Saturday 3 January 2009 – Aswan, Upper Egypt
The tour is structured so that we start with quite small, minor sites and work up to bigger ones – ultimately to the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Today we explored Elephantine Island, which was the site of settlement in this region for much of the ancient era. On our way across the island through the ‘modern’ Nubian villages, we passed an ancient Roman quay, now some way inland and being used by the locals as a rubbish dump!
Elephantine, and its Nubian inhabitants, form a very traditional Muslim community and the women of our group were required to don headscarves for the day. They weren’t entirely happy about it, but submitted in the interests of cultural tourism, and Patricia made a bit of fun of the scarf-tying lesson in the hotel foyer before we departed.
The major archaeological site of Abu, the ancient city, occupies the southern end of Elephantine Island. We saw the Aswan museum, a dusty collection (including my first mummy) housed in the house built for the chief engineer of the old Aswan Dam in the late nineteenth century. Sitting above the river overlooking Aswan, it would have been a lovely spot in those days.
The Abu site extends across the southern tip of the island behind the museum and consists largely of piles of rubble. Some of this rubble has been reassembled into temples, and it had some good examples of considered reconstruction for conservation and interpretation purposes.
The temples on the island are mostly to the goat-headed deity Khnum, his wife Satet and their daughter Ankhet, who were the particular gods of Elephantine. There were numerous temples to each, dating from different periods and tending to be layered one on top of the last. At one point, a new temple had been built on column stubs of a previous one, which were clearly visible below it.
In Abu we also saw our first pyramid – somewhat disappointing as it too was basically a pile of rubble looking much like all those around it. We eventually paused for a rest along an ancient balustrade, which had been removed or had collapsed from its particular Khnum temple and been reconstructed very scenicly along the river front, high above the water directly across from the Old Cataract Hotel (which was closed for renovations, and the adjacent New Cataract Hotel was due for demolition).
This island was Mike’s specialist area so his account was better than my guidebook. Abu, and the area of Elephantine, was a major crossroads between Egypt and the nations to the south. One of the major imports into ancient Egypt through this route was apparently ivory, in the form of elephant tusks, which led to the island’s name. The settlement on the East bank was later, as we were to discover later in our time in Aswan, with a visit to a recently-discovered and partially excavated Ptolomeic temple.
The day became quite warm, so by mid-afternoon we were ready to head back through the village of Siou, across the island to the second Nubian village of Koti, to Ensa’s house sit in the shade for lunch. Ensa, Ahmed’s sister, had prepared a feast of meat, chicken, molokhia, birds tongue soup, salad and bread. We lounged in her courtyard for a couple of hours. Next door, when we climbed to the roof, we could see the Movenpick Resort, with its huge swimming pools – quite tempting even in winter!
After a quick gin and tonic back at the Philae Hotel, we headed towards Philae Temple for the sound and light show. En route we stopped at a Government jewellery shop to see the gawdy tatt for sale therein. The prices were not great and I wasn’t tempted. However, if I can find an attractive ‘Gods of Egypt’ chess set at a reasonable price, I may be tempted.
At Philae, a small bazaar included a shop with some ‘old’ bits and pieces among the souvenirs – not antiquities, but quite probably antiques. I found a sweet bronze ibis and another canopic amulet and was given a bonus scarab. Quite pleased!
Philae by night is impressive and monumental (truly) and the sound and light show, while cheesy, was quite atmospheric. The best bit was the ‘catfight of the gods’, where Hathor complains to Isis that Isis’ temple is bigger than hers!
Philae sits between the old and High Aswan Dams – not quite sure if that bit should be called ‘Lake Nasser.’ The ferry ride there and back across the lake without navigation lights or any sort of safety devices, added to the experience. The Ma’at group was unkind enough to laugh at a group of British tourists who wore life perservers – not just on the boat but also for the duration of the show, and on the bus back to Aswan at the end of the night!
Back at Aswan, Chris and I went for a stroll up the Corniche then stopped at Emi’s restaurant (actually another barge on the riverfront) for some dips and a beer, before heading back for a decaf and ‘Aunt Mary’ (Tia Maria).