Monday, 28 September 2009

Sailing Across The Desert

The Nubians call it 'The Nubian Sea' while the rest of Egypt named it Lake Nasser. Not surprising the Nubians call it that as in order to create the Lake in the 1960s the Nasser government penned up the Nile behind the High Dam and the dammed waters flooded the Nubian Desert area in Upper Egypt to create a 300 mile long inland sea. This meant that forty Nubian villages and towns and forty thousand Nubians had to be re-housed as their homes vanished beneath the rising waters. But it wasn't just the Nubian people who were in danger of being submerged -but many of the ancient Nubian monuments south of Aswan including the most famous and imposing 3000 year old temples and statues of Ramesees 11 at Abu Simbel.


Once the High Dam was built, an amazing feat by Soviet engineers, the Nubian Desert began to slowly fill with Nile waters, an estimated time of six years, when the Egyptian government sent out a worldwide plea for help as the lake was forming faster than at first thought and it was evident that the Temple at Abu Simbel would be swallowed up by the rising waters. An international team of around three thousand construction engineers from all over the world under the backing from UNESCO laboured for almost five years to salvage these massive ancient temples and move them just sixty five metres up a cliff block by block and rebuild them aiming to make them appear as if they had never been disturbed.

Fortunately this grand scheme raised the issue of other Nubian monuments in the desert that would clearly have been hidden by the ever rising waters of the artificial lake and so many more temples were moved to higher ground including New Kalabshka, The Kiosk of Qertassi, The Temple of Amada and many others. This was a great sacrifice made by The Nubians, as by allowing Lake Nasser to drown there homes they were also in danger of losing their identity and their culture. They were all re-housed, mainly around the
Aswan area, and the hydro-electric power provided by the High Dam has given all Egyptian citizens electricity and the future promise of irrigation in previously barren desert areas. So was this impressive feat of engineering, at an immense cost of US$40 million, really all worth it?

We arrived at Aswan International airport in the late afternoon after a five and a half hour flight from London Gatwick and blinking in the heat and the sunshine boarded a coach for the half hour journey to embark on the 5***** MS Prince Abbas for our seven night trip 'Sailing Through The Desert' This title of this Jules Verne holiday captured our imagination as we marvelled at the thought that we would be sailing on Lake Nasser yet deep down under the calm waters were the remains of a Nubian culture even more ancient than that of the Egyptians. Deserts vary in formation and it was apparent almost at once that the
Nubian Desert once consisted of high mountains because even before we set sail from Aswan there were many small islands in the area of water surrounding the moored Prince Abbas. We were to take three days cruising further South over the Lake, stopping at several ancient temples, before reaching Abu Simbel where we were to stay for two nights then on our return to Aswan we would visit more ancient monuments on the other side of the Lake.

The gradual build up to the main event, our arrival at
Abu Simbel, was in itself exciting. The scenery once we set sail was beautiful. The blue waters of Lake Nasser were set in sharp contrast to the surrounding mountainous desert on either shoreline. All the large and luxurious cabins had picture windows straight out to sea and we automatically woke early on the first morning to watch the breathtakingly exotic Egyptian sunrise over the mountains, the desert and the sea. The sun sets early and rapidly in Egypt, as we were sailing nearer and nearer to the Equator and the Sudanese border, so every evening at 5.30 pm we watched the sun luxuriously sink behind the distant horizon before a shower, fresh clothes and early drink in the bar and then dinner in the restaurant on the lower deck with the lake lapping against the windows.

There are only six boats cruising on
Lake Nasser at any one time so we experienced a wonderful feeling of peace and tranquillity. The Prince Abbas is an extremely comfortable boat with an upper deck and plunge pool, charming Nubian and Egyptian staff, first-class food and cabins larger than many hotel rooms with excellent facilities. Most importantly, there is only one sitting for all mealtimes-this point matters enormously. There are no docks along the edges of Lake Nasser so The Prince Abbas would moor up to the nearest rock and we had to walk narrow gangplanks onto rather old motorboats that took us to the shoreline and a tour round a rescued Nubian monument, all steeped in legend and history and individually beautiful.

I could feel a cowardice moment coming on as I walked the gangplank because I am scared of the sea but I was shamed into silence when I discovered that one of my fellow travelers had two hip and two knee operations and was leaping the plank with fearless abandon, although I did wonder if this is how she had broken all these bones in the first place. Security in
Egypt is very evident in the machine gunned police that accompany all tourist groups, but most of the policeman looked about fourteen and I did wonder what impact they would have in any form of terrorist attack.

Emotions were high on our third day of sailing as we expectantly waited for our dramatic arrival at
Abu Simbel at around midday. We knew the ship would draw in at the front of the Temples and as we gathered on the upper decks of the ship the loudspeakers sprang into life playing Vangelis and Abu Simbel came into view. The four colossal statues of Ramesees 11 guard the entrance to the temple and can be seen some distance from the shore as they appear to rise from the sand, each set on a pedestal and each sixty five feet high. As the ship neared these magnificent buildings it was impossible not to be moved by their sheer size, the fact they had originally been cut into the rock three thousand years ago and had been built in the middle of nowhere. It was also intriguing to recall that Abu Simbel had nearly become a legend as it had been almost entirely buried by sand for many centuries and was rediscovered by a Swiss historian in 1813. As we drew closer a second smaller temple came into view dedicated by the Pharaoh Ramesees to his beloved wife Nefertari.

