Saturday, 24 July 2010

A Swan in Aswan

Half an hour after disembarking from the MS Prince Abbas after our week long cruise on Lake Nasser we were waiting with our luggage on the East Bank of the River Nile in Aswan as we watched the Pharoanic Barge make its way across the river from Elephantine Island to transport us back to our home for a further week-The Hotel Oberoi situated on this palm covered island in the middle of the Nile. Nothing had prepared us for the beauty we were about to experience. This stretch of the Nile between the city of Aswan, the Old Dam and the High Dam and Lake Nasser is scattered with islands. Ancient Aswan was originally sited on Elephantine Island as it could be easily defended against invaders from any direction. That ancient city has long disappeared and Elephantine Island can only be reached by the boats and feluccas that freely taxi visitors to and fro, day and night.

The ancient city of Aswan was once the largest trading centre for Upper Egypt exchanging goods from equatorial Africa and the Mediterranean. Aswan lies on the first cataract of the Nile which acted as a natural insurmountable barrier for river traffic as the bubbling waterfalls, rocks and torrents were impossible for boats to navigate. South of Aswan goods had to be carried by caravan across the barren Nubian Desert. However, the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s changed everything. Damming the Nile and diverting the Nile flood waters into the artificial Lake Nasser has now established the pretty city of Aswan as the main river port for river cruises to Luxor and on the other side of the magnificent Aswan Dam, the dock for cruises over Lake Nasser.

The Hotel Oberoi is the only hotel on the island set in beautiful gardens with swimming pools, poolside bars and restaurant and all the bedrooms with balconies trailing with hibiscus and panoramic views over the River Nile and Aswan. The most striking feature of the Hotel Oberoi is the twelve story tower that has a 360 degree view through h
uge plate glass windows where visitors can sit and have a drink or a light meal. Our first view from the top of the tower of an Aswan sunset over the West Bank of the Nile was unforgettable as the sun sank, rapidly sliding behind the desert, while on the West Bank in the City of Aswan the lights twinkled on the Mosques.

We mused as to how the name Elephantine Island came about? Looking south down the Nile from the tower we could see we were surrounded by large grey rocks and they all looked like elephants rising out of the water. Or was this romantic thinking on our part and the name Elephantine Island was because of the ancient trade in ivory from Upper Nubia-now modern Sudan? Perhaps the name is a bit of both eh?

The intention was to purely relax, read and write and laze about by the pool in this very comfortable hotel and the gorgeous sunshine but there were far too many things to see in Aswan. However, the very nature of a cruise means the visitor is almost over protected from the cut and thrust of every day life in an Egyptian city as any excursions from the ship are done in a group and with the Egyptian Tour Manager. We were soon to discover how protected we had been. Woken by the call to the Mosque at dawn and then having strong coffee sitting on our balcony and watching the sun rise over Aswan, after a delicious breakfast we caught the Pharoanic Barge across the river to the Aswan Corniche along the banks of the Nile. We had only walked a few yards along the Corniche when the hassle began. It is intolerable. Caleche drivers, taxi drivers, self appointed unofficial tour guides, Felucca boatmen and children descended upon us as if from nowhere offering us rides, discounts and artefacts. I understand the poverty in Egypt and the need to take every opportunity to earn money from the tourist but this persistent pestering has the opposite effect on me. I just want them all to go away as I will spend my money as and when I want and certainly not a
s a result of this relentless hassling.

We decided to take a Caleche ride-horse and carriage- along the busy Corniche to the famous Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie stayed, to have coffee on their illustrious terraces overlooking the Nile. I insisted we chose a Caleche with the healthiest looking horse but after just a few yards I realised the horse was tired. My heart sank when the carriage driver cheerfully told us she had just had a baby. Fortunately, the Old Cataract Hotel was only a short distance away and after the usual haggling over what was originally an agreed fare, and then the driver asking for more money to feed the horse leaving me muttering that next time I'd buy my own oats, we were sitting on the terrace admiring the beauty of the Nile. Drawn to the water we chose to take a Felucca sail boat ride back to Elephantine Island and our hotel, stopping first at an archaeological area on the Island where excavation began in 1969 to uncover the ancient settlements.

