The library was one of the greatest of the ancient world, established by Ptolemy I in 283 BC but destroyed over time. Restored and reopened in 2002, it takes on the role of re-establishing Alexandria’s position as one of the most important centres for learning in the modern world. The massive reading hall, which enjoys the natural Mediterranean sun through an interestingly arranged series of coloured glasses, is elegant and spacious. The library has a series of mini museums including that of carefully preserved manuscripts, creations of renowned Egyptian architects, film makers and artists; there is also a museum of onsite ancient objects. We don’t have the time to do justice to the collections, nor to their enthusiastic curators and guides. But this must surely count as one of the great international cultural projects of recent times.
Next up is Luxor. We arrive a bit past lunch and are whizzed onto an island on the Nile. The Temple of Luxor, dominated by beautiful gigantic columns, remains open till well after sunset, when it is lit up. Originally, the site was contiguous with the Nile, and must have been quite a sight to arrive at sailing down (or up) the river.
The temple was built largely by Amenhotep II and Ramses II and its entrance is dominated by a massive obelisk. A single piece of rock, the obelisk stands at a massive 75 feet and weighs 250 tonnes. There were two and the one on the right makes its absence felt through its barren base (it’s now at the Place de la Concorde in Paris). The Luxor Temple is connected to the even grander site of the Temple of Karnak by the three-km ‘Avenue of Sphinxes’ which, cut off by modern infrastructure, is being revived to reconnect the two masterpieces.
The scale is massive, sensual, well proportioned and beautiful. There are impressive muscular statues of Ramses II and other royalty, but amongst these colonnades that seem to have been created to catch the evening light the statues almost seem out of place. Look out for the columns and their capitals; hieroglyphs are carved in and colours painted on the stone slabs that seem to retain their original look and feel from over 3,000 years ago. We want to pick up some local brew.
A liquor shop owner recommends a clear rum—this is sugarcane country. Then we notice some wine bottles and discuss whether the wine is any good in Egypt. The owner overhears us and is politely miffed, “Wine is being made in Egypt for 6,000 years!” Truly, large quantities of wines were buried in terracotta wine flasks in the tombs at Abydos, not far from this shop. We pick up a bottle, and it turns out to be pretty good.
We are on a day trip from Luxor to the sites of Abydos and Dendara. If you look at a map you’ll notice a fairly prominent bend in the Nile; three significant sites— Luxor, Dendara (Qena) and the temple of Seti I in Abydos—are located more or less at the start, middle and end of this bend. Our first destination is the temple of Seti I. The most prestigious burial centre of ancient Egypt looks like a modern building—straight lines, neat rectangular form, a most unusual burial centre.
We zoom off to Qena, about 90km from Abydos, to reach Dendara and its temple of Hathor. This temple is set in a magnificent landscape where the desert overwhelms the Nile valley. Abandoned as a temple and then used as a shelter, the layers of soot from fires lit for cooking or warmth have been left intact in parts, to demonstrate the contrast and the exacting work involved. The cleaned-up bits are a stunning blue and many other colours.
I hadn’t paid much attention to where we were headed next, except for noting that it was going to be another early departure. The first to hit the breakfast table laid out along the Nile, we seethe hot air balloons striking the horizon with bright blobs of yellows and reds. We then cross a bridge to the west bank of the Nile. The first view of the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut is breathtaking: early morning orange lighting up a precision-cut temple blending into the cliffs. Under continuous excavation since 1891, Hatshepsut suffered widespread pillage in the last century. A ramp takes us up to a terrace with colonnades on either side, shading 3,500-year-old relief and paint work.
We manage to get on a train to Aswan. A wonderful way to travel through Egypt, since the rail line running parallel to the Nile allows one to cover virtually all the important sites. The views are mostly the Nile on one side and the gently raised plains on either. As we get to Aswan, the landscape gets more hilly and rocky. We are received by a soft-spoken safari-clad gent, whom I dub ‘El Safari’. Aswan is a different Egypt. While Alexandria is clearly Mediterranean, and Cairo and Luxor more like the Middle East, Aswan is all out Africa, the Africa I know from my work trips to Mali.
The character of the Nile has changed and we can see that it is in its upper reaches, wading through massive granite boulder formations, narrower, deep with a faster current. Tall, cotton, white sails that catch and magnify the river breeze into effortless movement help sail an elegant traditional boat. After a quick lunch we set off for the island of Philae.
This is dam country, the Aswan Dam tamingone of the world’s great rivers. The low dam was completed in 1902 and the highly contested high dam in 1970. It controls the annual flooding cycle of the Nile, irrigates 30 per cent of Egyptian territory, but also displaced over 100,000 residents and led to the depletion of soil quality. The Egyptian government and institutions all over the world finally woke up to the threat of the dam waters submerging priceless heritage and scrambled to relocate numerous monuments and entire hill sides to locations like Philae island.
The Temple of Isis, relocated on Philae, has a chequered history. The cult of Isis dates back to the seventh century BC, attracted pilgrims for thousands of years and continued to operate as a pagan temple well after the arrival of Christianity here. A short slow run along stunning cliffs and Philae comes into view. We climb up to a large open-air courtyard. Colonnades play with the light and I walk past, into an intimate inner courtyard, which leads to smaller sanctuaries, quiet and ideal for reflection. Painful to think that these might have been lost to the dam waters.
Onto Abu Simbel, where even the waters of the high dam cannot displace the feel of the Sahara. Our resort is the hottest place to be in Abu Simbel, both temperature and blue blood wise-leaders, senior bureaucrats, their security and the like mix with travellers from across the world. We are here to witness the Abu Simbel Sun festival that takes place bi-annually on February 22 and October 22. The Great Temple of Ramses II and the smaller Temple of Hathor represent one of the most unique stories in modern built heritage conservation.