ABU SIMBEL, Egypt — You really haven’t seen Egypt if you haven’t seen this part of Egypt,” our guide said.
I usually wince at such comments, for many times I have been to places that were overhyped.
I had been to Egypt twice before — to Cairo, where each time I had stood in awe before the Pyramids and delighted in the splendors of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. For years, I told friends that was pretty much what there was to see in Egypt — see the Pyramids and that magnificent museum and then move on to another destination.
How wrong I was, and how right was that Abercrombie & Kent Egyptologist guide.
“How could I have been so foolish to miss this until now?” I asked myself one day, 785 miles south of Cairo, while visiting Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border in an area where the Egypt of the Pharaohs once stood looking out toward the ancient Kingdom of Nubia.
As I looked up at four colossal sandstone statues of the great Pharaoh Ramses II seated on his throne and wearing his double crown, signifying reign over both Upper and Lower Egypt, I felt the same as when I first gazed upon such wonders as the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the effigies of Easter Island.
The four 66-foot-tall figures of Egypt’s longest-reigning — 67 years — Pharaoh are set against a 108-foot-high facade recessed into the side of a cliff, a marvel of ancient Egyptian art that rivals the Pyramids.
Two of these nearly seven-story-tall statues stand on each side of the entrance to the larger of the two great temples alongside each other. They are amazingly well preserved, especially the heads, although the head and part of the upper torso of the statue on the left side as you enter the main temple are at its feet, the result of a 27 B.C. earthquake.
The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, also known as the Temple of Ramses II, and the smaller one (there’s really nothing small about it) the Temple of Hathor, also known as the Temple of Queen Nefertari, were erected in the 13th century B.C. to impress and intimidate visitors from southern Africa with this display of the grandeur of Egypt and the greatness of Ramses II.
The guides certainly impress me. Until this trip, I knew next to nothing about the temples, but our highly qualified, professional A&K guide seemed to know all there is to know, and she had a gift for making history come alive. She made it a joy to learn new things, which greatly enhances the experience of visiting this mysterious and fascinating land.
A good guide makes for a good trip, but a great guide makes for an unforgettable one. My previous Abercrombie & Kent guides have been outstanding, but it is because of this great guide that when I saw Ramses II, I instantly recognized his double crown and knew what it signified.
Good information from the guide also meant that I understood what I was seeing in the figures that stood beneath, in front of and above the four statues of Ramses II and as I walked about the temple interior.
A few steps away, the entrance to the smaller temple is flanked by six (three on each side) alternating statues of Ramses II and his favorite wife (out of a collection of perhaps 200) Queen Nefertari, who is portrayed as the goddess Hathor. The statues stand 35 feet high.
During the reign of Ramses II, these temples were places of worship, but they were abandoned not long afterward and eventually were obscured by sand. They were forgotten and remained buried for centuries, until they were discovered in 1813 by a Swiss explorer who noticed their heads sticking above the sand. It took four years for the sand to be cleared away sufficiently to enable entry into the temples.
This marvel of the ancient world is also a great engineering feat of modern times. With the building of the Aswan Dam and the creation of the massive artificial Lake Nasser in the mid-20th century, these great temples faced the prospect of disappearing again, this time being submerged in water. They were saved when the United States and 49 other countries financed a UNESCO project in the 1960s in which the temples were carved skillfully into about 16,000 blocks, some weighing as much as 15 tons, and then painstakingly reassembled at an artificial cliff 688 feet back from the original site and 213 feet higher. A modest museum at the site details this great accomplishment in pictures.
MUCH TO MARVEL
What I experienced at Abu Simbel was the highlight of my most recent trip in Egypt. Actually, many of the other sights on the trip easily could rank as highlights. Egypt simply has many marvels.
Our trip began, as most visits to Egypt do, in Cairo, where, of course, we visited the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities and the Pyramids as well as the museum containing the funerary boat, discovered in 1954, of the Pharaoh Cheops, whose nearby Pyramid is the largest of the three on the Giza Plateau. The others are the Pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus. Our guide gave us a thorough briefing and stayed close by to answer any questions.
