Why Abu Simbel inspires awe

Abu Simbel, yet another icon of the utter stunningness that is Egypt…

Abu Simbel

After the great pyramids of Giza, perhaps these imposing temples grace the most number of postcards from Egypt.

We visited Abu Simbel on the last day of our five day Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan, stopping at various temples along the way. By this point, we were all templed out. Words like Pharaoh and mummification were pouring out of our ears. And what we didn’t know about the personal lives of Egyptian kings and gods, from Rameses to Amun Ra, simply wasn’t worth knowing.

So, when we saw that we were headed to Abu Simbel that day, we were all blasé about it; yeah, yeah, another temple. And then, bam!

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Right on the banks of the Nile, cut into solid rock, these four imposing figures – each almost 70 feet high – stare at you in a most unnerving fashion, as they have been since around 1244 BCE. It is believed that Rameses II (there he is again, there is just no escaping this man, or one of his descendants in Egypt) built these as a deliberate attempt to intimidate the local Nubian population and his enemies approaching by water. And let me tell you, he must have succeeded. Although most Egyptian royalty believed themselves to be above merely human, Rameses II was one of the few Pharaohs to actually declare himself divine while he was alive.

Perhaps equally fascinating is the story of how the Abu Simbel temples were moved in the 1960s, when the building of the Aswan dam threatened to flood the area. The temples were dismantled, cut carefully into blocks and reassembled at spot over 200 feet higher than the original location. Sponsored by the UNESCO and managed by a team of 2000 engineers, this project was carried out between 1964 and 1968.

Watch this video for more history and details of this move…

It is possible to fly down from Aswan, a short flight of 45 minutes, but since we were part of the cruise, we took the bus. The bus leaves at 4.30 am and travels in a convoy, covering the distance of almost 300 km in 3.5 hours. It is an interesting drive on desert, deserted roads – nothing but sands on either side and a long line of buses with police escort. We got two hours at the temples, adequate time to walk around, gape at them and pose for the mandatory photographs. The drive back is also in a convoy, getting us back to our boat well in time for lunch.

Many visitors stick to Cairo and the pyramids, venturing only so far as Luxor, skipping Abu Simbel. My advice is to not miss it when you visit Egypt; it is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip.

Also read: more stories from Egypt

A cafe with a view

I am going to let you in on a secret in Cairo that has not yet been discovered by the hordes. Not yet. Though how long it will remain so is anyone’s guess.

With a magnificent view of the pyramids, Barry’s Oriental Restaurant is a gem. Quirky, colourful, friendly and serving good food – what more can you ask for?

pyramids

Barry’s – owned by Abdel Bary, now Barry – is not easy to find and I suspect the owners have deliberately kept it so. Walk past the main entrance to the pyramids to the end of the road and Barry’s is on the building to your left. We went for an early lunch – noonish – since we had a flight back home later that day. And their main door was locked. We knocked and rang the bell and stood expectantly till a few locals decided to help us out by shouting out to the staff. Someone peeked down from the second floor and we were admitted inside, climbed up two fleets of stairs to the Barry’s terrace. All very hush hush.

The decor is flamboyant and over the top but not in a way that puts you off. Instead, it made me smile indulgently. Ornate chandeliers, leather sofas with menus pinned on to them, antique telephones and cheery signboards! What is not to like?

signboards

telephone

decor

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And all so worth it. Imagine having a dinner on that roof-top, with the pyramids all lit up and glorious as the backdrop. And I expect it will be all the more spectacular when the sound and light show is on at the pyramids.

Barry’s is expensive and they do charge something extra with your coffee or drink if you obviously seem to have landed there just for the view. But definitely go there for a meal. I only wish we had discovered it earlier, so we could have gone there for dinner instead of lunch. Oh, well.

food

After the spring

Just after midnight I’m getting ready to leave the Cairo Jazz Club, but the crowd is only beginning to trickle in. I must still be on Bengaluru time, where the pubs close at 11.30pm. Here the band, from the southern city of Aswan, has just started warming up. In the crowd, the women wear their skirts short and the men wear their hair long; all have cigarettes and cocktail glasses in hand. They all appear to be locals from the way they greet each other and the bartender, who is mixing mango martinis with ease.

Whatever I had expected of Egypt, it wasn’t this. In January 2011, I was one of millions who watched with both excitement and trepidation as Egyptians in their thousands occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square, calling for an end to the repressive regime of then-president Hosni Mubarak. Though Mubarak resigned the following month, the transition to democracy remains far from complete. At the time of going to press, there was cautious optimism about the presidential elections scheduled for late May, but street protests remained commonplace.

