On Monday we flew on an early domestic flight to Aswan where the hydro-electric dam built there by the Russians between 1960 and 1970 created Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world at least up to now. After a brief tour of the Aswan High Dam we visited the Philae Temple which was dedicated to the goddess Isis and where ancient Egyptians believed her brother and husband Osiris, the god of the underworld, was buried.
More Temples & Tombs…
Philae is the first of many ancient temples that have been relocated to islands in the vicinity of Lake Nasser to avoid their being flooded. The relocation and reconstruction of these ancient sites were an immense international engineering feat overseen by UNESCO. Given the terrible conflicts in the Middle East today, this kind of international cooperation would probably not be possible. Like most of the temples we would visit later, Philae was defaced by Christians who viewed this as a pious religious act. Our guide Hassan is of the opinion, and probably rightly so, that fear of the ancient deities played an equal role to piety.
As late afternoon approached, we boarded our boat, the Prince Abbas, for four nights and three full days of cruising on Lake Nasser and touring the relocated temples of flooded Nubia. The presence of Ramses II dominates most of the temples. He is considered by most historians to be Egypt’s greatest pharaoh. He was born in 1303 BC, roughly 40 years after King Tut, and died in 1213 BC at age 90.
He ruled the country for 66 years and apparently fathered 100+ children. At some point in his reign he declared himself a living god but he only promulgated this new attribute to the Nubians of Upper Egypt because the population of Lower Egypt was more cynical about the divinity of their kings.
The approach to the site from our boat was really spectacular. The view is dominated by four colossal statues of Ramses that mark the entrance to the main temple. This temple was built specifically to honor his victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC.
This was a dubious victory at best. The king was actually close to being trapped and slain by the Hittites, but he managed to pull the rest of his troops together and escape. He did not succeed in capturing any Hittite territory.
The war between the Egyptians and the Hittites continued for another 15 years when finally Ramses and the newly installed Hittite king Hattusili III negotiated a written peace treaty, the first known international peace treaty. Alongside the main temple at Abu Simbel is a second smaller temple that Ramses built to promote the divinity of his principle wife Nefertari thereby reinforcing his own divine state.
We left our boat on Lake Nasser and Abu Simbel on Friday and drove by bus through the desert back to Aswan where we boarded our next boat, the Royal Lily, for a three night two day cruise down the Nile to explore its temples on the way to Luxor (ancient Thebes) where our cruise ended. The Nile was the centerpiece of this part of our journey. It is a pristine, peaceful river with beautiful scenery and sites all along it. And it does not have any of the gnats that plagued us during the days on Lake Nasser. Because of the Aswan High Dam there are no longer any crocodiles or hippos in the Nile. However, crocodiles abound in Lake Nasser. The hippos apparently retreated south into Sudan.
We visited Komombo and Edfu temples, both built during the Ptolemaic period, the last pharaonic dynasty in Egypt almost a millennium later than the temples on Lake Nasser. The Ptolemaic period began when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in Egypt and later died leaving his general Ptolemy in charge of the country. He became Ptolemy I, then declared Egypt independent and wedded the Greek traditions to the Egyptian ones which are reflected in the syncretism of the deities in the temples along this part of the Nile.
Our Nile cruise ended at the city of Luxor where we spent the afternoon visiting Karnak Temple located at the north end of a processional avenue and Luxor Temple located at the south end. The avenue connecting the two temples was originally lined with sphinxes. Although interrupted by the Arab Spring in 2011, reconstruction of the avenue with its sphinxes has recommenced. The avenue itself was supposedly built by Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh, who ruled for about 22 years starting around 1478 BC about 200 years before Ramses II. There is a substantial Christian church located in the path of the reconstruction which the government is determined to remove.
The construction of the Karnak complex of temples began about 700 years before the reign of Ramses II and continued up to the time of the Ptolemies. Karnak is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, only surpassed by Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Needless-to-say, it is a popular movie set.
