Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 6 – Abu Simbel

Three in the morning, and like a bevy of mummies five of us stumbled stiffly through the night to meet the small bus that was to take us to Abu Simbel. We are told it is a hard ride through the desert, so we do one half at night to enjoy the cool of the morning. We have to go in convoy, apparently to protect ourselves from attack by marauding Bedouins.

It is indeed a harsh desert, with endless spans of sand and small outcrops of rock. The sunrise is spectacular.

We get to Abu Simbel around 7:30 am, and are told we need to be back in the bus at 9:45 am. So, we have two hours and we have to make the best of it.

Maybe I shall start by telling you that, although within the frontiers of modern Egypt, we are well within the biblical land of Kush (later known as Nubia, and encompassing the southern portion of modern Egypt and the northern portion of the Sudan). The ancient Egyptian empire ended at the first cataract, where modern Aswan was built, and we are nearly 200 km south of the first cataract. To find an Egyptian monument here would be like finding an Aztec pyramid in downtown LA! Clearly Abu Simbel was built so far into Kush as a double dare of king Ramses II, aka as Ramses the Great, to the Kushites. Any of them gliding down the Nile toward Egypt would see this enormous temple along the banks of the Nile and think “What the hell?” And if they were bold enough to disembark to check it out, they would be faced with four 20 m-high statues of Ramses the Great towering over them. Trembling they would walk between the legs of the innermost two statues, through a corridor where the only decoration is a long row of Kushite captives (you can tell they are African blacks from the curly heads and the distinctive facial features), being dragged on a line by the victorious Ramses. If by this time they have not peed in their pants they would enter the great hall, where the Egyptian success at the battle of Kadesh is told in exquisite and painful detail, showing Ramses victorious over the Hittite army (the Hittites were the modern Syrians), and culminating on a tableau where Ramses is rubbing elbows with the three main gods. In short, this was Ramses’ way of warning “all ye who cross this gate” that they better turn back because ahead they could only look forward to defeat and slavery.

There is a second temple at Abu Simbel. It is the temple that Ramses II built to honor the great love of his life, Nefertari (which means “The Beautiful Has Come”). Nefertari was his Great Wife, and although he had many secondary wives and concubines, from whom he begat more than 50 children, Ramses loved and honored her above everyone else. The temple is less imposing than the main temple, but it is lovely in its reliefs, and when you leave and take a look back at it, you cannot help but sigh looking at the romantic inscription in it portico: Nefertari – She for whom the sun does rise.

Lost in reflection I wandered back into the commercial annex to the temple complex, and got there just as a movie about the archaeological rescue of Abu Simbel was starting to play. I knew of course that the temple had been salvaged from being covered by the rising waters of Lake Nasser in the mid 1960’s, but I had no idea how this had been accomplished. In fact, looking at the exquisite reliefs in both temples it is hard to imagine that they had been cut into blocks at some time past. But cut they were, with wireline saws and with regular lumberjack saws, and in a display of craftsmanship they were moved a hundred meters up the hill to be assembled again in such a way that you cannot see the seams! Rightfully, UNESCO and the contractors from five countries who did the work can claim to have saved a priceless jewel of the patrimony of humanity.

Long bus ride back through the desert, arrival to Aswan, quick walk through the souq (market) and its magnificent mounds of spices and dry hibiscus flowers (jamaica para nosotros los mexicanos), and I finally landed in the welcoming magic carpet of the felucca that was going to be my home over the next three days. Feluccas are the graceful sailing boats that ply the Nile. Their broad beams trigger images of luxurious carpeted platforms where Cleopatra may have lain as she traveled downstream (north) to meet the Roman conquerors.

The company included two Australian couples, two Canadian girls, a German couple, an American woman, a Chilean guy, and yours truly. The felucca is under the capable command of Reis Awat, and he is “helped” by his two apprentices Ala and Yossuf. Reis Awat (i.e., Captain Awat) is a small wiry old man, who can read the river like a book. He is a devout Muslim, and as the first afternoon call to prayer resonates through the valley he lays down his best robe to use as a praying mat. The first afternoon call to prayer is also the first call to drink for our Australian friends, who soon have the whole company playing a drinking game. It is really easy, but I am going to record it here for memory sake. All players sit around and draw a card in turn; depending on the card drawn the following happens (all seen from the standpoint of the person drawing the card):

1 – I designate one person to take a drink
2 – I designate two people to take a drink
3 – I designate three people to take a drink
4 – I become master, and when I do something silly, like putting my thumb against my forehead, everyone has to do the same. Last one to react takes a drink
5 – Social! Everyone takes a drink.
6 – Rhyme time. I say a word or a sentence, and everyone in turn has to keep the rhyme going. First one to be speechless takes a drink.
7 – Categories. Say cities in Egypt. First one to falter takes a drink.
8 – Rule. I set a silly rule, like no laughing allowed. Everyone who laughs takes a drink until a new law gets proclaimed by someone drawing an 8.
9 – Everyone on the downwind side of the boat takes a drink
10 – All Americans (from the continent America) take a drink
11 – All Europeans and Australians take a drink
12 – Queen. All girls take a drink
13 – King. All guys take a drink

Kind of fun!

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