Egyptian Nubia: Aswan and Abu Simbel

April 28, 2021: Aswan

After a day exploring New Cairo with my friend Murilo, I was met late at night by my girlfriend Maisie and school friends Maren and Bruno (who you might remember from Ilha Grande in Brazil). We spent the night at an airport hotel before catching a 6:30 am domestic flight to Aswan.

The Cairo airport experience was interesting. We had to go through two security screenings: one at the entrance to the airport and once at the gate. Both were very thorough. I suppose this makes sense given the large number of terrorist attacks in the country. Interestingly enough, the guy going through before me had a pistol. He must have been an undercover police officer. 

The flight south took about an hour. A fun fact is that the plane had a window in the bathroom! 

Lake Nasser

We then landed in Aswan. Aswan is a city of approximately 1 million people.

Hello Aswan!

Aswan is located at the First Cataract (mini waterfall) of the Nile. The cataract was covered up by the construction of two major dams: the British-built Aswan Dam and the Aswan High Dam built by the Egyptian government in the 1950´s. The construction of the Aswan High Dam created the massive Lake Nasser, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world.  

The First Cataract marked the tradition southern boundary of Ancient Egypt and the start of the region known as Nubia, which extends all the way to Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Nubia has a history as ancient and extensive as Egypt. While Egypt ruled Nubia for many years, there was an 800-year period where the Nubian kingdom of Kush ruled Egypt. 

Today, Nubians are a unique ethnic group and culture. Their population is split between Egypt and Sudan. They speak a language called Nubian that currently is not written down (there used to be a Nubian alphabet, but it was lost to time). Nubians have darker skin and look more “African” than Arab Egyptians. 

Our guesthouse was owned by Nubians. A shuttle driver picked us up from the airport and drove us into town. His car has many Rastafarian decorations, and he had an eclectic playlist spanning from the Titanic theme song to Disturbia by Rihanna. 

Once in Aswan, we took a public ferry across the Nile River to Elephantine Island. There we walked 5 minutes to the guesthouse.

Typical scene on Elephantine Island

Elephantine Island has a long history, but most recently it has become the home to Nubians who were displaced by the creation of Lake Nasser. 

Our hotel was owned by a Nubian man and his brother who lives in Denmark. The Danish brother spoke perfect English and acted as our translator via WhatsApp. Because we arrived at 9:00, our room was not ready yet and we had to wait until the person checked out. In the meantime, the staff made us breakfast. 

We soon learned that our room was occupied by a kooky middle-aged Chinese American lady who has been traveling for over a year. When people travel for a really really long time, they often lose sense of reality. She was clearly upset that she had to leave the guesthouse. She first questioned why we would want to spend so much money ($10) on a private room. Eventually, she asked if Maisie and I would be willing to share the room with her. After being rebuffed, she was determined to stay in the room until forced to leave.

We asked the staff when the room would be ready so we could plan our day. The staff told us she would be out in 5 minutes, but the time kept dragging on. Every time we would ask, we would hear a “5 more minutes”. We eventually learned through other guests that the official checkout time was 11:00. It then took the staff 30 minutes to clean the rooms. There was clearly a miscommunication because had the staff told us that the room would be ready at 11:30, we would have gladly left our bags and walked around. During this time, I was able to finalize our tour to Abu Simbel and shuttle to Luxor. Anyways, we eventually dropped our bags off in the very nice rooms and got on with our day. 

Finally, we got to walk around Elephantine Island, which is named for its tusk shape. The island is car-free and felt like an African village (as compared to the Arab/Bedouin villages found in most of Egypt). It is inhabited almost exclusively by Nubians. We wandered our way to the southern end of the island, which has ancient Egyptian ruins. The ticket included entry to both the ruins and the local museum. Entry was 100 Egyptian pounds per person, about $6 USD. We started with the one-room museum. 

Annoyingly, we were forced to go on a guided tour. I had been warned that everyone in Egypt will ask you for money, so I did not want to take the tour. Unfortunately, we had no choice. While I did not like the tour (probably because of my mindset), Maisie, Bruno, and Maren enjoyed it. At the end, he indeed asked for money and we gave him a tip. 

Next, a different guide led us into the ruins. The Elephantine ruins contain multiple temples from 2,000-1,500 BC in various states of repair. The most important temples belonged to Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts of the Nile. Khnum reportedly lives on Elephantine. 

Elephantine Ruins

While it was not pointed out on our visit, Elephantine is also home to the ruins of a House of Yahweh, the Jewish God. The temple was built by Jews sometime around the 7th century BC, making it one of the oldest archaeological records of the Jewish people. The House of Yahweh was also described in detail in written records on papyrus. The Jews on Elephantine Island were mercenaries working on behalf of Egypt. They reportedly used the temple for animal sacrifices just like in the Temple in Jerusalem. The House of Yahweh was destroyed in 410 BC. 

Other highlights of the Elephantine tour included a cemetery of sacred rams and a Nilometer- an ancient tool used to measure the water level of the Nile. 

