AM which I expect is very popular in the summer, but we opted for the later one that gets back at 7PM. We went in a “limo” which was a Toyota corolla. The 30 K or so outside Aswan is habited- you go over the old dam, past the airport etc. And the 30 K or so outside Abu Simbel is also habited – mostly human impact is irrigation projects, though you also pass the airport there. But everything else in the middle is just desert. It really makes you realize the power of the Nile – this land is all desert except for this very thin strip, but the fertility of that small strip powered civilization.

Abu Simbel is one of the many many temples built by Ramses II, Ramses the Great. It was built on the border with Nubia, by the viceroy in charge of administering this area for the pharaoh. It’s cut straight into the cliff face of the Nile. This temple was one of many that would be inundated by the High Dam, and a Unesco lead effort cut it out of the mountain and moved it up 100M. The temples are now under artificial mountains, but despite this, they are pretty impressive. The main temple is for Ramses, and the second one is for his wife, Nefertari. Not Nefertiti, who was the beautiful wife of Akhenaton, but Nefertari, the favorite wife of Ramses II. Her tomb is the best in the Valley of the Queens and visitable for the small sum of $4000.00. Needless to say, we didn’t visit it.

In the sanctuary of the main temple, there are statues to four gods, the god of night, the god of the noon-day sun (Amon-Re), Ramses, and the god of the morning sun. Two days a year the sun would shine on 3 of these status – not the god of the night. When they moved the temple, they kept the same orientation, but the sun now shines in one day later.

Mike and I figure we’re getting templed out – we thought Abu Simbel was neat but weren’t overwhelmed by it. One of the most interesting things was making sense of all the offerings. Most of the side rooms in the main temple showed Ramses making offerings to different Gods, including himself. We’re starting to be able to identify some of the gods as well as some of the different offerings, like lotus, bread, other food, essential oils, and incense being burned in censors. That’s interesting. We’re trying to learn the cartouches for the different kings, and took some pictures of Ramses’ cartouche on the outside of the temple – photography wasn’t allowed inside. But these didn’t match the cartouches in the inside so this remains a bit of a mystery. When we get home I’ll have to look at all the pictures of cartouches I took and see if I can sort it out.

Nefertari’s temple was interesting because she featured in many of the decorations. In the valley of the Queens, we visited two tombs of princes. Their tomb decorations included depictions of the youths with a sidelock, denoting their childhood. But in these pictures, they invariable followed behind their fathers. The guide said that because they were children, they didn’t know about the afterlife and their fathers, the pharaoh, acted as their guide through the underworld. But the effect for me, at least, was that their tombs seemed more about their fathers than about them. In most of the iconography we’ve seen, the pharaoh is physically much bigger than his wives, and children are even smaller. Even in the mastabas we saw at Saqqara, the person being buried (a man) was shown very large and the members of his household much smaller. So Nefertari’s temple was quite an exception, in that she’s depicted the same size as her husband and making her own offerings to the gods. In a couple of scenes, she’s watching Ramses defeat their enemies, but in others either she or Ramses are making offerings, and there is a scene of her coronation. Also the columns are square and have Hath or heads, the god the temple is dedicated to, which is a human head with cow ears. I like those columns.

In our drive back, it was mostly dark and our driver mostly didn’t have his headlights on. Here, like in Tanzania, they use their directional signals to tell you when it’s okay to pass and when not. They also use their headlights, as in turning them off and on, to make sure a car going in the other direction sees them at night. In the city, there are generally street lamps, and many cars run with either parking lights or no lights at all.

Lake Nasser, the huge lake formed behind the high dam, in addition to covering lots of temples, swallowed up all the fertile land on the banks of the Nile for hundreds of kilometers, completely displacing the Nubians from their ancestral land. There are cliffs on either side of the lake, at least the parts we could see, so it’s not a simple thing to farm using the lake waters, as they’d have to be pumped pretty high to be useful. The Egyptian government is sponsoring some large-scale irrigation plans at Tosca, not too far from Abu Simbel, but all the Nubians basically got relocated 40 years ago, giving up their land. It’s not clear to me how they’re making a living now.

This morning Mike and I took Maeve to the Nubian museum, which she also visited yesterday with her grandparents. It was built about 10 years ago, also in response to the destruction of the Nubian lands by Lake Nasser, as a way to preserve some of the cultural artifacts that were submerged. The museum is well labeled in English, with the usually misspellings and grammar errors that seem to be the status quo. There was tons of information, but both Mike and I felt it was a bit hard to keep track of the Nubian history – we needed more of an overview of the different periods and how independent Nubian states interacted with and were incorporated into the Egyptian dynasties. There were also many dioramas about Nubian life as well as models of old buildings, forts etc. Maeve liked these, as well as the ramps throughout the museum.

Today we had to replenish our larder and this afternoon went out to buy more fruit, yogurt and cheese. We had a lot of trouble finding yogurt, and learned the Arabic word for it – zabaadi. Several stores only had plain yogurt, which is fine for Maeve but Mike’s parents don’t like it. We found some strawberry yogurt at the third store and bought it. Shopping today was much more pleasant, at this point, we more or less know the prices for things, so are able to know how to bargain for a fair price and are paying something closer to the Egyptian prices, with a tourist premium thrown in I’m sure. We then tried to buy stamps, it costs 150 piasters, or 1.5 Egyptian pounds to send post cards. I went to the bookshop in our hotel, which sells stamps, but they were selling each stamp for 4 pounds. A bit of a markup. We decided to find the post office, which we did, but it was closed because today is Friday.

We had dinner at a restaurant on the corniche. We walked through the restaurant, past an internet café, down one level on the corniche and across a little walkway to get to a floating dining room on the water. It was a great view across to Elephantine Island, and we got there right at sunset, in time to see fellucas and ferry boats bringing their loads of tourists in. It was a perfect setting, except for the intermittent aroma of diesel fuel. The waiters (all male) were as usual enamored of Maeve and all wanted to play with her. Maeve liked the water, which was covered with a sheen of oil, but you could still see pretty large algae plants in it.

Tomorrow our plan is to do a half-day tour of Philae Island, a temple to Isis that got moved after the High Dam was built, and see the high dam. Sunday we’re leaving for Cairo in the afternoon, and again can’t stay in our rooms past noon as the hotel is fully booked. We’re trying to think about how to make sure Maeve gets a nap.

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