The next day I and other members of the group leave our hotel, The Sheraton, and fly to Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city and the crossroads of the ancient caravan routes. We transferr to the pier and embarked on our cruise ship, the M.S. Tulip, for a sumptuous lunch. Accommodations on the three deck Tulip are superb, comparable to those at our hotel in Cairo. Later the group is taken on a tour by felucca around Elephantine Island, once the center of modern Aswan. This is an exciting part of the program, followed by a tour of the Botanical Gardens of Lord Kitchener.
Our special coach's next stop is near the town of Aswan and the High Dam, which controls the Nile. The famous High Dam is an engineering miracle started in the 1960s, but completed in 1971, and containing 18 times the material used in the Great Pyramids of Cheops. The Dam is 11,811 feet long, 3,215 feet thick at the base, and 364 feet tall. Today it provides irrigation and electricity for the whole of Egypt.
The High Dam creates a 30 percent increase in the cultivatable land in Egypt and raises the water table as far away as Algeria. It adds a whole new aspect to Egypt, and the artificial lake (Lake Nassar) is some 500 miles long. In Aswan itself, one can not escape the aromatic smell of exotic spices and fresh fruit and witness the overflowing crowds of the souks (markets), that are in fact, found in every town. At these markets, vendors put together what ever you need: spices and herbs, but the aroma is a tempting attraction for the group.
The group returns to the Tulip and after lunch sails on the Nile to the Temple of Kom Ombo, creating quite an impression on everyone. Regarded as unique in all of Egypt, it is shared by the two gods, Sobek and Haroeris. The town of Kom Ombo is about 28 miles north of Aswan. The Temple dates to the Ptolemies and is built on a high dune overlooking the Nile. The actual Temple was started by Ptolemy VI Pilometor in the early second century B.C. Ptolemy XIII built the outer and inner hypostyle halls. The outer enclosure wall and part of the court were built by Augustus sometime after 30 B.C. and are mostly gone.
There are two entrances, two courts, two colonnades, two halls, and two sanctuaries. The left, or northern side, is dedicated to Haroeris (sometimes called Harer, Horus the elder), who was the falcon-headed sky god; to the right is Sobek (the crocodile headed god).
Temple of Edfu
The amazing feats of the Egyptians is beginning to sink into our minds as we view the architecture and amazing accomplishments around us, a fortifying feeling as we approach the Temple of Horus in Edfu, a well-preserved example of the period. It was built in three stages, with protracted intervals between: first, the Temple proper by Ptolemy III, then the outer hypostyle hall, around 140-124 B.C., and finally the perimeter wall and pylons. There is a passage surrounding the sanctuary, accessing 13 small chapels, and another passageway completing the entire circuit of the enclosing wall. The Pharaonic architecture contributes immensely to fill in many gaps of knowledge about the Temple itself.
To get to the Temple, the group is taken by horse-drawn carriages, which race each other. On arrival at the site, vendors surround us, shouting in perfect English, “check my wares”, “want to see my jubba of shalwar?”, “how about some souvenirs?”, “today is the day for bargains”. Sometimes the vendors throw Egyptian clothing to you and say it is a gift. Minutes later they show up demanding ten dollars. A favorite method they use is to ask if you are American or British, then quoting U.S. dollars for any item. If you say you are from India, they tend to leave you alone. My wife, Rasulan, and sister-in-law, Nazma, are the first to come upon this method of discouraging the hordes of vendors.
Temple of Karnak at Luxor
On the east bank is the modern town of Luxor. Running alongside part of the river bank and separated from it by the corniche is Luxor Temple, built by Pharaoh Amenophis III. The Luxor Temple was enhanced by such rulers as Ramesses II, Alexander the Great, and the Romans. At the northern end of the town is the sprawling Karnak temple complex, built over a span of about 1,500 to 2,000 years. It is famous for its main Hypostyle Hall with 134 massive columns. The awe-inspiring Temple has us aghast, silent at times and vociferous in our praise of the marvels.
Despite its age, the Temple is still capable of overshadowing many of the wonders of the modern world. The Temple of Karnak/Luxor is regarded as the mother of all religious buildings, the largest ever made, and a place of pilgrimage for nearly 4,000 years.
We return to our floating hotel for a sumptuous dinner arranged by Food and Beverage Manager Mohammad Abdul Wahab, and a delightful session by Nubian dancers. Some members of the group join the Nubians on stage as they follow a beat that encourages participation.
The Tombs of Tutankhamun & Remses the Great
One of the accessible tombs is of Tuthmose III at the far end of the East Valley, one of the earliest burial chambers carved in the shape of a cartouche (oval-shaped); its inscriptions are interspersed with stick figures. Climbing up the modern metal staircase outside and the descent into the tomb is taxing, depending on your physical condition.
Horemheb’s tomb relays a transition to the Ramses-style of tombs. A short distance away is the tomb of Ramses III. Ramses VI's tomb is a magnificent burial chamber with the broken remains of the large stone sarcophagus. Along the length of the chamber’s ceiling are two images of the sky Goddess Nut, depicting both the swallowing and rebirth of the sun disc.
The tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922 unfolded some 3,500 individual items, including precious stones and jewelry; its discovery shook the entire world. Archaeologists and others continue to marvel at the discovery, with praise given to English archaeologist, Howard Carter.
Colossi of Memnon
We are taken to the impressive and mind boggling Deir El Bahari mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, an architectural wonder built against the backdrop of a looming cliff face, and its Colossi of Memnon, two huge seated statues of Amenhotep III, stare back at us from antiquity.
The Queen of Egypt Hatshepsut
The walls document Hatshepsut’s divine conception, her vote of confidence given by her father, her efforts to repair damage inflicted by the Hyksos invaders, the expeditions to Punt, and the erection of the colossai obelisks at the Temple of Karnak. In the manner of her father, Tuthmose I, who realized a temple was too obvious a place to bury priceless artifacts, the tomb of Hatshepsut was constructed in secret.
It is a memorable trip, superb, exciting, as well as educational. We met Egyptians, young and the not so young, who gazed at us and at the type of clothing we wore. Some would approach us with the commonly heard term “Baksheesh” (give me some help), and in many cases the response was automatic. Members of the group would give a U.S. dollar, about six Egyptian pounds, to the outstretched hand.
Food, especially lamb, is readily available and cheap, when compared to prices in the United States. During some of our stops we would gaze at a group of men smoking the water pipes while others chiseled away at a piece of rock, fashioning something for sale.
Some kids, some as young as seven or eight years old, would offer some trinkets to us for one dollar (U.S. of course); they were quick to guess where we were from. Some of them were aggressive, and on one or two occasions, security police point them the way out of our area.
You do not get the feeling that these people are oppressed, but that they are facing financial and economic pressures. The regular request for assistance comes from the children, not the adults, even though one suspects that they too, welcome it.
Before boarding Egyptair for our return to the United States, members of the group expressed thanks to our guide, Ossama, recognizing his tremendous knowledge and experience, and praising him for his patience and tolerance natural traits lingering from the ancient past.
By Edwin Ali, Jetsetters Magazine Middle Eastern Correspondent.