Setting off for Egypt just over a year since the uprisings, motivated by the prospect of fewer crowds and better deals, I was prepared to witness unrest. But passing through Tahrir Square on my first day in Cairo, the only visible disturbance was a handful of protesters’ tents, their canvas flapping listlessly in the wind. It seemed a fitting metaphor for the Cairenes’ state of mind. People here expected things to change after the revolution, but true, perceptible progress has yet to materialise. Eman, my guide says, “We are disappointed. Sure, the people brought the government down, but we don’t have leaders capable of taking the country forward. We can only hope for better times.”

I’d also expected a conservative culture, and while pockets of Cairo do seem traditional, much of the downtown area could pass for any capital city. And, like any world-class capital, this is a city that never sleeps. On my way home from the jazz club I take a cab to Khan el-Khalili market, which is still buzzing at 1am, its narrow streets crowded. A queue has formed in front of Naguib Mahfouz café, famed for its delectable mezze and falafel.

The sweet smell of the sheesha leads me on to the El Fishawy coffee house, where countless cups of Arabic coffee and fresh mint tea are consumed and endless rounds of sheesha smoked into the small hours of the morning. What I am most fascinated by is this: women clad in abayas smoking sheesha, some with friends and others on their own. I wonder if their conservative dress reflects the popular mood that voted the Muslim Brotherhood into parliamentary majority.

Perhaps the biggest fall-out of the Arab Spring has been the drastic reduction in tourist arrivals in Egypt. According to government statistics, they are still about 30 percent below the normal level.

Right opposite Tahrir Square lies the Egyptian Museum, which houses one of the world’s most important collections. Part of the museum was vandalised during the uprisings, and some galleries remain damaged. Many of the exhibits are in bad shape, covered in plastic and stored in the aisles. Thankfully the upper floor, which houses the Mummies Room, was unscathed. In a neighbouring room lie the museum’s best exhibits, King Tutankhamun’s magnificent treasures—his golden mask, ornaments and sarcophagi. There were plans to build a larger museum near the pyramids in Giza, but these are on hold. “Again, because of the Revolution,”Eman says.

Speaking of the pyramids, nothing, nothing at all prepares you for the sight of these magnificent structures rising from the sands—even if you’ve seen them before. Once, our guide explained, these pyramids stood in the middle of nowhere and the Nile ran right past them. Today, civilisation (or what passes for it) has inched its way up to the very entrance of these monuments.

Souvenir t-shirts, replicas of the pyramids—be prepared to take them all in your stride. While this is true of any tourist site, in Egypt it can seem almost overwhelming—even more so now as the clamour for the tourist dollar is reaching a crescendo.

On a cruise down the Nile outside Cairo, I am met with a quieter world, one seemingly unaffected by politics. The only indication that things are not as usual is the lack of crowds (I’m actually able to take pictures without strangers in the background). Omar, my guide on this part of the trip, says, “For this time of the year, you usually have to book months in advance.” My bookings had all been made at the last minute, and at bargain prices.

My friends couldn’t understand why I wanted to come to Egypt now, but throughout my trip I didn’t once feel unsafe or threatened. The tourist police was everywhere, waiting to offer help but never intruding or bothering me.

The pharaohs that built the temples of ancient Egypt believed strongly in reincarnation. It occurs to me that modern-day Egypt, too, is going through a process of reincarnation, and slowly entering a post-Revolution afterlife. Tourists, mostly from Europe, have started trickling back and with a new political order slowly taking shape, the country is gearing up for a future as bright as its glorious past.

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Published in the June – July issue of Conde Nast Traveller…

Turning towels into works of art

A remarkably quirky article from Gadling on how Hospitality Employees Waste 1.7 Million Hours Annually Creating Towel Origami

From the story – Employees at hotels, aboard cruise ships and at spas spend entire shifts at their places of business folding, rolling and tucking towels to resemble local and exotic wildlife. The study suggests that employee time would be better spent servicing customer needs.


[image courtesy: Gadling.com]

Why all this angst? It is not as if these hospitality industry guys forget to, um, be hospitable or cater to customer needs in the process of folding terry towels. And if it makes you smile as you enter your room after a hard day’s work or a hot day of sightseeing, then why not?

Actually, I have never paid these towel origami items much notice before. And then, one night on my recent Nile cruise, I walked into my room to find the living daylights startled out of me by this (don’t miss the sun glasses):

Needless to say, I will never look at towel origami in the same way again!

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