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Aswan

The foreign visitor is paralysed by boundless wonder of the visual tranquillity that Aswan exudes, especially after experiencing the chaotic inferno that is Cairo. I went to bed amid the incessant ugliness of the sprawling Giza suburbs and woke up to views of paradisiacal Nile-side landscape. Upon exiting the train station, I was astonished by the dramatically contrasting condition of the Nile and the imagery of its surrounding vegetation and landforms. Aswan is a relatively small city that primarily occupies the East Bank of the Nile in Southern Egypt. Numerous islands of varying size are scattered throughout the river in the Aswan locality. The West Bank is virtually uninhabited and features towering sand dunes that descend precipitously into the Nile. Aswan is the first settlement after the High Dam and consequently the water of the Nile is unexpectedly pristine. It is plied by literally hundreds of feluccas (the traditional Egyptian sailing vessels) and is bordered by thickets of reeds and palms that are bursting with vibrant shades of green. Accumulatively, the phenomenal spectacle is most beguiling, considering that the scenery can be enjoyed directly from within a modern Egyptian city. To remind you though that Aswan is very much a modern Egyptian city, the foreign visitor is followed by the irksome hasslers from Cairo.

Immediately opposite the waterfront of Aswan’s East Bank is spear-shaped Elephantine Island, which is the largest and most populated of the area’s islands. It was historically occupied by the region’s most important settlements, including a Nubian town on the Southern end of the island. I visited the skeletal remains of the town’s foundations as my concentration and consciousness gradually deteriorated in the searing heat of the Aswani afternoon. Please refrain from convincing yourselves that I perpetually complain about the weather because generally I find that hot temperatures provide satisfactory conditions. Over 40 degrees Celsius in the harsh desert environs with minimal semblances of shade exceeds my tolerable thresholds. My exploration of the ruins basically comprised of pouncing between large stone blocks or pillars and hiding behind them from the blazing sun. One of the more intriguing aspects of the site was the Nile-o-meter, which the Ancient Nubians utilised to gauge the height of the river. This comprised of a wall that surrounded a body of water that was connected to the Nile presumable by a pipe or some sort of opening. The water-level was thus equal to the river, from which they could measure the height from existing indicators on the wall. I was too frazzled to comprehend anything else I saw. I also learnt my lesson and did not attempt sightseeing in the afternoon for the next week in Upper Egypt.

The constituent reason why most travellers take the fourteen hour train trip to Aswan is to join the four hour police convoy escort to Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border. Local Egyptians inform that the convoy exists merely because of the previous regime’s rhetoric about the threat of terrorism from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if truthfulness existed in such assertions, the security measure seems rather insipid since there are only police cars at the head and rear of the convoy and it probably exacerbates the threat by establishing a reliably known time of departure and route for all the tourist vehicles. Nevertheless, the convoy worked in delivering me to the iconic statues without a terrorist in sight. The temples of Abu Simbel were constructed nearly three and a quarter millennia ago during the reign of Ramses II who is widely regarded as Ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaoh. The temples were carved from mountainside facing the Nile and were situated in the Southern extremities of the Egyptian Empire. They are guarded by the famous colossal statues of Ramses and his Queen Nefertiti, which are incredibly imposing and demonstrate the power of the pharaoh to would-be invaders. The statues and the temples were painstakingly relocated by UNESCO, block by block, to higher ground in the 1960s because of the creation of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake, from the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The remarkable feet of engineering effectively inspired the foundation of the World Heritage list. There are four statues which guard the entrance to the large temple (three of Ramses and one of Nefertiti) and each of them are extraordinarily well preserved except for one which has lost its head. The interior is elaborately decorated with ornate carvings and the vivid colouration of depictions has survived. There is also a small temple which is guarded by a series of statues I won’t pretend to identify and features a similar interior. Since we departed ridiculously early at 3:30am in the morning, the visit to Abu Simbel was effectively over by 9:30am; leaving me to ponder for an entire day as to why my sleep needed to be so ruthlessly sabotaged.

Despite my exhaustion, I admirably adopted the attitude that I should shun comfort and contentment and courageously sought to make the most of my time by partaking in the quintessential Aswan experience of riding a felucca. I hired a boat that was captained by a local Nubian who acted exactly as I expected him to by demanding more money than the 40 Egyptian pounds we agreed upon. This occurred because the fare of was for one hour, which I negotiated unbeknownst that the journey would actually take closer to three. He performed an ultimately unsuccessful hissy-fit as I handed him 60 ponds once I had disembarked. The voyage itself was a pleasant and serene experience, if also frustratingly slow. The captain asserted that the water in Aswan is safe enough to swim in, but with extreme difficulty I managed to employ precautionary restraint and only stuck my legs in (so I have at least “touched” the Nile). The trip circled Elephantine Island which afforded exceptional views of the dunes and reeds on the West Bank. The felucca briefly stopped at Kitchener Island so I could visit the Aswan Botanical Gardens. This was established by the British in the late 19th century and is a manicured, lushes and tropical oases in the middle of the desert. It was surreal to see a vast and healthy river flowing through the harsh desert, a phenomena best experienced in Aswan.

The best meal I ate in Egypt was beside the Nile with a panoramic view of the river, Elephantine Island and the West Bank behind. I had a delicious babganouj (eggplant dip) to start and a richly flavoured fish tajine, which was cooked in a similar way to the Moroccan equivalents but with different flavouring. While in Aswan, I also had a brilliant Egyptian-style pizza which was similar to a pie as the filling was enclosed with a thin and flaky pastry the whole way around.

Aswan boasts an exceptionally beautiful setting and the views from the rooftop balcony will forever be seared in my memory. The heat though was rather prohibitive which compelled me to ditch plans to visit other attractions in the area like the temple at Philae.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 15:29 Archived in Egypt

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