Join us in our trip to Egypt, October 2003

Chapter 2: Abu Simbel and Aswan


After spending several days in Cairo (I will get back to that later) we flew to Aswan in the south of Egypt and the location of the High Aswan Dam which forms Lake Nassar.

There are two markets/bazaars we visited while in Egypt. The best - or perhaps most exotic - one was the ancient spice market in Aswan. (Marie, pay attention) The second one was the largest bazaar in Egypt, the Khan el-Khali, in Cairo. The Khan el-Khali bazaar in cairo has many more shops and we of course were directed at the main tourist area. In Aswan, however, the bazaar is smaller and it doesn't have one area that is most frequented by tourists so it is probably more authenitic. In both instances we didn't have enough time to explore either one fully. There are a lot of back streets and alleys which had to be left unseen.

As you recall, one of my first pictures showed me wearing a galabeya - long dress which men wear in the middle east because it is cool. Well, as you can suspect, they have to be washed and ironed somewhere and in the spice market in Aswan we found out how it is done - all by hand.

(The launderer in the picture is wearing a galabeya)

This was an open storefront laundry. Note the young guy to the right - the galabeya is placed flat on a board and he presses it with a hot iron using his left foot for pressure. There is also a handle in the front of the iron that he holds with his left hand for additional pressure and guidance. The right hand holds a handle at the back end of the iron which is used to pull the iron backwards. The man in the front was ironing a shirt. Note, he has an electric iron but it is not a steam iron or a spray/steam iron. When he wants to steam the shirt he fills his mouth with water from a bottle next to him and with a blast of air from his lungs a fine mist of water is blown out onto the shirt. Unfortunately I was so taken with the guy ironing the galabeya that I didn't take a picture of the steam iron operation. You will note the red TV set on the left in the background. You will also note the newly ironed table cloth hanging on the rope in the back of the shop.


I suppose you are wondering whether I got lost in the bazaars and forgot why I had traveled 5,000 miles to Egypt in the first place.... To see the ancient wonders of the world. All in good time, and when the time is ripe.

Abu Simbel, is located on the Nile at the border of southern Egypt and northern Nubia (now Sudan) and is meant to be a political statement. As you are aware, on either sided of the Nile for hundreds of miles there is nothing but unrelenting heat and desert sand. Travel from south to north, or vice versa, had to follow the Nile. When you were traveling north out of Nubia and into Egypt Abu Simbel was the ancient equivalent to a "Welcome to Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, Governor" sign on I-35 coming out of Iowa. But it was more than that, it was a statement that you were now entering the land of a very powerful pharaoh and you had better behave yourself. Egyptian history is filled with stories of the Pharaohs going to battle to extending their influence north and south along the Nile. Abu Simbel is as far south as they got - or perhaps they looked south around the bend and concluded this is as far as anyone would want to go.

The temple to Rameses the Great is the first example of building a temple by digging into the sandstone rather than building a free standing temple outside. The seated statues of Rameses are 60 feet high and face the rising morning sun. The temple was dedicated to Amon-Ra, Harmakes and Ptah but is clearly intended to glorify Rameses. The door you see behind us and between the two seated statues of Rameses goes into a mammoth temple with colorful reliefs carved into the walls which depict Rameses making offerings to the god, gods accepting offerings from Rameses (thus verifying Rameses as the ruler of Egypt and giving him stature as a god), and of Rameses defeating his enemies, especially the Nubians, in battle. In the deepest inner sanctuary temple there are statues of Rameses seated with three important gods.

(Flash photography was not allowed so I took this picture with the camera on a small tripod and held steady by holding it against the door sill)
Twice a year, on Oct 20th (we just missed it) and February 20th, when the sun rises above the horizon of the eastern desert it shines precisely through these doors and onto three of the four statues. From right to left you see Harmakes (a local city god), Rameses, Amon-Ra, and, in the shadows, never seen in the sunlight, is Ptah the god of darkness. Such a unique way of showing the character, importance, and relationship of the Pharaoh and the gods. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words and few people could read. I suspect that an overwhelming statue is worth a million pictures.


