Exploring the Upper Nile
In the grand scheme of things, the Egyptians were fairly competent builders. Not many ancient civilisations are able to match the sheer size and number of monuments constructed by the peoples of the Nile over a 3,000 year period. Although the Pyramids in Cairo are a good glimpse into the Egyptian's engineering prowess, you need to head south before you can fully immerse yourself in the wonders of the Egyptian empire. Most tourists head to the ancient capital of Thebes (modern day Luxor), but we set our sights first on the town of Aswan. Our sleeper train arrived in Aswan early in the morning, and we were able to settle in to our hotel and take a walk along the Nile. The Nile in Aswan is like the river we had imagined, with banks of long reeds and fellucas criss crossing the water. But we were not simply in Aswan to gaze across the river, we had bigger things in mind.
In the 1960's the town of Aswan was the site of the ambitious Aswan Dam project. As is often the case with dams, a number of buildings faced the reality of complete submersion. In this case however, the buildings in question were thousand year old temples. Fortunately, these temples were able to be moved from the path of the flood waters and now sit high and dry, out of place but no less magnificent. Our destination on this trip was the massive temple of Abu Simbel. Moved piece by piece over 60 meters higher and 200 meters back from its original location and reconstructed on an artificial hill out in the desert the temple now sits looking out over the lake which would have covered it for good. The temple was built by Ramesses II, one of the greatest Pharaohs of Egypt. Prolific in all things (he reigned for 67 years, fathered over 100 children and oversaw the construction of some of Egypt's most impressive temples), he was not one to do things by halves, and at Abu Simbel this is more than obvious. The entrance to the temple is guarded by four 20m high statues of the Pharaoh himself, gazing benevolently down upon you. Once inside, the walls are carved with murals showing Ramesses II in all his glory, smiting his enemies and driving them from the battlefield. It's no wonder that the Pharaohs were so revered and feared.
The size of modern Egypt makes any inter-city trip a substantial endeavour. To get between Aswan and Luxor, one must travel 180km down river. To complicate matters further, the Egyptian 'tourist police' only permit tourists to travel on specific modes of transport. With time up our sleeves we chose the more relaxing option, a multi-day cruise down the Nile. In Aswan a plethora of cruise ships line the shores of the river, making round trips from Luxor to Aswan and back. We picked out a ship from amongst the crowd and went aboard to inspect. With a bit of sweet talking, we were able to land ourselves a two night trip up the Nile for a more than reasonable price. Cruising the Nile was nothing short of fantastic, and gave us a glimpse into the life of Egyptian people outside the regular tourist sites. As our ship cut through the slow moving waters of the great river, we were able to watch local farmers tending their cattle and tilling their fields. The views were enthralling, the food was great (especially after months of boiled egg and bread for breakfast), and we had excellent company as we ended up sharing the boat with some travellers we had met on our trip to Abu Simbel!
Although relaxing and sunning ourselves along the Nile was great, the highlight of the cruise was undoubtedly our visit to the Temple of Horus, at Edfu. A Ptolomeic temple (built by the Greek dynasty of Pharaohs), it is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. The temple entrance is awe inspiring. Walking inside the temple you are surrounded by a forest of towering pillars, supporting a roof covered in beautiful hieroglyphs, many still sporting remnants of their original colours. Best of all, most of the people on the boat decided not to visit the temple, 6:30am was too early for them I guess, so we had the temple almost completely to ourselves! We both agree that it was the most impressive temple of our trip to Egypt.
After two days of river relaxation we disembarked from our ship in Luxor, refreshed and ready for what lay ahead. We had heard stories of Luxor on our travels. Rumours and dark tales of the hassling that we could expect in the town. Some claimed it was the worst hassling in the whole of Egypt, some even the worst in the world. We thought we were prepared, but we weren't. You can't walk 5 meters in Luxor without attracting some kind of attention. Whether they want you to come into their taxi, their store, their restaurant, or ride in the ever present horse and carriage, the hassle never stops. To make matters worse, it almost feels as though every person on the street has learnt from the same English phrasebook, firing off one liners which are funny until you've heard them for the 100th time! "Walk like an Egyptian!". "Australia! Kangaroo! Kangaroo!". Walking outside your hotel you feel like fresh meat cast into a lion's den. Everybody wants a piece.
But, once you can see past the touts and the taxi drivers, Luxor has an abundance of amazing ancient sites to explore. At the top of the list is the Valley of the Kings, the burial site of some of Egypt's most famous rulers, including Tutankhamen and Ramesses II. Only a few tombs are opened at one time (and your ticket will only get you into three of them. Choose wisely!), but those which we saw were stunning. The roofs of the chambers are painted blue to mimic the night sky, speckled with yellow to represent the stars, and the walls are plastered with pictures still in their original yellows, reds and blues. Visiting Tutankhamen's tomb was particularly interesting, to be able to see the tiny burial room where the huge cache of treasures was uncovered. On the other side of the Nile to the Valley of the Kings lies the Temple of Karnak, considered one of the largest temple complexes in the world. Like most attractions in Egypt the temple is swarmed by tourist as the day wears on (even with the tourists numbers down), so we decided to get in early. We walked through Luxor towards the temple at 5:30 in the morning, even too early for the taxi drivers to be out hassling us, arriving just in time for the opening. Once we arrived, we realised the early start was all worth it. We were able to wander the grounds of the temple by ourselves, marvelling at the Hypostyle hall filled with 134 columns, and the grand entrance promenade lined with sphinxes. Although Karnak is not as well preserved as other temples we had seen (such as that at Edfu), the sheer size of the complex was amazing. The temple was added to continuously across the reign of many Pharaohs, who constructed pools, temples and obelisks across the complex. We left the temple just as the tour groups were starting to arrive, we timed it perfectly!
Despite the amazing sights surrounding the town, we were quite relieved to leave Luxor. After awhile even the most hardened traveller gets worn down by the constant harassment, and you get to a point where you just want to hide inside your hotel and not come out! We had a nice dinner with James and Sumi, our friends from the cruise, before we left. As we were saying goodbye they were apprehended by an enterprising carriage driver. It was a fitting way to say goodbye to Luxor.
Some observations from the Upper Nile:
1. Sometimes it's worth just taking a carriage ride, it'll give you a bit of peace a quiet!
2. Don't believe when somebody tells you a place is closed. Always check for yourself.
3. Harden your emotions. People will do anything to pull at your heart strings.