The fare was agreed with the Felucca boatman by the hour to include one hour's waiting time as we explored the archaeological area and visited the small Aswan Museum. It was so very exhilarating sailing along as the gentle breeze caught the white sails of the Felucca and we leisurely basked in the hot sunshine. The Nile was a hive of activity with boats of all shapes and sizes going about their daily business. Our boatman expertly used the wind to tack to and fro around the massive grey 'elephant' rocks that loomed out of the river like giant statues. Once again we were caught off our guard as we bought our entrance tickets. From nowhere an unofficial guide attached himself to us and wouldn't go away. We wanted to quietly walk around the excavations referring to our guide book when necessary and enjoying the peace and tranquillity as we imagined the Romans who had once lived here, imagining the Cemetery for the Sacred Rams where the blood stains co
uld still be seen and gaze at the carvings in the Temple of Khnum.

We were patient with him until he got rather excited about a carving of a Pharaoh sporting an enormous black penis. He then suggested his penis was bigger than the Pharaoh's and how did Morty's compare. That was it for me! Off with him! Nevertheless, he insisted on payment not only for his services but for his seven children. From this moment on we decided to make use of organised trips to see the rest of the delights Aswan has to offer. So! They are more expensive than doing it yourself, but at least on an organised tour with an official English speaking Egyptian guide you get the freedom to concentrate on what you wanted to see and not forever doing deals.

We were a bit 'Templed-Out' by now, as anybody who has ever been to Egypt would understand, so we chose a visit by Felucca to Kitchener's Island, also known as the 'Island of Plants' to be guided by an expert of flora, fauna and wild-life and to follow this with a motor boat trip upstream to the now peaceful First Cataract and through a wild-life sanctuary. General Kitchener was the British Consul General in Egypt in 1910 and he created this luxuriously planted island. After seeing many dusty ancient ruins, the Nubian Desert and large expanses of lake this was a delightful contrast. Kitchener planted many varieties of plants here that grow in our own gardens in the UK so it was strange to see waist high Bizzy Lizzies and huge Lupins alongside lemon and date trees.

The motor boat ride up through the First Cataract is awesome. Huge granite boulders that once caused the waters to roar over them in plumes of spray now stand exposed in the reduced waters of the Nile. The boat wove its way through these immense boulders and we saw herons, kingfishers, terns, kites and other abundant birdlife plus water buffalo and mules. It was eerily silent and the birds seemed to be putting on a show for us as
they appeared to order as if by magic for our expert guide. The final part of this tour was to spend an hour in a genuine Nubian village on the West Bank. The people of the village opened their homes for us, showed us baby crocodiles in tanks, scorpions in jars and played with snakes. They also gave us mint tea and we bought two Egyptian cotton shirts for two pounds sterling each. The Nubians are a very elegant and good looking people with a quiet charm and I felt sad that many of the older Nubians in the village would have been forced to leave their homes in the 1960s when their villages were drowned by the forming of Lake Nasser.

A must to see if ever the reader is in Aswan are the temples of Philae. The island that the temples of Philae originally stood on for three thousand years were partially flooded by the construction of the first Aswan Dam in 1902 and completely submerged by the building of the new High Dam. Consequently, the ruins were dismantled and rebuilt by UNESCO on another island one mile south of the Aswan Dam on the stretch of the Nile between the two dams. A short coach ride and we stood in the afternoon heat watching a scene of utter madness as hundreds of dilapidated old motor boats with engines that had seen better days fought for space at the quayside so they could moor up and let the many tour groups board to be taken to the Island Of Philae. By now we expected our appetite for ancient temples to have been sated but as the boat approached the temples we were very impressed with the magnificence of the obelisks and enjoyed a couple of hours quietly wandering around. Ready for our hotel room by now and a drink before dinner we still had one more visit to the granite quarry to see the unfinished obelisk. Mmmm! That's what I thought too as quarries do nothing for me so that Egyptian beer back at the hotel was calling me.

