Rookie traveller mistake no.1: Not bringing a cardi on an air conditioned overnight train. We were travelling from Cairo to Aswan, a long journey. I wrapped myself in a thin scarf and shivered through the night. I would also advise a fold out seat – as it was we were in a non-reclinable chair the whole way. It was not the comfiest of journeys.
Rookie traveller mistake no.2:
Forgetting where I was and consuming a limp bit of salad by the river which subsequently threatened to ruin the next day’s trip to Abu Simbel. I spent that evening curled up in bed with pain rippling across my stomach and so cannot really say much about Aswan itself.
However, I was not travelling all that way to miss out on one of the must-see sights, and so before dawn I steeled myself and we piled into buses which travelled in a convoy behind police escorts. The 50 degree heat ensured that there were few other tourists at the site, as it had done at the Pyramids.
In 1964 the temples of the Abu Simbel complex were under threat. They had stood undisturbed for thousands of years and now the construction of the Aswan dam and the subsequent creation of Lake Nasser was about to submerge the temples along with many villages in the area. So UNESCO spent four years painstakingly taking the temples apart and re-building them on top of the cliff that they were originally carved into. The whole process cost in excess of 40 million dollars. Having seen the temples, it was money well spent.
Ramesses II was the Pharaoh who built Abu Simbel, probably in around 1260BC. The name of the complex has nothing to do with any Pharaoh and is, apocryphally, the name of a small boy who first showed archaeologists the way to the temples in 1813.
The four colossi sitting outside the temple are representations of Ramesses II. The statues by the legs of the colossi are the Pharaoh’s closest family members. At his feet you can see his defeated enemies. Incredibly, inside the temples colour can still be seen as the sun has not been able to bleach the paint. Detailed hieroglyphs tell the story of the Pharaoh’s life and deeds on the walls. In its original location the sun would illuminate the gods carved at the back of the interior chamber on the Pharoah’s birthday and the date of his coronation. It is now thought that due to the complex’s new location that the dates are one day out.
The Small Temple is dedicated to Nefertari, Ramesses’ wife, and is one of only two examples of a Pharaoh dedicating a temple to his spouse. It is also the only place where the wife is represented on the same scale as her husband. Very progressive of Ramesses!
Elephantine Island homestay
On our way back we took a boat trip to the very scenic Philae temple before returning to Aswan. Philae is another temple which was moved by UNESCO in the 60s, and is definitely worth a stop. The arrival by boat is very picturesque and the temple, dedicated to the goddess Isis, is full of myths and legends. I loved how you could see Napoleonic-era graffiti carved into some of the pillars.
Back at Aswan, instead of staying another night in the hotel, we stayed on Elephantine Island with a local family. Their home was nestled down on the waterfront, so we arrived directly by boat. Colourful murals adorned the white walls and local artefacts were displayed inside.
After taking a walking tour of the village, we met our hosts’ pet Nile crocodile. We were all able to get a bit too close to this little guy.
Later we watched the sun go down over the tomb-filled dunes opposite Aswan which were lit, eerily, at night. We were offered delicious food and we settled down to talking with our host and the village elder. He was an extremely knowledgeable man who was able to offer stories about our countries’ interactions with Egypt throughout history (UK; France; Greece; Australia). The homestay was a wonderful experience and we felt very welcome. Other than bartering for souvenirs and ordering food and taxis, we hadn’t spoken to any Egyptians so it was good to sit down and meet some local people properly. After talking until the small hours we rolled out our sleeping bags in one of the cool rooms and passed a peaceful night.
Read about the next part of our adventure when we boarded a felucca boat and began a journey up the Nile.