Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Aswan

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The night train from Cairo arrived in Aswan around 8:30; we’d been fortunate, as delays are common, but we were on time.  Mudi managed to arrange an early check-in for us at our hotel, which got a cheer, as that meant showers.  We regrouped at 11 to take a boat to Philae temple.

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Across the water, it looked small, but as we got closer, it became clear how large and extensive it was.  The entire site has been moved, as the original location is now under water in lake Nasser, where the Nile has been dammed.

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The temple is centered around Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus.  Mudi gave us an overview of the conflict between Set and Osiris, and later Horus, and helped cement the storyline for us by using members of the group as representations of the characters (below, Chris is standing in for Set, and David for Osiris, with Mudi posing our fight).  Then we wandered in awe.

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Many of the carved figures had been painstakingly destroyed by several flavors of iconoclasts (real ones, not the watered down, modern connotation of a non-constructive social critic) that objected to the carving of likenesses.  Fortunately, some of the taller, more grand carvings were beyond their reach.  Also, flood waters had washed away much of the pigment before the temple was relocated.  Despite all of that, it was still amazing.

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It was also quite hot—it reached 113—and very dry, and we couldn’t drink water fast enough to stay hydrated.  The group began seeking out the shady spots in the temple near the end of our time there.  In the afternoon, we took a boat to one of the islands in the Nile.  It had been owned by Lord Kitchener, but abandoned in 1953 with independence from British rule.  Lord Kitchener had created a private garden on the island, cultivating as many kinds of plants from around the world as he could, and the Egyptian government turned it into a public botanic garden, as well as a research station for crops and plant biology.

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The green belt on either side of the Nile is an oasis to begin with, but this island was particularly lush, and was a striking contrast to the dunes on the far side of the river bank. 

The furry coverings didn’t end with the taxi drivers in Cairo; our ferry boat had an outboard motor covered in fur.

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We motored past the St. Simon Monastery on the west bank, and the Old  Cataract Hotel (pictured below) on the east, which is where Agatha Christie stayed while writing Death on the Nile.  Fortunately, we had an ebook version on our devices, and we both read it while we were there.  It was neat to be seeing the places in the story.

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We landed on a larger island, and walked through a Nubian settlement which had very ornate doors.

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We ate dinner with a local family there.  The children and Mudi doted on each other—it was quite sweet.  He definitely had a good, trusting relationship with each of the families we visited.

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After dinner, a local henna artist painted several of the women in our group, while the rest of us chatted on their rooftop in a slight breeze, which was a relief in the heat.

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The next day, very early (3:30 am), we drove to Abu Simbel, and everyone but David and our driver slept in the mini-bus.  Our bus was part of an convoy, not due to security, but simply the remoteness (4 hour drive, one-way) of the area we were driving though.  If something happened to one of the vehicles, either the others could assist, or at least they could relay a call for help once they reached Abu Simbel.  As such, all of the tourists for the day arrive at the same time, and it was the only time we felt crowded at a site in Egypt.  It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if tourism were at its peak.

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Abu Simbel is another site that was moved to avoid flooding—the original site is now entirely underwater, as opposed to 1/3 covered at high flood like Philae island.  The visitor’s center had very interesting coverage of the move, which got funding from UNESCO at the last moment, so it was sort of an exciting race against the rising waters of the newly completed Aswan high dam.  Some of the workers were just building a  that was dedicated to building a coffer dam around the site, and pumping out the water that seeped through, as the other teams were working well below the water level of lake Nasser by the end of the project.  Once you knew the hill behind the monuments was artificial, it did look odd from any angle but the front, but the rest of the site showed no signs of being chopped into 20-30 ton blocks and re-assembled like a massive LEGO block sculpture.

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We were not permitted to take pictures inside the temple (for vague reasons, which some of the more oblivious tourists in other groups tried to ignore) but there was no restrictions on taking pictures of the inside from outside, which were pretty interesting anyway.  The large temple was surrounded by four massive statues of Rameses II, and the smaller by statues of his favored wife, Nefertari.

