The enchanting Lake Nasser
Ahmed El-Sagheer sails through the land of forgotten myths
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Clockwise from top: Wadi Al-Sobua; Qasr Ibrim; Amda Temple; Beit Al-Wali in Kalabsha Temple
Beneath the calm surface of the huge lake lies a submerged part of history. Lake Nasser, which drowned dozens of Nubian villages half a century or so ago, doesn't seem to be troubled by the memory. Cruising on it on a late autumn day, nothing but serenity comes to mind. The turbulent past of invading armies gone and forgotten, only fishermen and tour agents live here. Only tourists haunt the grounds of the temples, or what remains of them, the temples themselves having moved to escape the invading water. The ones that stayed in place are now submerged so deep, not even crocodiles can find them.
I am on a boat travelling from Aswan to Abu Simbel. The journey starts in a harbour just east of the High Dam. It is at this harbour that cargo ships travelling to Wadi Halfa in Sudan are loaded. It is also where the railway lines from Cairo end.
The boat sails west, past the High Dam, to a rocky island where we take a small boat to the Kalabsha Temple, a Graeco-Roman temple dated to the first century AD. The temple is massive, so much so that 19th Century travellers described it as the Karnak of Nubia. Until it was moved to its new location in the 1960s, the temple -- once dedicated to the Nubian sun god Mandulis -- was located 50km to the south.
Behind the Kalabsha Temple stands one of the many Ramses II temples, this one still resplendent in its colourful paintings dated to the 13th Century BC. The locals refer to this temple as the Temple of Beit Al-Wali, using the name of a nearby village to identify it.
On one side of the Kalabsha Temple there is a small building boasting Ptolemaic columns with floral capitals, often called the Kiosk of Kertassi. The ruins of another temple for Ramses II, dubbed the Temple of Garf Hussein, stand nearby. If you ever travel to this spot, ask to see the remnants of prehistoric paintings on sandstone, which are just as incredible as the rest of this island.
The High Dam was one of Egypt's mega projects in the 1950s and 1960s. Egypt's then young leader, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, turned it into a national symbol, something that embodies the country's newfound appetite for independence. Built to replace the older Aswan Dam, designed by Sir William Willcocks in the early 20th Century, the High Dam submerged more of Nubia.
The Aswan Dam, elevated twice, had already flooded many parts of Nubia. But the much- grander High Dam sounded the death toll for what was left. Thankfully, a UNESCO-led campaign managed to save a selection of temples in Nubia, moving them to dry land on the lake's shore.
The High Dam is just as visually striking as the ancient monuments. Straddling the lake from east to west, it perches like a mythical creature, water rumbling between its paws before roaring northward. A trophy for victory against imperialism, the High Dam is decorated with a lotus flower atop an oversized tower. On the walls of the tower, Arabic and Russian scripts overlap, courtesy of a polyglot socialist past.
Our next destination, Wadi Al-Sobua, is a ten- hour trip by boat. The first three hours take us across the Tropic of Cancer to the widest point in Lake Nasser, where the shores are 37km apart. On the surface, the lake now looks like a sea, majestic and unfathomable, but the captain of the ship knows better. He leads the boat gingerly on a well-defined path, tracing the old bed of the river, eschewing the rock islands on both sides. The islands are in fact the tips of the once impassable mountains of Nubia.
The government relocated the Nubians to the north, building 45 villages for them near Kom Ombo, with names matching their doomed villages. To sweeten the deal, the government provided Nubians with much of what their old habitat lacked: schools, medical facilities and roads. But after the evacuation, the Nubian mood became subdued, and songs and oral history of Nubia resonated with nostalgia.
On the upside, the man-made lake was a bonus for migratory birds and some of Egypt's threatened species also used it as an alternative habitat.
Seven hours into our trip, we could see the holiday home of late president Anwar El-Sadat in Garf Hassan on the western shore of the lake. Nearby is a harbour where fishermen sold their catch to local food processing factories. On the eastern shore is the protected area of Wadi Al-Alaqi, now home to many species of fauna and flora but centuries back a quarry for marble and gold.
By the time we arrive at Wadi Al-Sobua, dark has descended over the lake. It was a moonless night and one could see thousands of stars glittering above, a carpet of woven celestial objects as far as the eye can see. Occasionally, a fish would jump out of the calm surface, as if for a brief peek into the endless horizons. The water turns pink at dawn then goes gradually back into various shades of blue.
Restorers working almost 50 years ago moved a temple for Ramses II from its original location 4km north. The temple's name in Arabic, Wadi Al-Sobua, meaning Valley of the Lions, is quite apt for the temple is adorned with rows of rams with lion-looking heads. In this temple, as in many others belonging to this self-aggrandising Pharaoh, Ramses II boasts of having sired over 100 children, as well as of being a god.
A nearby Ptolemaic temple is named after a nearby village called Dekka. Another Ptolemaic temple in the vicinity is called the Moharraqa Temple.
Climbing over a nearby hill, one could see the green fields of the western shore of the lake. Since the High Dam was created, the annual flood is hardly noticeable past Aswan. But we're now south of the dam and the flood is felt here, albeit at a much higher altitude than it was centuries and centuries ago. In summer, the lake's level rises and its shores are flooded. When the flood recedes, the land becomes fertile and ready for irrigation. This was the primordial story of the River Nile and can still to be witnessed here.
