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The Temple of Hatshepsut and Other Wonders of the West Nile at Luxor


If you’ve never been to Egypt, it is a destination unlike any other. History and hospitality go hand in hand. In 2017 we were pleased to welcome Dale from The Maritime Explorer along for another one of our fantastic journies to Egypt. Kindly, Dale has shared his experience with us and this time is taking us to Luxor. Below is Dale’s experience, as originally told by him on his website


 

This will be my final post on the fantastic trip Alison and I took to Egypt last February with Canadian tour company Adventures Abroad. You can find another dozen on this website. The west bank of the Nile across from the city of Luxor contains perhaps the most important collection of monuments, temples and tombs in all of ancient Egypt. In a previous post I described our first crossing of the Nile to visit the legendary Valley Of The Kings and the most famous tomb in history – King Tutankhamun or King Tut. Today we are returning to visit a number of other important west Nile sites including the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, the Valley of the Queens and several others. Won’t you join us?

The Colossi of Memnon

After an early morning crossing of the Nile, we are met by our bus and head for the Valley of the Queens, but there will be several stops along the way. Our first stop is at one of the most famous monuments of ancient Egypt, the Colossi Of Memnon. These are two massive solitary statues of Amenhotep III, one of the greatest of all Egyptian kings, father of the heretic Akhenaten and grandfather of Tutankhamun. So why aren’t these statues referred to as the Colossi of Amenhotep? Good question. Memnon is a figure from the Iliad, a legendary Ethiopian king who came to fight with the Trojans and was ultimately slain by the even greater warrior Achilles. Early Greek tourists, and I do mean early, like around the year 300, had no clue about Amenhotep who by then had been dead for 1600 years. They did know about Memnon who was from Africa so they attributed the statues to him and the name stuck.

For centuries the statues were also famous because they ‘sang’. Early travellers reported hearing strange whistling noises coming from one of the statues after it was damaged by an earthquake. This lead to the statues becoming a place of pilgrimage until the Roman emperor Septimus Severus thoughtfully had the damaged statue repaired and it never sang again. Ever since I was a boy first reading about ancient Egypt I have wanted to see these statues and here we are.

Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon

As you can see they are in a pretty bad state of repair and kind of forlorn out here by themselves. That’s too bad because when they were built they stood at the entrance to a mortuary temple complex larger than Karnak including a huge man made lake. Now it’s pretty well all gone with only the two solitary guardians, sentinels of nothing. While Shelley’s poem Ozymandias was written about a giant fallen statue of Ramses II, which we saw in Memphis, the closing line could equally apply to the Colossi of Memnon – Round the decay of that colossal wreck , boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.

However, not all of the mortuary complex of Amenhotep III is lost as we discover a few miles down the road. Our Egyptian guide Ahmed Mohsin Hashem is also an Egyptologist who does regular field work in the summers when he is not guiding. He points out a team from an American university that is working at the mortuary complex. This provides valuable employment to Egyptians and a great summer job for budding archaeologists.

Current Excavations
Current Excavations at the Amenhotep III Mortuary Complex

The Temple of Madinat Habu

One of the things that  Ahmed is very good at is getting our group to places that are off the beaten tourist path, but very much worth seeing. He got us through a military check point at Dahshur and right up to the base of the beautiful Red Pyramid with the Bent Pyramid in the background. This morning he is taking us to the Temple Of Madinat Habu which he assures us will be virtually deserted and he’s absolutely correct. This is the mortuary complex of Ramses III another of the great Egyptian kings who successfully staved off three invasion attempts by outsiders during his extensive reign.

This aerial photograph shows just how extensive and well preserved the complex is. So why don’t most tour groups visit this place? I think the best answer is temple fatigue. The Luxor area has the temples of Karnak, Luxor and Hatshepsut not to mention the Valley of the Kings and Queens. In my experience, travellers with Adventures Abroad are usually quite knowledgable about the destinations they are visiting and have an appetite for visiting the lesser known attractions that is not diminished by long days and less than ideal road and restroom conditions. It also helps to have the enthusiasm and knowledge of Ahmed and our Canadian tour leader Martin Charlton as driving forces.

Aerial View of Madinat Habu
Aerial View of Madinat Habu

This the entrance pylon to the temple. Compared to the madness outside the Temple of Edfu this is tranquility.

At the Temple of Habu
At the Temple of Habu

One of the reasons Ahmed wanted us to visit this complex was because it is so well preserved and that is evident immediately upon passing into the inner courtyard. Note the rarely used square pillars in addition to the usual cylindrical shape.

Inner Court
Inner Court

This is Ramses III and one of his wives.

Ramses & his Wife
Ramses & his Wife

In areas where the light has not shone directly on the walls the painting is still vivid. This is Isis and Thoth.

Isis & Thoth
Isis & Thoth

This is a painted ceiling, still fresh after over 3,000 years.

Painted Ceiling
Painted Ceiling

Ahmed pointed out some features unique to buildings erected by Ramses III. These are deeply incised hieroglyphs that are only found during his reign.

Ramses III Incised Hieroglyphics
Ramses III Incised Hieroglyphics

I mentioned that Ramses III was involved in successfully repelling numerous invasions and at Madinat Habu he wanted to make sure everybody knew about it. One of the ways of letting him know just how many of the enemy had been slain was to cut off the hands of the defeated. Here the figure on the right is standing before a stack of severed hands.

Madinat Habu
Collecting the Hands

Ramses got to thinking about this hands business and realized that he could easily be duped about the numbers of enemies killed if both hands were severed and each pawned off as coming from a separate person. Hmm. What male body part could be cut off instead to avoid any doubt as to the number killed. You guessed it. This is a representation of a man, knife in hand, standing before what would be a huge number of severed penises. Gives me the willies just looking at it.

Collecting the Penises
Collecting the Penises

The Worker’s Village

Our next stop is also not on the usual tourist itinerary and offers a rare look into how the vast majority of ancient Egyptians lived out their lives in complete obscurity compared to the monuments left by the 1% or less. Somebody had to build these monuments and they had to have a place to come from and return to after every day’s labour. This is the Deir-El-Medina or worker’s village that is located about midway between the Madinat Habu and the Temple of Hatshepsut. It is where the artisans who worked on the temples and tombs lived there lives and miraculously it is reasonably well preserved.

Worker's City
Worker’s Village

Can you imagine the heat of the summer beating down on this barren and shadeless landscape?

Worker's Village 2
Worker’s Village 2

This was the community well from which all who lived here had to draw their water. Not quite as easy as just turning on a tap.

Worker's Well
Worker’s Well

The worker’s village lasted for a period of four hundred years and is unique in Egyptology as the only site of its type ever discovered and like Madinat Habu, it sees few visitors.

The Temple of Hathor

On the same site of the worker’s village, but not exactly contemporary with it is the Ptolemaic Temple Of Hathor which from the exterior looks kind of ordinary and uninviting. However, it would be a big mistake not to go in because it contains some very rare depictions of ancient Egyptian beliefs.

Worker's Temple of Hathor
Worker’s Temple of Hathor
Rare Judgment Tableau
Rare Judgment Tableau

The idea of judgment after death is an almost universal religious belief and one that the Egyptians held for thousands of years – still do for that matter.  This is a scene from the Book of the Dead depicting the final judgment of a dead person’s worthiness to be resurrected to a second life or be eaten by the devourer of the dead Ammit and extinguished from existence for all time. The dead person’s heart is placed on a scale, in this depiction held up by Horus. On the other side the cat goddess Ma’at places a feather. If the heart outweighed the feather then it was bye bye heart and soul, if not the person was worthy of a second life.  Heavy stuff.

Another rare depiction in ancient Egyptian art is this one of the god Min who is usually portrayed with a very obvious boner and a flail – the first  male dominatrix? Not surprisingly he was the god of fertility.

Amon of the Penis
Min

Valley of the Queens

Just a half kilometre away from Deir El-Medina in a narrow valley lies the entrance to the Valley of the Queens. Valley Of The Queens is a bit of a misnomer, because it is not exclusively women who are buried here, but it does contain the tombs of many of the most famous queens of ancient Egypt. It receives only a fraction of the visits than the much more famous Valley of the Kings which is too bad for those who don’t get here because it has very well preserved tombs including the one that many people think is the finest in Egypt.

Unlike the Valley of the Kings, visitors are allowed to take cameras inside the valley and can take photos of the exterior entrances.

Valley of the Queens
Valley of the Queens

As you can see the place is not exactly overrun with tourists. The square grilled boxes mark the opening to some of the ninety tombs that have been discovered here so far.

Valley of the Queens - Not Exactly Overrun
Valley of the Queens – Not Exactly Overrun

Other tombs that are cut directly into the valley walls are sealed off by wooden doors.

Typical Sealed Tomb Entrance
Typical Sealed Tomb Entrance

Like the Valley of the Kings a few tombs are open to the public each day. On our visit today it is that of Queen Titi (not to be confused with Nefertiti) which is not that inspiring. The other two are both princes and one has this fine painting of two Amuns facing east and west.

Two Amons in the Prince's Tomb
Two Amons in the Prince’s Tomb

However, the real reason to visit the Valley of the Queens in my opinion is to see the recently reopened tomb of Queen Nefertari, favourite wife of Ramses II. Closed for a restoration that took over twelve years, the tomb is considered the ultimately beautiful tomb in Egypt. There is only one catch – it costs $50 USD to see it and you can only stay for ten minutes. Only a few others in our group opted to make this $5 a minute expenditure, but for Alison and I it was a no brainer.

This is the modest looking entrance and I was obliged to leave my camera with Ahmed.

Entrance to Queen Nefertari's Tomb
Entrance to Queen Nefertari’s Tomb

Was it worth it? Every damn cent.

Here are pictures from a CD that Ahmed made available to us for a modest price, compiled by his friend Mohammed Fathy.

This is the entrance passage and the first thing you notice is that the walls are white. This is a style unique to this tomb and makes the paintings stand out like no other. Also notice the ceiling painted blue with stars.

Entrance to the Tomb of Nefertari
Entrance to the Tomb of Nefertari

Once you are inside the colour is breathtaking and unlike viewing say the Mona Lisa, you are not jostled or thronged by others. The only limitation is that darn ten minutes and once inside, for a little baksheesh, they would let you stay longer. However, I don’t promote breaking the rules and we dutifully exited on schedule.

Interior of Nefertari's Tomb
Interior of Nefertari’s Tomb

Here is more of what you’ll see on one of the most memorable ten minutes of your life.

Tomb of Nefertari
Tomb of Nefertari
Tomb of Nefertari
Tomb of Nefertari
The Tomb of Nefertari
The Tomb of Nefertari
Tomb of Nefertari
Tomb of Nefertari

There are lots more, but it’s time to visit what might be the most interesting site on the west bank, the Temple of Hatshepsut.

The Temple of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut is one the most colourful and controversial figures in ancient Egypt. She was the most successful woman to rule as king of Egypt, having transcended from a regent for Thutmose III to in effect a co-ruler until she died. Reigning as a king and depicting herself as a man she constructed one of the most beautiful and famous temples in all of the ancient world.  It was constructed as a mortuary where she could be worshipped after her death. Her actual tomb is in the Valley of the Kings. It is also the site of the most infamous terrorist attack on foreign tourists ever.

Ahmed has deliberately delayed our visit to the Temple of Hatshepsut until close to the end of the day to avoid the crowds that inevitably deluge the place. That strategy seems to have worked as the place is relatively quiet although nowhere near as much as most of the other places we’ve visited today.

