Monday, January 21, 2008

La, la, la, la, la, la means....

Our hotel's entrance is on an unsalubrious backstreet, up two flights of stairs. It is shared with the back door of a bank, the National Bank of Egypt, through which there seems to be an inordinate amount of traffic, including men with suitcases, who look like they should be hotel guests, but are probably Up To No Good. Probably symbolic of the country's economy. But our room looks out over the Nile - the best view we've had in ages and for just 7 pounds 50 a night. It is simply wonderful. The river flows down the valley majestically, a green belt through the sand that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean. In ancient times the river would flood with summer rains from further south, and replenish the soil with alluvial silt, providing the fertile ground for the world's first nation state. Nowadays the huge damn regulates the flow all year round, which means more crops can be grown, but without the natural fertiliser. The damn has also displaced the Nubian people living in Upper Egypt, as well as many ancient temples.
It appears the money was spent on rescuing the temples. We visit large temples at Abu Simbel that were carved out of the face of the cliffs beside the river. Incredibly these have been dismantled and rebuilt 65 metres higher, above the level of the huge Lake Nasser. They are imposing structures fronted by huge statues and filled with incredible carved reliefs depicting the power and the glory of Pharoah Ramses II. I am thrilled to see a whole wall showing his battle with the Hittites at Kardesh
in Syria. In Turkey we saw the peace treaty prepared afterwards between the two empires - the first in the world. The temples were built at the southern entrance to Egypt and stood as a sign to all who passed. We then visit another temple complex that was relocated from one submerged island to a higher one that was then remodelled in its original image. The size and scale of the operation is unimaginable, and the results are impressive. The temple was dedicated to Isis and was finally closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian 250 years after the rest of the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity. Whilst other invaders perpetuated rule by Pharaonic dynasty, the Romans finally brought it to an end, after nearly 3000 years. I can't describe the wonder of the monuments or explain the feeling of being at the 'cradle of civilisation' in the Nile basin - today the country seems so distant from its rich heritage. It feels poor and neglected.

There's an interesting ethnic mix to Egypt. The country has been invaded by Libyans, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs and the Egyptians have invaded northern Nubia. Is this an African country or a Middle Eastern one? Probably both. It feels more conservative than the countries we have recently passed through.

La means 'no' in arabic, but it might as well mean 'I love you' for all the effect it has on the touts in Aswan. Like mosquitoes, they are persistent, an irritating buzzing sound in the ear "Felucca ride? Taxi? Caleche? Come and look - anything you want just 5 pounds". As Gayle reminds me when I get annoyed, these guys are only trying to scratch a living from probably the largest source of income there is round here. Sometimes we have a laugh and a joke with them, and often we simply ignore them. There is a smart and clean street through the souk, but it's only full of tourist tat and tatty tourists. The real souk is a collection of sandy streets that come alive in the evening - far more interesting to us. We eat kushari - "Egyptian comfort food" as one friend describes it - a blend of pasta, rice and noodles with a tomato and chilli sauce.
The climate charts in our guidebook tell us it never rains in Aswan. One night, past midnight, we hear cars going past blaring their horns. Outside it's raining.

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