Construction of Luxor Temple began around 1400 BC, about 100 years before Ramses II was born. Unlike the other temples we visited in Egypt, Luxor was apparently built to rejuvenate the ka present in Egyptian royalty. Ka in simplest terms is the spiritual twin of the physical person. The monarchy must have needed a spiritual boost. Ramses II left his personal mark on Luxor with colossal seated statues of himself at the entrance to the temple.
On the morning after our third night of cruising on the Nile we woke very early to take a hot air balloon ride to watch the sun rise over the Valley of the Kings located on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor. The sunrise and the view of the Valley of the Kings were stunning, but the best part was when we landed in a farmer’s field. He came running out with some his neighbors to greet us with some terrific drumming. Just as they got revved up, another balloon landed and a couple of young African-American women tumbled out and started dancing up a storm. We could tell the farmer really wanted to join them but was hesitating and then just couldn’t contain himself and jumped right in. What a great way to start the day!
After seeing the Valley of the Kings from the air we traveled by bus to visit the tombs from the ground. Roughly 1000 years after the building of the pyramids in Giza and continuing for more or less 500 years, 1539 – 1075 BC, tombs for Egyptian royalty and powerful nobles were deeply excavated out of the desert’s bedrock in an attempt to discourage grave robbers. In most cases, the strategy was only modestly successful which indicates that the grave robbers were probably workers who built the tombs. This is where King Tut’s tomb with all of its gold was discovered in 1922. His tomb was apparently untouched by the ancient grave robbers because it butted up closely with other more prominent tombs. Richer pickings lay close by elsewhere.
One of the highlights of our visit to Egypt was a tour of nearby Deir el-Medina, the village of the highly skilled artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Because of the desert location, the painted reliefs done by these artisans in many of the royal tombs have survived pretty much intact and are exquisite, but on their days off these same artisans also worked on their own tombs. The reliefs in the artisans’ tombs rival and even surpass those in the royal tombs. All the tombs and temples we visited here and elsewhere are constructed of stone or built into the desert bedrock, but the homes and royal palaces of the living were constructed of mud brick and didn’t survive for the most part. Deir el-Medina is an exception and its excavation has yielded a remarkably complete picture of daily life in the village.
The village was also the site of one of the first sit-down strikes in human history. 40 years or so after the death of Ramses II the Egyptian empire was starting to experience wide spread economic problems that were leading to inflation. This meant that the artisans were not receiving the rations that were promised them by the government, so they laid down their tools and refused to do any more work until they received what was due them. Apparently, the authorities heard their complaints and complied with their demands, but there were later lapses by the state and more strikes until Egyptian royalty stopped building its tombs in the Valley of the Kings about 100 years later. As conditions worsened in the valley, there was a corresponding increase in grave robbing.
We flew back to Cairo from Luxor for our last two days in Egypt. Before checking us back into the Fairmont, Hassan took us to see a contemporary tomb, that of Anwar Sadat. To most Egyptians the assassination of Sadat by members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hassan calls them “the brotherhood of idiots) in October 1981 had the same psychological impact on the country as that of John F. Kennedy in the United States.
On our last day in Egypt we explored Memphis, the country’s first capital and its continuous spiritual center. The city is where Sakkara, the necropolis of the Old Kingdom is located and where pyramid building began. Prior to that, royal tombs were mastabas, above ground tombs, bench-like mud brick constructions similar to the houses of the time.
An amazing architect named Imhotep came up with the notion of piling one mastaba on top of another smaller one until there were six levels and he constructed them out of stone, not mud brick. This pyramid tomb came to be known as the “step pyramid” and laid the basis for all of the subsequent pyramids.
It was built over a 20-year period from roughly 2667 to 2648 BC, about 100 years before the pyramids at Giza. We actually climbed down into one of the early pyramids in Sakkara. The descent was not an easy one. I would call it a long run for a short slide. Not much to see once you’re down there.
We left very early the next morning for our flight to Jordan. Four of our comrades had to opt out of this extension to our journey, so now we were three.