Monday, May 23, 2011

Aswan and Philae Island.

The second stop of our visit in Egypt was at the small town of Aswan about 800km (500 miles) south of Cairo. The place was relatively quiet, especially with the tourist shortage, and Egyptians would harass us almost in a humane fashion. There we could savor the Egyptian cuisine, modern or more traditional. Indeed at the end of our first day our guide took us in a Nubian village where the different dishes were served to us in ceramic or metallic pots and after the meal a group of children came in and danced and sang for us. It was obviously all organized but we let ourselves go at the rhythm of the drum and in the end had a lot of fun. To get to the village we took a small boat for a ride on the River Nile. Along the way we went through a narrower pass where an armada of boys sitting on their Styrofoam boards was waiting for us. Their plot was quite simple. When a tourist boat approaches they carefully position themselves on each side then grab the railing. They ask in what language we speak and then start singing a little song. I assume they know a song in each of the major languages and we were given a performance of “Il etait un petit navire” that would have chattered into pieces all the surrounding glass if we hadn’t been on a wooden boat! Obviously this was made in the pure Egyptian tradition which means that they don’t ask you if you want the song in the first place and after you have to give them money for their memorable performance. We then give them a coin but they look at you in a way to tell you that you are cheap and that it’s not enough and this no matter how much you give them in the first place! But they were only the Egyptian apprentices as the real pros were solidly waiting for us in Luxor!

Philae Island is the main attraction in Aswan where can be found the temple of the same name although it was originally located a little further down at a bit less than a kilometer of its actual position. It was entirely moved, brick by brick, to save it during the creation of Lake Nasser for hydroelectricity purposes in the 70’s, I think. It was really beautiful and very Pharaonic with nice sculptures on the wall and a very geometrical architecture. However, it was heartbreaking to see how many engravings were voluntarily damaged by religious devout of other religions finding offending the pagan ideas depicted on the temple’s walls. This was obviously yet another example showing how tolerance and religion don’t always go together! But beside the religious vandalism Philae allowed us to appreciate the scale of the post-revolutionary devastation of the tourist industry in Egypt. When we climbed on the boat taking us to the island we could see the hundred or so similar boats moored to the dock without work. In fact we were the only living souls when we arrived at the site. Believe me; it is quite impressive to be alone in one of the major tourist spot of a country. There is definitively no better time to visit a country than just after a good revolution!

Finally the two temples of Abu Simbel were the primary goals of our last visit in the Aswan area. The temples were lost in the middle of nowhere and getting there required a three hour bus ride then one hour to visit the temples and three more hours for the ride back. Despite the long distances to cover the visit was worth the trouble since the bus ride took place either along the Nile or in the Sahara desert. In the former case it was impressive to see how much people can pull out of the meager 200m or so of fertile shores along the river, the rest being just sand. The two temples of Abu Simbel are special not only because they are carved directly out of the mountain, which is certainly very impressive, but for the fact that, like the Philae temple, they were moved stone by stone by UNESCO at the creation of Lake Nasser! But in this case it was not only the fact they had to move the stones and the four magnificent statues of Ramses II but the workers also had to recreate a mountain behind them!!! A temple carved in a mountain without a mountain isn’t simply the same.