An unfinished obelisk, a camel ride and tea in the Sahara

Tuesday 6 January 2009 – Aswan, Upper Egypt

The day started with an unscheduled itinerary stop at a recently-discovered New Kingdom period Temple of Isis, right slap-bang in the centre of Aswan, blocks of flats literally all around. After peering through the fence, Ahmed spoke to a guard and we were allowed in for a closer look. It is a substantial structure and is being excavated and conserved to presumably take its place among the local sites of significance for tourists, among which it will be a major attraction.

We had just settled in for a look around and inside the temple when Mike got a call from Ahmed to say we had to ‘move’. A couple of very grumpy looking officials were at the top of the stairs, clearly angry that we’d been admitted.

Granite quarry in Aswan, with the Unfinished Obelisk
Granite quarry in Aswan, with the Unfinished Obelisk

Next stop was the ancient quarry, just beyond the vast Fatimid cemetery. The main feature here is a 40 meter long unfinished obelisk thought to have been intended for Karnak Temple and commissioned by Queen Hatshepsut (there is a similar one extant at Karnak). Unfortunately it developed a major fracture before it could be completed and was abandoned.

Granite quarry in Aswan
Granite quarry in Aswan
Unfinished Obelisk, Granite quarry in Aswan
Unfinished Obelisk, Granite quarry in Aswan
Me having a pound, Granite quarry in Aswan
Me having a pound, Granite quarry in Aswan
Granite Quarry, Aswan
Granite Quarry, Aswan

The site is on the tourist trail so naturally it has a souk, through which one is forced to pass on the way to the exit. The usual tatt, but also a quite good bookshop with fixed prices. I bought a better pocket-guide to the gods and pharaohs and a small volume on ‘how to read hieroglyphs’.

Baboons outside the Aswan Museum
Baboons outside the Aswan Museum

Next to the Nubian Museum, a recent and well laid-out addition to the regions cultural attractions which covers local history from prehistoric and ancient times to the building of the High Dam and relocation or loss of monuments, as well as Nubian traditions and lifestyles. Maintenance doesn’t seem to be keeping up, with many light globes out and some exhibits plainly missing but without explanation of their absence.

Lunch was miso soup and tinned dolmades on my balcony at the Philae, then we were off on a boat across the Nile for the day’s real adventure, riding a camel up to the ruins of Saint Simeon’s monastery on the West Bank. Judy was first up onto her mount, but soon got down again. She eventually was persuaded to ride behind Abdul, double-dinking and hanging on for dear life.

Personally I enjoyed the ride. The getting up and down is a bit exciting and precipitous but once underway the rolling rhythm is gentle and predictable – much gentler than the lurching motion of elephants. I was able to relax, move my weight forward over the beast’s shoulders and had hands free for photographs.

Monastery of Saint Simeon
Monastery of Saint Simeon

The ride up the dunes was quite short, just a kilometre or so. Saint Simeon was a medieval monastery and is a most picturesque ruin – all mud brick walls and many extant barrel-vaulted ceilings. The site is much bigger than the glimpse one has from the Nile would suggest and we spent nearly two hours before collecting our camels and heading back down to the river.

At this point in the itinerary in previous years, the party had repaired to the Old Cataract Hotel for high-tea; as the hotel is closed for renovations, we stayed on the west bank and had ‘tea in the Sahara’ at a restaurant called ‘Nubian Beach’. Mike showed us (those of us prepared to make a short but strenuous climb up the dunes above the cafe) some prehistoric petroglyphs he’d uncovered. Reaching these, every step up meant two thirds of a step back in the very fine sand.

Some thoughtful person had painted graffiti in blue paint (spray cans are not available, so they’d used a brush!) over these 5,000 year old petroglyphs. It will wear off, but it is another indication of the lack of respect shown to much of Egypt’s cultural heritage by certain of its residents.

Sailing back to Aswan we were treated to an incredible sunset – cameras were clicking furiously and I made fine use of my new camera’s sunset setting.

Chris and I chose, on this fine and mild evening (thus far the evenings had been quite chilly) to dine at a new seafood restaurant in the lane at the rear of the Philae. Carol and Geoff had found it a few nights earlier and indeed turned up there again. And it certainly made a pleasant change to the diet. A Tia Maria and decaf with Chris, then to bed.

Today's 'towel art' resembles the monument to Egyptian-Soviet friendship at the Aswan High Dam
Today’s ‘towel art’ resembles the monument to Egyptian-Soviet friendship at the Aswan High Dam

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