Here you are, some illiterate goat herder back in 2,500 BC just walking your goats north along the riverbank of the Nile. All you have on your mind is how fresh water is and how green is the grass to feed your flock. Suddenly you and your wives - all six or seven of them - come upon Abu Simbel. It would certainly get your attention. You might venture to walk up close to get a better look and then see how insignificant you are.

To give you an idea of scale, the ears on the statue of the seated Rameses the Great are 6 feet tall. Ouch! You, on the other hand, on a good day probably stand 4 feet 6 on your tippie toes. Gods depicted on the walls, inside and out, let you know in uncertain terms that this guy is not to be messed with. But, if you have any doubts .......

The relief carvings at the entrance of the temple clearly depict people who are dressed like you, have the same hair style, similar beards, and the facial features have a striking resemblance. You notice quickly that these guys have their arms tied behind their backs and the ropes around their neck make it clear they are being lead somewhere. Other pictures show piles of heads and headless bodies. There are piles of severed hands too numerous to count. There is one giant relief showing a very large pharaoh riding over your tiny countrymen while the your kin folk are being chopped to pieces.

About this time you say to yourself, "We are not in Kansas anymore". Without hesitation, or saying a word, you gather up your goats and sheep and wives along with your camel hair tent and head back south to Nubia.


When you are a powerful Pharaoh god you have the ability to set new trends and Rameses was no exception. Next to the temple he built for himself at Abu Simbel he had a smaller one built for his favorite wife as well -- Queen Nefertari, Mery-en-Mut (beloved of Mut).

You may immediately note that Rameses wasn't quite ready to give all honor to his Queen (the one with two feathers on her head) because many of the statutes are still of the Great Rameses. Its kind of like the guy who just can't get enough of looking at himself in the mirror. Anyway, he made a break with tradition - the next thing you know women will want to vote. LOL
Here Fran is standing in the 100 degree sun at the ankles of Nefertari. She isn't even knee high. Notice how much taller even the statue of the Queen's son is on the other side of Fran. This gives you some idea of the scale of these images.


After seeing the pyramids in Giza I couldn't imagine anything else in Egypt which could even come close to be as overwhelming and wonderful. I knew we would be seeing lots of temples but it is impossible for anyone to comprehend the size of the temples spread all along the Nile. As Carl Sagan said in his Cosmos series, "Everything here was built for people 60 feet tall." As we walked along the temple of Rameses and Nefertari I just couldn't resist taking picture after picture; all from a different view.

But it was as we were flying back to Aswan later that afternoon I was able to understand just how mammoth these structures were.

The Temple of Nefertari (right) is dwarfed by the Temple of Rameses (left) and yet it alone would easily qualify as one of the remaining seven wonders of the modern world. Remember, now these temples sit on the banks of Lake Nassar which was formed after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Their original locations are now totally underwater and they were preserved by the UN but being cut into smaller pieces and then moved to a higher location. The United States paid for 1/3 the cost of the project. There are many other temples which were not so lucky and are now lost forever beneath the waters of the lake.


Disaster Strikes

To take our boat tour down the Nile we had to fly from Cairo to Aswan, about 500 miles. To get to Abu Simbel we had to fly about another 300 miles further south. We arrived in Aswan by noon which gave us a half day on the river. After checking into (onto?) the MS River Anuket we took a sail on the Nile on a felucca - a sail boat whose design goes back 4000 years to the days of the pharaohs.

Oh, I have so much to tell about the Nile I don't know where to start! The Nile is a jewel among rivers. The current flows north and the wind blows south. This means when you are in southern Egypt at Rameses' Temple or Aswan and you want to go to Luxor, or Dundera, or Edfu or Cairo, you just get on the river and can float with the current. Since the blows from north to south, after you float your felucca down river, to return home you put up your sail and the winds will blow south, up river. It is one reason the Egyptian temples in Luxor and Cairo could be built with granite from places as far away as Aswan. Marvelous!!

