Today would be a good day to be in Aswan

This week is going to be a scorcher here in Adelaide, with five days in a row above 40C/105F. Last week I was thinking about being somewhere cooler, but today I’m remembering the hottest place I have ever been … and what a great time I had there anyway.

Philae Temples at Aswan
Philae Temples at Aswan

Aswan was the southernmost point of our cruise down the Nile in Egypt and we were moored there for three days. The town was a hive of activity in the mornings and evenings, but quiet in the middle of the day. We discovered why when our group, not wanting to waste a moment, organised a visit to one of the temples from 12-2pm. The temperature hit 50C/122F in the sun and we felt like we were going to melt … but at least we pretty much had the place to ourselves!

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What did I love about Aswan?

The Nile in all its activity …

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… all its serenity …

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… and all its beauty.

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This model/map from the museum gives some sense of what it’s like, passing by ancient temples and monuments almost as if they are just houses on the side of the road.

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I also loved walking through the street market in the alleyways of town, bartering for food and gifts, experiencing new tastes and smells.

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Seeing history come alive with places like the “kiosk” built by the Roman emperor Trajan

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… and the merging of cultures when Greco-Roman architecture meets ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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The beautiful Coptic Cathedral, which had only recently been completed. We were given a tour by a lovely lady who shared some of the tensions and struggles the Christian minority face in Egypt. She extended an invitation to visit part of one of their services that weekend if anyone was interested.

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So, what did I learn from Aswan?

I certainly gained knowledge about aspects of history and politics that I wasn’t taught in school, where Egypt is pretty much just the pyramids. The huge Aswan dam is fascinating in its size, its functionality in regulating the Nile’s floodwaters, and the politics surrounding its construction.

The Soviet-Arab Friendship Monument atop the Aswan High Dam
The Soviet-Arab Friendship Monument atop the Aswan High Dam

The Nubian Museum in Aswan was excellent, explaining the history of the region and its people in an interesting and easy to understand way. Well worth a visit.

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But the real privilege was meeting the Nubian people themselves and sharing a meal with a local family in their home.

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It was here I got my first tattoo, inked by a girl who asked questions about my life in a way that emphasised how different our experiences of the world were, and yet how similarly we thought about things.

(Okay, it was henna)
(Okay, it was henna)

I was also reminded of how easy it can be to overlook our shared humanity with those who seem unlike us, particularly in the way I saw some of my fellow tourists treat the locals as they served us. I wonder what they think about us, about me, as every day they observe people like me throwing money around, drinking themselves into oblivion, making ignorant and crass statements about their culture, barely looking them in the eyes as they labour for our comfort?

Our Felucca crew
Our Felucca crew

A nice surprise for me was when one of these men told us the name of this Island we sailed past: Elephantine. It didn’t mean much to anyone else, but I was quite excited because I knew that name – I had taught about it to my students! A collection of papyrus documents were found on this island that record the history of a Jewish community who had fled Israel after its destruction by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. I love it when my travels and studies come together!!

Elephantine Island
Elephantine Island

And I did return to the church for part of their service on our final day. I didn’t understand a word as I stood and kneeled and sat when everyone else did. They chanted in Greek, sang in Arabic and prayed in Coptic Egyptian (I think). But I knew what they were expressing and why they were worshipping. Because it was Good Friday. Together we looked to the cross, to the symbol of torture that has become the symbol of hope; and we looked to Jesus, the one who reconciles us to God and to one another, the one in whom all things hold together. And it was a very good day to be there with them.

Inside the Coptic Cathedral
Inside the Coptic Cathedral
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