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Cruising with the pharaohs: Below the Aswan dams, the 500-kilometre-long Lake Nasser is home to numerous ancient monuments

By Alison Appelbe They say it never rains in southern Egypt — a concept that elevates this desert region, bisected by vast Lake Nasser, in my mind at least, to the status of heaven.

By Alison Appelbe

They say it never rains in southern Egypt — a concept that elevates this desert region, bisected by vast Lake Nasser, in my mind at least, to the status of heaven.

But there’s more to draw travellers to this 500-kilometre-long lake — extending from Aswan, and two dams of the same name, south into The Sudan — than lack of rain.

In flooding this entire stretch of the Nile Valley for the creation of Lake Nasser and the opening of the Aswan High Dam in 1971, a massive world effort led to the rescue of several dozen of the many ancient monuments that once lined the river banks.

And by travelling on a luxury cruise ship that plies the lake between Aswan and Abu Simbel in the south, you can disembark at some of the Nubian temples and Coptic churches that were lifted, at enormous cost and effort, up onto the sand or rocky knolls.

A wise choice is the Kasr Ibrim or Eugenie — sister (Nile-style) cruise ships purpose-built to bring visitors to this thinly populated region. A four or five-day cruise costs a relatively modest $200 a day (sumptuous meals and gracious service included).

We began by flying from Aswan to Abu Simbel — a scattering of breezeblock buildings, Nubian huts and simple cafés — 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border. The region is populated by the few Nubians — Egyptian looking but of darker complexion — who remained after the flooding, or more recently returned from more northern Egypt, to which 100,000 Nubians were relocated in the 1960s.

Down at the lake, a launch operated by young men in navy sweaters and sailor’s caps transported us to the Kasr Ibrim — an 80-metre, four-storey affair that looks not unlike the hundreds of floating “wedding cakes” that work the Nile north of Aswan.

But inside she’s a world apart — a glory of 1930s Egyptian Art Deco design and detailing. Panelled entirely in blond African teak, the ship is the epitome of elegance. Everything — floors, furnishings and fixtures — are artful and intelligent, even whimsical.

According to the affable ship manager Galal Hamed, the interior design is by Paris-based Amr Khalil, son of early Egyptian fine arts advocate Mahmoud Khalil (1877-1953), to whom a small museum in Giza, near Cairo, is devoted.

As dusk fell, some of us headed back to Abu Simbel to see its celebrated temples (also visible as the ship sailed in the morning) — the Great Temple of Ramses II, with its four seated statues, and the adjacent Temple of Hathori, with six standing figures.

Given the presence of a lot of Japanese tourists (adept at seeking out remote and important sites), the sound-and-light show was in Japanese (with hard-to-hear English available on headphones). But the show’s visuals were quite dramatic enough — romanticizing the temples themselves and demonstrating how, in the Nubian Monuments project spearheaded by UNESCO, the Abu Simbel temples were raised from the valley.

Of all 14 temples saved in the effort involving 54 countries over 20 years, Abu Simbel is considered the greatest achievement. Here more than 2,000 stone blocks of 20 to 40 tonnes were cut, lifted and reassembled in a man-made mountain. Today these temples — discovered in 1813 by Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burkhart when he spotted a single head protruding above of the sand — appears as though they’ve been standing on the shore of Lake Nasser since Ramses II built them more than 3,000 years ago.

Back aboard the Kasr Ibrim we gathered in the lounge for a drink before descending a spiral staircase for a beautifully prepared dinner of Middle Eastern and Western dishes. Lamb and beef is plentiful in Egypt, and fish is flown from the Red Sea. Tomato, coriander, mint, peppers, onion, and garlic appear in salads and vegetable dishes. Exotic desserts feature honey, figs, dates and nut fillings — as well as chocolate and other embellishments. Plentiful tropical fruits come from the Nile basin.

My cabin was a happy retreat — smallish, with curvaceous Art Deco furnishings and a tiled bathroom. Best of all, it had a small porch — allowing one to sail through the desert in utter privacy, or sit out at night under a panoply of stars.

Throughout the voyage, many of us simply stared from the ship. The lake’s surface does little more than ripple. The Eastern and Western deserts, on either side of the lake, range in colour from dust to mustard. The sands and slopes are dotted with shrubs and rocks and framed by distant mountain ranges.

Early in the voyage we passed Qasr Ibrim (for which the ship is named) — an island supporting a massive upright ruin. Before the valley was flooded, Qasr Ibrim stood 70 metres above the Nile. Today it’s the only ancient monument — a 7 th century Coptic cathedral superimposed on a Nubian temple — in its original location. It was a sight (from the ship — the island can’t be visited) that would be tough to surpass, although each of the subsequent temples we embarked at was uniquely impressive.

The Temple of Amada — ultimately a tough slog through stony sand — is the oldest surviving monument relocated to Lake Nasser, built three millennia ago to demonstrate that opposition to the pharaohs was ill-advised: it details the killing of political prisoners.

Emerging from the temple, we met a young man with a small crocodile on his arm (in Egypt, commerce is everywhere), and a few of us had their photo taken with it.

Landing at Wadi as-Sabua, we were met by a gaggle of boys with camels that carried us up the slopes to the temples for a few Egyptian dollars. Highlights were the Temple of Wadi as-Sabua, fronted by an avenue of sphinxes, and Dakka Temple, a 12-metre high pylon dedicated to Thoth, the god of wisdom.

From this hilltop, we watched the camel-drivers canter their beasts back down through the desert (doubtless justifiably aware that they were putting on a show).

After berthing at a dock near the Aswan High Dam, we motor-boated to the temples of Kalabsha, Beit Al-Wali and Kertassi.

After a while one’s mind (well, my mind) is exhausted by the Egyptology spiel — the seemingly endless pharaohs, gods, symbols and conflicts.

What I remember instead from this final temple excursion were the exquisitely carved panels, perhaps of the gods Isis or Osiris; a clump of delicate Greek-like pillars; and a couple of temple guides — men in the attractive A-shape khaki, brown or grey galabiyya still widely worn in Egypt anxious, as always, to show you around.


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