Ramses II ruled Egypt for 67 years.

The distance from the port of Alexandria to the Ramses II temples at Abu Simbel in the Nubian Desert is calculated at 964 1/2 nautical miles, but a nautical mile is 1.1 land mile and then it is another 40 miles to the Sudanese border where the 2nd Cataract now lies buried under Lake Nasser.  The Nile with all its twists and curves covers about 1,000 miles within Egypt of its entire 4,300 mile length.

In ancient days Egypt consisted of two parts: The Lower Nile extended from Alexandria to Aswan; the Upper Nile from Aswan to an unknown point because the Pharaohs were consistently conquering new territories in Ethiopia, Abyssinia, and Nubia.  Not all Pharaohs controlled both of the watery serpent segments, only those kings who wore the double crown ornament were recognized as the power from the Mediterranean to the unknown hinterlands;  Ramses II wore such a crown.

After my Nile cruise arrangements were made with Great Safaris (www.greatsafaris.com) and its excellent Egyptian touring partners, I boarded the Prince Abbas luxury ship above the High Dam in Aswan for a leisurely four nights barge up the ancient river on the placid waters of Lake Nasser.

The Nubian Desert reflects in Lake Nasser.

It was a splendid linen clothed and plated welcome aboard dinner with my new found explorers from Australia, France, and Britain. Egyptian red Obelish Ether wine was uncorked, but the nectar from the hot clime can also be rose or white.  Yes, Egypt has vineyards. All meals are included in the cruise, but all beverages, including bottled water, are added to your room tab.  We watched the sun dive over the western Nubian Desert (the eastern extension of the Libyan Desert) as twilight descended.

President Gamel Nasser, conceived the construction of the High Dam with the cooperation of Russian engineering and rubles. A new project in the works is the decades long Tushka Project that will siphon off Lake Nasser water like a soda straw down a concrete conduit to create a new city in the New Valley, an old Nile channel that parallels the present Nile Valley. The High Dam was the largest earthen dam in the world since its completion in 1970 after ten years of labor, but it is now surpassed by China’s Three Gorges Dam. A huge steel tower on the dam represents the lotus flower, a sign of friendship between Egypt and Russia.

Kalabsha from the Prince Abbas.

Most ancient temple complexes were located on the western bank of the Nile; I assumed the vastness of the desert protected them from that quadrant and the Nile protected them from the East.  Many temples had to be physically carved up and moved to higher ground due to the rising of Lake Nasser, including Abu Simbel.

It was a short cruise across the back of the dam the next morning to the Temple of Kalabsha, an Egyptian temple built during the Greco-Roman period.  The temple of Kalabsha was once 40 kms farther south but was disassembled and moved by German engineers as the waters rose.  The older temples of  Kertassi and Beit al Wali were also transported  to the same complex to create a day trip for Aswan travelers.  The farthest south that Alexander the Great stormed on his conquering route was Aswan, he probably didn’t proceed farther when he spied the vastness of the Nubian Desert.

Hany, my guide, modern and ancient.

I met my Egyptologist, Hany, for a private tour of Kalabsha with a delightful British couple on board the Prince Abbas.  Although the first Aswan Dam was built of granite blocks in 1902, Kalabsha was constructed of sedimentary sandstone, of which there is an endless supply due to the rising and falling of thousands of years of flood waters.  The ancient Egyptians knew Nubia as Kush, and the people as Kushites.  Nubia was the source of the Pharaohs’ gold, or Nub in Egyptian. Many of the temples were created with store houses of food stuffs for the long trip up or down the Nile. Villages popped up near each temple complex. Nubia stretches far south of Khartoum.

The Greco-Roman era Kalabsha was constructed for Emperor Augustus and it is the largest free standing temple in Egyptian Nubia and it is dedicated to the Roman sun god Mendulis. The nearby temple of Gerf Hussein was once known as Per Ptah or House of Ptah and it was built by Setau, the Viceroy of Nubia, and also honored Ramses II.  Only the free standing portion of this temple was salvaged from the rising waters.

