I woke with trepidation. I was heading to Aswan, checking off another major destination in Egypt, and stopping in several of the iconic temples along the way. Even though I am eager to see everything that emerges from the Egyptian sands, something undefinable was holding my enthusiasm back. I had become so accustomed to my little life in Luxor that the thought of leaving, even just for a night, was a lot. If I had known the glories ahead of me, though, I would have sprinted to the car.
Instead, I enjoyed the sunrise for the first time. On the balcony, with the last cool desert breeze dashing across the Nile, the sun rises from behind the hotel, so I could only see the steady growth of color. Soon, balloons drifted lazily through the air of the opposite bank, and I dreamed of being in one of those buoyant baskets, bouncing over the temples and tombs.
I wolfed down breakfast, told the staff I wasn’t dead if they didn’t see me for a day; and then hurried to the car where Hassan and Abdul were both waiting with broad smiles. They were both absurdly lively for the early hour, and for the trillionth time, I wished that I was a morning person. It must be lovely to get so much done before work instead of literally running to your car as you do your hair as I so often find myself doing. I hear that the older you get, the earlier you naturally rise. Is that true? I hope so.
I was captivated by the conversation and the journey south at once. The colors of the landscape between Luxor and Esna are indescribable. They are the most vibrant blues and greens. The Nile is huge and lovely, and the countryside is intoxicating. I began to rethink my plans for my retirement villa. Maybe something in these more rural locales would suit me better?
The villages we went through had me dreaming so many dreams. I cannot begin to express how humbling it was to see another kind of life. It was so far removed from what I’m used to in America. I hardly have a high paying job. I hardly have the most important job. But it’s so different from Egypt. Here, the average person in one of these villages works in a field, makes mud bricks, bakes bread. It’s simple. It’s almost biblical. I rhapsodized over these fellahin, squatting down in makeshift bus stops waiting for the micro van to pick them up and take them wherever. I wanted to hop on and ride with them. It didn’t matter where they were going. I wanted to wear their robes and scarves and subsist on simple rounds of bread and drink water from a communal jar. I wanted to trot beside a camel and a donkey. I wanted to go to the mosque and pray with them. I wanted to irrigate the fields. I wanted to doze under a date palm and not give two bothers about what time it was.
They have hard lives, but I feel like they are rewarding ones. I get the same sense there as I do from Romanian hay farmers, another group I have an irrational interest in. I guess I just really crave simplicity. I don’t want to be forced to accomplish, to achieve, or to do great things just because I have the potential to do it. Maybe it’d be better just to raise camels on a few acres of land and grow sugarcane and sip tea and take a siesta? Or maybe I am just too spoiled by modernity to realize how hard it is for them? Maybe it’s both.
The drive was a dream.
It wasn’t long before we were approaching Edfu, the first stop on today’s tour.
I was impressed at once with the scope and grandeur of Edfu Temple. It is well preserved and imposing still, but it was Ptolemaic, and like you know, that does little for me. Abdul tutted irritatedly at me since he was determined to get me to appreciate this portion of Egyptian history. And I did try, and I do try still, but it doesn’t speak to me the way a New Kingdom temple would.
“They are Egyptians still, Ben!” Abdul moaned in exasperation as I turned my nose up at unintelligible hieroglyphs that covered the walls. He went out of his way to get me to appreciate the temple, and I appreciated that more than the building.
He finally latched onto a subject that I was happy and willing to debate at length. He has some unique theories about the origins of Egyptian mythology and the religions that flourished because of them. It was all very interesting, so we took a look at the various rooms through the lens of a great storybook. There were a great number of beautiful renderings of the mythologies, and there was a wonderful amount of blank cartouches. Instead of being carved with the names of the reigning monarch, they were flat and empty. Abdul theorized that they were left this way so that the hieroglyphic name could be painted in later when the monarch came to tour the temple. The sitting ruler changed so frequently that it would have been a waste of time to chisel their name into the stone. So, they just whipped it on with paint. Smart Ptolemaic people. I was impressed by this, and I am always delighted by a simplistic answer. Like that one theory…something about a razor, I forget what it’s called, but the idea is basically that the simplest answer is the correct one. I think that’s the truth. Well for the most part. I mean, can we ever really say that anything is fundamentally the truth? I’m getting too philosophical.