We come across three shepherds herding hundreds of sheep. They are from a small village near Aswan and this is their annual trip. They started their trip by crossing the river into the West Bank, taking their flocks to graze in the savannah near the lake. They walk for an average of 7km every day, and have to make sure that they spend the night at least 1.5km away from the lake to avoid the pests of the desert. Any closer and the shepherds would run the risk of being attacked by scorpions and poisonous serpents living by the lake. Their trip lasts for six or seven months on average, during which time they feed on milk, fish and bread.
Back to the ship for another four-hour trip takes us to Amda Temple, a construction that looks rather unimposing from the outside but inside seems like an art gallery. The colours are bright and the paintings so expressive one can hardly believe that they were completed in the time of Thutmose III in the 15th century BC. Thutmose III, the stepson of Hatshepsut, is remembered for his victory over the Canaanite army in Megiddo, one of the first battles recorded with extensive detail in history.
This temple was originally located 6km away, and to transport it to its current location, engineers mounted a major section of its structure on railways and pushed it a few hundred metres every day until it arrived at its destination. The engineering feat, incredible as it is, took six months to complete.
Another temple nearby is the Dorr Temple. Built by Ramses II, it was originally engraved in a sandstone hill nearly 11km away. Its main hall features great murals showing Pharaoh praying to various deities. In one scene, he is shown standing by the Tree of Immortality, while Thuth, the moon god, writes his name on the list of immortals.
A few hundred metres away, a pyramid-shaped hill containing the only tomb saved from the floods comes into sight. The tomb belongs to Benout, the powerful viceroy of Nubia who was in charge of supplying stone for the statues of Ramses VI in the 11th Century BC. The tomb is particularly interesting not only for its depiction of the afterlife, but for its many vivid paintings of scenes of life in Nubia at the time.
The sunset is confusing. We are already on the western bank of the lake and so expect the sun to set into the horizon behind the desert. Instead, it sets behind the water, on what should have been the eastern side of the lake. We ask the guide and he explains that the lake bends so much at this point that it is both on our left and right. From this particular vantage point, the sun rises and sets above water, as if we are on a small island.
We go back to the boat and sail for two more hours to arrive at the fort of Qasr Ibrim. It is the only monument in Nubia that remains untouched, having been originally erected on a high cliff. Its surroundings have changed, however. Once on the shore, it is now just an island surrounded on all sides by water. The fort dates back to the Middle Kingdom and was fortified in Graeco-Roman, Coptic, and Muslim times. There, you can visit the ruins of a church dating back to the eighth century.
From this location, you can glimpse the lights of the massive water-lifting station feeding the Toshka Canal on the western side of the lake. Much has been said about the Toshka Project, but what is less known is that most of it was a side-effect of the reservoirs created by the High Dam. In the late 1970s, water filled up the Toshka reservoir forming three giant lakes. The water later receded, leaving behind a massive expanse of silt-enriched soil that experts believed would be ideal for agriculture. This is how the idea of a canal running from Lake Nasser to Al-Wadi Al-Gadid came into being. The Toshka Canal is meant to help irrigate a huge area of fertile land in the Western Desert, leading to much urban and agricultural development, or so the government hopes.
Our boat docked for the night on a fishermen island not far from the Qasr Ibrim Island. We could see the fishermen sitting in front of their tents, resting after a long day of work, talking and laughing as they grilled fish for their dinner.
The fishermen on Lake Nasser come mostly from two governorates, Qena and Sohag. They fish in allotted parts of the lake for 11 months every year. The lake is closed to fishermen from mid-April to mid-May to protect fish during the mating season. The fishermen have no access to fresh food and have to bring everything they need from their villages: grain, salted meat, bread crackers, etc. They have no access to medical services either, so injuries and snake bites can lead to serious complications.
The lake, we're told, is infested with crocodiles. Since the High Dam was built, crocodiles disappeared from the Nile up north because they cannot swim past the giant turbines. But in Lake Nasser they breed and prosper, some reaching a length of seven to 10 metres.
In the early morning, we set sail for four hours. Basking in the unique beauty of the serene lake and open horizon everyone is excited about this last stop, our rendezvous with eternity, our encounter with the son of Ra, as Ramses II called himself. The Abu Simbel Temple, an exceptional feat of architecture of its time, was designed at an exact angle to allow the sun to illuminate the inner sanctum twice a year, 61 days before and 61 days after the winter solstice. For just a few moments on 21 October and 21 February, three of the four statues in the inner sanctum are bathed in light, those of the sun god Ra, the divine king Ramses II, the Theban god Amun. A fourth statue, that of Ptah, the god of underworld is allowed to stay in the dark.
The main temple of Abu Simbel and the smaller one dedicated to Nefertari, the favourite wife of Ramses II, were cut up between 1964 and 1968 and the blocks were reassembled in a sport 180m away and 65m above the original location.
The main temple displays images of the great battle fought by the warrior-king, especially the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. The smaller temple is softer in tone, depicting the beautiful queen playing music and communicating with the goddess Hathur. A night-time sound and light show, involving a recorded description of the history of the temples accompanied with selective lighting of the sections of the temples relative to the story, is a perfect ending to the day.
South of Abu Simbel, there are no other known historic sites to visit. The cargo and passenger ships heading to Sudan must sail for another three hours to reach the border harbour of Wadi Halfa. As for us, it was time to bid farewell to the king and queen, the forgotten myths, and all the submerged villages down there.