Beit el-Wali was extricated from the rock by Polish archaeologists.  This temple is dedicated to Ramses II and the gods Amun and Anukis.  The Kiosk of Qertassi is a beautiful and ornate Roman columnar structure with thin rock papyrus plant shaped columns inside two Hathor columns at the entrance.  The Temple of Dedwen is fully within the outer temple wall of Kalabsha and was dedicated to the Nubian serpent goddess of the same name.  The entire temple complex is now called New Kalabsha.  Your tickets to all the temples on the Prince Abbas cruise are included in your tour into antiquity.

The magnificent Kalabsha Temple complex.

Prince Abbas was a 19th century governor of Egypt during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  Nile adventure cruises were begun by steam ships during the Victorian age but due to the Aswan cataract could not proceed farther into the Nubian Desert like our Mövenpick luxury voyage.

Our table-d'hôtes dinners (no shorts or tank tops) always included several entrée picks, such as kolta (lamb) stew on sweet Egyptian pilaf rice, and Hawaiian salad, and hot apple pie; breakfasts were buffet style; lunches were served at a fixed time between sunbathing on the sundeck and temple tours.

Wadi el-Saboua hides in the desert.

On a map, Lake Nasser looks like a huge stomach with an extended intestine stretching 270 kilometers into the Sudan. Somewhere en route to Wadi el-Saboua we crossed the Tropic of Cancer.  All hippos and crocodiles have been shot out below the dam, but there are reports of huge crocs above the dam.  I never saw even a cold blooded lizard skittering across the hot sand. The surprising and unexpected magnificence of the Nubian Desert is in what it lacks: people, industry, shade, housing complexes, animals, villages, noise.  It is an empty beautiful vastness of golden sand carpets creeping down slopes to the water. The sandstone hills are a panoply of light and shadow, of foreground and distance,  a different shade of dun changing with the azimuth of the sun.

Even in modern times, before the dam, the Nubians tilled the tiny sliver of mud to raise grains and palms; all that is gone with the Nubian Desert winds.

Wait . . . kites and falcons glided on Wadi el-Saboua thermals like those represented in gold and inlaid necklaces seen in the Cairo Museum. Some passengers rode an old tractor to the site to avoid the hike of about a kilometer in the burning sands. A camel ride was an extra charge.

Wadi el-Saboua was also a caravanserai.

Wadi el-Saboua was also relocated about 4 kms from its past shoreline home. Eight sphinx statues still guard the temple, so it was referred to as the Valley of the Lions; the lion faces are in the images of the pharaoh’s prisoners, some African, other Asiatic. The UNESCO site is a speos-style or a temple cut into a rock wall or cave. Only the two huge pylons and rock cut section survived the move.

Ramses II ruled Upper and Lower Egypt.

The temple was dedicated to Ramses II in the later years of his reign by Setau, but it is also dedicated to the gods Amun and Ra.  The interior is a magnificent hypostyle hall with 12 huge columns decorated with gigantic reliefs and carvings of the king and his military exploits; an inner sanctum was carved into the bedrock and has numerous hieroglyphs. The Wadi el-Saboua Temple is the third speos-style temple that Ramses II built in Nubia, with the most famous at Abu Simbel, our final destination. 

The temple was a Christian church in an early era.

Later that afternoon and out of the heat we passengers watched a grainy black and white documentary in the Green Room onboard the Prince Abbas, depicting how the temples were saved from the lapping waters in the 1960s.

That evening we docked near the Amada Temple site a few more miles upriver.

The cave-like Amada Temple.

