Abu Simbel – Nubian Rubicon (2008)

Abu Simbel – Nubian Rubicon (2008)

Aswan is a neatly laid out town, the southern-most in Egypt. It reminds me so much of Shiraz in Iran. Leisurely, graceful, clean and its streets flanked by bursts of bougainvilla blossoms. It was once at the cross roads of the silk route and is now the gateway to Nubian Africa, as distinct from Arab Africa. The town boasts a Moorish-style heritage hotel called the Old Cataract where Agatha Christie stayed and where one of her books – Death on the Nile – was partially filmed.

Intact Manuscripts on Pages of Stone

The Threshold

Aswan’s placid streets don’t seem to be over-run by tourists even though, as if in anticipation, the town is peppered with ‘Papyrus Institutes’ and ‘Perfumeries’ waiting to ensnare the unwary tourist. And your guide can be extremely persuasive in leading you to this lair. Should you be foolish enough to wander into any of these establishments, you have indeed crossed the Rubicon! From hither, it is a point of no return. Even before you realize what’s happening, you’re shepherded into a garishly designed lobby and surrounded by a posse of shrewd and extremely aggressive salesman who take vantage positions to block your exit. A lurid red liquid in an equally lurid glass – which you later find out, is an unpalatable drink made out of dried hibiscus flower – is thrust into your hands even as you are pushed on to cushions and sofas. The manager, dressed like a bouncer at a disco, soon materializes and with his practiced eye, swoops down on the ‘boss’ of the group – one who can make purchase decisions and loosen purse strings. In fact, everyone in Egypt, from tongawallah to souvenir salesmen seems to have the uncanny knack of accurately identifying the ‘boss’.

And then the blitzkrieg begins – on essential oils and lotus and its significance in ancient Egyptian folklore and how it can cure everything from arthritis to asthma – this looking at your middle-aged midriff bulging ominously, and how it can enhance your vitality and vigour – this with a meaningful glance at your menfolk. The walls are lined with photographs of the manager with film stars, sportsmen and dignitaries, all grinning nervously like lambs en route to the abattoir. Soon you realize the only way out is to succumb. Your wallet is considerably lighter and your heart, commensurately heavier, as you emerge from this ordeal laden with an assortment of bottles shaped like minarets and domes and all filled probably with coloured water.

Aswan? Dam it.

The Nile appears even bluer in Aswan and of course, it has swelled, like a pregnant woman, to a lovely lake – Lake Nassr – formed by Aswan High Dam, Gamal Abdel Nassr’s showcase project that turned the barren desert into verdant swatches of sugarcane fields and mango and banana plantations. Aswan dam has an interesting history and was instrumental in the nationalization of the Suez Canal, until then, a transnational project. When the promised financial support from World Bank failed to materialize, Nassr nationalized the Suez Canal almost precipitating an international crisis. Subsequently, the dam was completed with the help of the Soviet Union in the year 1971. Built in an era when big dams had not yet become a bad word, the Aswan High Dam is like our very own Bhakra Nangal on the Beas and its American counterpart, the Hoover dam across the Colorado river.

Rock Cut Temples Built by Ramses II

The next day, we’re off to Abu Simbel, deep into the Nubian desert on the Sudanese border. Travellers to Abu Simbel have to move in a convoy that leaves twice a day, once before sunrise and again around 11am. Ever since a bunch of rogue Nubian tribesmen – allegedly Sudanese – swooped on a bus-load of Canadian and European tourists and stabbed quite a few of them to death some years ago, the Egyptian government takes no chances. In fact, in most parts of Egypt, Tourism Policemen are ubiquitous and here, they tote guns and pistols. After all, isn’t tourism Egypt’s second highest money-spinner after the Suez Canal? The 280 kilometer ride to Abu Simbel is done in just two hours through a smooth tar ribbon that stretches endlessly in a straight line across a desert dotted with mounds of sand and shimmering mirages.

The temple at Abu Simbel has it back to the visitor. In order to access it, you have to navigate a minefield of persistent Nubian salesmen chorusing ‘Namaste’ and hurling in rapid fire, the names of our Bollywood heroes in the hope you’d buy their kitsch. You dodge them deftly and go around a barren mountain and suddenly come upon the three massive statues, each 20 meter high, and depicting Ramses II in a seated position watching over the Nile for any intruders who might be foolhardy enough to challenge his supremacy. Having seen this scene in a myriad pictures, if you expect to be overcome by a sense of déjà vu, forget it. The real thing is dwarfs the imagery in your mind’s eye.

Gaze of the Gods

Carved out of the rocky mountain on the west bank of the Nile, the temples dedicated to gods Ra Harakhty, Amun and Ptah, apart from Ramses II, ancient Egypt’s mightiest and much admired monarch, were built between 1274 and 1244 BC. But the temple was discovered only accidentally in 1813 when Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burkhardt chanced upon just a massive head jutting out of a sand mound. The temple was then excavated and dusted and put on display. When Aswan dam was built, it was in danger of being submerged by Lake Nassr. A conscientious Egyptian government then had it shifted painstakingly, stone by carved stone to its present site. The etched murals on the wall still retain their brilliant original colours. Next to the King’s temple is another marginally less massive temple for his favorite queen Nefertari, who incidentally, has been portrayed to be of the same size as the King, not relegated to a midget as ancient Egyptians were wont to do when it came to the female of the species. The presiding deity here is God Hathod. Here, lake Nassr shimmers like a turquoise jewel watched over by barren mountains.

Every Inch Carved with Messages

Few visitors stay on in Abu Simbel which has just a couple of hotels, both over-priced. But with such excellent roads, who ever thinks of staying back? On our way back, I chat with Atta and the driver and catch up on contemporary Egyptian politics and society. Atta seems to be in a jovial mood and so I venture to ask him if he knows the significance of his name in the current geopolitical context. “Oh, 9/11? In Egypt, Atta is not only a common surname, but it also means ‘Gift from the Gods’ “

(published in The Hindu on July 20, 2008)

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