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Monday, December 31, 2018

In Egypt, the Nile still brings life | Daily Mail Online

In Egypt, the Nile still brings life

Egypt is a country of barren desert with the blessing of the world's longest river. The Nile allowed the ancients to develop the most sophisticated civilisation of their time and it supports 100 million Egyptians today.

Rattling by train along the river from Cairo to Aswan, 850km to the south, it's easy to see how the ancient Egyptians were able to thrive. Even now the river looks healthy - vibrant green palms sprout from the banks, while fields alongside are alive with sugarcane, fava beans and cotton.

A few metres further away from the water, the land becomes dead, brown and dry. The expansive Sahara may be striking, but it's unforgiving.

Aswan, with a population of just under 300,000, is one of the hottest, driest cities on earth. The city has sometimes gone without rain for years on end.

But there's still a surf culture. Children float on boards, giggling and singing Nubian songs to tourists sailing by on ferries and feluccas, in the hope of some dollars.

In ancient times, Aswan was the southern gateway to Egypt. Here, the Nile runs deep and wide, polishing stone and granite that's furnished statues, obelisks, shrines and tombs throughout the country. That includes the pyramids, our Intrepid Travel guide Walid Nawasany tells us.

Modern Aswan is most famous for its dam, which has also left its indelible mark on Egypt.

The British built the Low Dam in 1902, in attempt to control the late summer floods along the Nile, to provide surplus water in times of drought for irrigation, and to generate hydroelectricity. The High Dam followed, built across the river between 1960 and 1970.

It was seen as pivotal to Egypt's planned industrialisation, but the future was given more importance than the past. The dam flooded a large area that is now known as Lake Nasser, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. While it improved Egypt's agricultural production, it also forced the relocation of 100,000 people and submerged ancient archaeological sites.

Many ancient Egyptian treasures remain forever committed to the deep.

Others were painstakingly relocated under the desert sun to new homes - piece by piece.

On the western bank of Lake Nasser, about 230km south of Aswan at the village of Abu Simbel, sit four 20-metre-high statues of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Carved out of the mountainside in the 13th century BC during Ramesses' reign, the statues, part of a huge temple complex, were designed to impress those entering Egypt from the south.

Today, the colossal beings gaze solemnly over the empty desert, as if they're less than impressed by modern goings on.

They have reason to be aloof. As the years went on they became forgotten, half buried in sand, before the waters of Lake Nasser threatened to finish them off. Thankfully they were saved; beginning in 1964 a multinational team cut up the site, moved the resulting blocks and reassembled them 200 metres away on a hill, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.

It was worth it. The domineering presence of the statues reminds me of how intimidating the all-powerful would have been in ancient times. Inside the temple are numerous side chambers, the stunning hieroglyphs on the walls telling of the pharaoh's military accomplishments

Another ancient temple rescued from the rising waters was the stunning complex of Philae, moved to an island in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam before the High Dam was completed.

Philae was said to be one of the burying places of Osiris, the god of the underworld.

Originally constructed between 380 and 362BC, its immense columns, pylons and carvings are as beautiful as they are remarkable; there is little sign of ruin or age, despite the temple's journey.

Egyptologists believe Philae was the last active site of the ancient Egyptian religion. Paganism was suppressed soon after and the temple became a Christian church.

Egypt used to be a major Christian country, of course, until the Islamic Conquest swept through the Arabian Peninsula between the 11th and 14th centuries, the serpentine trail of religion as ever-shifting as the Nile itself.

Modern day Aswan is a town where women dressed in long black hijabs sweep through the souk, shopping on their heads in plastic bags; where men chat in cafes smoking their shishas next to huge woven baskets of spices, popcorn and dried, red hibiscus flowers.

The call to prayer is when the city is at its most beautiful. Our tour group rides camels in the nearby Sahara, the kids bouncing over stony dunes, mesmerised by the whining calls.

Our Intrepid guide organises an evening for us with a local Nubian family in their brightly painted home on the west bank. We eat amazing stews, moussaka and sticky baklavas, then dance while the kids play football.

I wonder if the kids have ever seen rain. I don't suppose they care much. I've seen them drink the Nile's waters (which tourists are told never to do) and glide through its ripples, enjoying their watery paradise.

Like the ancient Egyptians way before them, they have shaped their life around the river, while the river has adapted its course for man. Despite the movement of humans, water and sand, most ancient statues and temples have survived.

Like the Nile that supports so many, that's an accomplishment.


GETTING THERE: Emirates and Qantas fly from most Australian state capitals to Cairo via Dubai.

STAYING AND PLAYING THERE: Intrepid Travel's Egypt Family Holiday for Solo Parents trip starts and ends in Cairo. The nine-day trip costs from $1,560 per person twin-share and the minimum age for children on this trip is five years old. A discount of 10 per cent applies on this trip to children 17 years and under at time of travel. Intrepid offers small group adventures on more than 1000 itineraries worldwide. For more, visit

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