Disaster struck soon after our felucca set sail. We were cruising casually up river when suddenly the boat stopped dead in the water in the middle of the river. We had hit a sandbar! But not to worry, our skipper and his helper just jumped out of the boat onto the sandbar, gave us a push, and we were sailing again.

You get some feel for the size of the felucca when you see the skipper next to its tiller.


After we returned from Abu Simbel we spent the evening in the ancient spice market at Aswan. As we walked through the spice market we saw all sorts of wonderful things - you previously saw my picture of the laundry. We also stopped at the bakery to watch them make bread in an open air shop.

The Egyptians eat a flat bread about 8 inches in diameter which is baked in an brick oven. At the bakery there were two lines, one for women and one for the men. Women were served first because they were buying bread for the family. The cost of a single loaf, subsidized by the Egyptian government, is 5 piasters ($0.008.

In the streets of Egypt you will see men and womad carry large quanities of bread in wooden boxes or baskets on their heads. Perhaps they are carrying it to a restaurant .....
Or maybe we see a little private enterprise taking place and they are planning to set up their own curb side retail market for those who prefer to avoid the inconvenience of having to stand in line.

If a loaf happens to fall on the ground, no problem, just dust it off and put it back on the tray.


The Gods of Egypt

To fully enjoy any trip down the Nile it is helpful to understand the gods of ancient Egypt. To assist you I have created my version of "whose-who" on a separate page to which you can refer as you feel the need.


Aswan was an important location to the Egyptians. It is located on the first cataract (falls) of the Nile and thus easy passage of the river south ends here. There are four more cataracts further south but they have been flooded by the high Aswan Dam and are located under Lake Nassar. The geography of most of Egypt is sandstone or limestone which is easily cut but also is subject to erosion by sand blown in the wind and water. At Aswan, however, there are large granite formations and it is from this location the Egyptians obtain the hard granite needed for the statues in Luxor, Karnak, and other locations. Also, the gold mines which were so necessary to bury a pharaoh properly are located near Aswan.

(Photo from Ancient Egypt by Giorgio Agnese & Maurizio Re, Barnes & Noble, 2001)

The Temple on Philae Island, built in the third century B.C., is dedicated to Isis and is located south of Aswan. When the high Aswan Dam was built it was flooded. Attempts to preserve it by surrounding it with sand dikes proved useless and thus between 1972 and 1980 the temple was cut apart and faithfully reconstructed to its present location. If this had not happened the temple would have been submerged forever.


This is the entrance to the Temple of Isis. The entrance is flanked by two large pylons with carvings on each to tell the the worshiper stories about this particular portion of the temple.

Temple of Isis

You will note there are two sets of pylons. The one to the left and another set that appears to be further back in the Temple. This is something unique about Egyptian Temples, and why they frequently got so big. Each succeeding Pharaoh may add on to the temple to legitimatize his rule. Thus, the pylons you see in the back are at the original entrance to the Temple.

Here you see the carvings on the exterior of the first temple built. This photo gives you an idea of the size of these structures.

Look at how tall the bias relief carvings of the gods and Pharaoh are compared to the people entering the Temple. On the pylon you see the carving of the Pharaoh (right) offering gifts to Horus (falcon headed god wearing the crown of both upper and lower Egypt) and Isis (female figure with sun over her head).


The Temple of Osiris at Bigeh, which was close to the temple of Isis, is now partially submerged and can't be visited. The Temple at Bigeh is the place of eternal sleep for Osiris and was out of bounds to all human beings. The temples on Philae were dedicated to his bride Isis who, with the force of her love, had recomposed his scattered limbs and resuscitated him.

A gift presented by the Pharaoh

It was traditional for a Pharaoh to legitimatize his reign by depicting himself on the pylons and walls of temples. This relief shows the Pharaoh offering a gift to Horus and his mother Isis. Of course other reliefs would show the gods accepting the gifts - you wouldn't want to depict anything else would you?. This means the Pharaoh is accepted as one of the gods.

On this picture you may notice a bluish line running through the pylon. This was once the level of the Nile as it flooded behind the High Aswan Dam and before the temple was moved to higher ground. The square holes used to hold beams for roofs of buildings which where built by the Coptic Christians when they moved into the temple and used it as a church.

