Monday 5 January 2009 – Abu Simbel, Upper Egypt
Went for a walk along the Corniche after breakfast and returned along a route a couple of streets back, through a very local area which I’d not really had time to see until now.
We departed at 10.30am to join a convoy out to Abu Simbel, 275km through the desert to the south and just 60km north of the Sudanese border. The temple was famously moved up the cliff to a man-made mound above its original site by UNESCO to spare it from the waters of Lake Nasser.
This was by far the most impressive temple or site thus far, and not just for its monumental scale. It’s New Kingdom, built by or for Rameses II, and consists of a rock-cut temple to Ra-Horakty (a composite form of Horus), although in reality it celebrates the deified Rameses and a smaller temple dedicated to Hathor, but again really for Rameses’ queen, Nefertari. The carved reliefs are finer and more graceful than those at Philae. In the Rameses temple, the first hall has depictions of the Pharaoh’s great military victories and the consequent tribute paid by the subjected peoples. In other rooms Rameses is depicted making offerings to the various gods. My favourite was him offering a tiny baboon to Ptah, tucked away in a side room.
This was the only site thus far that made a semi-serious attempt at security, scanning bags on entry as though one is entering an airport gate lounge. The convoy to Abu Simbel is apparently the only one still being used – other sites which had previously required convoys to visit have recently had the requirement lifted. Even this one was at a far more civilised time than previously – Chris, Mike and Patricia tell horror stories of getting up at 3am to depart by 4, and being back in Aswan by lunchtime, too tired to make any use of the rest of the day.
We were accompanied on the return journey by two armed officers – but somehow they didn’t make me feel safer. The desert is stark and lonely, with only one village along the route, adjacent to a big canal clearly intended to ‘make the desert bloom’. Other than that, just lonely way stations and check points – these in small sentry boxes shaped uncannily like domed pizza ovens, which must have been baking hot inside.
No one uses headlights as we would in Australia. Many drive without them on at all, and there certainly seems to be no low-beam. Headlights and indicators are used in some detailed language of signals; oncoming vehicles flash headlights to indicate to vehicles following that there is oncoming traffic ahead.
Dinner was at another Nile-side restaurant, the Panorama. It served simple but quite tasty fare, mostly tagins, and the maitre’d performed an amusing coffee ceremony serving what was apparently traditional Bedouin-style coffee, served in wooden pots with tufts of coconut fibre sprouting from the spout to strain the grinds out, but looking uncannily like pubic hair.