I have seen them before, but it is always an awesome feeling to stand and look at the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx, the 66-foot-high, 190-foot-long face of a man — a Pharaoh perhaps? — and body of a lion that guards the Pyramids.
While in Cairo, I saw something few get to see because it is not yet open to the public — the recently discovered workmen’s tomb, from which we are learning a great deal about the construction supervisors who oversaw the building of the Pyramids. This is typical of the bonuses that A&K often arranges to make its trips exclusive.
From Cairo, we flew 420 miles south to Luxor, the land of Thebes, capital of the New Kingdom, a place considered by many to be Egypt’s most important and impressive site.
Once a center of great wealth, this is where Egyptian lore says a local god named Amun assumed the qualities of the sun god Ra and eventually became Amun-Ra, paramount over the entire multitude of Egyptian gods. Here Pharaohs built, and succeeding Pharaohs kept extending, two great temples along the east bank of the Nile, the Temple of Luxor and the Temple of Karnak, filling them with monuments to the gods and to themselves.
The Temple of Luxor, entered through a facade marked by giant statues of the Pharaoh who built its first pylon — Ramses II — is compact compared with the Temple of Karnak, less than two miles away. The two are linked by a path flanked on each side with a row of sphinxes.
The Temple of Karnak, not only more sprawling but also more convoluted, is best known for its Great Hypostyle Hall, with 137 gigantic columns and an area just less than 20,000 square feet, larger than the area of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. The temple was already huge before the hall was added. In front of the entrance to the hall stands a large statue of — who else? — Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most prolific builders of monuments, especially to himself. He was not alone in his zeal for building shrines, as numerous Pharaohs over many centuries contributed to making Egypt the archaeological wonderland it is today.
Nearby, on the west bank of the Nile, we visited the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, in which tombs of many rulers and nobility were carved deep into hard rock. These rulers supposedly chose to build their burial chambers in the rock rather than in pyramids to prevent theft, but many tombs still were robbed. Walking among the tombs, one is amazed by the richness displayed and how well they have endured.
The Valley of the Kings is best known for the discovery in the early 1900s of the more-than-3,000-year-old tomb of Tutankhamen. Even today, many who speak of the tomb tell of a curse associated with it; the claim persists that those who first entered the tomb suffered early deaths. Actually, most lived past age 70, and statistically there is no difference in the age of deaths between those on the expedition who entered the tomb and those who did not.
We saw two other amazing sights in this area. The magnificent Temple of Hatshepsut stands in a great amphitheater at the foot of a sheer limestone cliff — a stunning setting. This is the great monument to ancient Egypt’s only female Pharaoh. Oddly to us — yet characteristically for ancient Egypt — statues of her portray her as a man, complete with beard.
Nowhere near as imposing as this temple — though they would be the standout attraction almost anywhere else — are the Colossi of Memnon, two faceless (from wear) 60-foot-high statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III enthroned. They are called the Colossi of Memnon rather than Amenhotep because when the ancient Greeks controlled this area, they noticed that at dawn, one of the statues emitted a singing sound that they likened to Memnon greeting his mother, Eos, the goddess of dawn.
During later Roman rule, it was a great tourist attraction, even drawing the Emperor Hadrian. Most likely that sound at dawn resulted somehow from damage caused by the great earthquake of 27 B.C. because when the Romans repaired the statue several hundred years later, the singing sound stopped, and it hasn’t been heard since.
CRUISING ON THE NILE
Interesting as monuments and ruins of the ancient world may be, there also is much to be said for modern amenities, which is why A&K’s Egypt trips show you some of the best from way back then while making sure you experience some of the finest of now.
How nice it was, upon returning from a great ancient site, to step aboard an A&K-owned air-conditioned Nile boat and proceed to our next destination downstream in a sort of floating boutique hotel. My cabin on Sun Boat IV — the ship has 36 cabins and four suites — was unusually spacious, with full-width floor-to-ceiling windows, a decent-sized bathroom and a comfortable bed. It was nicely decorated and had a color satellite TV, a CD player and a direct-dial international telephone. Internet access was available aboard as well.