Edfu was lovely. I didn’t love it. I mean, I loved it because I love every single thing that has ever had anything to ever do with Egypt, but I’m struggling to connect to this time period. Abdul is a smart man, though, and an excellent guide, so once he figured out that I was hugely interested in linguistic anthropology, he led his tours based on hieroglyphic inscriptions rather than interesting structures or images, even though these were touched on, as well.
He insisted that I would enjoy Kom Ombo, the next temple even more, even though it was assembled in the Ptolemaic period as well. He made a wink at me and muttered something about Sobek. I grinned. This made him cackle. I asked what was so amusing about my delighted reaction the crocodile headed god of the Nile, and Abdul said that he was having so much fun leading a tour that was actually appreciated and understood. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I guess this is not common in Egypt. I assumed that people come who love and understand, but I suppose that it is much like the fools at the Louvre standing in front of the Mona Lisa, those abominable asses who stare at great art just to stare at it because it’s famous. They don’t care about anything that isn’t well known or done by a famous name. It’s much the same in Egypt. Many people go who don’t know the first thing about the history or anything at all. I was really flattered that Abdul was having such fun with me and that I was having such a fabulous time being led by him. Abdul and I grew quite close on the trip, and it was unreasonably good fun to have somebody to gush to about broken pottery and muon scans and the development of hieroglyphs.
On the way south, after leaving Edfu, we discussed my name. I proposed that it was a bastardization of the ancient Egyptian language. My name ends in “AMIN,” which really is not that far from “AMEN” or “AMUN,” and when ancient Egyptian is transliterated, there are no apparent vowels, so any can be theoretically inserted. So, when we look at hieroglyphs, we see symbols that are “AMN.” Ben could well be “Bin” which is a word for evil in ancient Egyptian. I am probably inventing truth where there isn’t any, but I like to think my name has something to do with my beloved people. Abdul stroked his chin while considering the thought, particularly the “AMIN ending,” so I feel like I just might be on to something.
But I shan’t ramble on endlessly.
Egypt flashed by the window, wonderful groves of date palms growing together wildly in clusters along the Nile, flora and fauna of intense green. If you have never seen the colors along the world’s longest river, I don’t think I’m fully capable of sharing how magnificent they are. The colors are richer than back home in ways I don’t fully understand. The purple flowers are the deepest purple. The golds and blues of the sky and sand are like jewels. It’s like living in a jewelry box of the finest gemstones. It’s silly. You all have to see it. And it’s nonsense because the idea of Egypt so many of us have in our heads — even those of us who should know better — is so far removed from reality. In reality, life along the Nile is lush and varied and gorgeous. I’m so in love and I fall in love more every day.
After a drive that could have been ten minutes or ten hours — I was too entranced by the landscape — we pulled into the ruins of Kom Ombo. Abdul was excited by something, but he told me it was a surprise and told me he’d show me after we toured the remnants of the temple. This intrigued me mightily.
The remains of Kom Ombo are just that — remains. Until a couple centuries ago, the remnants of Egypt were picked over, but at least they remained. Until the study of the history of the country became serious business and an Antiquities Department was set up, though, the temples and tombs and mummies and whatever else was buried in the sand was no big deal. You could do absolutely anything with it. Travelers to Egypt would bring mummies home to unwrap. When the linen was gone and the faience removed, the idiots would toss the mummy out or put it on the fire. Farmers would buy great quantities of sacrificial animal mummies to use as fertilizer. Traders would hack tomb paintings to pieces to sell. Museums would happily loot. It was a disaster, reader. But many things ended up in museums or private collections. At least they still exist. But Kom Ombo and other unfortunate places like it were destroyed or dismantled for use in the sugarcane business. And yet there is some glory to the temple still.
