Friday, December 14, 2012

Marvel at the engineering

Being woken up at ungodly hours was becoming one of the hallmarks of my trip through Egypt.  It was not helping to endear me to the country.

At 4:00 am, my alarm sounded almost simultaneously to the phone ringing with my wake up call.  Waking up in Egypt seemed to always leave me with the same awful feeling.  My mouth would be dry and gritty.  My skin felt as though though it were covered in a fine layer of dust.  It was as though I was being shaken from death over and over again.  This wonderful feeling was compounded even further the general lack of sleep I was getting.  I dragged  myself out of bed and placed my two feet on the floor.  I could feel the sand and dirt on the bare and cold floor, another near constant in Egypt regardless of the quality of the establishment.  I showered and changed and eventually found myself in the lobby with other equally tired looking travelers.  We were each given a box of breakfast and ushered into a minibus.

Inside was a long haired South African living in Singapore.  I had never had much time for men with ponytails, but he would be one of the more tolerable people I would meet during my travels in Egypt.  Next to him was an American girl who had clearly not washed her hair for some length of time.  She was an almost stereotypical caricature, insisting that she was not a tourist but was instead a "traveler", as though the locals care to discern the difference.  She almost immediately began to detail her travels to us and explain why she was "different".  Apparently as a "traveler", she wasn't interested in visiting the tourist sites and she was instead more interested in experiencing things like dancing, music and getting to know the locals.  I listed quietly with a smile as I began to recollect how many times I had heard someone tell me an almost identical story about how they were so unique.  Instead of challenging her, I decided that sleep was the better option.  I pulled my head warmer over my eyes and let the movement of the minibus send me into my nap.

I woke from my semi-conscious dozing to find the minibus slowing.  I opened the box I had been given by the hotel and started to eat some of my breakfast.  The American girl looked over at my hungrily and then declared loudly how hungry she was.  She had immediately eaten the entire box the moment she had gotten on the minibus and now had nothing left.  I gave her some of my bread and cheese, wondering how it was possible that so many people who seemed to plan so little in their lives managed to continue surviving.  The minibus slowed further as the other cars and buses we were traveling with began to also slow.  It had been comforting to know that we had been traveling in an armed convoy and that we had arrived safely without being shot at.  We pulled into the enormous carpark that had been clearly designed for many times the number of visitors than were present that day (yet again another reminder of the parlous state of the Egyptian tourism industry).

I walked through the manicured little garden and paid for my ticket, then began to follow the path with all the other tourists.  The South African and I had struck up a conversation and were both sharing our war stories of the horrific treatment we had both received to date from the people working in the Egyptian tourism industry.  It was becoming very apparent that this was a common experience.  We kept talking and as we turned a corner, it appeared.

Abu Simbel.
The two amazing Abu Simbel temples were built by the great Ramses II to both impress and terrify the Nubians to the south.  They were certainly impressive.  The sheer size of them alone made them impressive.  Looking up at the faces on the statues, there was a strange expression on each of them, an almost smile that seemed to convey a smug satisfaction.  Thinking about it more, I'd probably have the same smug satisfaction on my face as well if I had an army of slaves making gigantic statues of me.
We walked inside and I was finally greeted by the brightly coloured hieroglyphs that I had waited so long to see.  Bathed in the yellow glow of the electric lights, the images of war and conquest seemed like something out of an old adventure movie.  There was one large image of Ramses II triumphantly riding his war chariot that I was particularly drawn to in all its bragging glory.  The rooms inside the temples were beautiful, far more intricate and detailed than I expected.  By some stroke of good fortune, we had managed to walk in during a major lull.  Instead of jostling with crowds within the temple, we were able to casually wander in and out of the chambers, considering the beauty at our own pace.

The crowds began to flock in soon enough though.  Photography was not permitted inside the temples, but that didn't stop any of the tourists and the temples were quickly lit up with the intermittent flashes of the cameras.  The guards would protest in a dramatic manner, but be quickly silenced with some Egyptian pounds stuffed into their hands.  There wasn't even any attempt at making the transactions clandestine.  I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about this.  I understood that the interiors of the temples needed to be protected and this use of the flash would not be helping with preserving the colours.  However, it was also becoming clear to me that many of the guards and attendants in these tourist locations were painfully underpaid and this was one of the ways they were able to supplement their meager wages.  My mind continued debating this issue back and forth until I saw a group of middle aged European women wander up to the painted hieroglyphs and begin stroking them with their palms and fingers.  One of the women even started to scratch the paint with her fingers just to "test" it, either completely oblivious or ambivalent to the damage she was doing.  The guard standing watch looked on and didn't say a word.

I walked outside and towards the Nile.
One of the most impressive facts about the temples at Abu Simbel is that they have been relocated.  Originally, the temples actually sat several hundred metres down the hill.  However, the construction of the Aswan High Dam meant that they were going to be inundated by the rising waters.  Looking into the water, I could appreciate the work that was involved in moving these temples.  It had taken an army of archaeologists to take them apart piece by piece and reassemble them again in their current location.
Turning back and looking at the temples again, I was convinced that much of the awe I had was not for the buildings themselves, but the incredible engineering feat that had occurred to move them.

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