Tag Archives: Egypt Tours

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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!