A little more to tell here about Egyptian hospitality and the Hotel Oberoi in Aswan-throughout our stay both on the ship and in the hotel we were amused at the bed-towel art that greeted us every night when we retired to our room. The room service made exotic animals and birds from white towels using rose petals and hibiscus flowers as decoration and laid them on the bed. This was apart from the very grim crocodile on our cabin floor wearing dark glasses and a wide open mouth held in position by the television remote control. It is the custom on a cruise to put money in the envelopes provided for gratuities. The last night on the ship we were greeted by towel art of a man in the bed wearing Morty's jumper, dark glasses and holding the tipping envelopes in its hands. The hotel was a little more romantic as they created graceful swans and rose-strewn hearts to surprise us every night. We were also happy that there was no need to 'dress-up' on either the ship or the hotel for the evenings. We prefer the casual approach as we are on holiday and pressure of any kind is unwanted.

Egyptian wine leaves much to be desired. The choice of red, white or rose is limited and some likened it to a chemical cleaner, but being a brave little soldier I soon adjusted my palate to the white wine and got rather fond of it. I've had worse in English pubs! The only beer available was a tinned variety of Fosters which was refreshing enough when required. There was a fridge in our room both on the boat and in the hotel so there is a choice to drink any duty-free in the room. The meals in our hotel were excellent. Buffet style but a continual stream of freshly cooked food was brought from the kitchens to the endless buffet tables. It was possible to eat European as well as more Egyptian style food and vegetarians were very well provided for. The vegetables were grown in the hotel gardens and I wanted to hug the pastry chef as the deserts were wonderful. There was a wide variety of good breads and I had cinnamon pancakes with honey and thick yoghurt with plump raisins for breakfast every morning as I never have that at home.

Not to be deterred by the hassle from the Corniche we decided to take a Caleche ride through the Souk or market. Avoiding eye contact I chose a horse drawn Caleche and made sure the horse had some meat on it and didn't look old and worn out. Better luck this time, as we ripped along the promenade at a fair pace with a comparatively happy horse and the driver took us on a tour of Aswan. It is a small city and it was good to see schools, childrens' play parks, well maintained Mosques, Coptic Churches, local shops and the general hustle and bustle of every day life. The Souk in Aswan is recognised as being the best in Egypt with quite wide streets and a huge variety of goods on sale. Emboldened by the lack of hassling we paid our driver and walked the mile or so back through the Souk to get the full atmosphere of the shops and peddlers selling their goods. So many spices, materials, fruits, leather, meat, rugs and vegetables for sale and thankfully we were left alone and no more harangued than in a typical London street-market.

Aswan is very proud of their new Nubia Museum opened in 1997, and rightly so. It is situated opposite the Old Cataract hotel and stands in its own vast gardens with water features, statues, palm trees and walkways. It is spread over several floors and displays very important objects from throughout Nubian history. As with many museums there is too much to take in on one visit alone so rather than get culture weariness we made two trips and wandered around at our leisure. I understand that the Cairo Museum is relocating and building a new museum to house its treasures. If it is half as wonderful as the Nubian Museum in Aswan then we are all in for a treat as that makes returning to Cairo a must in the future.

There were so many other places to visit in Aswan and the surrounding areas but none of them are compulsory. You don't have to be active. There are some who would prefer to take advantage of the beautiful weather and stay by the pool to swim, drink, eat, sleep, visit the gym, have beauty treatments and massage and wallow in the luxury. During the week we did a bit of both and as we flew from Aswan International Airport on our return flight to Gatwick we both agreed that this, our second visit to Egypt, was probably our best holiday yet and certainly not our last to the Land of the Pharaohs.

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Gail said...

Nice account Buggles, glad you enjoyed your holiday. I have been thinking about Egypt myself, having been there once but to a very touristy part (Sharm El Sheikh). I have never heard of, or witnessed, bath towel art!

Buggles Balham High Road said...

The best way to see Egypt is a Nile Cruise. The Nile is utterly beautiful and the historical sites on the banks of The Nile are magical. The trip between Luxor and Aswan is probably the best way to experience a river cruise. Towel art is so funny.