Monday, June 9, 2008

Egypt Trip: The High Dam, Philae

After lunch we visited the High Dam. We reached the old dam which is nearly one and half miles long. The dam was completed in 1902. At the opening of the dam was the young Winston Churchill. Its height was raised in 1907 and it was strengthened in 1934. However this dam, built by the English, soon proved to be inadquate. There is tight security here and a heavy presence of soldiers.

We drove on to the High Dam where security was even tighter. Medhat told us that there are now missiles around the dam which will automatically fire if an aeroplane overflies the dam. Also anybody found on the dam after 5pm will be shot first and questions will be asked second! When we got out of the coach to look at the dam we were told that no video cameras or cameras with long lenses were allowed.

The High Dam the people call 'That bloody dam'. The objective of the dam was, in short, to set the Egyptian people on the road to modernisation. Work on the site began in 1960 and was completed in 1964. The High Dam is a great artificial wall. A canal was dug in the rock. Six immense tunnels were also dug. The water of the river could therefore flow through the canal and the tunnels. The tunnels have large steel gates which are opened and shut to control the water. The water rushing though the tunnels is used to produce electricity. A power station was built. The station now supplies Egyptian towns and villages with electricity.

The dam has stabilised the level of the river, which ensures it is navigable all the time. And it provides controllable irration of the Nile Valley throughout Egypt. However the debit side of the balance sheet is continuing to grow. It was know that the obliteration of Lower Nubia, with the displacement of 60,000 of its inhabitants, would create serious human problems. UNESCO has made tremendous efforts to save part of the artistic heritage by resiting, among others, the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae. But what is being discovered today are the ecological consequences of this colossal enterprise. Fertile silt is now accumulating behind the dam, while the farmers are now forced to buy chemical fertilisers. It is reckoned that half of the hydro-electrical output from the dam goes into a huge factory making fertiliser to replace the alluvial silts that used to be provided by the annual Nile floods!

There is an irreplaceable loss by evaporation of part of the water in the lake, which is exposed to the sun over too large an area. A change in the climate has ensued. Clouds now appear in the sky over Aswan where, for the first time in history, rain has fallen, throwing the local people into a panic. Lake Nasser is one of the largest artificial lakes every made by man. It stretches for five hundred miles south of the High Dam, deep into the Sudan, and its average width is six miles. There is now enough water in Lake Nasser to supply Egypt with all the water it needs for 100 years. The longest time Egypt has had of drought over all the thousands of years of its history is seven years, goodness knows why they need to store so much water.

By the edge of Lake Nasser we clambered into a motor boat and cruised out to Angelica Island to see the Temple of Philae.

Philae Temple
On the island of Philae, where it was built, you will no longer see the temple begun there by the last pharaohs (the 30th dynasty) and finished by the Romans. Situated between the two dams, it was already flooded for six months of the year by the rising water of the first dam, when the construction of the second one condemned it to vanish forever. The Egyptian government was galvanized into action and decided to save the complex, which was one of the last pharaonic temples 'in operation'. We know that the cult of Isis attracted pilgrims there from Nubia and Greece until the middle of the 5th century A.D. The temple was therefore, resited with the assistance of UNESCO. The colossal operation, began in 1972 was completed in 1980.
Medhat told us that when he was young and the Nile waters rose, the water would be up to the two pillars on the main facade. He has a photograph of his father floating in a rowing boat between the two pillars.

After leaving the Temple of Philae we visited a granite quarry to see the unfinished obelisk. The obelisk is 138 feet long, the cutting of it was stopped when a crack was discovered in the granite. Medhat drew an obelisk in the sand and showed us how they got the granite out. After marking out the shape, the stonecutter inserted into the slots wooden wedges which, when set, swelled and split the stone.

When the work was completed, the polished blocks were gently slid down sloping ramps to the river bank and the rising floodwater would then set them afloat. A few years ago, a sculptor attempted to detach a carved head of a pharaoh from a quarry using dolorite hammers, wooden wedges and flints - and he succeeded.
We then got into a felucca, the traditional Nile sailing boat. It was quiet and peaceful tacking backwards and forwards across the river until we arrived back at Nile Beauty. We watched the feluccas drifting by our cabin window as we cooled off after our afternoon exploring.

The next morning it was time to leave the Nile Beauty and move to terra firma and into The Old Cataract Hotel. The Old Cataract Hotel was made famous by Agatha Christie who stayed here and wrote 'Death on the Nile' while she was here. It is an old-style "Grand Hotel" of colonial vintage.

The following morning we took an early flight to Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel is the largest and most magnificent monument in Nubia. It presented a formidable challenge. Unlike other temples, Abu Simbel is not freestanding. The temple facade was, in fact, the cliff face itself, hewn in imitation of a pylon, dominated by four seated statues of "the four ages" of Ramses 11. The temple was then carved out of the sandstone bedrock behind it.

The temples are in pink sandstone and dedicated to Rameses 11 and Queen Nefertari. UNESCO mounted an intense publicity campaign to persuade the world's better off nations to participate in saving monuments that had been built by the pharaohs. Fourteen Nubian temples were dismantled in order to rebuild them away from the rising water and a large number of them are still waiting in crates for the funds needed to complete the operation. Abu Simbel stands today as a symbol of what can be achieved through international co-operation. The operation began in 1963 and was finally completed in 1947.

