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Aswan: A Short Visit

Abhishek Kar

We, a group of Indian tourists, were in Egypt, the land of Pyramids. Our tour of Cairo had come to an end and we were all set to fly to Aswan, a city in South Egypt. A gleaming, white Boeing of Egypt Air, with the picture of the mighty Horus painted on its tailfin, waited patiently for us. Once inside, I moved on and on till I found my seat in the very last row of the large aircraft. A gentleman, seated beside me, introduced himself as a travel guide. A native of Sweden, it was his passion as well as profession to roam the world. His experience was immense and his stories were liberally sprinkled with ‘good advice’, the most important being, “always keep your eyes and ears open and absorb as much as you can from this beautiful world of ours.” This I will remember till the end. The touchdown at the Aswan airport sadly put an end to the conversation and I was left to tackle Aswan without the veteran.

Aswan is situated on the East bank of the Nile at the first cataract, the place where the Nile is absolutely shallow. A luxury coach took us tourists to the riverside and to our delight and surprise we saw before us a majestic ship moored securely. This 3-storeyed giant, apart from artistically-furnished rooms, accommodated a disco as well as a sprawling common room. We were to stay the night in that stationary Leviathan.

Night ended and out came the sun. Time for all of us to start a city tour of Aswan and then go to see the world famous dam! We would also be given some free time for shopping and getting the feel of the city.  Aswan or “Swenett” or “Syene” (as she was known in the ancient times) used to be a garrison town and one of the most important ones for being the frontier town of Ancient Egypt facing south. The city finds mention in several journals and articles.

We saw some interesting structures like the Archangel Michael’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the Nubian Museum, the El-Tabia Mosque with its two beautifully crafted minarets as well as the ‘unfinished’ obelisk. We stopped at the obelisk for just a few minutes. As I stepped out of the bus, the sight of the half-finished stone structure that looked somewhat like a battle-weary, fallen giant left me somewhat heart-broken. As per records and in comparison to its counterparts in various parts of the world, this could have been one of the biggest obelisks only if it had been completed. What a waste!

The next stop was the highlight of this tour - a visit to the famed Aswan Dam. We found ourselves looking at this man-made marvel, built in the 1960s, housing a power station. The 360-degree panoramic view from the top of this dam is absolutely amazing. From here, one gets a full view of Lake Nasser, the reservoir created by the dam, and also of the Nile, slithering northward. The wind was blowing hard in our faces but still we enjoyed every minute of our stay. I only wished we could have seen a crocodile or two!

Next was the Lotus Tower − a symbol of the Soviet-Arab friendship. Other modern buildings, like the Movenpick Hotel, were not that special. Our Egyptian tour guide, Adeel told us about the famous stone quarries, especially the granite rock Syenite that was used for centuries for building not just obelisks but also pyramids.

A quick stop at some of the markets or souk of the city lifted our spirits sky high. These are places where one can buy everything from trinkets to miniatures of Egyptian monuments to ornaments. About 30 – 45 minutes were allotted for the same. I was amused to find our travel group members haggling just as we do back home. Now that’s one habit that transcends even international boundaries! I was lucky to spot a small sphinx and bought it without calculating how much of Indian money I was spending.

The day’s ‘late’ lunch was to be in the boat and so our city tour had to end roughly by 3.30 pm. Thus the time originally allotted for our stop at the famous Elephantine Island had to be reduced. It was inside our boat that I faced the only horror of the day. I was hungry enough to eat a horse but there before me was a vegetarian spread that shocked even the VEGETARIANS when they lifted the lids of the containers. The vegetables seemed to have been hacked with axes, not cut with knives. The slices of brinjals, large as cart wheels, were definitely half-cooked and many others, potatoes, tomatoes and so on, stared back rudely at the eaters from the pots. I didn’t touch a single piece but heard that they were pretty horrible to eat too! I luckily had a narrow escape, being a non-vegetarian for, in a corner, there was chicken curry with pieces of ‘cooked’ chicken.

After lunch some went in for a nap while others like me spent all our time studying the Nile and its surroundings. As the sun began to set, our boat decided to come out of its state of inertia. With a mild jerk, it moved! We were on our way to Kom Ombo. Aswan, let me warn you, is one of the hottest and driest cities of the world and the sun here is pretty unkind. But, it did not put me off in any way mainly because of the advice my Swede friend had given. I had seen and absorbed, so what if Aswan is no Paradise on earth!