Temple of Hatshepsut
Temple of Hatshepsut

The construction is a radical departure from the other temples we have visited in Egypt. There are three distinct levels which are reached via a gigantic staircase. From a distance it look like it is built right into the cliff face, but that is an illusion as there is a very large open space between the facade and the cliff. However, the chapels of Hathor and Anubis inside the inner temple do extend into the cliff.

Here’s Alison doing her best Hatshepsut imitation.

Alison as Hatshepsut
Alison as Hatshepsut

The most striking feature of the Temple of Hatshepsut for me was the colonnade of statues on the second level. Note that she is depicted as a man, fake beard and all. Traces of original paint remain on some of them.

Colonnade of Hatshepsuts
Colonnade of Hatshepsuts
Entrance to Inner Temple
Entrance to the Inner Temple

The restoration work inside is ongoing under the auspices of the Polish Academy of Sciences and there’s nothing overwhelming about the interior. The Temple of Hatshepsut is really mostly about its grand exterior which really has to be seen to be appreciated. It is truly one of a kind.

Head of Hatshepsut
Head of Hatshepsut

Looking down from the second level Ahmed points out the area where 70 people were massacred in a terrorist attack on November 18, 1997. One thing I appreciated about Ahmed was that he did not try to downplay or dismiss events that did not put Egypt in the best light. Since the attack security has been tightened to the point that future attacks of this magnitude are highly unlikely, but then again the purveyors of terror always seem to come up with new ways to make life miserable for the rest of us.

Site of 1997 Massacre
Site of 1997 Massacre

I don’t want to end this post on a down note so I will end by pointing out the cliffs which you can see from the temple where the actual mummies of over fifty Egyptian kings, including Ramses II, were discovered in a cave in 1881. They had been secreted from their tombs by priests concerned that they would be desecrated by tomb robbers and remained hidden for another 3,500 years.

Cliffs above the Temple
Cliffs above the Temple

We’ve packed an awful lot into this day and as noted this will be my last post on Egypt until I return when the new Egyptian Museum opens in Giza. I hope you have enjoyed them.

Ila al-liqaa.


 

Many thanks to Dale from The Maritime Explorer for sharing his experience with us. If you’d like to learn more about this tour and our tours to Egypt, click here.

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Luxor – The Quintessential Ancient Egyptian City

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Follow along with another installment on the Egyptian highlights as Dale from The Maritime Explorer recounts a recent tour of Egypt led by us.

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

In 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Egypt and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 

 


 

This is the first of several posts on the many world class ancient sites that make the city of Luxor a focal point of any trip to Egypt. While undoubtedly the pyramids and sphinx are at the top of most tourist’s Egyptian bucket list, the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon and the Temple of Luxor are not far behind. Please join me in exploring these and other lesser known wonders of the ancient world that are all in or close to the city of Luxor.

Alison and I arrived in Luxor after a three day Nile River cruise on the Radamis II departing from Aswan. You can read my two posts on this exciting journey Here and Here. We and fifteen other intrepid explorers were on a trip sponsored by Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad, with whom we have traveled many times. I use the word intrepid not because of any danger a trip to Egypt might pose, but more because of a false perception that most westerners have that it is in fact dangerous to go there. I hope in this and my other posts on Egypt to help in some small way to dispel that notion and convince people not to bypass one of the most fascinating and historically important places on earth.

After disembarking from the Radamis II we were transported a short distance along the corniche that runs parallel to the Nile to our hotel, passing the semi-submerged wreck of the Emely along the way.

Wreck of the Emely, Luxor
Wreck of the Emely

Our home for the next three nights was the Sonesta St. George Hotel which overlooks the Nile, although the room we were assigned did not have a Nile view. Still the St. George is a more than adequate hotel with decent food, a pool and its own landing area which we used more than a few times over the next two days.

Sonesta St. George Hotel, Luxor
Sonesta St. George Hotel

History of Luxor

Most scholars of Egyptian history will be familiar with the name Thebes, but not necessarily Luxor. Long before the name Luxor came into common use, well after Roman times, the city that was the capital of ancient Egypt for much of its most glorious dynastic period was known as Thebes, a Greek name shared with one of the most prominent cities of ancient Greece. To the Egyptians who made this the wealthiest city in Egypt and a place of pilgrimage to the great temples erected here, it was called Waset. The name Luxor, which definitely has a nice ring to it, is apparently a corruption of an Arabic word meaning ‘ fortress’. Whatever you call it, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that comprises the temples of Luxor and Karnak as well as numerous sites on the West Bank of the Nile, has often been referred to as the world’s greatest open air museum.

The modern city of Luxor which surrounds the ancient sites  has just over 450,000 inhabitants and along with Aswan, was a breath of fresh air after Cairo, Giza and even Alexandria. It has a great location alongside the Nile and there is a corniche that makes for a great area to stroll the river banks and watch the feluccas and motor craft that ply the waters under almost perpetual sunny skies. Although you will be petitioned by one caleche driver after enough during these strolls, they are not overly aggressive and don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of this fine city. We found the city quite safe to walk in as the traffic along the corniche is reasonably sane by Egyptian standards and the Luxorites actually do stop for red lights and pedestrians.

Luxor also has a souk, an Egyptian market or bazaar, that is interesting to visit and manageable in size compared to the larger centres. If you get tired of the vendors pleading with you to buy something, anything, you can always just take a seat at one of the many cafes and enjoy a cup of strong Egyptian coffee or perhaps mint tea.

The Souk at Luxor
Luxor Souk

A number of people on the trip had been asking about reputable places to buy Egyptian jewelry and in particular modern cartouches.  These are oval shaped pendants upon which a person’s name can be written in hieroglyphs and are considered good luck charms by many. Here’s an example.

Modern Cartouche
Modern Cartouche

Our inestimable Egyptian guide Ahmed Mohsin Hashem had advised people to wait until we got to Luxor where he said there were many fine craftsmen who specialized in making cartouches. Several members of our group took him up on this and ordered cartouches which Ahmed then picked up the next day. All were pleased with the quality of what they received and the price that Ahmed had helped them to negotiate. Frankly, I regret that we didn’t take him up on his offer. While I don’t personally wear jewelry I know my youngest son who shares the same name as me, would have been delighted to get a cartouche with his name on it in hieroglyphs.

The Temple of Luxor

Luxor has two of the arguably most important and impressive temples in all of the ancient world – the Temple of Luxor and Karnak, both of which I’d first read about over fifty years before when I decided by age ten that I wanted to be an archaeologist. That didn’t happen, but my desire to visit these shrines of antiquity did not diminish. Writing this now, home in Canada, I look back on the visit to the Temple of Luxor as one of the absolute highlights of a trip that had almost too many to count. I know exactly the reason the Temple of Luxor was so outstanding – we visited it at night when it was backlit in a manner that made the place seemingly magical.

The Temple of Luxor was built and added onto over a period of three hundred years between 1500 and 1200 B.C. with Amenhotep III and the long reigned egomaniac Ramses II as the principal builders.  There was also a little help from Tutankhamun – the only place where you will find anything attributed to this boy king who is much more famous for being dead than alive. The tinkering even lasted up to the time of another great egomaniac, Alexander the Great. The temple was dedicated to the ka of the Egyptian kings, a concept difficult to define in modern terms, but perhaps closest to our concept of a soul that lives outside the body and survives death. It was also the site of the annual Opet Festival wherein the god Amun along with his wife Mut and son Khons would make the journey from their home in the great temple of Karnak three kilometres away to the Temple of Luxor. Of course, the procession was ritualistic only with priests carrying statues of the gods from one temple to the other, but it is was the direct forerunner of similar rituals today in almost all religions where statues of gods, saints and holymen are carried through throngs of believers on certain pre-ordained festival days.

At one time there was a sacred way running directly between the two great temples lined with sphinxes the entire way. Much of it still remains today and the Egyptian government has plans to restore the entirety of the route over time. Ironically one of the biggest obstacles is a Coptic church which sits smack dab in the middle of the route and for which the Christians have showed very little appetite for relocating so that this ‘pagan’ roadway can be revived. Luxor has a large Christian community and despite what you might think, they do have rights and privileges that are respected by the Muslim majority.

The bus pulls up to the large parking lot which is mostly empty and we get out at the sphinx-lined entry way. I cannot describe the power of the imagery of the those sphinxes or the entrance pylons with the huge statues of Ramses II flanking the entryway. I’m going to let my camera do the talking and just say this – the Temple of Luxor at night is one of the most beautiful, mysterious and enchanting places I’ve ever seen.

Sphinx Road, Luxor
Sphinx Road
Sphinx Road
Sphinx Road
Sphinx Road Detail, Luxor
Sphinx Road Detail

The sphinx road ends at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor. Despite the fact that there was restoration work taking place on the right pylon it detracted very little from the sheer power of the overall scene.

Temple of Luxor at Night
Temple of Luxor at Night

Luxor was the city with the most obelisks in Egypt and the source of many of the ones removed to places around the world. At one time there were two obelisks at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor, but Napoleon decided Paris needed an obelisk more than Luxor and you can now see the second one at the Place de la Concorde.

Entrance to Temple of Luxor
Entrance to Temple of Luxor

Ahmed gives us a rundown on the history of the temple and then we are left to explore on our own for over an hour and what an hour it was. I think these may be the best photographs I took on the entire trip, except for this one. Notice the mysterious shadow on Ramses’ hands that makes it appear as if he is holding something. I didn’t notice this until I printed off the picture.

With Ramses II in Luxor Temple
With Ramses II in Luxor Temple

The columns and pillars of Luxor temple are among the largest and most magisterial in the world – a photographer’s dream.

Luxor Pillars
Luxor Pillars

Notice my favourite hieroglyph, the bee, high on the right hand column.

Luxor Pillars
Luxor Pillars
Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple

Looks like the religious vandals have been to work on the Ramses statues. Sorry zealots, but you cannot ruin the majesty of this place with a few hammers and chisels.

Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor

The pillars look great in black and white as well as colour.

Luxor Pillars
Luxor Pillars

This is Ramses II with his favourite consort Nefertari.

Ramses II & Nefertari, Luxor Temple
Ramses II & Nefertari

Luxor Temple has some excellently preserved hieroglyphs and carvings of which this is but one example. You could spend hours just looking at the details of these symbols, entranced by the ancient messages they were intended to convey.

Luxor Hieroglyphics
Luxor Hieroglyphics

Overt sexual imagery is very rare in Egyptian art, but this is one of the exceptions. The guy with the giant erection is the god Amun who, at the time the Temple of Luxor was being built had been elevated to the station of chief god of Egypt, a forerunner of Zeus and Jupiter. Often called Amun-Ra or when I was a kid, just Ra, he was often depicted as a ram and thus the association with male sexuality and its real purpose, fertility. Everything in ancient Egypt, whether it be the annual flooding of the Nile or the spring birthing of sheep, goats and cows ultimately came down to fertility and if you could deliver that you deserved to be king of all gods.

Amon of the Giant Penis
Amun of the Giant Penis

I took many pictures of Ramses II throughout Egypt, but this is my favourite – he has a confident half-smile that seems to intimate that he knows just how great he is and how little anything else in the world matters.

Head of Ramses II, Luxor
Head of Ramses II

There is an ancient mosque built inside the Temple of Luxor which is interesting only for the fact that when it was built the sand had covered the ancient temple to a level twenty feet higher than today. From this picture, you can see what was the original entrance now stranded well above street level after the sand was removed to reveal the remains of the original temple.

