Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Two days in Aswan

March 1, 2007

This morning we arrived at Aswan, the last port of call for the cruise boat. Apart from our usual droning guide Ahmed, we were met by a travel coordinator called Akram – a cool dude of sorts wearing a suit in the stifling desert heat and waaaay too much perfume with a cell phone perenially stuck to his ear. There was an instant chemical reaction…I don’t know which happened first; did I decide to dislike him first, or did his perfume assault my olfactory sense and gave me a headache first? Whatever it is, I started bristling every time the dude came within 5 feet of my personal space. Much to my dismay, Akram decided to accompany us to our first stop of the day - the Temple of Philae. I had to endure his smelly company for the 15 minute ride to the small dock from where we were to take a motor-boat to the temple. Allah be praised, Akram left us there and went back to town to do whatever that he does, and I was finally able to breathe properly!

Now here’s the interesting bit of information about Philae that I wasn’t aware of before coming here. In 1902, after the British completed the Aswan Dam, the island of Philae got partially submerged threatening the future of the ancient temple that stood on the grounds. Then after the construction of the High Dam in the 70’s, this island got completely submerged in the waters of Lake Nasser. Before that happened, UNESCO took on the mammoth project of dismantling the Temple of Isis stone by stone and rebuilt on the nearby island of Agilika located about 500m away from the original site. So seamless is the re-assembly that it’s hard to imagine that the temple has not been standing on Agilika for the last 2000 years, but since the 1980’s!!

After suffering yet another attack from hawkers selling tacky souvenirs, we set out towards the High Dam. We had to cross the old dam and while doing so, we caught a glimpse of the first Cataract of the Nile. Though there weren’t much swirling water rushing through the stone outcrops, one can always imagine how spectacular it must have been before the dams were built. We passed a stretch of desert which I was told was the eastern edge of the great Sahara – how fascinating -makes me want to sit on a camel and embark on a desert safari. Since the morning at the Valley of the Kings, I have been wearing my shawl as a turban – in the true Bedouin style – tres chic I must say!! So no harm in fantasizing about hopping on a camel and seek out the mysteries of the desert!

The High Dam is definitely a giant feat of modern engineering. Apparently 17 times as much material went into its construction as was used to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops! The dam has also created the world’s largest artificial lake called Lake Nasser (named after Egyptian president who commissioned the dam), which reaches back 500km to the second cataract of the Nile in Sudan!Thanks to UNESCO, about 14 ancient temples were saved from the threat of submersion by Lake Nasser. One of them was the Kalabsha Temple situated now at the banks of the lake. It was visible from the view point of the High Dam, but the only way to reach it is by helicopter or a boat.

We drove on to see the unfinished obelisk in the ancient granite quarry. Had it been completed it’d have been 42m tall and would have weighed over 2.3 million pounds making it the world's largest piece of stone ever handled! Since no inscriptions were made on the stone, historians guess that it dates back to the time of Ramses II or Hatshepshut (New Kingdom 1570 -1090 BC). Standing in front of the gigantic obelisk I’ve had an epiphany – these Pharaohs weren’t very well-endowed! You know what they say in America – people with small …erm…apparatus buy big cars! Going by the same theory, the Pharaohs who weren’t very well-hung built extra large phallic shaped obelisks. Especially Hatshepshut, who asserted herself as a man, commissioned the largest number of obelisks – talk about overcompensation!

In the afternoon we went for a ride in the Felucca. What a wonderful little boat! It was rather windy and the boat kept tipping from side to side – it was great rush!! None of wore life-jackets (Ahmed insisted that we trust his judgment about the wind conditions) and the water of Nile looked dark and formidable! 12 weeks of swimming lessons with Frenchie hasn’t given me the confidence to even dip my toe in the Nile much less swim and save my life if we were to capsize! From the boat we had a better view of the Tombs of the Nobles and Aga Khan’s Mausoleum on the other side of the Nile. The trip back to the boat involved walking on a thin concrete ledge holding on to exposed re-bars for support! Its getting more and more adventurous every day - but not in a good way!

March 2, 2007

Today we were supposed to see Aswan at our leisure. Ahmed vanished in the morning after receiving a generous tip for his services – not that I’m missing him or anything! We checked out of the boat after breakfast and keeping our bags with the concierge, we went for a walk on Corniche El Nil (every city in Egypt has one such corniche) dodging various offers for Felucca rides and horse carriage tours! Indiaah – Namaste –Amitabh Bachchan seems to follow us where ever we go! I have developed a strong dislike for Mr Bachchan in the last few days!!!