Our ship moored to the side of Abu Simbel and after an Egyptian barbeque lunch on deck with tahini, olives, good bread, kebabs, salads, fruit and exquisite pastries and desserts followed by Turkish coffee we were eager to disembark and explore the magic and the history of this imposing and remarkable ancient Nubian ruin. At this point I have to mention tourism, after all I am one but I never expected this. There is an airport at Abu Simbel and planes were arriving very frequently, full of visitors to Abu Simbel from various parts of Egypt including Aswan, Luxor and Cairo who would be staying overnight at one of Abu Simbel's two hotels. Even more frequently were coaches full of tourists from all over
Egypt making a day trip. There were just two ships moored and we were fortunate enough to have a ticket that covered us for two days enabling us to disembark and visit the temples as many times as we wanted to. Consequently, our afternoon trip making the short walk over the desert to the ancient ruins was very crowded indeed.

We were a group of twenty three and our Egyptian guide Wallid was exceptional at keeping us all together and explaining the history of the statues, the battles, the warring and the stories relayed in the carved scenes, some of them like giant comic strips, in the many chambers, but concentration could be difficult as there were many other groups of so many nationalities being guided round and a confusion of languages that we were already looking forward to returning alone at a quieter time.

That same evening the group returned to the temple for a Sound and Light Show. We'd been to the Sound and Light Show at
Luxor and were dreading more of the same, you know the sort of thing, a Richard Burton type of commentary and corny strains of Aida, but this show was magnificent. It was computer generated using the front of the temple and the four huge statues of Ramesees as the screen with moving actions and some classy music all the while telling the battle stories and achievements of this great Pharaoh and of his love for his beloved Queen Nefertari. We sat on padded stone seats with the sound of Lake Nasser behind us and I had to pinch myself to make sure this was really happening to me.

At dawn the next morning Morty was up in a flash and off the boat racing his way to the temple to catch the sunrise taking some great photos. Even at that time of day he had to rush to beat the coach loads and avoid queuing at the admission and the inevitable security scan and search. Here's the romantic bit. Twice a year, on February 21st and October 21st the rays of the rising sun shine directly through the entrance doorway of the temple and illuminate the statues. Was the temple deliberately positioned for this to happen on these dates? Are these dates significant to Ramesees and maybe his birthday or the date of his accession? Or is this purely fanciful wishing?

After two nights moored at
Abu Simbel we set sail with the Captain giving us one more backwards look at the temples as he cruised round the small inlet. We stopped a couple of times more to see some ancient sites on our return journey to Aswan and settled into life aboard The Prince Abbas. Once back at Aswan we were to have our second adventure staying for one week on Elephantine Island situated in the middle of the River Nile in the Hotel Oberoi to enjoy more Egyptian culture.

A Few Egyptian Facts
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It is suggested that the name
Nubia is derived from an Egyptian word meaning Gold. Whatever the truth then if you go to Egypt look out for Nubian gold as it is 18/22crt. Also be careful where you buy it. None of the gold jewellery is priced as it is government controlled and is sold by weight. Only buy from authorised dealers as there are unscrupulous traders who sell gold plated as Nubian gold and you will be caught out.

There is a baby born every thirty seconds in
Egypt. The ratio of babies born is eight girls to every three boys! In tourist areas poorer families keep their children away from school and encourage them to ask tourists for pens so that they can go to school. In fact we were told not to give them pens as their families take them from them and sell them for money.

Egypt is 80% Muslim and 20% Christian.

It is reassuring to see the security effort being made in
Egypt to ensure the safety of tourists. Egypt needs tourists and they treat them very well indeed. It is a beautiful country full of magical sights, warm and friendly people, excellent hospitality and value for money. Pay the most you can afford for your accommodation and live like a Pharaoh. Egypt isn't only for culture vultures as many people aren't interested in seeing history in the form of Abu Simbel and ancient ruins but think of their Red Sea resorts for diving, snorkelling and coral reefs. If you are searching for Winter Sun then just a five and a half hour flight can transport you from a cold and miserable UK January and February to weather better than the best of our own summer days in July and August.


On my first trip to Egypt in 1993
I was at Cairo airport and I had to buy two sheets of toilet paper from an Egyptian lady in the cloakrooms as there was no paper in the cubicles and at a cost of one English pound per sheet.


On our arrival at Aswan International airport on this holiday I needed the toilet and many years later nothing had changed-only this time it was a young man standing outside the Ladies cloakroom selling a wad of Bronco type paper for a pound. It was grand to be back and we will return yet again.

And we have just returned from another Egyptian trip. This time sailing from Luxor to Aswan and back again on The Nile on a paddle steamer once owned by King Farouk. It was equally magical. I bought more Egyptian/Nubian gold. I didn't pay for toilet paper.






3 comments:

pal said...

Only 5.5 hours flying time has to be a bonus for winter sun, although I've been to Cairo in January and it was cold. I guess it is a big country and you have to go further south to get heat.

Sounds like you had a great time.

Maddie Grigg said...

At last, I have something to give you. Pop on over. xx

Buggles Balham High Road said...

Popped over and am saying Thank-You. I think. Smiling.