Line Showing Where Sand was when the Mosque was built
Line Showing Where Sand was when the Mosque was built

That concludes my visit to the wonderful Temple of Luxor. On my next post I’ll visit the Temple of Karnak and the underrated Luxor Museum. I hope you’ll join me.


Many thanks to Dale from The Maritime Explorer for sharing his experience with us. 

If you’d like to learn more about our itineraries and tours to Egypt, click here

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Aswan – Much More Than Just The High Dam – Part II

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A photo essay by Dale of the Maritime Explorer on his recent journey with us to Egypt.

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

n 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Lake Nakuru in Kenya and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 


This is the second of two posts on the many interesting things you can see and do in and around the small Egyptian city of Aswan. In the First Post I discussed the best ways to get to Aswan, recommended a great hotel, provided links to my posts on Abu Simbel and the Philae Temples and toured the wonderful Nubian Museum. In this post we’ll continue exploring Aswan with Martin Charlton, our tour leader from Canadian tour provider Adventures Abroad and our great Egyptian guide Ahmed Hassem. Won’t you join us?

Kitchener Island – Aswan Botanical Gardens

One of the great things about traveling around Aswan is that you get to spend a lot of time on the Nile River. Our first stop today is Kitchener Island which is home to the Aswan Botanical Garden. For ease of getting from place to place on the water it is easier to use the services of a motorized boatman than a felucca which is more for just cruising on the Nile and taking in the sights from the water. The boatmen decorate their boats with various themes, whether it be soccer clubs, famous Nubians or in the case of the guy Ahmed has lined up, Rastafarian.

Rastafarian Boatman
Rastafarian Boatman?

Through Ahmed, I get him to ask the boatman if he is a Rastafarian, which is more associated with Christianity, albeit in a strange way, than Islam. The answer, with a laugh, is  “No, I just like Bob Marley.”

It’s a beautiful morning on the Nile and although a bit chilly by Egyptian standards, we still enjoy the sun. That’s Ahmed with one of our number and a crew member. Every boat seems to have a least one helper.

On the Nile with Ahmed
On the Nile with Ahmed

Along the way we get a very clear view of the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan high on an escarpment overlooking the river. It’s marble exterior fairly glows in the morning sunlight that bathes it from the east.

Mausoleum of Aga Khan, Aswan
Mausoleum of Aga Khan

This is actually the tomb of Sultan Muhammed Shah or Aga Khan III, 1877-1957, a colossally important figure in late 19th and 20th century affairs of India, Pakistan and Shia Muslims worldwide. The Aga Khan is the spiritual head of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam. This particular Aga Khan was western educated, as is his successor, and was always a voice of moderation that brought him great respect not only among Muslims, but among all nations. At one time he was even the head of the League of Nations. The reason the Aga Khan’s tomb is in Aswan and not his native Pakistan is that he loved this area and had one of his homes not far from the site of the mausoleum. It is not open to the public, but still a very interesting sight from the Nile.

There are places you can visit on the western side of the Nile at Aswan, which has its own mini version of the Valley of the Kings with tombs ranging from the Old Kingdom to the Roman era. In fact, they are still discovering new tombs as recently as this month (June 2017) as evidenced by this Article. From our boat we could see parties ascending the paths up to the tombs which, like the Valley of the Kings, are cut into the rock faces of the cliff. The building on top is another Shia mausoleum dating from a much earlier time than the Aga Khan’s.

Shia Mausoleum & Pharaonic Tombs, Aswan
Shia Mausoleum & Pharaonic Tombs

The boat docks at Kitchener Island which was once the sole property of the great British military man, Lord Kitchener who was proconsul of Egypt and Sudan from 1911 until the outbreak of WWI, when he was convinced to become the Secretary of State for War. He decided to turn what would have been a dry and arid place into a botanical garden that has become an oasis of green that is a favourite destinations for locals and tourists alike.

This is Alison at the entrance to the Aswan Botanical Gardens.

Aswan Botanical Garden
Aswan Botanical Garden

As botanical gardens go, Aswan is not going to make anybody’s world top ten list, but it is a place of tranquility and in a country that jams 90 million people into a sliver of land along one river, a place to get away from the crowds. There was no question that this was a popular spot for both families and young lovers, albeit you would never see the open displays of affection (sometimes too open) that you might see in a western park. After strolling around both sides of the island we rejoined the group at a small outdoor cafe where I had an excellent Turkish coffee in this lovely Egyptian motifed demi-tasse. If I wasn’t fully awake before I drank it, I sure was after.

Aswan Botanical Garden Coffee
Turkish Coffee, Aswan Botanical Garden

The Nubian Village

After reboarding our Bob Marley boat, we headed upstream passing numerous islands on our way until we made our way onto a fairly crowded landing quay on the west side of the Nile. Our destination was the ‘Nubian Village’ where we would purportedly get to meet ‘real’ Nubians going about their daily business. I am always leery of these type of cultural encounters. Is it a legitimate experience or one just cooked up for tourists? Are we exploiting these people or maybe, are they exploiting us, by putting on what really is just a show? The saving grace was that I knew from previous experience that Adventures Abroad doesn’t go in for this type of thing and that turned out to be the case.

On the way to the village proper we passed a number of structures which Ahmed explained are typical examples of Nubian homes. They reminded me of the tiny Greek Orthodox churches you’ll find in the most remote places of Greece and occasionally Turkey. Built to withstand the unremitting heat of the Sahara, they have remained largely unchanged in design for thousands of years. Note that there is no electricity or water. One of the legitimate complaints of the Nubians displaced by the creation of Lake Nasser was the failure, even after almost fifty years, to provide them with the most basic services which most Egyptians take for granted. That being said, most of the homes in the village proper did have electricity and water.

Typical Nubian Home, Aswan
Typical Nubian Home

Our first stop was not in the ‘typical Nubian home’ I was expecting, but rather at the tiny schoolhouse where we had a chance to meet the village teacher, Omar. We were given a lesson in the Nubian alphabet by Omar, who made it clear that failure to pay attention would be addressed by way of martial punishment. That’s Ahmed doubling as the slow learner.

Mr. Omar, Nubian Teacher
Mr. Omar, Nubian Teacher

I always have my doubts about giving to charities that purport to help educate children in third world countries, but everyone in the group was happy to make a contribution for school supplies in this impoverished community.

Having traveled on many continents and in dozens of countries of various degrees of prosperity I have found that they all have one thing universally in common – kids and dogs.  By that I mean that no matter what their situation, children and dogs are almost always happy, especially when together; blissfully unaware that life is not eternal and that things are probably only going to get worse when they become aware of that fact. Luckily for the dogs, they never do. This place was no different.

Nubian Kids, Nubian Village Aswan
Nubian Kids & Dogs

The interior of the Nubian home we were invited into surprised me. There was clearly some kind of extended family meeting going on in the large common room, but they largely ignored us as we poked our way into their daily lives. This was the kitchen where tea was being prepared for family and guests.

Nubian Kitchen
Nubian Kitchen

Back on the streets of the village we made our way back to the boat passing this spice and craft shop along the way, which took the meaning of ‘local colour’ to a whole new level.

Spice shop, Nubian Village, Aswan
Spice shop, Nubian Village

The Unfinished Obelisk

In ancient times Aswan was known not only as the last stop on the way to Nubia, but also as home of great granite quarries where the famed obelisks of Egypt were created before being barged up the Nile to Luxor and beyond. The Obelisk is second only to the pyramid as a shape or form unmistakably associated with Egypt. Predating the first pyramid by centuries, the obelisk represented the beginning of all life. It is such an enduring symbol that the obelisks erected throughout Egypt became the objects of thievery as long ago as the Roman Empire. Anyone who has been to Rome, Paris, London, Istanbul or even New York will be familiar with Egyptian obelisks that have been raised in those cities after being removed from their ancestral homes in Egypt. Before departing on this trip I made a point of visiting the amazing Egypt gallery of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and then going out back to take this picture of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ in Central Park. Of course it predates Cleopatra’s reign by at least a thousand years, but what’s in a name?

Cleopatra's Needle
Cleopatra’s Needle

The largest obelisk to ever be sculpted/constructed/quarried (nobody is entirely sure how they were made) sits unraised in a quarry right in the middle of Aswan. It was commissioned by Hatshepsut for the temple in Karnak, but cracked when it was almost finished. I can’t imagine the hair pulling that would have occurred after the incredible amount of time and effort to get the thing as far as advanced as it was and then …, just crack. Anyway, the sands of time have not covered it over and it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Aswan today. Have a look.

Unfinished Obelisk, Aswan
Unfinished Obelisk
Unfinished Obelisk
Unfinished Obelisk

A visit to the quarry isn’t limited to seeing one of the most colossal failures in the ancient world, but also to see the many spots where obelisks were successfully created and removed. It’s kind of too bad that the place is more noted for it’s one big flop, than it’s many successes.

The obelisk remains a captivating symbol right up to modern times, none more famous than the Washington Monument, but it was really quite something to stand on the very spot where this mania started, perhaps as long as 5,000 years ago.

The Aswan High Dam

Of all the sites associated with modern day Aswan, without doubt the one most known around the world is the High Dam, built by the Russians and finished in 1970. In contrast to the usual saying, I have saved the least for last. Of all the places we visited in Aswan I found the High Dam the least inspiring and not because of the controversies surrounding it’s creation or because I’m one of those who oppose building dams on principle. After all, I’m a Canadian and one of national symbols is the beaver so how could I not like dams? In their way, some dams, like Hoover, are wonders of engineering and architecture that rise to the the status of national icons. But not, at least for me, the Aswan High Dam. To me it came across more as the Lada of dams and not just because both were built by Russians. Here is an aerial view.

Aswan High Dam
Aswan High Dam

What they did was simply pile up millions of tons of rock and put a concrete cap on it. There is no sense of height that you get looking over the steep side at Hoover or many of the European dams like Almendra in Spain. Still, it is interesting for it’s views from both sides.

I have not adjusted the colour in this photo. The Nile really is that blue just below the dam. All of the sediment that would have made it a cloudy brown is now piling up in Lake Nasser.

Below the High Dam, Aswan
Below the High Dam

I almost forgot to mention something that you can hardly miss on a visit to the High Dam. This is the Monument to Friendship constructed in the Brutalist architectural style the Russians loved during the 1950’s  and 60’s. And yes, it is brutal.

Russian Monument to Friendship, Aswan
Russian Monument to Friendship

So that’s my take on the many reasons for including Aswan on your must-visit list of places in Egypt. Next I’m off on a Nile cruise from Aswan up to Luxor. Hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Ila-liqaa from Aswan.

At the Aswan High Dam
At the Aswan High Dam


For more on Dale’s travels to Egypt as well as his other globe-trotting tales – be sure to visit themaritimeexplorer.ca. 
Thank you so much for sharing with us Dale! Looking forward to touring with you again! 
Egypt group tour

Aswan – There’s a Lot More to See Than Just the High Dam – Part I

 

Egypt group tour

 

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

In 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Egypt and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 

 


 

Alison and I recently spent several weeks in Egypt on a tour arranged by the Canadian company Adventures Abroad with which we have traveled on numerous occasions and never been disappointed. Every trip has its expected highlights and in Egypt they were many – the Pyramids & Sphinx, Abu Simbel, the Temple of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings to name just a few. But just as predictably there will be unexpected surprises; places you didn’t really have on your radar before the trip began. On this trip it was the small city of Aswan and the very many interesting historical, cultural and natural things to do there and in the immediate area. There was lot more to Aswan than just the famous High Dam. Won’t you join me as I give you plenty of good   reasons to visit Aswan.

