The train from Luxor to Aswan arrived late and as I walked along the platform I noticed that first class carriages were in front of the train and I thought that it was only natural that people who pay a premium should be the first to arrive at their destination. Paradoxically, when getting out of the train those first class travellers will find that the others have arrived as well… Nonetheless, I enjoyed travelling first class and I will do it again.
Next day I went to see the unfinished obelisk at the quarry south of Aswan.
Obelisk here, a man helped me to find the only way out of the building after I had bought my ticket. Shortly before that, I had completely missed the huge entrance to the quarries and had wandered into some grimy slum.
Obelisk here, he repeated.
Unfinished obelisk, I reminded him.
When I had forked out forty pounds to visit the quarry, I had restrained myself from making the lame joke that it was a bit much for an obelisk that wasn’t even finished.
It was very hot, even in late February. The obelisk was gigantic and as promised, unfinished. Workers had apparently aborted the operation after a flaw was detected in the stone. Holes were already drilled for the insertion of wooden wedges that would have helped the stone crack after wetting it carefully.
After seeing the obelisk in its aborted state, a guard tried to catch my attention. He had a gun slung around his shoulder and took me to a giant block of granite which was another unfinished Egyptian antiquity. It was intriguing to squat under the massive granite lump, where workers once must have slaved away in an awkward position.
Unfinished lump, I thought, that’s not really selling it….
I gave the guard 5 pounds for not killing me accidentally with his gun and turned to the exit, which was, as usual, a souvenir market. Here were finished obelisks in a more manageable format for sale.
On the way back I crossed the Fatimid graveyard again. It looked like some cross between a rubbish heap and the closing scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Tons of atmosphere though.
On the way back I decided to have lunch in the Fryal Garden. A large display at the entrance described it as the ‘Garden of Asthma’. The rest of the text was in a garbled English and completely gobbledygook. It had a nice view of Elephantine Island though.
The following day I had booked an excursion to Abu Simbel. The minibus that picked me up at my hotel left at the ungodly hour of four in the morning and since it was roughly a 300 kilometre drive, it would be a long day to get there and back. On the way we crossed the Tropic of Cancer.
Eratosthenes, a Greek scientist living in Alexandria, had heard that in the city of Syene, that is present day Aswan, there existed some deep wells where, during the summer solstice, there was no shadow visible on its walls during the middle of the day. He concluded therefore that the sun was at that moment shining directly overhead or at a right angle.Before him Pythagoras had already stated that the earth was round [by the pre-mathematical proof of gut feeling. Basically, he thought that circles were the best thing ever, and since the earth was the best planet ever, it would make sense if it was round].
After measuring the angle of the sun in Alexandria on the day of the summer solstice, Eratosthenes now only needed to know the exact distance between the two cities in order to be able to calculate the circumference of the earth. Fortunately for him, Alexander the Great had not long before introduced so called bematists, professional step counters, who had marched with his army to keep track of the distances during his campaign. With their assistance the distance between Aswan and Alexandria was measured and he was now able to calculate the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. Later estimates of the distance between the cities were actually less precise and it was thus that Ptolemeus arrived at a smaller circumference of the earth. Interestingly, it was this distance that had convinced Columbus that he could sail from Spain to India if he kept a western course…
Doing my best here to wriggle Columbus back into the story again.
Calculating the circumference of the earth must have gone a long way in popularising the idea of a spherical earth. These days the idea of a flat earth is making a surprising comeback as a conspiracy theory.
This time I had put Abu Simbel merely on the list for the sake of completeness. I had never seen it before because for reasons of authenticity. Most readers will be familiar with its relocation of the temple after the building of the Aswan high dam, or make that before the building of the Aswan high dam, to protect it from the rising waters of the newly created lake. It was cut in pieces and carefully reconstructed in a fake mountain at the new shore of Lake Nasser. Seeing it now for the first time was a marvellous sight. But it was not the real thing of course.
It was again Burckhardt who was the first European to see Abu Simbel in modern times in 1813 and who alerted Belzoni who later undertook the first excavations. Burckhardt’s discovery is interesting mainly because he found it covered in sand. In his account he mentions how he can only see one head and the headgear of the other statues. This also meant that he wasn’t sure weather the colossi were standing upright or sitting in an upright position… Burckhardt relates how he nearly missed the temple entirely. He had first explored the nearby temple of Hathor and then: Having, as I supposed, seen all the antiquities of Ebsambal [i.e. Abu Simbel], I was about to ascend the sandy side of the mountain by the same way I had descended; when having luckily turned more to the southward, I fell in with what is yet visible of four immense colossal statues cut out of the rock, at a distance of about two hundred yards from the temple.
After closer inspection he observes:
On the wall of the rock in the centre of the four statues, is the figure of a hawk-headed Osiris, surmounted by a globe; beneath which, I suspect, could it be cleared away, a vast temple would be discovered
A few years later Belzoni came to clear out the sand and be the first to penetrate into the interior of the temple. He had great difficulties in doing so because the sand had hardened over time and,.peculiarly, it seemed that the local inhabitants had no idea of the value of money and were therefore hard to convince to perform this hard labour.
Next to the main temple, in the same artificial mound, is the likewise reconstructed Hathor temple in honour of Ramses’ first wife Neferteti. Even so, four of the six giant statues at this temple are of her megalomaniac husband…. Inside I was pleased to notice graffiti left behind by Drovetti in 1816. He was the French consul general of Egypt for some time and I had read a great deal about him when researching Burckhardt and Belzoni. As an avid collector of antiquities he played a very dubious role in the intrigues of that early age of Egyptian exploration.
He died completely gaga in a lunatic asylum in Turin.