After washing both laundry and dive gear, I made time for a quick visit to the Khan al Kahlili for another fitting at Atlas Silks, and to find an Arabic name necklace for a friend. Emad, who is more like our brother than just friend and driver, zipped me there and we climbed up three flights of stairs and emerged in the workshop of his jeweler friend. It was amazing to see men working on intricate gold webs of filagree and turn what looked like lead into gleaming silver. They wrote the name in Arabic and sent it down to a calligrapher, who created a template in handsome cursive; and then, gobsmacked, I watched them incise it into a circle of silver under a torch, pound it flat, and rub it until it gleamed. They also replaced the thong from which my Arabic name pendant hung (it is stainless steel, not silver).
|Emad made a new friend at the Khan|
|Alley of the Khan|
|Turning lead into incised siver|
|Buffing the pendant|
|The final product. Points if you can read the name!|
Emad and I had some time to kill between the jewelers and Atlas Silks, so he took me to the famous Al Fishaway café’s VIP room, where we drank coffee and shay nana (tea with mint), and I indulged in apple sheesha until I was pretty stoned on nicotine. The café itself is extraordinary: built over 240 years ago, it has hosted nobility, intellectuals—like Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mafouz—and folks like us. Emad showed me fascinating photos of his family, we laughed and talked politics, and the only bad thing was that Harris had stayed home to think Deep Thoughts.
|Al Fishaway Cafe|
On Friday, we awoke very early to catch a 7AM flight to Aswan and Abu Simbel, another tour organized by the indefatigable Tarek Swelim. We were met at the Cairo airport by his glamorous colleague, Manal Helmy, who shepherded us through to Aswan, connecting there for Abu Simbel, to see the astonishing mortuary temples on the edge of Lake Nasser, built for Ramses II (who else?) and his favorite wife, Nefertari. Like the Temple of Philae, these temples were threatened by rising waters when the High Dam was built in the 1960s, and a team from the U.N. and UNESCO carefully cut the temples into thousands of pieces, and rebuilt them 140 meters higher in a nearly perfectly analogous location.
|Abu Simbel from the air; you can see the temples if you click on this|
|Manal Helmy and Harris in front of Ramses's mortuary temple|
|At Abu Simbel, Lake Nasser sparkling in the back|
Judging from everything else we have seen built for Ramses II, size matters, and these temples are typically enormous. The originals were carved into living rock, like the mortuary temple of Hatsphepsut in the Valley of the Kings, and their scale is nearly overwhelming. In the final sanctuary of Ramses’s temple are four sculptures of gods (including Ramses) that twice a year are lighted by the sun, all but Ptah, who remains in the dark. But perhaps more than the carvings, sculptures, and paintings, we were struck by the location. Windy, and of course dusty, but magnificent: the temples overlook the vastness of Lake Nasser, and you can hear the lapping of waves many meters below. Manal told us that the most quiet and romantic Nile cruise is between Aswan and Abu Simbel, largely through the gigantic lake.
|In front of Ramses's mortuary temple|
|The gods in the sanctuary of Ramses's temple|
One really needs no more than three hours at Abu Simbel, so after our archaeology fix, we boarded a plane shuttling us to Aswan. There, we kissed Manal goodbye and headed to the gorgeous Old Cataract Hotel for three nights of suite luxury. The hotel comprises two buildings, its original (with the famed Agatha Christie suite, ornate décor, and the elegant “1902” restaurant built for King Farouk), and a tower added later. Sofitel, the owner of the hotel, spent three years renovating it, and the tower is now all Nile-facing rooms and suites, with a spa and gym on the ground floors. The suite deck’s views are killer, overlooking Elephantine Island’s ruins and Nubian village, the Nile stretching to the north, and the noble tombs on its west bank.
|The Old Cataract Hotel from the Nile|
|New tower of the Old Cataract; our suite was on the 9th floor|
|Elephantine Island from our balcony|
There’s a genre I call “hotel porn,” photos of drool-worthy hotel rooms, and ours fits the category. Its double balcony overlooked the Nile, rocky cataract islands, and city of Aswan, and it’s where we enjoyed tea in the afternoon and wine as the sun set and lights came up.
|Tea time on the balcony|
|Aswan at dusk from our balcony|
|another view of Aswan at dusk|
A felucca ride around Elephantine Island brought the Nile back to a lower level, and we enjoyed the quiet and beauty as we cruised around. That evening, our local guide Mamdoud took us across the water to a Nubian restaurant for a delicious, though overly large, meal of local food. Our other dinners were dedicated to “1902,” gourmet food and exquisite service. I particularly enjoyed eating a Nile fish caught only on the Sudan side of the High Dam, a huge creature called sammous, evidently a wily fish who requires a psychologist to catch it as it stops and starts, trying to work the hook out of its mouth.
|On the felucca near Kitchener's Island|
|The fabulous "1902" restaurant|
Since this was a vacation, a bit of calm before returning to work and Egyptian politics, I got a massage, and the two of us worked out in the hotel gym and took deliciously hot steams in the hotel hammam. News flash: Harris worked out! It was his first time in a gym since August, and whether it’s the constant walking we do in Cairo or scuba diving, he did well. Sadly, this only gives him more reason not to go the gym in Cairo, but he’s getting away with it.
I had fun playing with the settings on my camera and photographing the view from our terrace as the sun set and lights twinkled on. Aswan is really photogenic and its clean air, crisp weather (at least in the winter) and mix of lower Egyptian and Nubian culture make it a delightful place to visit. Now it is back to work in a couple of days. Tomorrow is the big rally at Tahrir celebrating the first anniversary of the Revolution, and ISA, it will be peaceful. If the first meeting of Parliament is an augury, it shall.