We had a great trip planned. We would take an overnight train down to Aswan in Southern Egypt, spend a day touring the sites before getting on a cruise down the Nile and lazing about in the sun for a few days until we reached Luxor, where we would explore the ancient Egyptian ruins before heading back by train. We had even partially paid in advance.
There was only one problem. We were set to leave on February 10th. Instead of taking a train down to explore the ruins, the protests put us on a plane out of the country on February 3rd, bound for Kenya and unsure when we would return. The mummies would have to wait.
When we finally received the green light to come back to Egypt, it was the end of March. Knowing that Southern Egypt gets brutally hot in the summer (ranging between 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 130!), we decided to dust off our February travel plans and head down to Aswan before the heat made the trip much more uncomfortable.
Although we had lost half of our initial payment, we were still able to use the same itinerary and just two days after returning to Cairo, we were rattling south in an overnight train. Our guide met us at the station and took us to our hotel and then out to lunch before we set out to tour the area.
It was at the restaurant that we realized that something was certainly not right. This was Egypt’s high tourist season and yet we were the only people sitting in a silent restaurant that should have been bustling with hundreds of tourists. Sadly, this was the unfortunate trend wherever we went over the next five days. Spots that should have been crawling with hundreds, if not thousands, of camera-weilding, sunscreen-covered tourists, were occupied by a tenth that number of visitors. At some spots, we practically had the place to ourselves!
As our guide explained, although the revolution led to positive political changes, its economic consequences were being sorely felt by the tourist industry. Of the over 500 cruise ships that should have been chugging up and down the Nile at this time, only about fifteen were currently active. The rest were parked on the shore in stacks six deep and running for blocks.
Although it was hard to see the tourist economy in this state, the lack of people certainly did not diminish the beauty or impressive nature of the sites we visited.
The first destination was the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1970 under Nasser, the High Damn was a monumental project that used eighteen times the amount of material of the great pyramid of Giza and created the world’s largest artificial lake, which runs all the way back to Sudan! The damn finally regulated the Nile flooding and significantly increased the available agricultural land as well as providing an incredible amount of hydropower.
Not all its effects were positive however. The creation of lake Nasser forced over 120,000 Nubians to resettle from their traditional land and also stopped the Nile’s annual process of renewal, when floods deposited silt on the riverbanks, readying the ground for next year’s planting (increasing the need for chemical fertilizers). The creation of Lake Nasser also endangered a number of archeological sites, some of which had to be moved to higher ground stone by stone by UNESCO in what must have been an incredibly painstaking project. We visited two of those spots, the Philae Temple and Abu Simbel, and I almost could not believe that the entirety of both of the sites had previously been located someplace else!
The rest of the trip took us through some of the most incredible temples and monuments that ancient Egypt has to offer. Even though I had grown out of the Egyptology phase that many children seem to go through, I was blown away by the size of the statues and columns, the beauty and complexity of the art and the symbolism that seemed to permeate every site we visited.
Some of the highlights:
-The massive statues of Ramses II (who not only built an incredible amount but claimed things built by others so you see his name everywhere!) in Abu Simbel, which tower sixty feet above you and are carved with great detail.
-The amazing color inscriptions in the Valley of the Kings, which provide fanciful imaginings of the Pharaoh’s daily activities in the afterlife and are still beautifully colored, 4000 years after their construction!
-The epic stories that come with the monuments, such as the life of Queen Hatshepsut (our guide said to remember her name by saying “hot chicken soup”) who ruled as Queen for twenty-two years in an era dominated by men. Based on the massive amount of temples and monuments she was able to finance, she did quite well too! She also had a Romeo-style lover, so enamored with her that he built an entire temple in her honor, and a son so jealous of her power that he demolished or defaced significant portions of what she left behind. Her life was a drama worthy of Shakespeare!
-A relaxing cruise down the Nile on a boat filled with old German tourists. Since most Egyptian’s first guess is that I am German anyway, we fit right into the group (not counting the forty-year age difference!). The trip down the Nile is incredibly scenic, with farms and ruins all along the way and it certainly didn’t hurt that there was an incredible buffet for every meal.
-Learning more about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. Although much of what we associate with the religion is the famous mummification process, through which the ruler was prepared for life in the next world, the fundamental beliefs are quite similar to many world religions today. Ancient Egyptians placed significant emphasis on the afterlife, especially in relation to how one’s actions in this world were weighed in the hereafter, determining the soul’s final destination. If one’s heart was heavy with bad deeds that it weighed more than a feather, you should not be expecting royal treatment! Anticipating the advent of monotheism, Egyptians also tended to raise one god above the others, often giving that place to Ra, who was associated with the sun. Even the imagery of Isis and her suckling son Horus, two of the most preeminent gods, is very reminiscent of Mary and Jesus. Certainly the religion’s longevity and great influence on Egyptian culture, as well as on the surrounding peoples, point to its divine origin.
With a history longer than most countries, Egypt has seen many civilizations and rulers rise and fall. Much has changed since the time of Queen Hatshepsut, with more change on the horizon. Back in Cairo, Mubarak, who many are calling Egypt’s modern pharaoh as his thirty-year reign lasted longer than many of his ancient predecessors, is being called to trial.