There is the most stunning view of the Nile, but I was much more intrigued at all the carvings of the crocodile-headed god, Sobek.
I couldn’t make out much of the hieroglyphic text since it was done in Ptolemaic times, but seeing that long nose, the vicious canine tooth, the leathery skin was more than plenty, and I was immensely satisfied. It was a strange temple and divided into two to facilitate the worship of both Sobek and Horus. I was, of course, drawn to the crocodile side, which made Abdul just giddy.
He left me to wander the remnants of pillared halls, offering tables, sunken wells, and all the hieroglyphs my heart could desire. I admired the deep engravings and sighed so contentedly at everything…the view, life, the temple, my hair, the fact that I was in that spot on the planet. I was utterly happy. And then Abdul dropped the bombshell. There was a museum.
Y’all…I’m a ho for a museum. I love nothing more than a good museum stuffed to bursting with dusty remnants of the past. In my wildest dreams, I am a museum curator. And someday, some glorious day, I know that my dream will come true and I will organize thrilling shows of Egyptological subjects. But that day is long distant. So far away. But I wasn’t thinking about that now because I couldn’t think of anything at all. Reader, you won’t believe what Abdul said to me.
“Leo Bro,” Abdul said, grinning, using the nickname we used for each other, “get ready for the Crocodile Museum.”
“The wha??????” I said, gobsmacked. Nothing that wonderful could possibly be true.
He grabbed my shoulder and steered me into the doorway of a subterranean museum. There was nobody present but a sleeping guard, but that no longer surprised me. It was dark and I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first, but once my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I felt my heart start to race. Reader, there were crocodiles everywhere, on every surface. Dead, mind you. These were mummies that had been wrapped up in honor of Sobek and used as an offering. Now they were on display. There were crocodiles of all shapes and all sizes. Some crocodiles had a beneficent grin and others were menacing and would send me running. Some were wrapped and others were displaying their desiccated flesh and it was all too wonderful. Too marvelous. The world is too good sometimes.
I was inside the museum for ages, which amused Abdul to no end. He joked that he had never been on a tour that lasted so long, that he had taken trips to Aswan that took less time than I had spent in the first two temples on my trip south. But I did not care at all, reader. The Mummification Museum was divine. Sobek was everywhere, on stele and coffins and sculptures and things I can hardly remember. I was the only person in that dark, crocodile filled chamber, and I have rarely been happier. I was utterly happy every day on this trip. It was so wonderful to be in a place I loved so much.
I floated back to the car, and we began the journey to our next destination, the island of Philae, a site that is almost mythical in the pantheon of Egyptological tourism. My beloved Victorian travelers never failed to rhapsodize endlessly about the glories of this temple-studded island on the Nile.
When the Aswan Dam was constructed and Lake Nasser flooded — which was a horrific occasion for Egyptology, but quite good for the people — this is one of the sites that they decided to save. In pictures and descriptions, Philae is captivating. The columns are festooned with paint and the location itself is ridiculously scenic. Unfortunately for the modern tourist, these colors are not as vibrant now. The annual flooding of the Nile washed away what remained of the colors and the damage caused by the first Aswan dam’s flooding is irreversible. The colors are attested to by travelers of the past and traces that linger. I have grown to accept living in the modern world, but I wish that I could have been a Victorian traveler, seeing these temples in their abandoned prime. If ever I get the opportunity to use a time machine — and won’t that be weird? We can get rid of that silly president we have, but then, maybe we shouldn’t, meddling with time could cause no end of issues — I would love to see all the temples in their pristine state, covered in paint, and filled with incense, statues, offerings, and priests. I’m on a whimsical tangent.