The two temples were erected by Ramses 11 of the X1X Dynasty (1290-1223 B.C.) They were hewn out of the pink sandstone cliffs on the west side of a bend in the Nile about 175 miles south of Aswan. The temples directly faced the rising sun, whose brilliant rays each day awoke the colossal statues of the Great Ramses.
Medhat showed us the pictures along the base of the balustrade. There are scenes showing, on the left hand side Africans kneeling before an offering table and on the other side, Asian prisoners. In a niche above the entrance stands a statue of the god Ra, the sun god.

Inside, the central hall is flanked by eight more statues of the king in a double row facing each other. The northern wall of the hall is decorated with a great battle scene, the great battle of Kadesh. This is one of the most detailed reliefs to be found in the Nile Valley. The entire wall, from ceiling to bedrock, is filled with activity; the march of the Egyptian army with its infantry and charioteers, in hand to hand combat, and the flight of the vanquished prisioners, leaving upturned chariots behind them. There are also scenes of camp life showing an inspection by officers.

We went into the sanctuary itself. This room contains seated statues of four gods. Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ramses and Ra-Harakhte the sun god. The amazing wonder of this sanctuary is that twice a year, 20th February and the 20th October the rays of the rising sun enter the door of the temple, through the central hall and strike firstly the figure on the right, then move on to the figure of Ramses and then briefly shine on the third figure. No less a wonder, perhaps, is that in carving out and dismantling this temple, then raising and reassembling it above the level of Lake Nasser, this precise alignment with the sun has been preserved. So was Ramses indeed a god after all - as he maintained? I think so.

The smaller temple of Queen Nefertari is dedicated to Hathor, goddess of happiness and love. Nefertari was the most beloved of the wives of Ramses. Inside, the temple is quite small. The hypostyle hall is formed by six Hathor-headed pillars bearing the face of the lovely goddess with cow's ears.

You would think that inside the temples it would be cool, but quite the contrary, it gets hotter and hotter the further in you go. We finished our visit to this amazing place by going up into the huge dome which supports the two temples, which is quite an engineering feat in itself.

I know it is quite expensive to take the flight to Abu Simbel, you cannot go by road at the moment as there are bandits attacking the tourist buses, but I would urge you to go. It is a marvelous site and of all the temples, I think, quite the most beautiful.

A visit not to be missed while staying at Aswan is a visit to the market at night. This is quite safe to do. Get a taxi, the doorman at the hotel will whistle one up for you, From the hotel to the market the cost is very cheap about $3, but agree a price before you get into the taxi. If there are four of you it makes the journey even cheaper. The taxi driver will offer to wait for you, take him up on the offer, it won't cost you any more and the fact that you got the taxi from your hotel means it is a genuine taxi service.

The market is the place to get your shopping. It will be cheaper here then anywhere else you have been. Hard bargaining is the order of the day in Egypt. Don't be embarrassed, it is a way of life in Africa to bargain. If you don't bargain you will pay up to 80% more than you should. I love bargaining and have great fun doing it. One trader told Ralph after I had got a good bargain "Your wife is a hard woman, I will give you 1500 camels for her". Ralph decided that 1500 camels would be more trouble than me! To give you an idea of prices I was bargaining for a statue of Horus, the starting price was 75 Egyptian pounds, after a lot of good natured bargaining I got it for 15 Egyptian pounds. As Ralph said as we walked away "Poor chap, he didn't stand a chance". Don't be afraid to walk away, they will follow you, they want the sale much more than you do!

The market is huge and it will take you at least a couple of hours to cover most of it. It is worth going there during the day as well, especially for photographic point fof view. This is not a market for tourists this is the market that the local people use. Spices are a very good buy here as is all cotton goods. Egyptian cotton is the best there is. If you are staying in Aswan for a couple of days you can have shirts or anything else made up to what you want overnight.

Both times we have stayed at Aswan we have been offered, by the taxi driver, a visit to a camel auction early in the morning. Sadly on both occasions we have not been able to for lack of time. Talking to people who have been it is a good trip and very interesting. Again, if you go, don't forget to agree the price with the taxi beforehand.

The next day we went on a trip to the Nubian Village. We caught a boat at the bottom of the steps of the hotel. Our first stop was at Kitchener Island. This is a botanic garden where all kinds of tropical Asian and African species grow together. This island was given to Lord Kitchener for his exploits in the Sudan. I was very hot here but quite pleasant under the shade of the trees.

Returning to our boat we had a very pleasant ride up river towards the dam. The boat was having to weave from side to side of the river due to the shallow waters. We sailed almost as far as the old dam where we landed to visit the Nubian village. We were welcomed and invited to wander in and out of one of the houses. You got the feeling of very friendly people who were always smiling. The rooms were about 12 feet by 10 feet and the family had very few possessions. They cooked by calor gas. We were then seated in one room where we were offered either hibiscus or mint tea. I tasted both of these and they both tasted like hot water! The very pretty girls then brought out some jewellery and things they had made for us to buy. I bought a black and gold necklace. There were also some brightly painted wooden dolls. These Nubian people had had to come and live here as their homes had been flooded by the rising waters of Lake Nasser.

On the way back to the hotel we saw lots of herons, some pied kingfishers and two Ospreys, there were a lot of other birds that I didn't know the names of. We were now sailing with the flow of the river and were very soon back at the Cataract Hotel.

The next morning we flew to Luxor and stayed overnight at the New Winter Palace Hotel. This hotel is in a good position for visiting places in and around Luxor and we would have like to stay here longer.

We flew back home the next day from Luxor. The departure lounge at Luxor is nothing like large enough for the volume of people that are now using it. So many people miss out Cairo and fly straight to Luxor now.

Egypt is a great holiday destination. The Egyptians have a great sense of fun and humour.And we have always enjoyed our visits here.

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