Nice though the cabins might be, travelers do not spend much time there. This beautifully refurbished ship, superbly furnished and decorated in contemporary style with art-deco influences, has a chic lounge area and bar, a well-equipped gym, a good library, a small pool, two spacious sun decks and a comfortable restaurant with large windows that enable guests to take in the scenery while dining.
Activities onboard included a slide presentation by our professional Egyptologist guide, an authentic Egyptian folklore performance and a party for which we each were provided a souvenir galabia, the traditional Egyptian outfit, to wear. The food, a wide selection of American, Continental, international and Egyptian, and the service were outstanding.
Fans of the Agatha Christie mysteries may find scenes from her works popping into mind during this trip, as I did when talk of tomb curses and the pleasantness of a Nile cruise conjured up images of sleuth Hercule Poirot in Egypt. Miss Christie came to Egypt when she was 20 and loved sailing the Nile and seeing the wonders of this land. She considered her Egypt-set books to be her best works set in a foreign country.
In Aswan one day, as the sun was setting, we sat enjoying appetizers at the terraced cafe of a hotel where the writer had lived while writing one of her mysteries. We were enjoying a classically Egyptian view of small sailboats on the palm-lined Nile, a view she used to enjoy. In that novel set in Egypt, she had a character say: “There are very wonderful things to be seen in Egypt, are there not?”
There are indeed, and many of them. Between the Luxor area and Aswan, we stopped along the Nile to visit three additional remarkable sites.
At Edfu, we toured the Temple of Horus, the falcon god. Myth says this is where Horus fought his uncle Seth, who had murdered Horus’ father. Buried under the sands for nearly 2,000 years, this temple is Egypt’s largest and best preserved edifice from the era when Greek successors to Alexander the Great reigned over the region.
At Kom Ombo, we visited a Greco-Roman temple of that name, in which one half is dedicated to Horus the Elder, or Haroeris, a falcon god combined with a god of light, whose eyes were the sun and the moon, while the other half is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. Here, as elsewhere throughout the trip, our guide brought history to life by carefully explaining the significance of wall etchings and deciphering the hieroglyphics.
In the Aswan area, where we saw the great dam that has enabled this mostly desert country to expand its cultivable area, we toured the magnificent Philae Temple, site of an especially beautiful shrine honoring the greatest of Egyptian goddesses, Isis, the wife of Osiris, god of life and death and fertility, and the mother of Horus, who, among other things, was said to unite Egypt and had the power to confer deity on Pharaohs.
Like Abu Simbel, Philae, which also includes lesser temples, tells a great rescue story. Partially submerged most of the year following the building of the first Aswan Dam in the early 1900s, it was threatened with total immersion and certain ruin 60 years later when the much higher second Aswan Dam was built.
The partially submerged structure was pumped dry; each block was labeled, and its exact position was documented; and then, with 10 years of work, all 270,000 tons of the great temple were moved to a different island location and meticulously reconstructed at their new site, which was landscaped to duplicate the original site.
It was amazing, but much of what you see in Egypt is just that. At times, I sat on the deck of Sun Boat IV, sipping coffee in the morning or having afternoon tea, pondering the wonders I had seen. I watched the fellucas, the distinctive Egyptian small boats, sail by carrying people, materials or animals. A lone farmer toiled his small plot in the fertile soil near the shore of the world’s longest river; a youngster, sometimes several of them, rode a donkey along a shore path, swishing a palm branch against the animal’s side to make it move faster.
These scenes are no different from what I would have seen centuries earlier. As I took it all in, I kept thinking what a wonderful way to experience Egypt.
For information regarding Abercrombie & Kent’s tours of Egypt go to www.abercrombiekent.com; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 800/554-7094. A similar A&K trip costs from $4,190 to $10,075, depending on season and double occupancy. This price includes internal air fares, but not transportation to and from Egypt.