We walked the entire length of the promenade and reached the Coptic Church. Being a Friday (equivalent to Sunday in non-Islamic countires) morning – the mass had just ended and a whole lot of Arab-Christians were coming out of the church. We walked into a hall – very plain, made of concrete and plaster and whitewashed walls greeted us. There weren’t any pews either – only cane chairs. The walls were mostly unadorned – few painting depicting Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection thereafter hung on one side. It was so sad! Even the Medak Church in middle of nowhere Andhra had more character than this! We quickly left the so-called cathedral and made our way into the Feryal Gardens across the street.

A group of noisy school-children waited outside the garden gates waiting for their turn to enter – and what an entrance that was!! With what sounded like a war cry, at least 50 children shot through the garden gates leaving us shocked and petrified in their wake! Sonny boy was paralyzed with fear, poor thing! And to make matters worse, a group of pre-pubescent girls decided to stare at sonny boy and whisper and giggle among themselves! Sonny boy declared that he hated girls in general – hopefully this hatred won’t last for long! I’m not very sure that those girls were laughing at sonny boy…may be collectively we looked like a funny family…who knows! We spent some time chilling out in the beautiful Feryal Gardens – located on a cliff just by the Nile – overlooking the idyllic Feluccas dotting the river, the ruins of the Tombs of the Nobles, Aga Khan’s mausoleum and the vast desert beyond.

We came back to the boat and waited for Akram who was to escort us to the Old Cataract Hotel (even though we knew exactly where it was!). The wait was long and tedious and somewhat irritating! Since we had already checked out, we didn’t really belong on the boat and on top of that there cropped up an issue of two missing cans of Heiniken from the mini-bar, which we knew nothing about! Finally cool dude Akram showed up around 1:30pm reeking of some strong perfume and we got off the boat for the last time with a bad taste in our mouth and me with yet another headache!

The Old Cataract, a very historic hotel in southern end of Aswan, that has hosted various celebrities and dignitaries since they opened their doors in the late 1890s. Their guest list includes names like Sir Winston Churchill, T E Lawrence, Lord Mountbatten, Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie (who immortalized the hotel in her famous novel Death on the Nile), President Mitterrand and Princess Diana among others. We decided to lunch at the picturesque patio overlooking the giant cataracts of the Nile and the ruins of the ancient Nubian village of Yebu, while our room got readied. By 3pm we were tired and anxious and extremely irritated. Finally a very apologetic Resident Manager informed us that we have been upgraded to a suite (sweet!!!) and escorted us to our room. And what a room!!!! Called the Champollion Suite (named after French archeologist Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta stone in 1822), it was by far the biggest room in the hotel with a spectacular view! Appointed with period French furniture (most likely Louis XVI – I’m not very sure!) and silk damask in yellow, gold and blue, it was bigger than a lot of apartments I’ve seen! Instantly our mood lifted! I went down to read by the pool, a glass of chilled white wine keeping me company while spouse and sonny boy took a dip. The room had a decent library of really old first edition books – I picked Voices in the Night by Flora Annie Steel published in 1900…seemed like an interesting story set in India during the Raj. The sun was setting over the western desert and the hotel seemed to glow under the light. I quickly went back up to the balcony to enjoy the view of the sun setting on the Nile.

One of the Old Cataract's broad and lofty corridors led to a vast Moorish dining hall simply called 1902. From the dome shaped ceiling that rises at least 40 feet if not more, hung a massive Moroccan chandelier flanked by a dozen or so smaller pendants which cast an ethereal glow on the entire hall. There is a formality and timelessness about dining in this vast hall with the dishes named after the hotel’s more famous guests from Howard Carter, Sir Winston Churchill to Prince Charles and King Farouk. Come to think of it, that we almost didn’t come to 1902 because Akram said that the restaurant didn’t allow guests in without a dinner jacket! Also the totally fish-y prix fix menu displayed outside thwarted us somewhat! They did have a whole bunch of vegetarian options in the a la carte menu. Great dinner, great wine and great ambiance – tonight I’m a happy camper! Wonder who all lived in this room before us and if there are any famous ghosts haunting the halls in the dead of the night!!

1 comment:

Grey Shades said...

Whoa sounds like a lotta fun! Tell me do they let you go look at the underground crypts and all that there?