Getting to Aswan

Here is a map of Egypt. You can see Aswan at the bottom, the last major settlement in the country (or the first if you are coming from Sudan). Below it is massive Lake Nasser, created by the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1970’s; probably the thing that most people most associate with the city.

Map of Egypt
Map of Egypt

The other thing you can see from the map is that Aswan has an airport. For a country of over 90 million people, Egypt has very few domestic airports and Egyptair, the national carrier, only has about six or seven destinations it flies to within the country. Because it has an airport, the majority of tourists arrive by air, but if you are feeling adventuresome and time is not an issue, you can take the Overnight Sleeper Train from Cairo. I love trains and may return to Egypt one day just to experience the Nile countryside from the perspective of a passing train.

However, the flight from Cairo to Aswan also offered some very interesting views of the Nile as it snaked its way north toward the Mediterranean. From 25,000 feet you can really grasp that the Nile is the Egyptian lifeline and that only a few miles from its banks on either side, there is nothing but desert.

The Nile from the Air
The Nile from the Air
The Nile from the Air 2
The Nile from the Air 2

Landing at the small airport, I noted that there were only a few flights a day in and out and the place was pretty well deserted except for those who had just deplaned. There was a small duty free shop and despite technically not departing on an international flight, with a little wheedling and some pleading the genial fellow behind the cash register let me buy a bottle of gin. Other than at the tourist hotels, it is virtually impossible to buy liquor in Egypt so I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slide.

A bus was waiting for our group and we headed for our hotel. Along the way the road passed over the top of the Low Dam, which I didn’t even know existed. After coming from Cairo and Giza, Aswan was a real delight in terms of the lack of traffic and a much more laid back atmosphere. Also it seemed a lot cleaner and the people less frenetic than those in the metropolis of Cairo/Giza. The Nile was constantly in view, alive with feluccas and the covered motorboats that are used to get people back on forth from the many islands that dot the Nile around Aswan, as well as to the other side. Just looking out the window of the bus I definitely got the feeling that I was in an exotic, but not dangerous, place.

Felucca in Full Sail, Aswan
Felucca in Full Sail

Aswan, the City

By Egyptian standards, Aswan is a small city with just under 300,000 residents. It is the administrative capital of  the Aswan Governate which has a population of 1.4 million of whom over 800,000 live in rural areas along the Nile. The city’s roots go far back into antiquity, at least 4,000 years. It once was the gateway to the almost mystical land of Nubia where products like gold, ivory and incense were exchanged for cloth, grain, beer and other manufactured goods, the luxe goods going north and the practical stuff going south. The Nubians still exist as a distinct group within Egypt today, with their own language, customs and architectural building style. Unfortunately for them, most of their traditional lands were lost with the creation of Lake Nasser, their villages along the Nile inundated by the rising waters. Many were forcibly relocated, their lands confiscated without compensation. Fifty years on, the issue of Compensation in land and/or money remains a hot topic in Egypt with the prospects for the Nubians getting something at long last seemingly better than ever.

Even though Aswan has an almost unbroken line of history for four millennia, it is actually quite a modern city with most of the buildings dating from the 20th century. It’s quite safe to walk around in and very pleasant along the main thoroughfare, the Kornish Al Nile, with lovely views of Elephantine Island from the promenade that borders it.

Ok, I’ve set the table and now I’ll tell you about the things that made Aswan a special place for me.

The Mövenpick Resort Aswan

A hotel? Really? Absolutely.

Movenpick Hotel, Aswan
Movenpick Hotel

One of the upsides to the collapse of the western tourist market is that the prices for luxury hotels have come down dramatically. The few westerners who do go will get a lot more bang for their buck and that includes tour providers like Adventures Abroad who have taken advantage of the availability of places like the Mövenpick that previously only catered to the most upscale of tour groups. Even though the vacancy rates are quite high, chains like Mövenpick, which is Swiss, are expected to maintain the same standards in Aswan as they would in say Geneva.

The Mövenpick Resort is on Elephantine Island, which lies 150 metres (200 yards) off the Kornish and can only be reached by boat. The hotel operates its own boat service and our boat was dutifully waiting for us at the ferry landing when our bus from the airport pulled up. This was actually the first time (of many to come) that we actually got onto the Nile River and it was surprisingly exhilarating. Although you would never drink the water, it was not foul smelling and in fact quite refreshing with a steady breeze blowing that propelled the many feluccas zipping this way and that among the many islands of the Aswan archipelago.

As you can see from the picture above, the Mövenpick is a pretty interesting looking hotel given it’s location. The builders clearly wanted to take full advantage of the Nile views that can be seen from every room in the hotel. After landing we walked the short distance to the hotel lobby, although we could have taken a golf cart if we wanted to. Someday I might need one to go 100 yards, but thankfully not yet.

The lobby of the Movenpick is quite spectacular with high, high ceilings seemingly held up by faux palm trees that are works of art in themselves – I know it sounds like I’m getting carried away, but I really was impressed  with this lobby.

Faux Palm Trees in Lobby
Faux Palm Trees in Lobby

However, it is really the view from the rooms that make the place. Every room has a good sized balcony which either faces the city of Aswan or, as in ours, the western side of the Nile where you can see a combination of pharaonic tombs and more modern Shia tombs. This is room 1106.

Room 1106
Room 1106

This is the balcony.

Balcony, Room 1106
Balcony, Room 1106

And this is the view. Pretty amazing – 4,000 years of Egyptian history just across the river.

View from Room 1106
View from Room 1106

It didn’t take long to put the gin to good use as I sipped a g&t and watched life on the Nile, the same way Lord Kitchener might have when he was Consul-General of Egypt over 120 years ago.

OK, we’ve got a great place to stay, what next?

The Philae Temples

Without doubt the top attractions in the immediate Aswan area are the Philae Temples on tiny Agilkia island located between the Aswan Low Dam and the Aswan High Dam. They are important enough that I have written an entire post on them which you can read Here.

Philae Temples - Temple of Isis from the Nile
Temple of Isis From the Water

The Gateway to Abu Simbel

The great temples of Ramses II and his favourite wife, Nefertari at Abu Simbel are, in my opinion, after the Pyramids, the most mesmerizing of all the amazing sites you can visit in Egypt. They are extremely remote and most people take a day trip from Aswan, (actually it starts in the middle of the night) which is how Adventures Abroad got us there. I have also written a separate post on that wonderful experience which you can read Here.

Abu Simbel Photo
Abu Simbel

So after you’ve visited the Philae Temples and Abu Simbel what else is there to do in Aswan? Plenty.

The Nubian Museum

Acknowledging that Lake Nasser was going to destroy hundreds of thousands of artifacts, UNESCO, which oversaw the removal of the Abu Simbel and Philae Temples to higher ground, decided to save as many as possible and house them in a museum in Aswan. Opened in 1997, the Nubian Museum is one of the finest small archaeological museums you will find anywhere. We had a free morning, took the Mövenpick boat over to Aswan and had a very enjoyable fifteen minute walk along the Kornishe to the museum. Along the way we passed two of the more modern Aswan monuments.

This is the Old Cataract Hotel as seen from the water. Operated by Sofitel, it is one of those legendary Victorian era hotels where anyone who was anybody has stayed on a visit to Aswan.

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan
Old Cataract Hotel

This is Archangel Michael’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, seemingly larger than any mosque we saw in Aswan. The Copts number in the many millions in Egypt and have gone through varying degrees of discrimination at the hands of the Muslim majority. Recently there have been bombings of Coptic churches in Cairo and Alexandria, but in Aswan it appears that the relationship is closer to one of mutual respect than outright antagonism. As we passed the cathedral on the way to the museum we saw many Coptic women dressed in traditional garments that were not that different than the hijabs worn by many Muslim women.

Coptic Cathedral, Aswan
Coptic Cathedral, Aswan

From the outside the museum is quite striking, mirroring traditional Nubian architecture and surrounded on all sides with gardens and fountains.

Nubian Museum, Aswan
Nubian Museum

Inside the museum is spacious, low lit and laid out in a manner that takes you from the earliest Nubian cultures right up to the present day. Here are a few of the highlights.

This is a burial that goes back to the earliest period of Egyptian civilization – 3,500 B.C., well before mummification began.

Grave dating to 3500 B.C., Nubian Museum, aswan
Grave dating to 3500 B.C.

The most sacred part of every Egyptian temple was the Holy of Holies where statues of the gods for whom the temple was built, were kept. They were usually in a small flame lit room at the very back of the temple and the Egyptians really believed that the gods actually resided in the temple – kind of an ancient precursor to the modern saying, “If you build it, they will come.” Very few of these Holy of Holies have survived and this is what is left of one from a now flooded temple in Nubia. They were likely defaced by the same Christians who now complain of discrimination in modern Egypt.

Holy of Holies
Holy of Holies

This is a mummified ram with a real golden fleece, at least in part.

Mummified Ram, Nubian Museum, Aswan
Mummified Ram
Khnum
Khnum

Khnum was the ram headed god thought to be responsible for the source of the Nile River and he was a big deal in Aswan. His main temple was on Elephantine Island, where the Mövenpick is located, but very little of it remains today and it’s not on most tourism itineraries. That’s the Old Cataract Hotel in the background.

Temple of Khnum
Temple of Khnum

There is a small collection of sarcophagi in the Nubian Museum of which this is the best example. The paint is still vibrant after over 3,000 years.

Mummy of Unknown Priest, Nubian Museum, Aswan
Sarcophagus of An Unknown Priest

No self-respecting Egyptology museum would be complete without at least one statue of Ramses II and the Nubian Museum is no exception.

Ramses II - Who Else?
Ramses II – Who Else?

Among the most impressive displays are these two horses that were found inside a tomb. I guess the person buried with them wanted to have ready transportation awaiting him on the day he was reborn.

Horses Buried in a Tomb
Horses Buried in a Tomb

The Nubian Museum also tells the story of the removal and replacement of the temples of Ramses II and his queen Nefertari at Abu Simbel. Here is a chart showing the flags of all the countries that participated, including Canada’s.

Countries that Contributed to Abu Simbel Relocation
Countries that Contributed to the Abu Simbel Relocation

The final section of the museum is dedicated to life in modern Nubia. I particularly liked this diorama of a Nubian classroom. Notice the colourful head caps worn by the boys. These are very common in Aswan and make for one of better souvenirs you can pick up in the area. They are the real deal as opposed to the ersatz crap being sold at most tourist sites.

Diorama of Nubian School
Diorama of Nubian School

On the way back to the Kornishe from the museum we were followed by a group of young boys between six and ten. They were trying to sell us some god awful beads and when that didn’t work they appeared to break out in a spontaneous rendition of Frere Jacques followed by other well known children’s songs. The only problem was that we had heard these same songs, in the same order, at least twice before in different cities, so it was anything but spontaneous. Lurking somewhere probably nearby would be an Egyptian version of Fagan, damning these little kids to a life of deceit and poverty.

I have not come to the end of the reasons for visiting Aswan, but this post is long enough already and I’ll finish it off in Part II.


For more on Dale’s travels to Egypt as well as his other globe-trotting tales – be sure to visit themaritimeexplorer.ca. 
Thank you so much for sharing with us Dale! Looking forward to touring with you again! 
Egypt Tour

Philae Temples – Eight Reasons You Must Visit on Your Trip to Egypt

Egypt Tour

Follow along with another installment on the Egyptian highlights as Dale from The Maritime Explorer recounts a recent tour of Egypt led by us.

