aswan sights

We were very tentative about breakfast this morning, in a kind of truce with our stomachs.

Breakfast here is an elaborate buffet -- the usual yogurt, honey, and bread, several kinds of cheese, and a few hot dishes. The lovely Shyela and her assistant make a tomato-and-egg dish, fresh falafel, and a bean dish.

We had to get out early this morning, so we happened to be there while they were still cooking. Something must have needed thinning; the assistant filled a cup with tap water and added it to her skillet. The dish was almost done and there’s no way that water would be fully boiled. Now we are both not comfortable eating the food here.

We took the ferry early and met the taxi guy, who introduced us to the driver, and went over the plan for the day. Allan wasn’t convinced we needed a driver today, but I was very glad we hired one.

Our first stop was something called the Unfinished Obelisk. Around 1280 BC, the Egyptians were building what would have been the largest obelisk in the world, 42 metres (126 feet) long, weighing more than 1150 tonnes. At a late stage during construction, a crack was discovered and the project was abandoned, so there’s a gigantic unfinished obelisk in the remains of a granite quarry. It was an interesting glimpse into a work-in-progress, which raises more questions than it answers.

Next we drove out to the High Dam, the second largest dam in the world, which created Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake. The Dam is loaded with meaning. Its creation is linked to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the Suez Crisis, and Egypt’s alliance with Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Its construction displaced and destroyed much of the Nubian community, and many irrecoverable antiquities. Yet it brought electricity to the whole country, and greatly increased the amount of arable land.

It was especially fitting to see the dam today, when we would visit Philae Island and the Nubia Museum, and the day before visiting Abu Simbel. We also saw the Aswan Dam, the old dam, which you drive over en route to the High Dam.

The next stop was Philae Island. You take a boat out to the island -- which you negotiate separately from your ticket price, a strange practice, since you cannot get there without a boat. The temples on this island were originally elsewhere, moved to higher ground before they were submerged completely by Lake Nasser. Previously, when the Nile flooded, only the tops of the temples were visible. Tourists used to go out on boats to see the temples from above.

The temples themselves are kind of typical; it’s their stories that are interesting. After the Egyptian gods were banned, first under Roman rule, and then by the early Christians, Philae Temple was itself converted into a church.

On the boat dock, men were selling Nubian jewelry and souvenirs -- camels, wood carvings, skullcaps -- and I was surprised to see some things I liked. I picked out two necklaces and a pair of earrings. No scarf this time. The haggling has gotten easier; I’ve developed a method that seems effective. I don’t like it any better, though. Allan especially dislikes paying the “tourist price” for ordinary things like bottled water or chips.

Also at Philae, I was admiring (from afar) the cotton pants we see being sold everywhere. They are elastic waist and ankles -- harem pants -- in black-and-white prints or colourful patterns, made of very thin, soft cotton. I would love to get several pairs, but they are all the same length, and much too long for me. Today, an enterprising young man must have seen me look in his direction, and he came running out to greet me. I followed him to his stall, but couldn’t buy anything. We were barraged with “No mehdame, this is perfect, this is fit you, this is beautiful fabric, look at the beautiful fabric, look, look mehdame, you must trust me, this is for you,” on and on and on. Away from the stalls, waiting in a bit of shade for our car, men were still coming over with clothes.

Back in central Aswan, we had too much time to kill. The Nubia Museum is open in the morning, closed mid-day, then open again in the late afternoon and evening. This town -- actually everywhere we’ve been in Egypt -- lacks for comfortable places to hang out and have a coffee or a cold drink. There are zillions of coffee houses where men smoke sheesha, but even if they weren’t all male, they would still be uninviting -- dark, dirty, and smoky. Plus any and all waiting means being besieged by “Felucca? Felucca ride, yes? Good price, felucca, mehdame, one hour, where from, good price, maybe later?” This is an incredibly unappealing aspect of the culture here. We actually wanted to take a boat ride today, but the idea of saying yes to any of those men is just awful to us.

We found a restaurant that is mentioned in our guidebook, and walked down, down, down levels until we came to a room that is actually on the water. Boats drive right up to the restaurant; we saw a large group of well-dressed locals go right from their table to a boat. When a man approached us in the restaurant itself -- felucca? good price -- Allan reached his limit. “We’re in a restaurant here, give us a break!” His tone must have scared the guy away.