We then took the ferry into town and got lunch at a restaurant serving African spiced chicken. It was really delicious. 

African spiced chicken

Ignoring the sales touts of “which country are you from?” and the more innocent-sounding “welcome to Aswan”, we wandered our way through the town to the Unfinished Obelisk. 3,500 years ago, the ancient Egyptians were carving out what would have been the largest obelisk ever built. However, the rock cracked so they stopped their work. I could only wonder how the Egyptians planned to take the enormous stone chunk out of the quarry and get it to stand up.  

Because the obelisk is a bit far from the center of town, we decided to take tuk tuks to our next destination. We got ripped off for the ride, but it was fun to cruise around. Eventually, we reached the center of town and wandered into the souq. 

The Aswan souq (Arabic open-air market and great Scrabble word) is a menagerie of colors, sights and sounds. You can buy anything here from food to clothing to household goods. 

This souq was a mix between items for locals and items for tourists. The tourist vendors touted us. Some were aggressive, but some were funny. My favorite tout was “what can I do to take your money?”  I felt that the Aswan souq was a delight. It felt authentic. While most of the stores sold average items, there was one store which had authentic Nubian jewelry made in villages. Not surprisingly, the owner of the store was one of the few who did not tout us. He knew he had unique items.

Typical scene in the Aswan souq

After the souq, we walked down the Nile boardwalk to the Old Cataract Hotel, now owned by Sofitel. We were recommended to come here by another IESE student who visited Egypt in December. In order to enter the hotel, we had to prepay for 300 pounds ($20 USD) per person in credit to spend at a restaurant or shop. By Egyptian standards, this was a lot of money (for reference, our hotel room was 150 pounds). 

The hotel was beautiful and historic. It was built by the British in the 1800´s and has housed countless royals and celebrities. The architecture reminded me of country club in the US albeit with Arabic features. We got beers at their terrace and watched the sunset over the Nile.

Sunset from the Old Cataract hotel

Then, we got food in the lobby restaurant. The food was worse than anything I had had so far in Egypt, but catered to a Western palate. The highlight of our visit to the hotel was the French restaurant. We did not eat there because of the expensive price of the food and the formal dress code, but it is perhaps the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen. 

The French restaurant in the Old Cataract hotel

Just outside the hotel is the Coptic cathedral. Copts are a Christian ethnoreligious group unique to Egypt, Sudan and Libya. The Copts split from Catholicism during the Council of Chalcedon of 451 along with most of the Christian groups in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Copts make up somewhere between 10-15% of Egypt, which sounds like a small number, but is actually enormous considering that Egypt is home to over 100 million people. 

Despite being part of Egyptian society for nearly 2,000 years, Copts have regularly been persecuted by Egyptian government and people for centuries. As a result, they are very wary of outsiders. The current government of Egypt under Sisi is relatively supportive of Copts and has spent lots of money building new Coptic churches around the country and providing military protection of important Coptic sights. This is because Copts are wealthier than the Muslims in Egypt and have supported Sisi. 

To visit the cathedral, which turned out to be the world´s second-largest Coptic church, I had to pass by an armed military guard who took my passport. 

Once inside, I was shocked to see dozens of kids playing and families hanging out. This appeared to be the safe space where families could hang out away from Muslim rules in peace. Here in the safety of the church, Copts could drink alcohol, eat pork, and women could keep their hair uncovered without judgement. 

Inside, the cathedral looked like a large but simply decorated Orthodox church- especially compared to the fancy churches Maisie and I saw in Serbia. A prayer service was going on. The singing sounded very similar to Jewish prayers. 

Tired from a long day that started in Cairo, we took the ferry back and went to bed because tomorrow was going to be a big day.

April 29, 2021: Abu Simbel

The next morning, we got up at 6:00 to drive to Abu Simbel, reportedly the most magnificent Egyptian temple of them all. By 6:30, we were already across the river and into our private tour van that I had arranged through the guesthouse. The van drove us 3 hours south through the desert including a bathroom break. The road quality was very good. 

Eventually, we reached the town of Abu Simbel, just 25 kilometers from the Sudanese border.   

We parked in the gigantic empty lot south of the town.

Abu Simbel was built by the Pharaoh Ramses II in the year 1264 BC. During this time Egypt controlled Nubia (and its valuable mines) and wanted to impress the locals. The temples were built to commemorate a “victory” in the Battle of Kadesh over the Hittites, a people living in what now is Turkey and Syria. In reality, the battle was a stalemate that was ended through Ramses´ marriage to the daughter of the king of the Hittites. 

Abu Simbel was lost to time and the temple was covered by sand. It was rediscovered by the Swiss archaeologist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt in 1813.  

The story of Abu Simbel took an interesting turn in the 1950´s. Egypt was in the process of damming the Nile River at Aswan. The Aswan High Dam would provide power to millions of Egyptians. However, the dam would also lead to the creation of massive lake known as Lake Nasser, which meant that many villages and ancient Egyptian sights would be flooded. Abu Simbel would be one of the temple complexes that would be flooded and therefore destroyed by the lake. The world rallied to save Abu Simbel.