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

In 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Egypt and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 


Earlier this year Alison and I had the good fortune to travel to Egypt with Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad, fulfilling a lifelong dream for both of us. Thanks to veteran tour leader Martin Charlton and our Egyptian guide Ahmed Mohsin Hashem, our small group had an incredibly diverse experience that included not only the archaeological highlights of Egypt, but the cultural and gastronomic side of Egyptian society as well. So far I’ve written posts on Abu Simbel and the fabulous Mena House Hotel where we stayed before joining the tour (although we did have lunch there with the group on the day we visited the Pyramids). I also provided some useful tips on getting the most out of A Visit To The Pyramids And Sphinx. This post is about the Philae Temples complex just south of Aswan and after reading it I hope to have convinced you that it is a must see destination in Egypt.

What are the Philae Temples?

Philae (pronounced fy-lee), despite appearing to be Greek, is apparently a corruption of the Egyptian word pilak and is the name given to an island in the Nile that lies between the two dams at Aswan. Before coming to Aswan I had no idea that there are actually two dams here and not just the famous one built by the Russians in the 1970’s. The fact is between 1898 and 1902 the British built what was then the Largest Dam Ever Built at the site of the First Cataract of the Nile. If you look at this map you can see a road crossing the Nile at the top of the map. That is the old or low dam. Behind the dam is the island of Philae.

Philae has been a site of ancient veneration for thousands of years, associated with both Osiris and his sister/wife Isis. Some priests claimed that not only was Philae the burial place of Osiris. but also the first piece of land on earth. Despite the oxymoronic implications of a dead god, Philae became a place of worship and pilgrimage and by the time the Romans arrived in Egypt it was all but covered in temples.

Philae Temples on Philae
Philae Temples on Philae

The building of the low dam resulted in semi-annual flooding that partially covered what remained of the temples for months of the year. Appreciating the damage this would do to the Philae Temples, the British did do enough underpinning to ensure that they did not get eroded away by the constant rise and fall of the Nile waters. What they couldn’t stop was the washing away of what were apparently among the brightest and best preserved of all Egytian temple paintings.

This is a recurring theme with the Philae Temples. Over hundreds of years, ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans strove to build mighty edifices to the gods they believed to be real. Over thousands more, forces of nature, religious fanaticism and the ‘march of progress’ allied themselves against the buildings and brought about their near destruction. Fortunately for future generations, there appears to be a truce and the Philae Temples, or what remains of them, are safe for the time being. Here’s how that came about.

If you look at the map again you will see a second line crossing the Nile near the bottom – that is the Aswan High Dam.  Its builders were aware that when it was completed and Lake Nasser filled up behind it that when those water were released downstream, that would be the end of the Philae Temples, unless they were moved to high ground. And thanks to UNESCO and the efforts of many nations, they mostly were.

Below the Aswan High Dam
Below the Aswan High Dam

The Temple of Isis and the Kiosk of Trajan were taken apart block by block and moved to higher ground on the much smaller Agilikia Island which is where we are headed shortly.

So that’s the background of the Philae Temples and here are the reasons why you will want to be sure to visit them.

The Philae Temples Can Only Be Reached By Boat

During our trip to Egypt we spent a lot of time on the Nile and whether it be on a Nile cruise, on a felucca or simply on a small motor cruiser we enjoyed every minute of it. To get to Agilikia Island you get on a small covered boat with a usually very tiny outboard and motor up the river to the landing in a leisurely fashion that allows for sightseeing along the way.

Typical Nile Riverboat
On the Way to the Philae Temples
On the Boat to the Philae Temples
On the Boat to the Philae Temples

As you approach the island you past directly by the Temple of Isis which looks amazing from the water. You can clearly see the two sets of pylons that mark the entrance to the outer and inner portions of the temple. I must say that, for me, this was one of the highlights of the entire trip. It was the first relatively intact Egyptian temple we visited and just the sight of it set against the clear blue sky got my heart racing. I had to pinch myself and think, “Yes, you are really on the Nile River looking at the Temple of Isis at Philae and soon you’ll be in it.”

Philae Temples - Temple of Isis from the Nile
Temple of Isis From the Water

The Philae Temples are not Overrun by Aggressive Hawkers

One of the banes of visiting famous Egyptian monuments is running the gauntlet of aggressive vendors, hawkers, grifters, faux guides and outright lying charlatans that bedevil every place you might want to see. They are here at the Philae Temples, but not nearly in the numbers you’ll find at most other places. Also, they are mostly confined to the landing area and you can tour the complex with or without a guide, in relative peace.

The Philae Temples are not Overrun with Other Tourists

You would think that the almost complete collapse of the North American and European market for Egypt would mean that places like the Pyramids or the Temple of Luxor would be less crowded. Not so. The Asian market has exploded in recent years and has largely made up for the loss of western visitors. Also remember that Egypt has over 90 million souls and most can’t afford to vacation outside their country so they visit places within Egypt. The bottom line is that you have to be prepared to share your Egyptian experiences with a lot of other people, but not always. The Philae Temples, probably due to their relatively remote location, are one of the exceptions.

This is not exactly a huge crowd.

Temple of Isis
Temple of Isis

It’s always great when you can get a shot that makes it seem like you were the only ones there.

Alison at the Temple of Isis
Alison at the Temple of Isis

The Philae Temples are Very Well Preserved

When you think of Egyptian monuments like the pyramids, sphinx or Temple of Luxor you think ‘old – very, very old’ and you’d be correct. The first pyramids were built an astonishing 4,600 years ago. However, the span of Egyptian history is so long that something like the Philae Temples that seem ancient to us is actually, by Egyptian standards, a relative infant. The structures that comprise the Philae Temples were mostly built during the very last of the Egyptian dynasties, the Ptolemys who were actually Greeks, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who divided up his kingdom after his death. Other building continued during the Roman period with additions like Hadrian’s gate. Thus, these temples are ‘only’ about 2,000 years old which may well explain why they have survived as well as they have.

The Temple of Isis is Wonderful

Even though the Temple of Isis is at least a thousand years younger than more famous temples like Luxor and Abydos, it still follows a classic pattern of Egyptian temples that survived for millennia. It is the perfect place to be instructed on Egyptian temple design by a knowledgable guide such as Ahmed, who is not only familiar with all the Egyptian myths and legends, but can read hieroglyphics as well. What looks to me like just some carvings of gods and kings on the walls and pillars of the temple, is to him a story that can still be retold today.

This is Isis

Isis

And her son Horus, the falcon-headed god wearing the two crowns of Egypt, the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt. Once Egypt was unified in 3100 B.C. it was usual to depict gods and kings wearing this type of crown.

Horus, Philae Temples
Horus

This is Isis, Horus and Ptolemy III

Isis & Horus
Isis & Horus

It is impossible to describe the feeling that comes over one the first time you see these giant depictions in person. Awe, reverence and dumbstruck come to mind, but there is also a tinge of sadness as well. The people who believed in these gods did so for a period of over 4,000 years, before they died and their gods with them, at least figuratively. Will Christianity or Islam have as long a run on the Broadway stage of theism? Who knows, but that brings me to my next topic.

The Philae Temples – Irreverence and Intolerance

As mentioned, much of the construction of the Philae Temples dates from the Roman era and during this time Isis developed a huge following throughout the Roman Empire. Originally persecuted as a cult, it eventually became so mainstream that several Emperors were Isis adherents. The Romans were notoriously blasé about religion, seemingly more into religiosity than actual religious belief and adherence. While they would often start out persecuting a new religion (there were literally hundreds popping up across the empire) they usually accepted it after a while. The Isis and Christian religions followed that pattern. However, once the Christian religion became the official state religion the tolerance for other gods vanished almost over night. The Temple of Isis became the target of what I refer to as religious vandalism. Here is an example.

Vandalized Gods, Philae Temples
Vandalized Gods

Someone went to great lengths to deface these images of the king paying obeisance to Isis, Horus and Osiris. And this desecration of Isis.

Vandalized Isis
Vandalized Isis

If the early Christians really believed that their god was the one and only deity, then they had to also believe that these Egyptians gods were not real and these were just figures cut in stone. So why go to also this trouble – maybe they really weren’t so sure after all. The defacing of the carvings was not limited to the exterior of the temple and was even more extensive inside.

While Christians seem to have gotten over the urge to destroy non-Christian religious images, sadly religious vandalism continues to this day; witness the destruction of the Roman temple at Palmyra, Syria by ISIS. What irony.

The Temple of Isis has also been the subject of less serious vandalism as this picture shows.

Temple of Isis Graffiti
Temple of Isis Graffiti

But the good news is that the Temple of Isis still stands, greeting visitors every day while Messrs. Cradock and Treboux have long been mouldering in their graves. Would their lives have been less fulfilling if they hadn’t carved their names into the soft sandstone? I doubt it.

Philae Temples Are a Great Place to Study Hieroglyphics

As I mentioned, Ahmed can read hieroglyphics and he chose to use the hieroglyphics inside the Temple of Isis to give us a detailed explanation of what they are and are not. They are not pictographs, which at first glance would appear to be the case. For example, here are representations of a seated woman, scarab beetles, a cow and a baboon, but they do not literally mean those things. It was not until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 that contained the same words in Greek, Demotic script (the everyday language of Egyptian scribes) and hieroglyphics that scholars eventually deduced that the hieroglyphic symbols represented phonetic sounds, just like our modern alphabet. It was pretty neat to have Ahmed translate the hieroglyphics into English just as easily as one might translate French to English.

Hieroglyphics, Temple of Isis
Hieroglyphics, Temple of Isis

So when you go to an Egyptian temple there are three things to decode. First, the stories told by the carved figures of the gods and kings, secondly the stories told by the paintings on the walls, ceilings and pillars and lastly the hieroglyphics. Ahmed was able to do all three, although sadly, most of the paint is no longer visible. Here’s a good example of a combination of carved figures and hieroglyphics from a photo by Mohammad Fathy. We able to buy a cd with 10,000 images of many of the places we visited for a pretty nominal sum.

Carvings & Hieroglyphs iInside the Temple of Isis
Carvings & Hieroglyphs iInside the Temple of Isis

The Kiosk of Trajan

Much smaller than the Temple of Isis and with no real interior, the Kiosk of Trajan is nonetheless an imposing building. If any ancient temple might be termed ‘cute’, this would be it. Built by Trajan, one of the truly great Roman emperors, it was one of the very last structures ever built in the Egyptian style and the last to honour the ancient gods Osiris, Horus and Isis.

Kiosk of Trajan
Kiosk of Trajan
At Trajan's Kiosk
At Trajan’s Kiosk

As we left the Philae Temples we got one last look from the boat at Trajan’s Kiosk which has been inspiring artists for centuries. Now that I’ve seen it myself, I know why.

Temple of Hathor from the Water - Philae Temples
Kiosk of Trajan from the Water

One final suggestion. Do not even think of combining a trip to the Philae Temples with the all day excursion to Abu Simbel as some tour operators offer. Not only will you be too exhausted to enjoy it, but you will not be giving it the time and respect it deserves. There’s a ton of things to do in and around Aswan as I’ll describe in a future post, so set aside half a day for the great Philae Temples. You won’t regret it.


