Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, December 02, 2005

(Upper) Egypt – Abu Simbel and Philae

Dedicated to Human Achievement

The last two days have been so loaded with major events that I’ve been procrastinating to record them in the well-filled and increasingly unwieldy diary. Don’t worry, I will eventually, and I’ve made summarized memory-jogging notes so nothing will be forgotten.

I’d like to describe just a few of the most important things from the last 48 hours.

Yesterday was the last full day in Aswan, that calm and palm-lined scenic riverbend town adorned with feluccas, a barren and hilly horizon studded with tombs, and excavated ruins amongst rocky islands. We took a flight in a small plane to Abu Simbel, deep in the southernmost deserts of Egypt. The views out over the expanses of desert sands and the shimmering surface of Lake Nasser (the 500km-long body of water created behind the Aswan High Dam) were sublime, scarred with long straight roads and completely missing the lush riverbank vegetation that characterizes the rest of the Nile. Best of all was the arrival at the airport – the plane passes over the temple complex of Abu Simbel, like something directly out of Indiana Jones.

Abu Simbel is arguably the most famous Pharonic site displaced by the second Aswan Dam. It would have been lost under 170m of water had it been left alone. Losing such a treasure – the only Pharonic temples carved completely out of a naturally occurring rock face, consisting of two sacred buildings guarded by immense statues of Rameses, his wife and the gods – would have been a serious tragedy for human cultural heritage globally. It was rescued by an enormously complex operation that cut the entire temple site into manageable cubes, re-located them at the former mountain summit high over the new water level, and positioned them almost perfectly on an artificial mountain. It was a huge international effort, one of many that saved ancient structures facing submersion.

Another of these sites was the island of Philae. This, the only known temple complex built exclusively upon an island, was entirely submerged by the first Aswan dam, completed by the British in 1902. The temple was actually left standing in the water, partially submerged, and travelers used to take boats out to glide through the colonnades. All very romantic, but terrible for conservation. In another extreme rescue operation, the temples were cut apart and rebuilt on a neighbouring island, which was landscaped to match the original as closely as records enabled. It’s a stunning place, completely free of tourist touts, and distinctly otherworldly. Loved the kiosk of Trajan in particular. We explored it at sunset, and the stones were illuminated in tones of orange, casting the hieroglyphics into brilliant contrast.

The entire story of Abu Simbel is one of human achievement. You can put a positive spin on the entire thing – two amazing civilizations capable of great feats of engineering, leadership and architecture, both utterly dependent on each other for survival (Modern Egypt needs tourism based on ancient Egypt, ancient Egypt would be long destroyed if not preserved deliberately), and yet separated by immense gulfs of time. The destruction of Nubian culture and property was contrasted by meeting entrepreneurs bringing Nubian domestic architecture to the tourist industry, whose ambitions and passion for their cultural heritage were palpable. The ongoing impact of the dam is still to be realised – it has changed weather patterns, provided much-needed “clean” electricity, and was once another symbol of international co-operation, even though it began with a fanfare of warfare.

I do not intend to keep you here for too much longer. Suffice to say the evening was spent chugging a motorboat down the island-strewn Nile at night, with no moon but just enough light to cast shadows in tones of blue and grey. The scent of the river was organic, alive, but delicate and distinctive to itself. The air was warm, perfect with the breeze, and there was a superb sense of timelessness to the entire setting. We ate an excellent local fish dinner at a restaurant run by an unusually interesting chap, who brought our attention to the phosphorescent sand dunes alongside the Nile. These eerie dunes feature shadows cast as if by trees halfway up their slopes – so they are bright on the top and dark beneath – but there is no reason why there should be any shadows upon them at all. During daylight these lines are invisible. It is a very strange phenomenon.


Post a Comment

<< Home