Kom Ombo was not far from Aswan, so it wasn’t too long until this large Egyptian city came into view. I am regretful that I haven’t seen much of it and that the opportunity hadn’t presented itself yet. Ah well, there is always the next time. I was struck immediately that it felt different from other cities. It felt like a vacation town or a seaside village, even though it was far from any water but the Nile. I’ve often found that there is something special about cities next to water; they are more peaceful. Maybe it’s because of ions of some kind coming out of the water? Or maybe it’s just our genetic memory responding to being near such a necessary element of life? Or maybe I’m just oddly philosophical today?
We wound through a rocky landscape and finally arrived at the water’s edge for the boat launch that would take us to Philae. I’ve seen a million pictures and read a thousand accounts of the approach to the island, but reader, nothing can really prepare you for the ancient splendor of it. Your dragoman escorts you onto a shaded boat and seconds after your feet leaves the dock, the motor roars to life and you start churning the stunningly bright water. The wind whips through your hair, the sun reflects intensely off the undulating waves, and as you pull out of the dock, you see the most wonderful rocky outcropping. The first cataract really does not exist anymore the way it did in ancient times, but the traveler gets an impression of what it must have been like.
You’re enraptured by the goodness of living, radiating with bliss as the spray of water hits your face, and then rising up is the temple. I believe I gasped. Abdul smiled.
Then he saw my tattoo and wondered about it. I explained what the supposed translation of it was, and then I mentioned how foolish I was in the early days of my hieroglyphic studies to use a dictionary by Wallis Budge. The man was not the finest philologist, I came to discover after many years of research.
“Who would ever know, though?” Abdul asked, and I shrugged in agreement. He looked at the symbols again with a thoughtful look. The foot, the feather, the coiled rope, the folded sheet, and then the lion. “Means something like ‘searcher,’ that’s just like you, I think.”
And it is just like me. I’m always searching.
The boat docked at Philae, and with the motor off, the silence was ancient and palpable. The only noise was the lapping water of the Nile. I was entranced. The remains of the temple are astonishing. It feels as if an ancient priest might walk out into the bright sun. The quality of what is still there is truly astonishing.
I was particularly delighted by one spot outside of the entrance to the temple, on the wall is the last dated hieroglyphic inscription. On this spot is where the ancient script died. The spoken form carried on and is now modern Coptic, even though Coptic is hardly spoken anymore. It’s mainly a liturgical language for the Copts.
One of these days, I need to attend a Coptic ceremony. I’ve heard tell that this denomination has a church in Paris, so I need to check into the service schedule the next time I go. I don’t think I’d go to one of their churches in Egypt, though, not right now. I met a charming Coptic man on the way into Cairo from Rome, and I worry about his safety. He was an utterly charming man, but ISIL has sworn to go after the Christians that are in Egypt. Isn’t this all such a tragic mess? We need to find a way to get along again. I took a rather intensive course on terrorism last year, so I understand that we have ourselves to blame to some considerable extent. So, we must make amends and find a way to communicate without becoming too hot headed. I doubt that will happen soon, I’m afraid.
The temple’s interiors were fabulous, but of course, written in that unintelligible Ptolemaic hieroglyphic nonsense that I can’t begin to make any sense of. I craved Middle Egyptian something fierce.
I shan’t go on effusively, reader, I know that my words alone can’t bring Philae to life for you. I know that my rapturous prose is silly when you aren’t utterly enraptured by history. I understand completely. So just know that the island was a place of wonderment. The Nile was intensely beautiful here, and the bold, azure sky was fabulous. Flowers and rocks and trees and it was too much. Simply too beautiful. I envied anybody who could come here whenever they desired, whenever the fancy struck them to partake of history.
I was quite tired by this time, and the sun was hanging low in the heavens, so we decided that we should skip the granite quarry and head to the Old Cataract. This is the hotel where I would be staying for far too little time. Writing this now, I regret that I wasn’t there for weeks, exploring the halls and pools and restaurants. I regret that I never got to wander through Aswan, shop in the souk, visit Elephantine Island, go to the museums, and learn all about the nearby Nubian cultures. But, I only had a few hours.