For more on Dale’s travels to Egypt as well as his other globe-trotting tales – be sure to visit themaritimeexplorer.ca. 
Thank you so much for sharing with us Dale! Looking forward to touring with you again! 

Abu Simbel tours

Abu Simbel – A Magical Day Trip from Aswan and Back

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Learn more about one of Egypt’s most alluring and iconic visits. A longer read about Abu Simbel from a recent traveller with us, Dale of The Maritime Explorer. 

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

In 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Egypt and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 

 


 

 

Abu Simbel, Abu Simbel, Abu Simbel – there is just something magical about those words, or at least there has been to me since I was a teenager and first learned of the herculean effort by UNESCO to save the most famous of Ramses II many Egyptian temples from inundation by the Aswan High Dam. The massive statues of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari (not Nefertiti) are the things of fantasy, more likely a product of H.P.Lovecraft’s wild imagination than reality, and yet they really do exist. And what’s better, you can visit them in relative ease and security after many years of being off limits to all but the most adventuresome and risk averse tourists. Won’t you join me on a day trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel and back? For me it was one of the most memorable days of my life.

What is Abu Simbel?

Technically, Abu Simbel is just a village on the Nile, the last stop before entering the vastness and insecurity of northern Sudan. It’s a place where caravans of truckers assemble, sometimes by the hundreds, to decrease the chances of being attacked by highway robbers on the way to Khartoum and beyond. It’s people are Nubians, of a civilization and language that may predate that of Egypt itself and of whom less than half a million remain today, most of their original kingdom flooded by the Aswan High Dam. Anwar Sadat was a Nubian and that might explain his willingness to make peace with Israel with whom the Nubians would have no beef. It cost him his life.

But the Nubians were not the only ones displaced by the creation of what is, depending on your point of view, either one of world’s greatest feats of engineering or one of the world’s greatest man made ecological disasters (I favour the latter view).

Ramses II is considered by most Egyptologists to be the most important and influential of all the kings in ancient Egypt. He ruled for 66 years, had an ego bigger than Donald Trump’s, fathered over 160 children and fought many major battles, all of which, according to him, he won. He could not resist boasting of his achievements and went on a building spree perhaps unequaled in history to let the world know of his unrivalled prowess. There is little doubt that when the ordinary person has an image of an Egyptian king, it is Ramses II that will come to mind. His image is the face of ancient Egypt, from the mouth of the Nile to the borders of Nubia, which explains why he had to build a massive temple to himself and his favourite wife Nefertari at the very place that any traveler or potential enemy heading north on the Nile could not fail to miss. The temple of Abu Simbel was a symbol (no pun intended) of his power and a warning – you are entering the realm of Ramses II, tremble in fear!

The great romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed to get the last laugh at Ramses II expense in his 1818 sonnet Ozymandias which was another name for the king:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The irony is that, although many of Ramses II statues and works lie in dereliction as Shelley described, many more, including the temple of Abu Simbel do not and exist today as wonders of the ancient world.

The Relocation of Abu Simbel

Gamal Abdel Nasser was the first Egyptian to actually rule Egypt in over 2,000 years – true. He had great aspirations for modernizing the country, particularly by the construction of a great dam at Aswan that would provide electricity and regulate the annual flooding of the Nile. He seems to have overlooked the fact that the annual flooding is the very thing that defines Egypt since the dawn of civilization. The Russians built the dam and this colossally ugly monument to themselves for doing it. In the course of creating the vast lake behind the dam which was named for, who else but Nasser, they flooded almost 60% of ancient Nubia and hundreds of ancient monuments.

Russian Monument to Friendship
Russian Monument to Friendship

The temple of Abu Simbel would have been submerged by the rising waters if not relocated. There was only one big catch. Unlike most temples which are constructed from the ground up out of stone or some other building material, Abu Simbel was actually a gigantic rock carving. The statues on the outside and the interior were literally carved into a huge cliff overlooking the Nile. This was not something you could take apart and reassemble somewhere else like a set of Lego blocks.

Under the auspices of UNESCO, dozens of countries and companies collaborated to figure out a way to do it. I am proud to say that Canada played a prominent role as indicated on this chart in the Nubian museum in Aswan..

Countries that Contributed to Abu Simbel Relocation
Countries that Contributed to Abu Simbel Relocation

You can follow this Link to get a detailed explanation of how it was done. For brevity’s sake let’s just call it the first case of cut and past archaeology.

Relocation of Abu Simbel
Relocation of Abu Simbel

The relocated temple opened in 1968 after nine years of relocation work and has been a wonder of both the ancient and modern world ever since.

Getting to Abu Simbel

This is a map of southern Egypt. As you can see Abu Simbel is remote by any standards. The nearest city is Aswan which is 288 kms. (180 miles) away by road. There are three ways to get there. Jet setters can fly right in and out from Aswan or even Cairo. I don’t think that applies to most of my readers. You can take a leisurely 4 or 5 day boat cruise on Lake Nasser. This used to be a very popular option, but with the drastic decline in Egyptian tourism there are now only a few operators offering these cruises. If you’re interested here’s a Link to companies still offering Lake Nasser sailings.

By far the most popular option is driving to Abu Simbel from Aswan and returning on the same day. Here are the downsides – you spend a shitload of time on a bus and you have to get up in the middle of the night. Here are the upsides – you get to see the sun rise over the Sahara desert and you get to see Abu Simbel. For me this was a no brainer.

Don’t even think of going to Abu Simbel on your own. There is literally nothing for hundreds of kilometres and if something goes wrong you are probably screwed. If you are not already on a tour then take a day trip with one from Aswan. My group traveled with the excellent Canadian company Adventures Abroad which always has top notch guides and local contacts. Our Egyptian host was Ahmed Mohsin Hashem who has a Masters of Egyptology and studied with the great Dr. Zahi Hawass. He is fluent not only in English, but can read hieroglyphics as well. Here he is in Memphis explaining to us how to interpret ancient cartouches.

Ahmed Explains Cartouches
Ahmed Explains Cartouches

OK, after a far too long introduction we are off.

Highway 75 has numerous army checkpoints and little else. It is paved all the way and in good shape.  Almost all the traffic is buses like ours making their way to Abu Simbel. About an hour or so into the journey the sun makes its appearance in the east and it really is an awesome sight rising over the tractless sands. You fall into a kind of trance just staring out at the nothingness until suddenly, snapping out of it, we’re there. We pass through the village of Abu Simbel and a seemingly endless lineup of trucks getting ready to convoy into Sudan and then we pull into the parking lot. Only a few buses have beaten us here.

Sunrise in the Sahara
Sunrise in the Sahara

It’s about a five minute walk to the temple site through the inevitable gauntlet of hawkers, which is not bad as Egyptian tourist spots go. Abu Simbel faces away from the way you enter so you don’t come upon it gradually, but almost by surprise as you round a corner in the pathway. There are no words to describe the effect the first look at the colossal statues has on you. No matter what your expectations, you will be struck with awe. Now I’m just going to let the pictures of the exterior tell most of the story.

Abu Simbel Photo
Abu Simbel

BTW, in case you are wondering, the second statue on the left just didn’t fall down, that’s the way it was prior to relocation. The one on the far left is the most complete showing Ramses II wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. While it took modern technology nine years to complete the relocation, the original Grand Temple was finished by manual labour alone in twenty years.

Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel 2
Abu Simbel 2
Abu Simbel 3
Abu Simbel 3

The small figures between Ramses feet are representations of some of his favourite children.

Temple of Nefertari, Abu Simbel
Temple of Nefertari

This is the Lesser Temple dedicated to Ramses favourite wife Nefertari. It’s the only instance in Egyptian temples where the wife was depicted as the same size as the king. This shot makes it look quite busy, but if you look at the size of the entire complex you can see that this is not the case.

Temples of Ramses II and Nerfertari , Abu Simbel
Temples of Ramses II and Nerfertari

On both sides of the entrance to the Great Temple are these two sets of prisoners.

Hittite Prisoners, Abu Simbel
Hittite Prisoners

The first are Hittites from modern day Turkey whom Ramses claimed to have bested at the Battle Of Kadesh which took place in Syria. Most historians call it a draw.

African Prisoners, Abu Simbel
African Prisoners

The second group is clearly that of African prisoners and seems to put paid to the oft made argument that the ancient Egyptians were blacks. These men look nothing like the statues of Ramses or his ilk.

You cannot take pictures inside the temples, although that does not stop the Chinese tourists. Here is where Ahmed really comes into his own, interpreting the meaning of the carvings and hieroglyphs that cover the interior walls. With hieroglyphs it is literally true that every picture tells a story.

Here are some interior scenes taken from among the thousands of photos on the CD Impressions of Egypt by Egyptologist and friend of Ahmed’s, Mohammed Fathy.

Abu Simbel Interior
Abu Simbel Interior
Abu Simbel Interior 2
Abu Simbel Interior 2
Abu Simbel Interior 3
Abu Simbel Interior 3

Incredibly after over 3,000 years the paint is still quite visible.

Abu Simbel Interior 4
Abu Simbel Interior 4
Abu Simbel Interior 5

For more on Dale’s travels to Egypt as well as his other globe-trotting tales – be sure to visit themaritimeexplorer.ca. 
Thank you so much for sharing with us Dale! Looking forward to touring with you again! 

Abu Simbel Interior 5
heading_monastery

St Simeon Monastery – A Camel Ride into the Sahara

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Ever wondered what a camel ride would be like in an ancient setting? Take a photo journey to St Simeon Monastery with our recent traveller, Dale of The Maritime Explorer.

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

In 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Egypt and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 

 

 


 

 

This is the fifth post I’ve written about the many things we saw and did on a recent trip to Aswan, Egypt with Canadian tour company Adventures Abroad. When choosing the itinerary I was both delighted and a bit hesitant about the fact that it contained the de rigeur camel ride in the Sahara desert.

Who wants to go through life without being able to say that they’ve ever ridden a camel?

I think every baby boomer who ever watched Lawrence of Arabia came away with this romantic notion about riding a camel in the desert. On the other hand, camels are notoriously foul tempered, smell terrible and it’s a long way down if you fall off. Our destination was St. Simeon Monastery which lies just over a kilometre from the Nile on the west banks.

We were ferried to the west bank by motorboat from Aswan, and our camels and their individual handlers were awaiting us by the river. We could hear the racket they were making well before we landed and I’m not just talking about the camels. For some reason most Egyptian men and boys never forego a chance to shout when a simple conversational tone would suffice. Once one starts shouting it soon becomes pandemonium.

There were a couple of middle-aged men whom seemed to be the team leaders, but all of the individual handlers who generally lead the camel by a halter, were teenagers or in a few cases boys as young as 10. Here’s Alison with her camel Caramela and her handler, Mohammed.

Alison and Mohammed
Alison, Mohammed and Caramela

I was not disappointed to be among the last to go through the three step process of getting on the camel, having it rise on its back feet and then lurch upward with its front feet. Here’s what I mean as my camel, Samba, struggles to her feet. It was kind of embarrassing to have my assistant Mahmoud, who couldn’t have been more than twelve, telling me in broken English, “Don’t be nervous Mr. Dale.” I sure the look of rictus on my face was just a passing grimace and not a look of terror.

Getting Up
Getting Up

Our journey was going to take us up the slope you can see in the background and soon we were all set. Once you get used to being up that high you make darn sure you hold on to the rope that serves as the steering wheel on a camel. Actually it took very little pressure to get Samba to move to the left or right or stop.

Dale & Samba
Dale & Samba

This is the view from the top.