Over 4 years, a team of archaeologists working under the banner of UNESCO moved the temple piece by piece onto an artificial mountain built 200 meters back and above the level of the future lake. Abu Simbel was saved! The process of moving the is arguably as impressive as the construction of the temple itself. 

Backside of the artificial mountain created to rehouse Abu Simbel

The temple complex cost about 220 Egyptian pounds ($15 USD per person) and includes a guide who we also had to tip. After walking around the artificial mountain, we reached our first viewpoint of the temple. The massive 20-meter statues of Ramses protruding from the cliff were magnificent. 

Equally as magnificent was the fact that we were alone. Typically, Abu Simbel is overwhelmed with tour buses. However, due to COVID and the fact that our private shuttle left 2 hours later than most public tours meant that the place was a ghost town. 

Our guide explained that pharaohs are extremely self-centered, but Ramses was the most self-centered of them all. In fact, Ramses decided to declare himself an Egyptian god. The inside of the temple has numerous carvings of Ramses interacting with the gods and slaying enemies in battle – events that most likely never happened.

Ramses slaying a Hittite in battle while trampling over another

The entry hallway was lined with colossi of a hybrid Ramses/Osiris (god of the underworld)

Entry hallway

The inner sanctum contained statues of three gods: Ra, Amon, and Ptah plus Ramses who is a self-declared god. The temple was originally built so that on February 21 (the day Ramses ascended the throne) and October 21 (Ramses´ birthday), the sun would reach the inner sanctum and shine on three of the statues. Ptah´s statue remained unlit because he was a god connected to the underworld. When the temple was moved in the 1950´s, alignment of the temple changed so now the sun shines in on February 22 and October 22. 

The Inner Sanctum of Abu Simbel – Ptah is on the left

In short, the temple is one of the most incredible buildings I have ever seen. 

Next to the main temple is a second temple also carved into the rock. This one is dedicated to Neferteri, the favorite wife of Ramses (not to be confused with Nefertiti). In true self-centered Ramses fashion, the exterior of the temple contains 4 statues of Ramses and only 2 of Neferteri. The interior is very similar to the main Ramses temple. 

The Neferteri temple

We then drove the 3 hours back to Aswan. This time at the bathroom break stop, we witnessed a powerful desert mirage. 

Once back in Aswan, we stopped at the Philae Temple. This large temple is located on an island in the lake created by the original Aswan Dam. In a similar story to Abu Simbel, the temple was moved to higher ground to avoid destruction by the water.

Philae Temple on the island

Our ticket price interestingly did not include transport to the island. To reach the island, we had to pay a boat driver. The price was fixed at 175 pounds per boat according to a large sign. However, none of the boat drivers would accept the fixed price. We were originally offered a price of 400 pounds. After a lot of negotiating and yelling, we got to go for 200 pounds. I handed him the money fully expecting to be hijacked and forced to pay more money somewhere in the middle of the lake. Luckily that did not happen. 

The Philae Temple was built in the 7th century BC but most of the work was done during the Ptolemic Period, when Greeks ruled Egypt between 300 BC and the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC. The Greek influence was noticeable in the form of large columns.  

Main entrance to the Philae Temple with nice carvings

Back on the mainland, we got dropped off at the ferry around 4pm. We had not eaten all day and were starving. Maisie and I got KFC while Bruno and Maren ate at a local place. We then chilled at the guesthouse until dinner. 

For dinner we walked over to the Bob Marley guesthouse. For reasons I do not understand, Nubians LOVE Bob Marley. Many Nubians wore Rastafarian clothing and played Bob Marley music. This hotel had a rooftop restaurant with epic views of Aswan and a playlist of exclusively Bob Marley. We ate delicious tagines and drank beers overlooking the Nile. 

This was the perfect farewell to Aswan. Tomorrow, we were on our way to Luxor. 

Final Thoughts:

Aswan is a fantastic destination. The undoubted highlight is Abu Simbel, which despite being a 3-hour drive each way is well worth it. Philae was also good. While I did not go, I heard that the Nubian Museum in Aswan is quite good. I also enjoyed experiencing the Nubian culture. I found Nubians to be quite pleasant, friendly, and genuinely happy that tourists are coming to their land. 

With regards to the touts, it was not as bad as I was expecting. Yes, it is annoying to have to bargain everything and have people pester you all the time, but this is no worse than I have experienced elsewhere in Africa. If you say no a couple times, they will stop. Don´t let this stop you from coming to Aswan. 

Another thing to be aware of is the money. Cash is king here and there are very few places that accept credit cards. I think they only places I was able to pay with a credit card were KFC and the Sofitel Old Cataract. The entrance fees to all the temples really add up and it is very easy to run out of cash. ATMs are plentiful but only in the cities. The temples do not have ATMs. 

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