Cruising the Nile

Philae Temple on an island in the Nile
Safety tips in Arabic

Ug. No rest for the wicked, nor for us. Wake up calls hit us all at 3:15am. We showered and showed up for breakfast at 4:00am, and were on the busses by 4:30am. We went back to the airport,  checked in, went through security, flew to Aswan – about 1½ hours south of Cairo – baggage and got on more busses. Tara and I are exhausted. I saw the Nile through the haze from the airplane. Exciting!

We went from the airport to see the High Dam at Aswan, which was built after the Old Dam (construction between 1898-1902 by British Engineers). The structure is apparently 17 times the size of the Great Pyramid. It is not that impressive to me, but perhaps that is because I live in the western United States. Compared to Grand Coulee or the Hoover Dam, this is not much to look at. The problem is: there is a very low slope of hand-placed bricks alternating with paths that running in parallel lanes down to water level. It belies the height, which must be more than it seems. There were the ubiquitous stray dogs sleeping all over the slope of the dam, for example.

Not-so-interesting Aswan Dam

As seems to be the case with every dam, people here were forced to move or die in the flood. Adding to the disruption of the High Dam in Aswan is that ancient ruins tracking the great history of the people of Egypt were also flooded. Emergency action with international help allowed some of the most valuable artifacts, temples, and tombs to be rescued. Sadly, a list of the most valuable was saved, and the rest were swallowed by the Nile, where they remain today.

Tethers waiting to taxi tourists

After the dam we went to Philae temple of Isis. (Please see the image at the top) It is one temple that was rescued from flooding when the dam was built – taken from the low island it was on previously, and transferred to a nearby higher island. The best thing about going to see the temple, of course, is that it was by boat. We motored through the water of the Nile between the two dams. The air in Aswan is moister and clearer, and it was quite refreshing after the beige haze and smog of Cairo. I leaned over the side of the boat, but could not touch the water.

Our boat handlers
Wending our way toward Philae Temple

The temple itself is beautiful, and vies with my favourite stop so far. It’s hard to choose a fave of course, but the Philae temple boasts many many walls of hieroglyphics, and a fascinating combination of Egyptian and Roman work. For example, the columns in the long colonnade are covered in hieroglyphics and feature papyrus leaves or busts of Isis at the top instead of the more familiar Doric or Corinthian styles.

fascinating columns
different column

The temple is in pretty good shape, considering it bore years of flooding between the construction of the Old Dam and the High Dam, and then was deconstructed and rebuilt on another island. I was particularly impressed with how well the hieroglyphics remained in sharp detail to today, after thousands of years. This is a rare temple in its history of use because, while all the other Egyptian temples were eventually closed when Christianity moved in, this one stayed active the longest because the Nubian leader was very tied to the local area, the local gods, and to the people of the area. Finally, the leader converted to Christianity along with most of the rest of Egypt, and he closed Philae. However, he reopened it soon after with a dedication ceremony, converting it into a church. At the entrances to doorways, there are small Maltese crosses carved over the top of the Egyptian work to indicate that it served a new function. One doorway carries a long Greek inscription by some dignitary, stating that it gives him great pleasure to dedicate the new church.

Exquisite raised relief inside Philae Temple
I was surprised to see such sharp detail


Isis and Horus
Small temple next to Philae

I could have taken a hundred photos there – the scenes and hieroglyphics on the walls and the columns were so captivating to me. The colour of the temple is beautiful in itself – a peach/coral colour. There were actual green things growing there on the island – and flowers blooming that were not buried in dust. The air tasted so much better, and the morning sun beat down hotter as the day progressed… I could have happily stayed there all day, poking around corners and climbing over things. But alas, after only a few free minutes, we had to clamber back into the little boats with jewelry for sale.

Tara in her new string of Nubian Jade

On the trip back from Philae, Tara negotiated a loan from a fellow passenger on the boat and bought a necklace of green stones. She was able to pay it back once we returned to our rooms. We could not recall what kind of stone she was wearing, so after some discussion, we named the stones Nubian Jade, after the Nubians of Upper Egypt.

Unfortunately, a good idea went wrong when I decided for fun to bring the gold U.S. $1 coins. I was expecting to find people begging for money in Egypt, and I thought the coins would be more interesting and fun to give out. However, the locals refuse them. Apparently, they have never seen the Sacagawea or James Polk. I showed them where it says U.S. $1, but no dice. They actually give them BACK to me, wagging their fingers and shaking their heads in a stern “no” as if implying that my behavior was distasteful.

I couldn’t even give the coins away as gifts. I wish I could understand their perception of our roles a bit better. Local panhandlers are completely comfortable asking me to cough up money for no good reason, but generously return anything they won’t be able to buy dinner with, even when they see it would make no difference to me if they kept it. Even when I ask them to please take it. Odd. Isn’t there value in an interesting piece of metal?

I wish they would take a gift. I hate the division of give and take here. I wish I could explain to them that in my country I am not rich, and that I understand poverty and don’t view myself so removed from their status. I wish they could be normal people around me and act like they have more respect for themselves. I wish they didn’t push at me yelling “Yes, please!” “Hey! Hey!” “One dolla!” Shoving beautiful things in my face, and very clever carvings, beads, and boxes. I may even want to buy some of them – I probably would – except that their manner disturbs me, and I know that a mere glance of interest at some of those sparkly things would set them at me in a piranha frenzy.

