Water

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Flag of Egypt  ,
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Aswan lies at the point where ancient Egypt ended and Nubia began.  Today, the Nile city is a gateway to Abu Simbel, the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, and Philae, the Isis temple.

On a long day, beginning at 3:30 a.m, I went on a tour that visited all of these in one day.  For some reason--security, we're told--the tour buses only go to Abu Simbel at that early hour, they all go in convoy, and everyone gets only a couple of hours to crowd together into the temples.  The combination of all these things is probably the least desirable way to see Abu Simbel, so I wouldn't recommend it unless you like to be a part of factory tourism. 

Still, Abu Simbel was fascinating with its immense colossi of Ramses II and interior carvings and bas-reliefs.  Abu Simbel was also an ancient architectural and engineering marvel as well as a modern one.  As the Aswan High Dam flooded much of Lower Nubia, well into Sudan, many old temples were at risk of being innundated.  Engineers cut the entire monument into pieces and rebuilt it, complete with a mountain setting.  The only difference was that they didn't get the positioning exactly right so that the sun would reach the inner sanctum perfectly on Ramses' birthday every year: the Egyptians were acute astronomers to achieve precision that today's engineers could not match in this case.

The immense Aswan High Dam that flooded many historical sites and much of Nubia now provides the water and electricity that Egypt needs to increase its cropland and modernize.  The yellow deserts are now turning green.  At the same time, like all dams, major problems have occurred, with more on the way.  Egypt's delta is now shrinking and Nile fertilizers now replace what once happened naturally, when the Nile flooded.  Now the silt is filling the lake, limiting the life of the dam.  Water-use divided between Nile River countries favors the militarily-strong Egypt, who threatens a fight if upstream countries try to use more water than Egypt thinks they should.

Along the Nile, Nilometers once recorded the height of the flood, which in turn determined the tax level for that year: the higher the better, as more areas would be innundated with life-giving waters and silt.  Since the life-giving waters were gifts of the gods, the priests who sacrificed and prayed for Egypt's prosperity had reason to hope for a high water level.

Isis temple at Philae marked the last home for polytheism in Egypt, as Coptic Christianity spread across the Nile.  The Isis temple was converted to a church; today crosses carved into the columns mark this transition.  Isis was the mother goddess, the nature goddess.  Isis still survives somewhat in spirit here and in Bob Dylan's lyrics, though not much wildlife still exists along the Nile, in competition with 80 million people, including the man at the railway station who was looking along the tracks for scraps of food.

One clear and windy day, I took a relaxed Felucca ride on the Nile, sailing past large dunes, other boats, and river islands along the way.  The boat owners were Nubian, who along with other Nubians in the small towns in the area, liked to mention how they really weren't Egyptian: the Nubian Museum showed that, the light-hearted spirit in the air showed that, the clay pot-baked fish and tomatoes showed that, and the Bob Marley flags on the feluccas showed that.

After the felucca ride, I grabbed my backpack and headed for the night train to Cairo, leaving relaxed Nubia and poor Isis behind to contemplate Egypt's future.
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