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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dennis Marek: Cruising through a lifetime | Local Columnists |

The Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples at Abu Simbel, a village in Nubia, southern Egypt, near the border with Sudan. They are on the western bank of Lake Nasser.

Dennis Marek: Cruising through a lifetime

  • Sometimes, it is hard to fully realize one is aging. Time slips by in short pieces but soon adds up to a month or a season or a year. In my mind, four things quickly bring one up to speed with aging. First is that look in the mirror with new wrinkles, gray hair or those spots on the back of your hands. Second is the loss of some of that dexterity. Bending is slower and too much brings a reminder that enough is enough. The third is the most unfriendly of all: it is the death of friends or classmates of the same age.

I recently heard a quote that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes. I believe that. The longest year of my life was being 15 and waiting for that 16th birthday and my full driver's license. I thought that year would never get over. The shortest year? Well, probably last year. It flew by.

The fourth event that brings home the realization of aging is history and the things that seem like only yesterday and were five, eight or 20 years ago. "I remember when that happened." We have all said that. We remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and what we were doing or where we were. The disaster of 9/11 was in 2001. Wasn't that just a couple of years ago?

Last Sunday, I had a fairly rude awakening to my aging when the travel section of the Chicago Tribune featured cruising up and down the Nile River in Egypt. With it were three pictures of modern tourists riding horses around the Giza Pyramids, their boat floating down the Nile, and third, a picture of Abu Simbel. To most, that meant nothing, but to me, it represented the passage of more than 50 years of my life.

Abu Simbel was a cliffside temple built by pharaoh Ramses II about 3,300 years ago. No, that didn't make me feel old. It was the accompanying story. Those 60-foot-high four Rah kings, carved from sold rock were once sitting at the bottom of a cliff in the Aswan Valley next to the Nile.

In the 1950s, with the help of the Soviet Union, Egypt planned to dam the Nile at this location near Luxor and create Lake Nasser, named for the then President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He ruled Egypt for almost a quarter of a century. The Tribune did make one mistake. In 1960, the Soviets, for monetary reasons, backed out of the partnership, and the project was finished with the help of Yugoslavia. The dam was to stop the annual flooding of the lower Aswan area, as well as to areas further downstream.

I was in Cairo with a friend in January 1963. He was wooing a young woman staying at the Australian Embassy. I was reading the English language newspapers and heard the most amazing story. The government was out of money. The lake behind the proposed dam, when finished, would completely cover this iconic Abu Simbel forever. The U.N. had been asked for funds and declined. There was talk of building a plastic walkway around this piece of antiquity with clear water on one side allowing people in the walkway to observe this historic site, while the dirty Nile would flow past on the other side. I had to see it in person.

I had very limited money and no Arabic language ability, but I got to Aswan by train and visited this example of ancient history before it was lost. The images were carved right into the wall of the mountain and peered out over Luxor, the birthplace of Egyptian culture. I took several photographs on a new roll of film. Only days later did I discover my film wasn't advancing, and I lost most of my photographs.

In 1965, there was a change of opinion by the Egyptian government, and the U.N. funds mysteriously appeared, and Abu Simbel was extracted from the side of the mountain in only a few gigantic pieces and moved up the mountain to the top, well above the imagined height of the dammed up Nile. The Tribune article lauded the site and the brilliant rescue of this treasure.

This brings me back to my fourth point. Reading the article made me realize it had been 53 years since I was there. There probably are very few people in the world still alive today who saw Abu Simbel in its historic location. I went back and read the diary that I kept that year while studying in Europe. For a few moments, I relived that Egyptian memory, and felt two things — how lucky I was to have experienced such an adventure, and wow, that was a long time ago.

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