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This is a continuing part of my series of posts from my trip to Egypt at the end of last semester. You can view the first post I made on the trip, Sinai: Wandering in a land between, or the second post, Egypt and its earliest pyramids.

Day 3, Monday December 6

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

The train ride

I am riding the train from Cairo to Aswan. I and my class from JUC have been making our way south since about 21:30 last night. That’s 9:30pm. Everyone on this side of the world uses military time.

It is now Monday morning, around 9 o’clock. Sleeping on the train was not too bad. I was on the top bunk and there were a few times last night when I woke up feeling as though I was flying out of bed because the engineer had just hit the brakes. Fortunately, I never did. There was a seatbelt holding me into my bed.

I just found out that we are not arriving at the Aswan train station until 11:15am. We are 4 hours behind schedule. Oh well, that’s the way things are in Egypt.

The high in carbs train breakfast

Breakfast this morning was a roll, a croissant, a slice of fruitcake, a pretty lousy cinnamon roll, strawberry jelly, butter, a pat of butter, and a cheese triangle. Lots and lots of carbs! Not that I’ll need to after eating all of those carbs, but when you use the toilet on the train whatever you deposit just drops down a pipe and onto the tracks. Its no wonder the vegetation between the tracks is so healthy.

As we continue riding south the Nile is on the right. On the left is total desert. Most of the time it seems that the train tracks run right along the line between the fertile land of the Nile and the desert beyond. It is an extremely abrupt transition.

We are going through villages where the people live much the same as they did 100 years ago except for the occasional satellite dish on someone’s roof. They still plow their fields with oxen and get around on carts hitched to donkeys.

Aswan train station


Here is Aswan! We made it! You can see how far we have come on the map. Cairo is at the base of the Nile Delta in the north. Aswan is at the first cataract of the Nile far to the south, almost to Sudan.

A map of Egypt—See Cairo in the north and Aswan in the south

The Unfinished Obelisk

Our first stop is the Unfinished Obelisk in one of the granite quarries in this area. If this obelisk had ever been erected it would have been about 137 feet tall. That is significantly higher than any obelisk that was ever successfully erected.

Granite was used by the ancient pharaohs for many of their building projects. The problem they were confronted with was that the granite was all the way down here in the south and the pharaohs lived and died and built temples and pyramids far to the north. How did they move granite blocks of stone all the way to the building sites? They waited for the Nile to flood and then floated the stones north on barges. They also used the flooding of the Nile to break the last connections between large granite blocks which had been mostly chiseled out of the cliff and the cliff itself. They did this by cutting holes through the rocks at the seam where they wanted them to break. Then logs were squeezed into those holes. When the Nile flooded these logs would be under water and the moisture would cause them to expand and crack the remaining connection between the rock and the cliff. These were some smart engineers. (Remember to click the pictures to make them larger.)

The grooves in the stone (you can see 6 or 7 in a row) were the holes that were filled with wood which broke off a large granite block several thousand years ago. The granite was cut with dolomite stones.  Mina, my group's guide, is holding one of these stones in his hand. The Unifinished Obelisk—It was never completed and carried away for use because at some point in production it was cracked.  It is not a good day when you crack the pharaoh's obelisk.
Note: If you click on the pictures you will find that they usually contain captions which provide interesting information about what is shown.

The Aswan High Dam

Before the period of British control in Egypt (1882-1922) there was no cotton grown throughout all of Egypt. The British brought cotton to Egypt and built the old Aswan Dam to provide consistent water for the cotton. This was done through controlling the annual flooding of the Nile.

The first cataract of the Nile River near Aswan

The new “High Dam” was constructed by President Nasser between 1960-1964. Nasser was a socialist and wanted to provide wealth to the poor. The only way to do this was to control the water and provide it year-round rather than have it come only once a year at the annual inundation of the Nile. Nasser had a problem though.

I'm sitting on top of the Aswan High Dam.  That's the Nile heading north behind me.

When he took control of Egypt from the British he lost all European support and funding and was left to build the dam on his own. This is why he nationalized the Suez Canal. By exacting fees from ships using the canal Nasser was able to raise enough money to fund the dam’s construction.

With the construction of the High Dam, which was much larger than the old British dam, Egypt now controlled the water rather than vice versa as it had been since Creation. The Dam also provides 40% of all of Egypt’s electricity demands. The High Dam formed a lake behind (south) of it and this is called Lake Nasser. This is the largest man-made lake in the world.

The Philae Temple

Out in the middle of Lake Nasser the Philae Temple sits on an island. It had to be taken apart stone by stone and reconstructed in a different location because the island it was originally built on was covered by the waters of the newly created Lake Nasser.

The construction of the Philae Temple was begun by Ptolemy III in 280BCE. It was a temple to Isis, the mother of Horus and wife and sister of Osiris. The temple’s construction began with the innermost holy of holies. This was built by Ptolemy III. It was not until Ptolemy IX that the outer hypostyle hall was completed.

The Philae Temple was moved to this island after the Aswan High Dam was built and Lake Nasser was formed. This is the outer hypostyle (pillared) courtyard of the Philae Temple.  Do you see how the pillars in the courtyard do not lead straight to the central door in the temple's outermost facade?  This is because during reconstruction of the temple after the construction of the High Dam someone miscalculated and now the whole thing is askew!  This is why you should pay attention in math class! This is part of the outer court.  Do you see the head of Isis at the top of each of the columns?  Here she is wearing the same headdress as the goddess Hathor is often seen with. The door in the center leads straight back to the holy of holies of the Philae Temple. Egyptian temples all get smaller as they move towards the holy of holies.  This picture shows that well.


The Nubian Village

We took a boat from Aswan and went around Elephantine Island, where we sadly did not have time to stop (there are remains of a Jewish temple on that island), and pressed on to the west bank of the Nile. There we were met by camels and the bedouin who owned them. They gave us rides up out of the flood plain onto the hills overlooking the plain. On top of the hills at this particular spot was a monastery that we were supposed to visit. By the time we arrived it had already closed. So, we wandered around and took some pictures of the outside of the monastery then hopped back on our camels and went back to the boat.

The boat took us down the Nile and dropped us off at a Nubian village. The Nubians consider themselves to be the only true Egyptians. They are very dark-skinned and they consider the lighter-skinned “Egyptians” to just be Arabs who have moved into land that rightly belongs to the Nubians.

We visited a Nubian household where an old man sang and half-jokingly proposed to several women in our group. It was here that I held a crocodile for the first time! After that little adventure we took the boat back up the Nile to Aswan, where we spent the night.

Holding an young alligator at a house in a Nubian village near Aswan. Me (second from the right) and some other graduate students at JUC having fun at sunset on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Aswan.

Tip: In Egypt anyone who does anything for you expects a tip. Locally it is called “bakshish“. Often you will probably feel like absolutely nothing has been done that makes this person deserve anything more than what you already agreed to pay them. However, if you do not give them “a little something” (this is all the English many of them seem to know) they will follow you and argue with you (even if you aren’t saying anything in reply). The most frustrating thing is at all the public restrooms in Egypt someone sits outside the door to collect tips. If you use the restroom you usually come to the conclusion that this person spends all their time asking for tips and none of it cleaning the restroom. So, if you go to Egypt make up your mind ahead of time whether or not you will tip all the people you encounter. Your visit will be much smoother and more pleasant if you just accept that this is the way things are in Egypt and tip the people. But, if you cannot stand to tip someone who you think (and most likely rightly so) has done absolutely nothing to earn it, then brace yourself for a less expensive but much more abrasive experience. The decision is yours.