View from atop Samba
View from atop Samba

Here’s a shot of me with our Egyptian guide Ahmed Hashem who is a Bedouin by heritage and thus camel riding is no doubt in his genes. He very much looks the part of Sherif Ali, played by the great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, in Lawrence of Arabia. Can you buy me as a stand in for Peter O’Toole?

On a Camel with Ahmed on the way to St. Simeon Monastery
On a Camel with Ahmed, aka Sherif Ali

After a few minutes the camels all seemed to naturally line up behind one another in the formation that we would recognize as a desert caravan. The boys generally let us handle the rope and remained nearby in case anyone strayed off route. A couple of them fell behind as they got into a screaming match with each other that seemed to start over nothing. I yelled at them that life was too short for this kind of shit, but they just went on arguing until they both got exhausted.

Adventures Abroad Caravan on the way to St. Simeon Monastery
Adventures Abroad Caravan

I was a bit apprehensive about the climb up the hill that lead to St. Simeon Monastery, but the camels were very sure footed and almost tiptoed their way up the very rocky path. I was even more wary of the thought of going back down that hill on our way back.

St. Simeon Monastery

From quite a distance we could see that St. Simeon Monastery was in fact a deserted ruin, although not too far away was a modern looking building that apparently is still an active Coptic monastery.

The proper name of this place is actually the Monastery Of Anba Hatre and you’ll find a fairly detailed history of it by following the link. The name St. Simeon Monastery was given by modern archaeologists without any real connection to any of the numerous St. Simeon’s that pop up in Christian mythology. It’s certainly a lot more catchy than Anba Hatre.

Photo of St. Simeon Monastery
St. Simeon Monastery

The monastery once held up to a thousand residents and was a popular wayside stop for desert travelers for over six hundred years. Built well before the advent of Islam, the Coptic monks were largely left alone by the Muslims for centuries. Ahmed showed us rooms that were specifically set aside for Islamic guests. Unfortunately the tolerance seemed to end about the same time as the Crusades and in the 12th century the great general Salah-al-Din (Saladin to the west) violently sacked the place and in the century after that it was abandoned for good.

Considering that it hasn’t had any repair work for over 700 years, parts of it are in pretty good shape. This is what’s left of the chapel with one of a number of art students who were visiting at the same time we were.

Drawing a Chapel, St. Simeon Monastery
Drawing a Chapel

Note tiny spy hole from which the priests could watch what was going on inside the chapel, just as Alison kept an eye on the rest of us.

Alison Behind the Chapel
Alison Behind the Chapel

This is the upper floor as it looks today.

Upper Floor, St. Simeon Monastery
Upper Floor, St. Simeon Monastery

This is what it looked like perhaps a thousand years ago. Each of these monasteries had to be self-sufficient in an environment that was extremely hostile to human life. Can you imagine living here in the heat of a Saharan summer?

Plan of St. Simeon Monastery
Plan of St. Simeon Monastery

On the plan you can see an oil press and on the ground today there is this marvellously preserved grindstone with three Coptic crosses.

Coptic Grindstone, St. Simeon Monastery
Coptic Grindstone

Tourists were not the only ones visiting St. Simeon Monastery on this day. After receiving permission, I took this photo of a Coptic monk from the monastery next door. And he didn’t even want any baksheesh for posing!

On a more serious note, even though I am not a religious person, I do not scoff at those who are. There was something almost eternal in the look on this man’s face that could make me understand the peace that religion can bring to the truly faithful. Sometimes In wish I could believe.

Coptic Monk, St. Simeon Monastery
Coptic Monk

Standing on the top walls of St. Simeon Monastery I looked out and saw another scene that is intrinsically linked with the Sahara and Arabian deserts – a lone camel rider amidst a sea of sand. Where was he going or coming from? Who knows, but it makes for a great picture.

Lone Camel Rider
Lone Camel Rider

My fears about having to ride the camels down the steep path turned out to be unfounded as the handlers had them waiting at the bottom of the path from whence we remounted and made or way back to the Nile where Ahmed took care of tipping them for us and we waved goodbye as we got in the boat and headed back to Aswan.

As St. Simeon Monastery faded into the background I realized I’d just had another of those “Pinch me, I’m really here” moments which seem to happen a lot on Adventures Abroad tours. I can now add camel jockey to the many occupations I’m not good at.

BTW if you really don’t want to ride a camel or physically cannot, AA provides ground transportation to and from the river landing to St. Simeon Monastery. A couple of people in our group opted for that choice.

I know I promised to tell you about a Nile cruise in my last post, that will have to wait until next time. So long from Aswan once again.

In St. Simeon Monastery
In St. Simeon Monastery

 

 

 


 

 

 

For more on Dale’s travels to Egypt as well as his other globe-trotting tales – be sure to visit themaritimeexplorer.ca. 
Thank you so much for sharing with us Dale! Looking forward to touring with you again! 
rio-nilo-2

Nile Cruise – What to Expect and Why You Don’t Want to Miss It

rio-nilo-2

Written by a trusted traveller, who recently returned from Egypt. 

At Adventures Abroad, we believe our travellers are the best group out there.

Our small group tours are complemented by people with an adventurous spirit from all over the world. People who are keen to experience new cultures, peoples, cuisines, philosophies, and points of view.

In 2017 we were pleased to travel with Dale, a lawyer and travel writer from Canada. After returning from the tour, he shared with us his impressions of Egypt and we excited to share with you his beautiful photos and words. 

This post originally appeared on The Maritime Explorer and has been republished with permission. 

 


 

 

Ever since Agatha Christie put her famous detective Hercule Poirot aboard the steamship Karnak in Death On The Nile in 1937, a Nile cruise has been an integral part of almost all Egyptian journeys.

Death_on_the_Nile_First_Edition_Cover_1937
Death on the Nile, First Edition Cover

While it’s unlikely anyone will be murdered on your Nile cruise, there is still more than enough that is exotic, arcane and at times outright ridiculous, to make sure that the trip from Aswan to Luxor is a must-do part of your itinerary. Come along with us on the Radamis II and I’ll tell you why.

Our trip to Egypt was organized by Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad and after stops in Cairo, Alexandria and Aswan, the next part of the tour was a three day Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor. Three day cruise is a bit of a misnomer because there is actually only two days of sailing with a one night stop in Edfu. The other two nights are on board at Aswan and Luxor. Pretty well all the boats that make the Aswan to Luxor run follow the same schedule and as we found out that can lead to chaos at the Kom Ombo and Edfu, but more on that later. Tourists who just book a Nile cruise package as a stand alone trip will get a tour of the major sites around Aswan and Luxor as part of the itinerary. With Adventures Abroad we visited these sites, as well as Kom Ombo and Edfu, with our amazing Egyptian guide Ahmed Hashem and veteran tour director Martin Charlton.  We were a much smaller group than those who were taking the cruise ship tours.

Radamis II – Our Nile Cruise Ship

For some reason I seem to be progressively advancing to larger and larger vessels as I get older. I’ve gone from kayak (one) to canoe (two) to Turkish gulet (eight) to Dutch barge (twelve) to Croatian motor yacht (twenty-two, but only four of us on board) and now to full blown river cruiser. The Radamis II has 75 cabins and can hold up to 150 passengers. By my standards it’s enormous, but compared to today’s floating city cruise ships,  it’s just a baby. The Nile cruise ships are all seemingly built from one or two sets of blueprints as they pretty well all look the same. Here’s the Radamis II tied up at Luxor and as you can see it’s not going to win any beauty contests. However, it is rated as a 5-star ship by the Egyptian government and frankly, we had no complaints; in fact Alison and I got one of two best cabins on the boat.

Radamis II, Nile Cruise
Radamis II

The Radamis II has two upper decks for passengers as do most other Nile cruise ships. The top deck was occupied entirely by the Adventures Abroad group, a group of Chinese tourists and a smattering of Brits and Aussies. The lower deck was occupied almost exclusively by Egyptians, some in couples, but also many families, including multi-generation ones. I found it to be a very interesting mix of guests.

Outside Our Suite on the Nile cruise
Outside Our Suite

All of the top deck cabins were similar in size except for the two most forward ones which were considerably larger. I don’t know if it was the luck of the draw or what, but we got one of the two large forward suites. It might be because we’re Nova Scotians as the other suite was occupied by the only other Nova Scotians on the tour – you know we are such nice and deserving folks. That’s Alison outside the other couple’s suite. I’m sure you can appreciate that I didn’t want to swim out into the Nile to get a picture of ours.

None of the suites had balconies, but the next best thing was this small lounge area just outside our front door – the two forward suites were the only ones with an inside and outside entrance.

Outside Patio
Outside Patio

This is the interior of our suite which had a distinct sitting area, fridge and TV with BBC.

Our Sitting Area
Our Sitting Area

This is the bed, which was quite comfortable.

Bedroom, Radamis II
Bedroom, Radamis II

By small ship standards the bathroom was also quite spacious with hot water that worked, not a given on some ships in third world countries.

This is the outside deck with small swimming pool and hot tub, which we didn’t make us of.

Top Deck
Top Deck

However, the chaise lounges saw a lot of use by all groups and were a perfect place from which to watch life on the Nile or to catch a few rays or an afternoon nap.

Relaxing on the Nile
Relaxing on the Nile

I don’t know why, but I forgot to take any pictures of the restaurant or the bar/lounge areas. Suffice it to say that the food service was all buffet style and included a mix of different cuisines. Unfortunately, some of the best looking items, like the fresh fruits and vegetables, were also the ones we had to avoid or else risk getting traveler’s diarrhea or worse. Ahmed came up with a system whereby he would inspect the items on the buffet and declare an item either good or very good. Good actually meant bad and very good meant just that.

The quality of the food was similar to the buffets we had experienced in the Egyptian hotels and there were always enough choices to satisfy most palates. The one thing I did learn very quickly was to get your desserts at the start of the buffet. The Egyptians make great desserts and the Egyptian people love them enough that the first thing they did when the buffet opened was to charge the dessert table and wipe it out.

You could buy beer and wine at the bar and take it to your table or your room. Prices were not unreasonable, but the wine selection was pretty slim.

OK, that’s the story of the Radamis II, now let’s get on with the cruising.

The Nile Cruise from Aswan to Edfu

Egyptian Flag
Egyptian Flag

As I’ve mentioned on previous posts, tourism in Egypt has declined drastically over the last few years, particularly among western tourists. Nowhere is this more evident than in the number of Nile cruise boats lying idle in Aswan and Luxor. For every active boat there were at least three or four tied up and going nowhere. That might make you think that the places you would visit on the cruise would be relatively uncrowded; unfortunately not so. The reason is that the active ships pretty well all leave Aswan at the same time and arrive at Kom Ombo and Edfu at the same time. At no time during our short cruise were there no other ships in sight, but that really wasn’t a big deal. It did not detract from what, for me, was the most interesting part of the trip and that was just observing the rural Egyptian way of life that in some ways has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Here’s an example. This is a hieroglyph of a felucca that is thousands of years old and yet you can see the same boats, virtually unchanged in design, plying the waters of the Nile today.

Hieroglyphic Felucca
Hieroglyphic Felucca

Here’s another, a man riding a donkey with two cows in tow that no doubt are among his most valuable assets. Did he just buy them or is he going to market to sell them? Maybe he’s just moving them to a better pasture. These type of scenes are as old as the history of domestication and to me are as important to understanding the Egyptian way of life as the more vaunted monuments.