This photo shows the flooded Temple of Isis at Philae before it was raised to higher ground.

(photo from Egypt a Knope Guide Book, 1995.)

Don't you agree, it is good that these things were saved? Horus

Here is a close up of Horus which gives you some idea of the detail and workmanship put into these carvings. Horus is shown wearing the crown of the unified upper and lower Egypt. Isn't this just magnificent?


Temple of Hathor
One thing that is unique, understanding, and certainly very tolerant, is the way in which one major temple site can be used to provide a worship site for more than one god or goddess. The temple of Isis at Philae also had the lovely Temple of Hathor.
Note the beautiful capitals on columns with the image of Hathor. There can be no mistake as to whom this temple is dedicated.
Kiosk of Trajan
Later, when the Romans conquered Egypt they built the lovely Kiosk of Trajan in 105 A.D. All cultures were accepted and assimilated as times changed. The old accepted and the new added.

For the most part, with only a few exceptions I know of, the Egyptians were tolerant of other religions and accepted the fact that everyone may have their own favorite god or goddess. The Greeks and the Romans both brought their gods to Egypt but, part of the reasons for the success of their empires was a willingness to accept and assimilate the local cultures. It was not uncommon for the conqueror to become more Egyptian than the Egyptians.

Not so the Christians. The Coptics were the first Christians in Egypt and, like many conquerors before, they moved into the existing temples. But rather than just introducing their God they also did what they could to destroy depictions of other gods around them.

Here you see a relief (left to right) of Osiris, Isis, and Horus on one of the walls at Philae. The faces of the Egyptian gods have been mutilated as if by doing so they could get rid of them totally. It was common to see this kind of destruction all over Egypt in most of the temples we visited.

It was common to depict the Pharaoh in the company of the gods to show he was considered an equal.
In the temple at Karnak a statue depicting two gods standing with the Pharaoh between them was hacked away until only the resemblance of a crucifix remained. This is not unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan recently destroying the very old and largest carving of the Buddha because of the Islamic prohibition to depict God. I know the Muslims have great prohibitions against depicting God. I learned that the Muslims tore down the temples, they did not merely deface them. That is why you don't see many temples around Cairo which is the major population center. Although Egypt is an Islamic nation saw much evidence that the government and people are more progressive than many of its Arabic neighbors.
The moral of my story is this: Religions should be builders, not destroyers. When the main focus of a religion is to eradicate the competition by destruction rather than persuasion no one ever gains.


The Ankh is often referred to as "The Egyptian cross". In this photo you can see Isis carrying the Ankh in her right hand. You see this symbol everywhere. It stands for "long life"

I bought a brass Ankh to adorn a wall when I got home. But, before I left I momentarily corrected a loss in the Temple of Isis at Philae.

This stone was in the Holy of Holies. The most sacred place in a Temple. It would hold the statue of the god or goddess. You now see the Coptic cross carved on the alter after the statue of the goddess was destroyed. In the niche behind the statue there would also be a small statue but it was now empty. I put my small brass Ankh, decorated with elaborate hieroglyphics, in the space.

Jump Station

Go to The Egyption Museum of Cairo - Under Construcion

Go to The Religious Faiths - Under Construction

Go to Street Scenes of Cairo - Under Construction Go to Who are the Gods? - Under Construction.

Go to Chapter 9: The Khan el-Khali Bazaar - Under Construction

Go to Chapter 8: The Pyramids - Under Construction

Go to Chapter 7: East Thebes and the Temple of Luxor - Under Construction

Return to Chapter 6: The Pyramids.

Return to Chapter 5: Karnak Temple at Luxor and the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.

>Return to Chapter 4: Kom Ombo, Edfu, Karnak and Dendera.

Return to Chapter 3: Cruising Down the Nile.

Return to Chapter 2: Abu Simbel and Aswan.

Return to Chapter 1: Introduction to Egypt.

Read about my version of The Gods of Egypt and Diagram of Temples.

Return to Belli's Home Page

For more information about our travels write toBelli.

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