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It was an incredible day drip, but as with Philae Temple, the heat just kept rising, and we were all wrung out and ready for the air-conditioned mini-bus when it was time to head back.

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In the evening, we visited a Coptic church in Aswan.  Mudi described how open and tolerant the three major religions in Egypt were of each other.  He also dispelled what he felt were some of the myths about Islam.  Initially, we only talked in the courtyard outside, and then visited the church basement, where preparations were starting for a wedding; it was really just a reception hall.  Lana asked if we were allowed into the church above, and after Mudi asked, they graciously let us in, though the women needed to cover their heads and shoulders.  The church was ornate, and we felt fortunate.  We sat quietly in the pews just looking, and then quietly talked about the church a little more with Mudi.  There were no concerns with photography inside, so after a while, we all wandered and took pictures.  The low angle sunlight was really a really nice perk.

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The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is part of the Oriental Orthodox Church—not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The Coptic church split over doctrine disputes about the trinity (the Copts were Unitarians before it was hip) in the 5th century, where the Eastern Orthodox Church split in the 11th century.  In the first centuries AD, the majority of Egyptians belonged to the Coptic church, but economic polices following the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century led to a gradual conversion, and today only 10% of the population belongs to the church.  However, with the exception of some isolated outbreaks of fundamentalist violence recently, relations between Islam and the Coptic Church have been excellent.

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We walked through the grounds of the Old Cataract Hotel, which were quite fancy, and then settled down for drinks at an outside table overlooking the Nile and watched sunset.  We were going to visit Aswan’s market after dinner, and Mudi had very explicit precautions for us: we were to leave any expensive cameras, as well as all passports, wallets, credit/debit cards at the hotel, and just take a small amount of cash, $5-10 depending on what we planned to buy, and we should divide that up into different pockets.  We were a little edgy at first, but at least the two of us felt pretty comfortable with the crowd reading we were getting. 

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The market wasn’t that crowded, so pick-pocketing was less of a concern.  It was an interesting contrast to the touts at tourist sites, as most of the shop owners were selling things for locals, and we weren’t really on their sales radar.  The man in the center of the photo above was looking at us hopefully, however, and he wanted us to know (once he got Mudi’s attention and translation) that he was selling luffa sponges (to his right).

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There were some clothes and hard goods for sale, but the bulk of the stalls sold food—ingredients, not ready-to-eat foods.  We wandered around and looked at various stalls. Most everyone in our group was on the hunt for something. Mudi found he had a difficult time keeping all of us ducks in a row, having to chase after Chris, who was in search of a cat statue, then helping Wendy negotiate a purchase (not that Wendy needed much help—she was born to bargain).

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There were several spice shops, and we stopped at one where Mudi knew the owner well, and he described many of the spices he was selling.  Most of what you see on the right side of the photo below are heaps of hibiscus petals, used to steep hibiscus tea.  We had some of it in various places, both hot and cold, and we found it to be very refreshing, almost like cranberry juice, when cold.

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On our way out of the market Lana happened to be behind David and noticed someone across from our group who had zeroed in on David, or more specifically, his pockets.  Lana stepped forward a couple of steps to block the pickpocket’s view. Sure enough, he passed behind us and headed on for easier prey. It was honestly the first and only time that we really could tell that someone was actually casing us, in our whole year abroad. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but if it did we weren’t aware of it.  It did make us realize that all of Mudi’s instructions about what and what not to bring to the market, and how much money to carry, were for legitimate reasons rather than just to scare us.  We followed behind him like a little row of ducklings, exhausted by the last couple of days. The next morning we knew were were in for a change of pace, as we’d be spending the day cruising down the Nile on a felucca, and only seeing what could be seen while reclining on a boat on the river.  We couldn’t wait.