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  • Brian Johnson

Egypt: Abu Simbel


The boat crew gathered on deck at 7:30 am to see us off. We thanked them profusely for their kindness and gave them a tangible token of our appreciation. They said they hoped to see us again and I feel like they really meant it. Then they carted our luggage out to the waitress car and we were off, our wonderful Nile cruise at an end.

We had debated long and hard how to spend this day, but in the end there was really only one choice. An early flight to Cairo and a leisurely day exploring the city and relaxing, or a 7 hour round trip car ride through desolate Sahara Desert scenery, to within 20 miles of the Sudanese border, just for an hour or two at Abu Simbel, and a late flight back to Cairo that would get us to our hotel around midnight. Of course we took the most adventurous path. We may well come back to Egypt some day, but it is highly uncertain that we will ever be this close to Abu Simbel again, and this would be the furthest limit of our travels so far. Life’s a journey meant to be savored, and the most rewarding path is often not the easiest one.

The road to Abu Simbel from Aswan is a modern, wide two lane road that runs straight for 180 miles through the Sahara desert. A lot of tour buses make the drive, and because there had been some trouble in the area after the 2011 revolution, it is subject to heavy security. We had to go through two military checks, one at the beginning and one at the end. While most of the terrain is wilderness desert, the drive was not without its interesting points. Lake Nasser parallels the road the entire way, although too far away to be visible, and the Egyptian government has begun building canals to carry water to irrigate the desert to be able to increase Egypt’s agricultural production, so that for the first part of the drive the relentless desert is broken up by patches of green fields. Most of the agricultural and construction labor is provided by Nubians and at one point a newly constructed Nubian community rises like a mirage out of the desert. Around the halfway point, in the middle of nowhere, there is a small rest stop providing refreshments and bathrooms. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “BF Egypt”, this has to be the place it originally referred to.

The one way drive time to the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is estimated at three and a half hours, but in the event we made it in less than three, including a stop at the rest stop. Our driver pushed the car to 90 mph and beyond, and seemed to have no hesitation in passing the handful of cars and buses we came upon, even going up gently sloping sand dunes with no visibility of vehicles coming the other direction, and he seems to have mastered one handed phone operation. Walid, our guide, remarked several times, with no apparent trace of irony, how lucky we were to have such a good driver. I felt lucky, when we arrived.

Even if you’re not familiar with the name Abu Simbel, you will probably recognize the pictures, as it has been featured in a number of movies (The Mummy) and is quite famous. Built by the great pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BCE, four colossal statues of him seated on a throne frame an entrance carved into a mountain. One of the statues lost its head in an earthquake a couple of thousand years ago, but the others are intact. Nominally dedicated to the gods Amun, Ptah, and Ra-Harakhty, the Great Temple’s primary function was to honor Ramses himself. Nubia controlled the lands to the south, and the temple marked the southern boundary of Egyptian expansion, serving as a kind of border statement saying “beyond this point a great king rules”. The interior contains more giant statues and is decorated throughout with scenes of Ramses’ great victories over his enemies, as well as offerings to the gods. Its a truly impressive place. After coming out we walked a couple of hundred feet to the neighboring smaller Temple of Hathor, built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. The entrance is framed by six large statues, of Nefertari as the goddess Hathor alternating with Ramses. The hypostyle hall is decorated with scenes of Ramses slaying his enemies, watched over by Nefertari.

The amazing thing about the site is that it is not the original location of the temples. The building of the Aswan Great Dam flooded the site, and in a remarkable achievement UNESCO cut both temples from the mountain and moved them to higher ground some 213 feet above their original site, and built a new artificial mountain around them, preserving the look and feel of the original location to the last detail. It was a mind boggling achievement of preservation.

We made the long drive back to the Aswan airport in plenty of time to make our 9 pm flight back to Cairo. By the time we made it to our downtown hotel on Tahrir Square the clock was creeping toward 1 am. Although worth the effort, and we have no regrets, it was a long and exhausting day, and Lynn was cold and tired. I won’t say she was a little grumpy, but she was camping in that neighborhood. The amazing view from our room of the iconic pink sandstone facade of the Egyptian Museum was a small consolation.

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