Early, early in the morning we woke and loaded into the van at 3:30 a.m. This wasn’t too hard for any of the people coming from the States, because we’re still getting over jet lag. Right now waking up at 3 is normal for us!
After joining a long convoy of other tour buses, we began the 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, an ancient temple far in the desert. When we signed up for this, back in August, the 3 a.m. wake up call was not advertised. But we were able to sleep some on the bus, so it wasn’t bad.
Around 7:30 a.m. we arrived in the tiny town of Abu Simbel, on the shores of Lake Nasser. This lake was created in the 1960s to stop some over-flooding of the Nile, only about 40 miles from the Sudanese border.
Abu Simbel and the neighboring, smaller temple is the famous one you’ve all seen in history textbooks. Built by Ramses II, it was erected way out in the middle of the desert along a trade route to show his power and his military prowess (carved on the walls are details of his military campaigns against the Nubians/Kushites and Assyrians). It was just massive. And gorgeous.
The temple was discovered in 1817 by a European archeologist and a local boy (named Simbel). It had been buried with sand for over a thousand years, perhaps two thousand, and they discovered the top hieroglyphics. Another archeologist arrived from Cairo to help start and expedition to dig deeper, and the famous faces of Ramses II were found. Soon the smaller temple, dedicated to his favorite wife, Nefertari, was also discovered. Ramses II placed himself at almost equal with the gods, his statues beside them to be worshipped. His wife was portrayed as the goddess represented as a cow, and hieroglyphics also show her being crowned as queen. The goddess of the cow symbolized motherhood, milk, sustenance, and nourishment.
After watching a video describing how the temple was cut into pieces and moved 6 km away from the flooding area, we drove the 3 hours back across the desert.
For dinner later that night our guide, Abraham, took us walking through the bazaar and to a local Egyptian restaurant. I ordered stuffed pigeon on the recommendation of Ahmed, and Egyptian on the tour with us, and Jordan ordered grilled lamb chop. Somehow by the end of the meal I had promised Ahmed that in Luxor I would try the meat from a camel’s head. I drew the line at the brain and probably the tongue also, but I suppose when in Egypt you should eat like the Egyptians.
Abraham has opened up a little bit about the revolution and his thoughts on it, which are fascinating to hear. Almost everything he has told me has been exactly what I learned in my graduate classes, so it’s niceto get confirmation that everything is accurate, and a local, eye witness perspective is really great. Most educated Egyptians, such as Abraham, are glad the revolution took place, glad the people joined together to oust Mubarak, but are very disappointed in the power grabs afterward, as well as the continued free reign of the police, which are see as brutal and henchmen for whomever is in power. The military is considered a more legitimate form of power, because they are made up of many Egyptians. Service is required from a man in the family with more than one son. While the high leadership was/is probably just as corrupt as Mubarak and his personalistic cult, the regular military men are very sympathetic toward the Egyptian people because they are their families.
However, many people in the Middle East—even well-educated ones—do not understand the concept of democracy. Expediency and ease are not the points of democracy, often, democracy slows the decision-making process down to make sure only wise decisions are made (no rash ones) and make sure everyone has had a chance to be heard. This is completely foreign to them—they would much rather get something done quickly and have strong leadership. While I already knew this, it’s fascinating to have conversations with people that believe these things. Ideas and culture really do affect the beliefs of all of us.