Sunday 20 September 2020

Chapter 8 - Aswan

After the splendours of Luxor, everything must seem an anticlimax.  And yet the next stop on the tourist's itinerary, Aswan, is not without its attractions.  It is chiefly used as a jumping off point for a visit to the last great monument to the glory of Egypt, Ramses II's temple at Abu Simbel.  But the town itself - its name means simply 'the market' in Coptic - has a certain Mediterranean charm, one or two noteworthy ancient monuments, and one modern one.

The latter is the great High Dam, built with the help of the Soviets.  The dam is the end of a long line of attempts to control the Nile, a line that ultimate goes back the first Egyptians and their ability to predict the cycle of the river's rising and falling, and to direct its life-giving waters along irrigation channels.  After various smaller dams to regulate the flow built in ancient times, the British constructed a dam here at Aswan around the turn of this century.  The High Dam tops that achievement with the creation of an immense man-made lake, now named in honour of the man who caused it to come into being, and who was largely responsible for moulding modern Egypt - President Nasser.

For the visitor the construction of the High Dam has had a number of important - and often regrettable - consequences.  Damming the Nile upstream has flooded many ancient sites along its banks.  Some of these were hurriedly excavated; others simply disappeared beneath the waters for ever.  Two of them were saved by extraordinary means: the temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel, discussed below, and the remains on Philae.

Because of the British dam, the island of Philae was regularly swamped with water for six months of the year.  The arrival of the High Dam threatened to drown it for ever.  So the remains were removed from Philae, and reconstructed piece by piece on the nearby island of Agilqiyyah which had higher ground, and which was specially landscaped to reproduce the appearance of Philae.

In truth, the remains on the new Philae can hardly compare with those of Luxor or the Pyramids.  Most of the monuments are from the end of the Egyptian Empire, around the beginning of the Christian era.  Workmanship is markedly inferior, though the ensemble of buildings is attractive enough.  Perhaps the best of them is the Kiosk of Trajan, built by the Roman emperor of that name.  Its calm and classical poise contrasts forcefully with the tired and jaded reworkings of ancient Egyptian motifs in the temple of Isis.  Of note too are the Temple of Hathor, the ancient cow-headed goddess, and a chapel to Imhotep, the architect of Zozer's Stepped Pyramid at Saqqarah, now elevated to a minor deity, and identified with Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.  Perhaps the best thing about Philae is its location, dreamily set amidst the still waters created between the two dams.

On the way back from Philae and the High Dam the famous Unfinished Obelisk can be visited.  Emerging from the hillside's pink granite is the recumbent form of a giant obelisk, apparently the twin of Hatshepsut's great monument at Luxor.  This one was abandoned after a fault was found in the stone.  It is particularly interesting for the insight it gives us into how such enormous monuments were created - with simple stone pounders to shape it and wedges to break it away from the rockface.  The modern traveller can only wonder at the ancient Egyptians' vision and ambition in conceiving of these vast objects, and transporting them over hundreds of miles.

In the town of Aswan itself, there is little to see, except perhaps the famous Cataract Hotel with its stunning situation opposite one of the islands in the Nile.  Called Elephantine Island on account of the elephant-shaped rocks which seem to be wading in the shallow waters, its ancient monuments - for example of the late temple built in honour of the ram-headed god Khnum - are now very ruined, although Elephantine was once an important, thriving town.  Today the island is mostly inhabited by the darker-skinned Nubians, a reminder that for the Ancient Egyptians Aswan was the main frontier post where their southern empire began.  At Aswan, Africa started.

Finally, for the visitor exhausted by the wonders of Luxor, and unimpressed by the weak Ptolemaic derivatives of Philae, one of the most delightful places to find some repose is on Kitchener's Island.  Named after the Consul-General of Egypt to whom the island was given, it is now a botanical garden with shady trees and fragrant flower-lined paths.  To get there, the tourist can take one of the many picturesque feluccas that ply the Nile here.  After a hard day's sightseeing, there can be nothing more romantic or relaxing than to glide effortlessly along the great river as dusk begins to fall.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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