The Old Cataract was a delight from the moment I saw it, Hassan and Abdul dropped me at the gates, and then I was transported to another world. A bellhop took my bag and whisked me into a running golf cart which took flight the second I sat down. We drove through a garden and past fountains, and I was so gobsmacked at this luxury that I could hardly keep up.
The lobby was marvelous, reader. I immediately felt like I was in that fabulous film, Death on the Nile, starring Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis. It was filled with the most decadent Islamic design. The porter ushered me through several rooms and then into a charming waiting room filled with fine furniture and plush pillows. Out of nowhere, a man appeared carrying a gilded platter that had a glass of tamarind juice on it. I gratefully accepted it, and waited patiently, admiring the decor and ambiance.
The manager soon appeared, all smiles and graciously ignoring the gaping hole that had suddenly returned to my pants. After I sipped the juice and crossed my legs, I again felt that unwelcome breeze in areas that are not accustomed to fresh air. I sighed inwardly at the situation and prayed that this fabulously nice hotel would have a sewing kit. I adjusted the flaps of my shredded pants as well as I could and followed the smiling man.
“You are here only for one night?” He asked, dumbfounded.
I confirmed this, and mentioned that I would have to leave very early the next morning to catch the convoy south to Abu Simbel. This horrified him. “You have only hours here! It is not enough. You need days. Wait here, sir, please, sir.”
He was only gone a matter of minutes but seemed inordinately pleased with himself on his return. “We want you to have good memories,” he said, leading me to my room. “We hope you have better ones now.”
Opening the door, he demonstrated just what he meant. They upgraded my room to a suite!
Reader, instead of a room, I had a sitting area, a dressing room, a bedroom, a massive bathroom, and a balcony that faced Elephantine. I gasped. It was like being on a movie set. It was like being a movie star myself! I have rarely been to a place so elegant, so refined, so full of history. I always thought that the night I stayed at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles was going to be the highlight of my luxurious life. I was wrong. I think…no, I know…it was that night, those few blissful hours at the Old Cataract.
After a tour of the room — yes, it was big enough to warrant a tour! — the kindly man refused my tip, and left me with a bigger smile than before. I was gobsmacked by this. Egyptians, and I mean this with love, they love their baksheesh!
I took a step out on the balcony and just could not believe the environment around me. It was almost too beautiful to be real. I still think back on it, and the entire experience has this marvelous dreamlike quality. My room was on the ground level and the Nile was very close. It was a different river from Luxor, which stunned me. It seemed a bit wilder, a bit more dangerous. In Luxor, I feel like I could easily swim across to the other bank, but I wouldn’t try it here. There could be crocodiles, even though they aren’t in the river anymore, and there might be hippopotamuses waiting to gorge on my flesh, even though they aren’t in Egypt anymore, either.
It was about two hours to sunset, and I had to deliberate my future plans. There were a number of things that I wanted to do and a number of things I wanted to eat, but there were only a very few hours left to me in the day. The convoy south to Abu Simbel leaves at an ungodly hour in the morning, I had to meet with Hassan and Abdul at the same time some people come in after a good night out. So, my bedtime was going to be early.
The sunset in this city is supposed to be particularly lovely. The sands choke the atmosphere in this rougher part of Egypt, and the sky is supposed to be ablaze with color. I didn’t want to miss that. But there was a museum devoted to Nubia that is supposed to be fabulous, and it was only down the road, but I would miss the sunset if I were to visit. I felt utterly guilty and awful, but I decided that instead of pursuing knowledge as I always do, I decided that I deserved to treat myself.
