Journal entry for Saturday 31 October 1998
Once again Kit and I had made use of our ISIC cards, this time to buy half-price train tickets to Aswan, splashing out all of LE 15 (about £1.50) to travel first class. We were at Luxor railway station bright and early to catch the 6.30am train, which for reasons unexplained, left Luxor at 8.30am, and arrived in Aswan three and a half hours later. We hadn’t booked a hotel so we had to spend the next hour or two trawling the town for a cheap place to stay. These were few and far between, and we looked at several dismal places before eventually settling for a small Egyptian hotel called the Philae, on the Corniche. This was very basic but reasonably clean and relatively inexpensive. The nicest thing about my room was the little balcony with a beautiful Nile view and I didn’t discover the downside of noisy all-night traffic until much later.
We dropped our bags and went straight out to explore. My long-haired ‘hippy’ son immediately felt at home in Aswan. The town is much more laid back than Luxor with reggae music coming from every riverside cafe and Rastafarian guys with their dreadlocks and multicoloured oversized hats, sitting in groups on the pavements playing drums. Kit would have sat down to join them but I managed to lure him away with the promise of a felucca trip, my ulterior motive being to cross to the West Bank tombs. We struck a deal with a captain called Nasser on his felucca called ‘Greenland’ and he took us over to the opposite bank where the sand-covered hills are strew with the rock-cut tombs of high-status officials of the Old and Middle Kingdom I didn’t count the steep steps leading to the upper level of the cemetery – but there were a lot!
Beginning at the southern end of the upper terrace we visited the six tombs which were open to visitors, these mostly dating to Dynasty VI, a period that is poorly represented for accessible decorated tombs. They were badly preserved but quite different from the New Kingdom Luxor tombs, so were well worth seeing for their fine examples of hieroglyphic texts detailing the careers of their owners as well as scenes of daily life in the earlier periods. My favourite tomb and probably the best preserved, belonged to Sarenput II, Overseer of the Priests of Khnum and Commander of the Garrison at Elephantine, dated to the reign of Amenemhet II of Dynasty XII. In his colourful biographical text I found an unusual hieroglyph of an elephant, which I had not seen before. Perched on the top of the hill above the ancient cemetery is the domed tomb of a Muslim prophet which gives the hill its local name, Qubbet el-Hawa or ‘Dome of the Winds’ and which can be seen from just about all over Aswan.
Having accomplished my mission and worn myself out climbing up and down those sand-covered steps and into the deep tombs, we were back on felucca ‘Greenland’ for a trip around Elephantine Island. Kit was now in his own element (i.e. on a boat) and he had found a kindred spirit in Nasser. While I lay back on the bench cushions for a nice relaxing sail, Nasser and Kit competed with each other to see who could steer the boat closest to the rocks around the island, veering away at the last minute without actually crashing into them. There were one or two very close calls and my goodness, I hadn’t realised that feluccas could move so fast!
Nasser dropped us off at the northern end of the Corniche near the Old Cataract Hotel because we wanted to get to the New Nubian Museum before it closed. We had hired Nasser’s boat for over three hours and it had cost LE 60 for two of us for a really lovely afternoon. I yet hadn’t been to the new museum, which was opened only last year, in 1997 and it was well worth seeing if only for its beautiful Nubian-style architecture, nestled into the hillside. The site covers 50,000 square metres of landscaped gardens which are divided up into different sections with many outdoor exhibits. Inside the museum a flight of stairs leads down from street level to the entrance of the temperature and light controlled exhibition space, with an 8m high sandstone statue of Rameses II as the focal point. We were led by informative history boards around the exhibits in a chronological order, beginning with the Prehistoric, through the Pharaonic era to Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods of art. The exhibition space itself was airy, well-lit and almost empty of visitors, but we had only two hours before the museum closed, not nearly enough time to see everything.
Kit and I were tired but we both felt that we had had a very productive and enjoyable day. We walked back along the Corniche to our hotel, stopping to eat in a riverside restaurant while looking out over the inky river towards the now-floodlit sand dunes of Qubbet el-Hawa on the West Bank.