venturing through upper egypt
this weekend maria and i took a little trip upstream, to abu simbel, aswan and luxor. it's interesting, i haven't really thought of egypt as pharaonic since before i ever moved here. in the past year and a half that whole gods-and-temples-and-statues side of egypt hasn't really been at the forefront of my experiences. so this weekend was almost refreshing- a chance to see egypt the way i once did. historical. looming. even mythical.
in all our trip lasted three days. we flew first to abu simbel. you know, here in cairo the Mighty Nile is, well, sort of murky and grey and rather narrow- and honestly it is rumored to mutate your genes if you are foolish enough to drink it. in light of this my first moment of amazement came as we flew towards abu simbel over the great endless sea of sand- i was gazing at these waves of sand as far as my eye could see- it was gorgeous- and suddenly the continuity of the landscape fell apart and here cutting through the desert was a huge body of water. blue water. i was confused- could this blue blue water be the nile? there was water everywhere and it looked nothing like the nile in cairo. and surrounded by sand nonetheless. it was vast.
and in the middle of this, an airport. i felt as though we were landing in the middle of nowhere- and i guess literally we were.
abu simbel was just what i was expecting- enormous statues guarding the entrances to wonderfully detailed tombs, with carvings on the walls everywhere i turned. it was delightful- i felt the dust of the ages getting on my jeans as i shuffled around, taking it in.
we then flew to aswan, which by far was the most picturesque place i've seen so far in this country- the red sea is gorgeous, yes, but aswan with its palm trees and islands and mountains and again that blue blue nile- it was beautiful. the nile looked like a lake- there were parts where i couldn't see the other side! and when we walked into our hotel room and threw open the curtains to see our view, i saw the exact picture that is on the cover of the lonely planet egypt book- elephantine island in the middle of the water, flanked by feluccas sailing lethargically by. it is my theory that the photographer who took that picture MUST have been staying in our very room ;)
that first day we went to elephantine island by ferry, and entered the maze of a nubian village. this village was incredible- endless, random alleys, each ending in pockets of small houses seemingly built into the mountain itself. the houses were brightly colored and very clean, despite the fact that the alleys themselves were often little more than mud paths. and in each alley we'd find the nubians going about their day- i felt like i had walked into another time. this village with its greenery and its gardens and its barefoot children seemed isolated to me- i couldn't imagine that just across the water there were visitors from every country, and yet this place seemed so untouched. there was something about it- charming is not the word i want to use. it makes the village sound simple. it wasn't simple- it was throbbing with tradition and sound and life- i felt that even though i was walking right through their neighborhoods, i had no power to taint them with my world. they seemed untouchable in theirs.
we walked to the edge of this island and found a man in a little rowboat willing to take us to the next island, kitchener's. the man's name was baha bin aly and he was great fun. just a very cool cat; definitely one of my favorite people of this trip. after we strolled through kitchener's we took a felucca back to our hotel, and while we were on the felucca the sun set- the evening couldn't have been more picturesque.
the next day we did the nubian museum and then checked out the fatimid cemetary. this cemetery has mausoleums that date back to the 9th century, and yet people are still being buried there today. what a sense of history. and art, for that matter. there were as many unmarked heaps of dirt as there were elaborate tombs, so that several times i found myself jumping to the side in alarm at the thought that i was casually strolling over someone's grave. it was mad.
we got to luxor late that night, and the next morning we were out the door by eight am (which is darn impressive). by ten am the heat was already beginning to intensify and we were mighty pleased at the way we were beating the crowds. nefertari's tomb is apparently one of the most popular sites in egypt, and maria and i had the entire tomb to ourselves. nobody was in there but us and the two keepers of the tomb. it was magic. we were able to just walk around in silence and take it all in- the atmosphere was perfect. this beating the crowd streak lasted for most of the day- at the workmen's village it was the same. here we visited ptolemy's temple, which was probably one of my favorite sites of the trip. it is just a very lovely temple, its building still whole and its colors still vivid. here i found several carvings of maat, the goddess of truth and the personification of the cosmic order. i like that thought- the personification of the cosmic order.
anyway then we went on to the valley of the queens, and hatshepsut's temple. and finally the valley of the kings, where we visited amenophis III and some other dead men. it was all very colorful and ancient.
we finished off luxor after lunch, with karnak and then the temple of luxor. this last temple we did at night, so everything was lit up with these little lights- it was beautiful. so much more so than if we had seen it by day. everything just looked so much more significant. i took a picture in one place where the almost-full moon was shining right above a high column, and i remember thinking that that same moon had shone in the exact same place once over that very column, but when the column was brand new and perfectly whole. it was a nice thought. same moon, same column.
one of the memorable parts of doing luxor was catching the ferry from the west bank over to the east bank. maria got on the ferry, but since i was behind her it moved too far away for me to get on- so this old man who was with us led me to the side of the ferry, and i jumped onto a side railing and from there crawled under the bars and onto the boat. it was crazy. but what i remember is the way all of the people sitting on the bench onto which i was scrambling instantly moved over to help me get on the boat- it never fails. just when i'm totally indignant at the lack of personal space here in egypt, just when the incessant harrassment and hawking and unneccesarily probing personal questions on the part of taxi drivers, vendors, and just random bored people have thoroughly irritated me, i am made to realize yet again that the idea of personal space is replaced by the notion of brotherhood. i have yet to be in trouble in egypt and find nobody to help me. nobody thinks twice here about helping someone else out- they're all in it together and sometimes that can be very warming.
in all by the end of the trip i was pretty content- glad i'd seen what i saw, but anxious to get back home to cairo. where the nile is murky just like i'm used to!