So I found myself a sewing kit and exclaimed in joyous rapture after seeing the high quality of the thread and the sturdiness of the kit. It had thread that went on for miles! I immediately stripped off my pants and got to sewing. It was much needed — the rip was getting into very dangerous territories. I sewed every bit of thread I could into those pants and made sure that I reinforced each repair at least three times. I was not going to be showing off my junk the next day at Abu Simbel. The tourists would be appreciating Nineteenth Dynasty art instead of my expensive briefs. #blessed
With this important duty accomplished, I freshened up, made an espresso — the room had an espresso machine! — and sat on the balcony, ready to be enraptured by the show in the sky. The heavens were orange and gold and pink and radiant with colors I’ve never seen at sunset. The star itself was huge as it sunk to the hills. This was so different from how it looked in Luxor, which is a thing of wondrous beauty itself, but this was splendid. The granite hills glowed, and as the horizon ate the sun, Egypt was forced into darkness. It was primordial, prehistoric, majestic, and I thought again for the billionth time about my beloved ancient people. I thought about their religion, their beliefs that Ra was off to battle Apopis in the heavens above, their hope that their god would be victorious, and that the sun would rise again the next morning. It was marvelous. I sat there until the last color drained from the sky, leaving the stars to twinkle over Aswan.
Reader, it was the stuff you see in movies. If you’re the kind of person who makes bucket lists, please put this place on your list, please sit on a balcony, and please watch the sun sink into the hills.
I had every intention of going to the Nubian Museum which was very close to the Old Cataract, but I wanted to have time to eat dinner, and the sunset and the quality of the hotel completely convinced me that I would be back again for an extended period of time. There is nothing that can keep me away from Aswan. I hope to return to Egypt in 2018 because the Grand Egyptian Museum is opening in Cairo and because I miss that sandy nation with all my soul. Now that my DNA has been tested and I’m approximately 1/1,000th North African, I’m longing spiritually to be back there. It’s an ache that I carry with me every day. I always thought that I would live in Paris and spend my days there, and I do love that wonderful part of France, but I don’t think it’s a place that I could live all my life. I would love the shops and the museums and the streets and the Métro, but it’s so expensive and it’s a lonely place. And Paris isn’t the Paris that it used to be. Egypt welcomes me like a brother, I felt like I was a part of the culture at once. It so different from all the other places I’ve been. But I’m running on too long.
I dressed for dinner, wandered the halls, and found a restaurant. I was the only person there. Finally, about halfway through my meal, an older English couple arrived. We chatted a bit, and they come as often as they can. They didn’t really love Egypt with that overwhelming passion that I have, but they love the luxury of the Old Cataract and kindness of the staff, and they were darling people.
Food wasn’t the most fabulous, it was actually the same as the menu at the Winter Palace, but they are operated by the same company, so this is understandable. The bread tasted better, for which I was thankful, and I am always overjoyed for an opportunity to eat lentil soup.
I took a little walk and then decided I needed to prepare for the night. Because of the time of the convoy, I had to really get some shut eye early. I didn’t want to miss the journey south by sleeping through it. I want to memorize every inch of the landscape. So I returned to my room and drew a bath in a huge tub. I started squealing with pleasure when I noticed the labels on the provided toiletries. Reader, this was monumental, they were all from Hermès! Is that not the chicest thing you’ve ever had at a hotel? I’ve never had such a luxurious thing in a hotel before in my life, and I have been in much more expensive hotels! I immediately soaped and shampooed and conditioned and moisturized with the provided Hermès products and felt like the Queen of Sheba. Oh, I was living. My phone was playing Eddie Calvert music, I spritzed nice cologne into the air, I luxuriated. Swaddled in a thick robe, I made a cup of mint tea, and took myself onto the porch. My hair dried quickly and beautifully in the dry Egyptian air, and I knew completely that every once in a while, life is grand. Living is such a blessed treat.
Sinking into my plush, canopy bed, I could not help but beam. Sleep wasn’t easy, but it came. Soon I’d see Abu Simbel and the southernmost border of my beloved country. What a time.