We ate a decent lunch, thinking that our stomachs might be back to normal now. Then we negotiated a cab to the Nubia Museum and back.

The museum is beautiful. It tells the story of the people who lived in northern Africa who were not part of the Egyptian civilization, from their beginnings until the present day. There are paleolithic and neolithic findings -- pottery, tools, jewelry, and cave drawings. The jewelry is the same fine, uniform work we saw in the museum in Cairo. I especially love seeing the jewelry. It seems like a link between our world and this other world -- an assertion of our common humanity.

At some point in the Nubian story, the old gods are outlawed, and everyone becomes Christian. After that, everyone becomes Muslim.

The Nubian Museum also contains a large exhibit on the documentation of Nubian culture before the building of the High Dam. It shows how Abu Simbel was saved, a gigantic project led by UNESCO and Egypt, and assisted by 40 other countries. That was fascinating, but Abu Simbel and Philae Temple were a small portion of the treasures that would be flooded and lost. Lost, too, were whole communities and ways of life. A UNESCO project tried to document everything -- archeology, ethnography, everything. Fortunately the dam was built at a time when people understood the scale of the loss, and the value of preservation.

While at the museum, Allan discovered a setting on our camera that allows you to shoot at high speeds more clearly in very low light. He is now kicking himself for not knowing this while we were at the tombs. I’m sure his photos will be beautiful, though. I call him Mr. Tripod.

Before we went back to the ferry, Allan wanted to look for -- what else? -- a bookstore mentioned in the guidebook. I was adamantly opposed to being trapped in another souq, but this one was wider, not very crowded, and had a paved, even floor. It was actually an interesting souq, a mix of tourist and local wares. There was a huge amount of jewelry and a large number of spice and tea stores, everything in the traditional woven baskets. They all had mountains of dried hibiscus. We didn’t find the bookstore.

In the course of the day today, we went into two pharmacies, and bought anti-itch cream in one, and insect repellent in the other. (We have been eaten alive by mosquitoes for the last two nights.) Both pharmacies were staffed by pleasant young women who spoke English. It occurred to me later that this is likely because women cannot and won’t speak to men about their pharmacy needs.

The pharmacies, like all shops here, have one counter, where you state your needs, then the person behind the counter retrieves the item for you. We have seen no supermarkets, not even small ones -- no shops where you walk down aisles and pick up what you need.

We bought some yogurt (tourist prices) and junk food, and took the ferry home as it was growing dark and lights were beginning to turn on up and down the river.

* * * *

I forgot to write about Scarf Guy! I must immortalize Scarf Guy as the embodiment of Egyptian salesmanship. At Edfu, while we were still walking from the car, before we had purchased our entrance tickets, this man came running up to us. “Where you from? Canada, I love Canada! You are my brother, you are my sister, here, take this scarf, it is a gift from me to you, to show my love for the Canadian people.”

He grabbed a white cotton scarf and tied it loosely around Allan's neck. We said we did not want a scarf. “This is a gift, a present, if you like it, you can pay me later, no problem.” I could not get him to take the scarf back, so after we were in the actual site, I folded it up and put it in a bag we were carrying, so it wouldn’t get dirty.

I mentioned to Allan something about water, and SG overheard me. He gave us a big bottle of water from a nearby carton and would not take money for it. We decided we would settle with him later.

After we finished seeing the temple at Edfu, as we were making our way to the exit, SG appeared, all full of his love for Canada. But we were all business. I held out the scarf. “Here, take your scarf. Take it.” When he wouldn’t take it from me, I began to leave it on the ground. SG quickly grabbed it.

Allan tried to give him 5 LEs for the water, but he insisted on 10. Allan said, “It’s 5 or nothing, up to you.” SG continued to ask for 10, but Allan just kept walking. Now SG was getting frantic. “Give me 5! 5! You must pay for that water! I’ll take 5!” After he got his 5 LEs, we could hear him cursing and grumbling under his breath.

Photos of the Unfinished Obelisk are here.

Photos of Philae are here.

Photos from the Nubian Museum are here.

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