Another hot day on a shadeless motor launch saw a hotter hike across the radiating sands to the small Amada Temple, which was moved about 4 kms entirely on a small rail line constructed just for that purpose.  The Nubian Desert is more reddish in this area than near Aswan. Amada was certainly in “Old Nubia” and I thought the nondescript exterior would mean an uninteresting site. I received the surprise of adventure travel: the temple is the most colorfully preserved in all of Nubia because ancient sand storms chocked every crevice to preserve the interior from the elements. My guide, Hany, stated that the Egyptians used egg whites to permanently polish the beautiful and colorful carvings, retaining an eternal brilliance.

Amada was built with hewn blocks of sandstone that predated Ramses II to the rulers Usurtesens and Thothmes. A small portico led to the transverse atrium where the angle of the sun was perfect to highlight the columns; farther on Hany led us into three small low roofed chambers. It was a master of architecture with oblong blocks resting flat from end to end. Fine filigrees covered the walls with kings and gods and hieroglyphs. The figures seem to want to jump off the wall like a character in an animated cartoon. The temple is an epoch of art never seen anywhere else in Egypt. During World War II the British Army utilized the area as a munitions depot.

The Amada Temple is the most colorful in Nubia.

The heat of the day had built up and as we anchored for the night at Amada a typhoon of sand swept out of the Sahara, all the way from Algeria to Libya and into the Nubian Desert — the ultimate Egyptian experience. Was it night or day?  The grit scoured the lake, air, land, and ship.  The A/C was temporarily closed down.  It was a different, unbelievable type of hot. The storm blew out after a few hours and suddenly the air cleared clean like after a rain shower and the temperature instantly dropped.  The running lights of the Prince Abbas were clicked off and on the sundeck “Google Sky” charts were not needed to view the google of stars in the moonless black Nubian firmament — The Twilight Zone had transported us back to these ancient Egyptian skies.

A quad of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

After lunch the next day we luxuriously barged to Abu Simbel, the last of Ramses II temples in Nubia that left no question to the passing caravans where the power of ancient Egypt began. For the longest time we could not see the site from the bow of the ship due to a marine layer of dust particulates, searing white light, and reflecting Nile white caps. All passengers anticipated a panoramic photo as the Prince Abbas sailed straight as a torpedo to the site, which suddenly popped out of the haze like a fun house mirror – four ghostly images of Ramses II all staring at us, but one head missing since antiquity.

The luxurious Prince Abbas cruise ship.

The Prince Abbas is an excellent way to relax on Lake Nasser.  It features 60 Deluxe Cabins with twin or king beds; all are outside staterooms with a sizeable window to see the landscapes. Each has individually controlled air conditioning, cable TV (which worked even in the sand storm), shower/tub combos, comfortable sitting area, and phones that allowed international calls via GSM lines, and high speed wifi in the rooms.

The restaurant is located under the main deck down spiral staircases.  There was a variety of cuisine, including Egyptian, international, and vegetarian dishes; some menus were à la carte. The ship had a wide variety of wines, juices, and my favorite during the hot days, Sakkara beer.  There is also 24 hour room service. The Salon Deck had a large dance area, lounge, and round bar. One evening we were treated with a Nubian Night of entertainment by the staff.

Other comforts onboard included a concierge desk, currency exchange, doctor on call, news stand, handicapped rooms, maid service, Jacuzzi on the pool deck, and I must say, it was great to have porters onboard.

I recommend a cruise on the Prince Abbas to get the entire adventurous absorption of this beautiful portion of the Nile where no air tourist travels.  Great Safaris at www.greatsafaris.com planned an outstanding itinerary and the staff of the Prince Abbas was superb in all aspects.  I must mention the exceptional services of my guide Hany, who with a turban, looked as if he had stepped off an Amada hieroglyphic — a historical page out of the Nubian Desert.  I also recommend a visit to the Nubian Museum in Aswan before your cruises to relish the culture of Kush, the Pharaohs, and the desert. 

Join Great Safaris on a great adventure up the Nile.

Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature, “Life on the Nile” about the my adventure cruise on Great Safaris’ luxury ship the Mirage from Luxor to Aswan.  Also read the Jetsetters Magazine feature about Abu Simbel.

— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.