Donkey and Cows
Man With Donkey and Cows

And another. Teams of two would work the river, one rowing and pulling a small net, the other beating the water with a long stick to scare the fish into the net. It’s a technique that at first seems ludicrous, but in reality has worked for thousands of years. It also looked like bloody hard work and dispelled any notions that Egyptians were not industrious.

Water Beater as seen on a Nile cruise
Water Beater

So, even if you have no interest in visiting the temples at Kom Ombo and Edfu, there are still very good reasons for going on a Nile cruise.

By late afternoon the Radamis II arrived at Kom Ombo which was already aswarm with other boats discharging hundreds of people all headed to the same place – the Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Herwer and Sobek. You can see them in the background and that’s as close as we got as we decided not to fight the crowds and enjoy some quiet time on deck. You could actually hear a roar from the shouts of the hawkers, caleche drivers and others who rely on the decreasing number of tourists for their livelihood.

At Kom Ombo
At Kom Ombo

After those who did choose to go ashore returned, the Radamis II continued downriver to Edfu where we arrived after dark. On the way there was this gorgeous Nile sunset. When the sun got below the clouds in the west, its rays reflected off the underside of the clouds and then in turn seemed to refract onto the river giving it this almost purplish pink appearance that was truly beautiful. This picture does not do it justice.

Sunset on the Nile
Sunset on the Nile

We stayed on board for a latish supper followed by this appearance by a belly dancer.

 
For more on Dale’s travels to Egypt as well as his other globe-trotting tales – be sure to visit themaritimeexplorer.ca. 
Thank you so much for sharing with us Dale! Looking forward to touring with you again! 

Focus On Southeast Asia

Ha Long Bay

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most popular touring destinations, and for a reason. Some of the countries here have it all: a tropical climate, warm (or hot!) all year-round, rich culture, gorgeous beaches, wonderful food and last but not least, relatively reasonable prices. While its history and modern-day politics are complex, most of it is also quite safe for the traveller and easy to get about.

Southeast Asia’s culture is dominantly influenced by the Indians and Chinese as well as its colonizers. Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao culture is heavily Indianized as well as Chinese-influenced in areas such as faith, folklore, language and writing. Malaysia and Indonesia are also influenced by the Indians, Malays and Chinese with a touch of Arab culture due to the large Muslim populations. Vietnam is the most Chinese-influenced country while Brunei’s culture is Malay-influenced. The linguistic saturation here is also immense, as is religious diversity.

Variety of landscape is also overwhelming—from the terraced rice fields of Laos to the soaring limestone pinnacles of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, the verdant jungles of Northern Thailand to the wide, sinewy curves of the Mekong River—the region’s natural attributes defy it’s relatively compact geographical area. And some of the world’s most incredible monuments are superimposed upon this backdrop—the temples of Bagan, Myanmar; the Angkor complex of central Cambodia, Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda, Indonesia’s Borobudur to name just a few—all lend spectacular testimony to the region’s rich cultural and historical legacy.

We are gearing up for another busy season in one of the most popular areas in which we operate; happily the best time to travel to SE Asia coincides with the best time to escape the northern winter! The following are just a few of our most popular itineraries; click through to our website for a complete listing for 2017 /18.

Vietnam & Cambodia
VN2 | 20 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Nov 2017

Laos & Vietnam
LA2 | 22 Days | Details
Departure date: 31 Oct 2017

Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia
LA3 | 27 Days | Details
Departure date: 31 Oct 2017

Myanmar
SE5 | 14 Days | Details
Departure date: 26 Nov 2017

Cambodia & Myanmar
SE6 | 19 Days | Details
Departure date: 21 Nov 2017

Vietnam, Cambodia & Myanmar
SE7 | 33 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Nov 2017

Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia & Myanmar
SE8 | 40 Days | Details
Departure date: 31 Oct 2017

Indonesia (Sumatra, Java & Bali)
ID6 | 14 Days | Details
Departure date: 11 Mar 2018

Indonesia Discovery (Java, Borneo, Sulawesi & Papua)
ID7 | 18 Days | Details
Departure date: 13 Sep 2017

Malaysia & Brunei
MA4 | 14 Days |Details
Departure date: 26 Feb 2018

Southeast Asia Roundup
TH6 | 16 Days | Details
Departure date: 16 Oct 2017

 

New Things & Updates

Family of penguins, Penguin of Magellan. (spheniscus Magallanicus).

ECUADOR & THE GALAPAGOS NEW TOUR!

This is an exciting addition to our itineraries that include the superlative Galapagos Islands. The most attractive aspect of this trip is that it is not a cruise, but rather a land-based adventure that allows for more time and greater immersion in not only the natural splendour of this special place, but also in its unique and little-known island culture. Though cruises will always be an extremely popular way of visiting the islands and do a fantastic job overall, we are delighted to offer our travellers an alternative that allows you to see and experience what it’s like to live on the islands, either as a descendant of the early settlers, an adventurous entrepreneur, or as an iguana!

This is why we call this an “experiential” adventure; on this special journey you will experience all that this incredible place has to offer the inquisitive visitor, while doing so in a way that promotes sustainable tourism. Add to this a continental component, which provides a sumptuous glimpse into pre- and post-colonial times in the Andes, and an optional 4-day Amazon extension, you have a breathtakingly-varied Ecuadorian experience and one of the most intimate and ‘immersive’ trips we offer anywhere. Click through to our site using the link below for a full trip description, itinerary, and hotel profiles.

Galapagos & Andes
EC10 | 10 Days | Details
Departure date: 24 Nov 2017
Departure date: 1 Feb 2018

Galapagos,  Andes & Amazon
EC11 | 14 Days | Details
Departure date: 24 Nov 2017
Departure date: 1 Feb 2018

 

SOUTH KOREA REVAMPED

As a result of feedback from past travellers and Tour Leaders, and with the advice of our Korean partners and the Korean National Tourism Organization, we have revamped our entire treatment of this tiny, yet highly complex corner of Asia. At the urging of our savvy customers, we have added more dimension and texture, with less emphasis on shrines and other monuments, and more attention to Korea’s fascinating and unique culture and history, ancient and modern. We have improved the flow of the trip overall and eased up the pace, with enhanced sightseeing and cultural experiences in Seoul and Busan. The most exciting part is the long overdue addition of Jeju Island, Korea’s answer to Hawaii, with a unique culture and stunning volcanic landscape. You can tour South Korea on its own, but most travellers tie it in with our tours of Taiwan and Japan; next departure Autumn 2017.

South Korea
KR1 | 8 Days | Details
Departure date: 12 Oct 2017 

Korea & Japan
KR2 | 20 Days | Details
Departure date: 12 Oct 2017 

Korea & Japan
KR3 | 27 Days | Details
Departure date: 12 Oct 2017 

Taiwan & Korea
TA4 | 15 Days | Details
Departure date: 5 Oct 2017 

Taiwan, Korea & Japan
TA5 | 27 Days | Details
Departure date: 5 Oct 2017 

Taiwan, Korea & Japan
TA6 | 34 Days | Details
Departure date: 5 Oct 2017 

 

WEST AFRICA NEW TOUR!

West Africa is back on the roster with a refreshed itinerary through five diverse countries, including the reintroduction of Gambia into the fold. This a true off-the-beaten-path adventure through Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Togo and Benin over 19 highlight-packed days.

West Africa - New Tour!
WF2 | 19 Days | Details
Departure date: 1 Nov 2017
Departure date: 11 Feb 2018

 

MONGOLIA IMPROVED!

Our re-designed Mongolia tour, featuring the famed Naadam Festival and comfortable ger accommodation with private bath facilities, is a guaranteed tour with VERY limited space available! Led by Chris Tripodi

Mongolia - Closing Soon!
MN1 | 13 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Jul 2017

 

ESSENTIAL ARGENTINA NEW TOUR!

This new itinerary covers this stupendous country pretty much from top to bottom. Whereas most of our other trips featuring Argentina also include either Chile and / or Brazil, this one spends almost three glorious weeks covering all the famous highlights of this huge country—Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, as well as Punta Tombo and Peninsula Valdes in time to coincide with the nesting season of the Magellanic penguin and the yearly appearance of the southern right whale. We also head to the up-and-coming northwest region, which features a unique Andean indigenous tradition, remote and desolate altiplano landscapes, and an interesting flora and fauna.

Essential Argentina
AR10 | 19 Days | Details
Departure date: 23 Nov 2017

 

SOUTHERN AFRICA NEW DATE!

Due to impressive demand, we have added a November date for our flagship Southern Africa trip—South Africa, Swaziland, Victoria Falls, Chobe Park, Botswana. This is one of the very first sub-Saharan Africa tours we offered way back in 1995 and it’s still going strong.

Southern Africa
SA2 | 18 Days | Details
Departure date: 1 Sep 2017 – Almost Guaranteed
Departure date: 10 Oct 2017 - Closing Soon
Departure date: 11 Nov 2017 - New Date!

 

SOUTHERN SPAIN & PORTUGAL NEW TOUR!

In response to the overwhelming interest in Portugal of late, and the perennial popularity of our tour of southern Spain, we are pleased to introduce a new itinerary that covers both! Our long-standing tour of Portugal & Spain “forces” you to also include Northern Spain over 24 days; this new, more compact option allows us to include all of the highlights of both regions in a tidy 15-day package. Our slightly off-season dates also take advantage of the area’s mild climate and allow us to visit at a time that’s less crowded and more affordable.

Southern Spain & Portugal
PS6 | 15 Days | Details
Departure date: 14 Oct 2017
Departure date: 9 Mar 2018

For those of you who have been sitting on the fence, or busy in the garden, or thinking that you still have plenty of time to plan late summer/fall trip, here’s a quick update on some of our more popular journeys at that time:

THE ADRIATIC
Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina & Montenegro
AD1 | 17 Days | Details
Departure date: 22 Sep 2017 – 2 SPOTS LEFT!

THE FIVE STANS
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic & Kazakhstan
CA3 | 21 Days | Details
Departure date: 23 Sep 2017– 2 SPOTS LEFT!

CLASSIC EGYPT
Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Nile cruise
EG3 | 14 Days | Details
Departure date: 15 Oct 2017 – 4 SPOTS LEFT!

EGYPT & JORDAN
EG5
| 21 Days | Details
Departure date: 15 Oct 2017 – 4 SPOTS LEFT!

JORDAN & ISRAEL
JO4
| 17 Days | Details
Departure date: 14 Oct 2017 – NOW GUARANTEED!

JORDAN, ISRAEL & EGYPT
JO9
| 29 Days | Details
Departure date: 14 Oct 2017 - ALMOST GUARANTEED!

All tours including Egypt are discounted! Click here for all current discounts.

For those of you disappointed with fully-booked big sellers in the past, we have just added more space for these flagship programs for September/October (all tours maximum group size 18):

The Greek Islands
GI4 | 9 Days | Details
Departure date: 13 Sep 2017

The Greek Islands with Crete
GI6 | 14 Days | Details
Departure date: 13 Sep 2017

Portugal & Northern Spain
PS2 | 15 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Sep 2017

Portugal & Spain
PS3 | 24 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Sep 2017

Portugal, Spain & Morocco
PS4 | 32 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Sep 2017

Portugal, Spain & Full Morocco
PS5 | 39 Days | Details
Departure date: 7 Sep 2017

Rome to Florence
IT7 | 10 Days | Details
Departure date: 9 Sep 2017

Rome to Venice
IT1 | 14 Days | Details
Departure date: 9 Sep 2017