Abu Simbel, Egypt
On Saturday morning, I was one of the last off the boat. (My flight to Abu Simbel was not until 9:30.) I said goodbye to all the staff with tears in my eyes. But when I had to say goodbye to Ahmed I just started sobbing. This young man radiates joy. He is truly one of the kindest, gentlest souls I have every met. I knew that it was highly unlikely our paths would ever cross again, and this made me very sad. I wished Ahmed eternal happiness, peace and many babies. He laughed, gave me a big hug and said “I will miss you my queen. You are like a beautiful Cinderella.” With that I sobbed even harder. He gave me a tissue, and I turned to go. I walked up the gangplank to my waiting car as the deck hands followed with my luggage. I turned one more time to waive to everyone, and there was Ahmed with a broad smile. I got into the car and Ahmed continued to smile and waive as the car drove off. A real life sweetheart of a guy.
I arrived at the airport to discover that a sandstorm had moved into the area and our flight to Abu Simbel would be delayed until 11:00. Not a big deal in terms of the return flight to Cairo since everyone on the plane was booked on the same return flight. As a result, the flight to Cairo would be delayed for the same two hours. However, it really screwed up my connecting flight to Amman. Egypt Air would have to rebook me on the late night flight to Amman. This mean that instead of arriving into Amman at 7:30 p.m. and spending a relaxing evening in Madaba. I was stuck on the 11:15 p.m. flight and with the 1 hour time change would not arrive into Amman until 1:30 p.m. I figured with the collection of my luggage, customs and immigration, I would not arrive at my hotel until 2:30 a.m. Crap. So much for the early morning trip to Petra.
Now about my flight change. My God! You would have thought that I was asking to buy the plane not just get a seat on the flight. First there was a rapid exchange of Arabic between Mohammed (no there are no other names for men in this country), the fellow from Memphis Tours who accompanied me to the airport and the man at the checkin counter for Egypt Air. Then hand wringing and more discussion. Finally Mohammed and I were escorted to the Egypt Air office where, count ’em, two men proceeded to get on the phone with more rapid fire Arabic. After further discussions and about a 20 minute time lapse I was assured it was all done. (Good lord. What happens when an entire flight is canceled. These folks must have a nervous breakdown!)
Anyway, I continued to smile politely. I shook each gentleman’s hand and thanked them profusely for all their help. With broad smiles from the two Egyptian air guys, we were escorted back to the check-in counter. At the check-in counter we had to wait while same fellow we had dealt with in the beginning checked in all of the folks for a flight to Cairo before he would deal with me. Then came the real time consuming process. This fellow and two others now had to figure out how to print my three boarding passes (Aswan to Abu Simbel; Abu Simbel to Cairo; Cairo to Amman) with the change to my Amman flight and had to figure out how to check my luggage through to Amman. After much discussion, more hand wringing and two attempts at printing my boarding passes they finally got it done. I clapped for them, shook their hands, and again thanked them profusely. More broad smiles. (The key at airports is to maintain a sense of humor and try, try, try not to lose your cool.)
So with boarding passes in hand, I said goodbye to Mohammed and proceeded to go sit in the waiting area for the next 2 ½ hours. I soon learned that the majority of those who were on my flight had been placed on an earlier flight so there was only a handful of us going on this plain to Abu Simbel. (No idea why I wasn’t given the earlier option.) Anyway, finally, at 11:15 a.m. we took off and 30 minutes later we were in the sweltering heat of Abu Simbel, 30 km from the Sudan boarder. I was met by another Memphis Tours representative who proceeded to wisk me to the monuments at Abu Simbel to meet my guide.
Now about Abu Simbel. There are only two ways to reach Abu Simbel: by air and by bus convoy. There are two flights a day into Abu Simbel (6:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) and two flights out. People who fly in on the first flight are put back on the first flight out and people on the second flight in are put on the second flight out. You are given about 2 hours at the monuments. The bus convoy takes about 3 hours, arrives around 7 a.m. and departs around 9 a.m. So this means that if you are on the later flight, it is likely there will be very few people at the monument. In my case, because of the sand storm there were only a half dozen of us at the site.
In fact, when I arrived at Abu Simbel, there was no one there since those on my flight had not yet arrived at the site. I was literally the very first person to reach the Great Temple of Ramses II as well as the adjacent Temple of Hathor (built by Ramses II for his favorite wife Nefertari). I raced ahead of my guide and snapped pictures of both temples with no one else around. It was a rare and fantastic opportunity.
As I stared at the temples, I found it remarkable that these temples had ever been moved. As with the the Temple of Philae, both of these temples were affected by the construction of the High Dam at Aswan. As a result the Great Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor were dismantled and reassembled on higher ground. The project was completed in 1968 and took only a remarkable four years from start to finish.
Anyway, after the Kodak moment I then doubled back and sat with my guide as he discussed the two monuments with me. (No guides are permitted inside the temples so all discussions occurred outside. Once he was finished his lecture he left me to wander the two temples.) First up was the Temple of Hathor. The front of the temple featured four giant statutes of Ramses II and two giant statutes of his favorite wife, Nefertari dressed as the goddess Hathor (goddess of love, beauty, music, motherhood and joy). Inside the small temple there were six pillars in the Hypostyle Hall featuring the head of Hathor (which is the shape of a cow). The temple features very colorful reliefs of Nefertari and Hathor as well as reliefs featuring Neferatari honoring (who else) Ramses II.