Columns lining the causeway at Philae

The men we meet (you hardly see women) have really been after Tara, perhaps out of genuine interest in a young, beautiful, fair-haired girl, but they turn it into marketing somehow. As soon as they spot us, they swoon and gush, “Oh my god!” They drop what they’re doing and follow us. “Hello pretty girl!” the countless dark boys say. “Beautiful daughter,” or “beautiful sisters,” to us both. “How many camels?” they keep asking. Tara and I have decided it is a joke to suggest they want to buy her, thus meaning it as a compliment to her beauty and to me, her mother. By complimenting us they might hope to make a sale. It doesn’t work in their favor though, only makes us more uncomfortable. “Smile sister,” they say to her when she becomes focused on getting through the press of salesmen, lowers her eyes, and presses her lips tight in determination.

Our next stop was the unfinished obelisk, which took me ages to understand, even on site. Foremost, I did not know what an obelisk was, and kept asking, but no one could explain except Hossam, who said it’s like a pyramid. We got to a place in Aswan where for the price of a ticket we could see the unfinished obelisk. Hossam explained it from the bottom, and pointed out one crisp, horizontal line of carved granite that we could easily see, and stated that there it was. I confess, I remained confounded. It was a giant bowl of granite shaped in hundreds of different places and different directions. I still couldn’t imagine what I was looking for. We were given another 20 minutes at the site to do what we wanted to do. I saw that a path went up onto the back of the hill of granite and down the other side. Other tourists were climbing up, and I thought Tara and I could both use the exercise since we were both nodding on the bus. I asked her to come along, partially to rescue her from an older woman who wanted to tell her stories about how she chewed her fingernails as a girl. We went up, up, up, for no other reason than to climb and kill time till the bus would go.

Unfinished obelisk
Washington monument

Some people had scaled a boulder, so I did as well. Aha! Finally I could see that the giant bowl was merely a quarry, and not part of what I was supposed to be looking for. At the very, very, tippie top, one can look down onto that straight line of carved granite and see exactly what an obelisk is. The Washington monument is an obelisk. Below me in the hillside, lying on its side, was a mostly carved rectangular tower with a top sharpened to a pyramid point. The story has it that a flaw was discovered in this piece of granite, and work was stopped. If it had been completed, it would apparently have been the largest obelisk in the world. Really? I don’t know. It seems like everything in Egypt is the biggest and best ever.

Our cabin, with Tara’s back end visible under the curtain

We were all running on fumes at this point. The luckiest of us had 5 hours of sleep (that would be Tara and I, who were so tired we skipped dinner last night), and some folks only had a couple of hours. We tried to cram down a breakfast at 4 o’clock in the morning, then weren’t allowed to stop till 1:00pm, when we FINALLY were taken to our boat. The cruise ships are so tightly packed on the shores of the Nile in Aswan that we had to walk through two other boats to reach ours. It’s a good idea, actually, and we were able to see the interior of several cruise ships in addition to our own. (Most of them were much nicer, but I’m sure we had just as much fun!)

Our View!

Tara and I took a very long break in our room after lunch. She worked on Math for nearly two hours, and I journaled. Then we went up on deck to enjoy the warm air and the sunset. I am surprised to see what a small strip of green exists along the banks of the river. I thought I would see wide swaths of life fed by the waters, but this only happens with extensive shore irrigation. At all times we had a good view of the dry desert sands. I do love to see mountains here. Again, I’m from the Western United States and I need elevation to feel my position on Earth – to get my bearing. I am more comfortable when I can spot land above the trees and buildings, and there are some impressive elevation changes south of Cairo. Very beautiful.

Life on the edge of the water

We both noticed the large areas of oil spread across the water, and were sickened by it. I felt responsible for contributing to the river pollution.

Dusk settles over the water

There had been a scheduled “tea time” for all passengers. We skipped it. There is a tour tonight of Kom Ombo temple, when the ship stops. Though it breaks my heart, we will skip that one too. Tara doesn’t want to go, and I can’t push myself any farther. Dinner is at 8pm, and involves dressing up in our fancy Egyptian dresses that we bought at the market. AFTER dinner, at 9pm, we have a guest belly dancer with Egyptian music. But seriously? I just don’t have the stamina for this kind of itinerary. After being awake for 18 hours, including a flight, two tours, and moving onto a boat, they plan a fancy dinner with entertainment beginning at 9pm? Ugh.

Sunset on the Nile

6 thoughts on “Cruising the Nile

  1. Hello Crystal,

    My name is Andreu Guimera and I am in charge of Marketing in a company located in Barcelona. I have seen the nice photograph of Aswan Dam in your post. Although you writed it was no so interesting location, from the point of view of an engineer (like me) I can tell you it is one of the best (technical) photos I have seen about the dam.

    I would like your permission to use the photograph in the new web of our Company. This would illustrate a project we have carried out in Egypt for which the pictures of my colleagues are very bad.

    I can send to you, in turn, a nice picture from Barcelona. My name is Andreu and my Linkedin profile is

    P.S.: By the way, I have read your post and I think it is very interesting too. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you for such a kind message, and thank you for asking permission to use the photo. I have sent you a message to your LinkedIn profile. I’ll try to find the original versions of my Aswan Dam photos, so you can have the high resolution images and choose the one you like best.

  2. Hy Crystal,

    I am very grateful for your quick response and I shall be happy with HR photo! I will check Linkerdin now.

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