07 August 2009

Aswan, Aswad, Aslan

On Wednesday evening we caught the Abela Egypt Sleeping Train from Cairo and made our way 900km South to the town of Aswan. The train was excellent and consigned the horrors of overnight train travel that we experienced in Burma / Myanmar to a far and dusty corner of our minds. The overnight trip took 14 hours, most of which were spent asleep in the comfort of our own private air-conditioned berth.

The main reason that we have come to Aswan is that it's the best place to base yourself for visiting the temples at Abu Simbel. However it's still a palaver to get to as it's another 280km further South through the desert from here. As if that wasn't awkward enough the only way to get there is under an armed escort. Thanks to the Islamist insurgency that occurred in the 1990's travel in some parts of the Nile Valley (and the Red Sea coast) can only be done under the protection of an armed police convoy.

We've been quite lucky with our accommodation in Aswan. We're staying at a hotel called the Memnon which we booked through our new most favourite web site, hostel world. We've been lucky enough to bag a room on the top floor which gives us great sunset views of the Nile.

Not bad for less than a tenner a night. The only problem that we . . . well I have with the Memnon is that one of the staff members has taken a bit of a liking to me. Not normally a problem but usually the guys go for Liz rather than me!

Whilst we've been trying to sort out our trip to Abu Simbel and our onward journey to Luxor we've also sampled some of the sights a little closer to Aswan.

During the pharonic period Aswan was the source of Egypt's best granite. Lying in the Northern Quarry on the outskirts of town is the Unfinished obelisk, over 40m long and weighing in at 1168 tonnes. It would have been the heaviest piece of stone cut by the Egyptians. However, some unfortunate stonemason caught a flaw in the rock and cracked it before the last face was cut free.

Unfortunately quarrys, even pharonic ones, aren't particularly photogenic.

The other slightly less than photogenic sight is Aswan High Dam, built in the 1960's to generate electricity and help to control the annual flooding of the River Nile. The damming of the Nile created Lake Nasser, the worlds largest man made lake, which goes all the way into Sudan and covers an area of about 5250 sq km.

South of the dam most of the ancient monuments of the Nubian Desert would have been lost if it weren't for the actions of Unesco. Between 1960 and 1980 Unesco helped co-ordinate the Nubian Rescue Campaign which, with the help of more than 50 countries, saved 14 of the ancient monuments in the Nile Valley from the flood waters.

One of the sites saved was the Temple of Isis on Philae Island which dates back to around 380 BC. The whole temple complex was disassembled brick by brick and rebuilt on the higher nearby island of Agilkia on the outskirts of Aswan.

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