Then it was on to the Great Temple of Ramses II, which was carved out of the rocks taking 30 years to build. The temple was completed in 1244 BC, but was covered in sand for centuries and not rediscovered until 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni. (In fact, when you go inside the temple Mr. Belzoni was apparently so proud of his discovery he inscribed his name and the date into the temple walls. A “kilroy was here” moment if there ever was one.)
Anyway, the front of the Ramsess II featured four colossal statutes of Ramses II, three of which remain in tact. The statutes were accompanied by much smaller statutes of Ramses II’s mother, his favorite wife Nefertari and some of his favorite children. (Given that the guy had 120 boys and 83 girls, I had to wonder how the guy had any time to get to know his kids so that he could pick his favorites.) As I stared at the temple with no one else in my sights, I kept thinking wouldn’t it be funny if the powerful people of today built temples like this to honor themselves. Can you imagine Bill Gates constructing a temple to honor his achievements to the world. (Huge statutes of Bill fronting the facade of the temple with computer monitors and nerdy glasses on the arches…)
Anyways, above the four statutes was an arch featuring 24 baboons signifying 24 hours in the day. As you entered the temple (and again no pictures allowed) you encounter 8 more colossal statutes of the great one himself in the Great Hypostyle Hall. The walls and ceilings were decorated with battle scenes depicting Ramses II in the battle against the Hittites, including the famous scene of Ramses II shooting arrows from his chariot. Some of the reliefs feature the first known attempt at animation with multiple arms and legs depicting action. One wall contains a series of inscriptions which my guide told me was the original peace treaty with the Hittites. There were a myriad of rooms off the Great Hypostyle Hall featuring reliefs of Ramses II and Nefertari in front of various gods, including the god of fertility (you may remember him as the man with the “big stick”). At the end of the temple was the Sacred Sanctuary of Four Gods featuring the gods Ra-Horakhty (god of sun), Amun (god of creation) and Ptah (god of underworld or darkness) as well as Ramses II (god of, I presume, ego).
I spent a considerable amount of time wandering around the temple with no one else inside. It was a stunning, stunning temple and well worth the hassle to visit.
After two hours at the temples I finally left to meet the fellow with Memphis Tours to take me back to the airport. However, he had bad news. The plane was going to be delayed because of a fuel problem. (The fuel was overheating… uh WHAT?) The explanation made no sense, but there was little I could do and since my flight to Amman was not until 11:15 p.m., a little delay didn’t bother me.
So we decided to head to the Nubian House for some Hibiscus Tea so I could cool off and wait for the flight. Once I cooled down, I wandered around and looked at the Nubian art and the gardens. (Nubian House was a small hotel that featured its own organic gardens and authentic Nubian dining. A really lovely hotel.) Anyway, as I wandered around, I encountered a very sleepy camel. As I stared at it, the camel opened its eyes, lifted its head and made a very loud noise as if to tell me to piss off. Well with apologies to the camel for waking him from his siesta, I wandered off to watch some guys working in the yard.
Finally it was time to head to the airport so off we set for the 5 minute trip. When we got to the airport… more bad news. The flight was delayed again and no one knew when or if we would be taking off. GACK! Egyptian Air wanted all of us to leave the airport and go for lunch at a local restaurant. Uh no thanks. I’ll hang around and wait thank you. (If I left the airport, it would be easier for Egypt Air to cancel the flight and leave me hanging so I was going to wait it out.) And this was when my “handler” from Memphis Tours decided that he could not possibly “leave a female by herself at the airport”. After several minutes of VERY heated discussion with this fellow, I finally convinced him that I was not leaving, and that I would be fine without his “protection”.
So I sat down to wait it out. However, Mr. Protector would not leave. He wandered around the tiny airport. Leaned against a wall and stared at me from across the room. Walked back across the airport to make sure I was OK. Then back he would walk to his post against the wall. This went on for two hours. The Brits sitting near me finally motioned for me to come and sit with them. They wanted to know what was going on and I told them that the nearest I could tell, this fellow did not want to leave a single, female on her own and it was a cultural thing. (Male dominate Egypt not used to dealing with strong willed, independent female).
Finally at 4:00 good news. The plane was fixed and we would be taking off at 5:00. I tipped Mr. Protector a few bucks and he finally left my life. We boarded the plane, made the stop in Luxor and by 8:00 p.m. I was safely at the Cairo airport. I telephoned my driver, Monsour, in Amman who assured me it would be no problem to pick me up at 1:30 a.m. If it had been me, I personally would have provided the name of the nearest taxi service and told me to have a nice day. However, Monsour was up for the challenge so at 1:30 a.m., I arrived in Amman to Monsour’s smiling face and one hour later Monsour had me safely ensconced in Madaba for the night. He would meet me in the morning for the trip to Petra.