DAY 14 February 08, 2023 – Aswan

Later, we took a short motorboat ride across the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam to visit the Temple of Philae, another of UNESCO’s Nubian Monuments that had to be rescued from flooding. Philae was originally located near the First Cataract but was flooded after the construction of the Aswan Low Dam. As part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project, the temple complex was moved to a nearby Agilika Island to protect it before the completion of the Aswan High Dam. As the center of the cult of Isis, the island of Philae was an important place of pilgrimage or worshippers even into the Christian era. From Phil, ISIS was said to watch over the sacred island of Big, one of the mythical burial sites of her husband Osiris. Before the temple’s relocation, visitors after the lower dam’s construction viewed the site from boats, peering through the water. By 1980, Agilika had even been landscaped to look like Philae.

Boats now drop visitors off at the southern end of Agilika, near the oldest building on the island the kiosk of Nectanebo II which dates from the 4th century BC. From here, a long courtyard flanked by colonnades leads to the Temple of Isis, the main building of the Philae complex. Built in the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods this huge temple combines ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture. The first pylon has scenes of Ptolemy XII massacring his enemies, watched by Isis, Horus, and Hathor. In front of that pylon, guarding the entrance are two stone lions. To the side of the lions were Obelisks. Neither remains  and one (a victim of black market trade) was in Dorset England. It is notable, because the hieroglyphics on one side are repeated in Greek on the other and were used to confirm  assumptions made in deciphering hieroglyphics with the Rosetta Stone.  Nearby is one of the many nilometers, where the king or high priest would measure the flood waters of the Nile to determine the percentage of taxes the people would owe. A just right flood would generate the maximum – too high or too low would trigger a decrease.  The birth house, built by Ptolemy VI and altered by later rulers, is dedicated to Isis’s son Horus. The birth house was intended to show bas reliefs to legitimize the king’ claim to rule by showing him to be the son of Horus or that Horus granted him the rule of the Lower and Upper Egypt. To the west of the temple lies the Gate of Hadrian which is inscribed 24 August AD 394 with Egypt’s last hieroglyphics.  On the eastern side of the Island the small Temple of Hathor contains reliefs of musicians, including Bes, the god of singing.  Further south, close to the edge of the water, is the 14-columned Kiosk of Trajan which has scenes of the Roman emperor burning incense in front of Osiris and Isis.  At the northern end of the island, the Temple of Augustus and Gate of Diocletian lie in ruins.

Our guide, Maged, entertained us with more ancient tales of the stories of the gods. At some points, he became animated and acted out parts of the stories. His tales brought the bas reliefs to life. They helped create meaning in the art we saw on the walls.

On the way back, we hopped off the bus to see the street market near the railway station. We strolled through the Aswan Bazaar/Spice Market (Souq) with Hazem, the other guide on our tour.  Many of the same items we found during the vendor alleys on the way to the temples and sites were repeated, but spices and other wares (even suitcases were added).  After buying some spices,we walked back to the Nebu for lunch.

The Nebu is tied up to the bulkhead of the Nile in the center of Aswan. Aswan is Egypt’s southernmost city of the Nile and, even in Old Kingdom times, was considered strategically important as it guarded the frontier border. It served as the base for military incursions into Nubia and Sudan. Economically, it was a prosperous marketplace at the crossroads of ancient trade routes between Egypt, Africa, and India. The desert comes right down to the water’s edge here and the river is dotted with islands.

One of the islands, Elephantine Island is the oldest inhabited part of Aswan. It may have been named after the huge granite boulders at the southern end which resemble elephants bathing or because it was a major ivory trading post. the center of the island is home to two traditional Nubian villages distinguished by their colorful homes. It is also the location of another nilometer.

Overlooking the Nile, is the Aga Khan Mausoleum. It is closed to the public. Aga Khan III (1877-1957), the 48th imam or leader of the Ismail sect of Shiite, loved Aswan and spent the winters here hoping to help his rheumatism. After his death, his widow (a French model who was much younger than he) erected the domed and turreted sandstone mausoleum in his honor on a hillside behind their villa. The exterior is modeled on Cairo’s Fatimid tombs. Inside is a marble shrine and Aga Khan’s sarcophagus. Until her death in 2000, when she was in her 90’s, his Begum (his widow) continued to winter  here and would visit the mausoleum daily to leave a red rose on his sarcophagus. The villa is now occupied by the another Aga Khan (the one we know for his fine thoroughbred horses.)

Just west of Elephantine Island is Kitchener’s Island, also known as Island of Plants. It is covered by lush botanical garden. Horatio Kirchner, a British general, was presented the island in the 1890’s, as a reward for leading the Egyptian army’s successful campaigns in Sudan. He resided there and turned it into a botanical garden with his passion for gardening. The huge trees are home to colorful birds and egrets.

This afternoon after lunch, we climbed aboard a traditional Morrinhos felucca sailboat and sipped sparkling wine in the sunshine. While aboard, Maged gave us an overview of marriage customs in Egypt. Feluccas were a working boat design used by fishermen for hundreds of years on the Nile.  I was impressed by the captain’s ability to tack through the Nile with small islands and rocks hemming him in on both sides. At one point some gasped when they thought he was going to run into a cliff of boulders.  The tiller/rudder assembly was hand hewn.  The retractable keel has a depth of 2 meters.  The rudder has a depth of ½ meter.  Toward our turn around point, young children on a surf board clung on the side of our felucca, singing Frere Jacque and hoping for money. One of the crew members played a tambourine-like instrument and led us in song as we sailed back toward the Nebu.

Swimming in the Nile is not recommended since it is infested with parasitic worms, the larvae of which penetrate the skin and cause bilharzia, an infection known as snail fever or swimmers itch. Locals insist you are fine in fast-moving waters but the sluggish banks are best avoided. 

Enjoyed dinner back on board this evening with a galabyia traditional dress party in the lounge afterwards


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