Aswan: Ancient temples to modern dams

Aswan is one place in Egypt that is famous for more than just history: the famous Aswan High Dam.  Though a visit to this Dam features on most tourist itineraries, I wasn’t too impressed.  The dam may be larger that Hoover dam, but the views aren’t that great. After buying our entrance ticket, our driver parked the car close to what seemed like the viewing spot, judging by the number of tourist trying to take selfies.  Once we disembarked, we were pointed in the direction of a security office on the opposite side where we put our bags through and x-ray and walked through a metal detector.  The exit of this security office, funny enough spit us back out at where our car was parked… hmmm wonder how this security works !!

The Aswan Hight dam


The other reason a lot of tourists come here is the Felucca ride: a small vessel propelled by oars or sails used on the Nile as the traditional means of transport.  From what I could tell, the sails were just an added weight to the boat.  The ride typically lasts an hour.  Our Felucca captain first took the boat downstream, where he zig-zagged the boat from bank to bank explaining the purpose of doing so was to give us a longer ride.  Our return, however, was more of a challenge.  Having to go upstream, there was really no wind to propel the boat.  We waited.. and waited.. until it became apparent to  the boat captain that we were all going to fall asleep if something didn’t happen soon.   However, the boat captain had other plans;  having gained captive audience, he decided this would be a good time to make a sale for some wares that they are always prepared for to deal with these scenarios.  As he dug into his supplies, I realized why he wasn’t that excited to see us when we initially boarded  his felucca; all his wares were women’s jewelry items.  He might as well be trying to sell a calculator to a bushman !

A felucca on the nile

Finally we had to intervene and come up with a rescue plan… which involved abandoning the boat at the nearest shore instead of trying to make it back upstream.  This allowed us to make it in tine for our sound and light show at the Philae temple.

A little bit about the Philae temple: Its built on an island in what is now the reservoir of the original Aswan dam.  With the construction of the new Aswan high dam, it would have drowned due to the rerouting of the river, and so it was moved piece by piece to its new location.  The temple itself is relatively new (built around 200BC;  only in Egypt would I refer to a construction from BC as new !!).

The sound and light show at the temple take place every night starting 6:30pm.  Due to the lack of tourists, they had to cancel the 2nd and 3rd shows for the evening.  Our show only had a dozen or so tourists.  The ones that chose not to come did not miss much.  The Luxor temple (without the light show) and the sound and light show and Abu Simbel were of much better quality.

Temple of Philae lit up for the sound and light show


Tourist Tips

A great place to stay in town is the Old Cataract Hotel (Agatha Christie lived here for a while, and a portion of the novel “death on the nile” is also set here) .  They have some amazing restaurants too, and the hotel is right outside the Nubian Museum, which you can walk to.

The old cataract hotel, setting for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile
Aswan at Night

Abu Simbel: A Pharoah’s warning post for Nubia

Most tourists do only a day visit to this town, starting out from Aswan in a 3am convoy for a 3 hr road trip, spending 2-3 hrs in town and returning by noon.  Personally I think this is the worst way to experience these amazing temple as you will be fighting the crowds for the 2 hours you are there to take a half-decent selfie.  It warrants a night stay in the town for two reasons: 1) the light show at the temple is by far the best I saw in all of Egypt, and 2) this temple faces directly east, giving you a reason to revisit it the next morning.  Since it opens at 5AM, we got to spend 3 hours all by ourselves before the tour buses arrived.

The fact that most tourists choose to return to Aswan also gives Abu-Simbel a ghost-town feeling.  We stayed at Hotel Nefertari, which is walking distance from the temple.  A sprawling property that has been frequented by likes of the King and Queen of Sweden in the past, it now lies derelict.  Its almost a living museum frozen in time.  All the signs, including the “Welcome 2010” point to the fact that since the revolution of 2011, nothing much has happened here. The three of us were the only guests the night we stayed there.  Imagine having the entire hotel staff just serving you; or being asked this quesion at lunch:

“Sir, what would you like for dinner.  It will help us shop for the ingredients”

The staff were so excited to have us that they let us check in at 8am the day of our arrival, which was greeted with a hurried frenzy amongst the hotel staff (that probably had not seen any guest in 6 years).  A welcome drink was summoned (perhaps from the same bottle that was served to the Swedish Royalty), and the lobby toiled was unlocked (perhaps in response to the knowledge of that fact). In fact I’m not even certain the staff was living humans or some spirits. I’m waiting for someone to tell me one of these days that the hotel was long shut down after some devastating tragedy and is now just a haunted villa.

The pool is nice and looks straight out to Lake Nasseer and Sudan in the south.  It was nice enough that J decided to park himself permanently next to the pool (the real reason was that he was too freaked out by this whole experience to enter his room).  He decided he would sleep by the pool, were it not for the two stray dogs that showed up in the middle of the night.

Our Hotel pool looking straight into Lake Nasser and Sudan.

History Lesson

Ramesses II pretty much overshadows everything we see about ancient Egypt today. Born around 1300BC, he lived and ruled Egypt to a ripe old age of 96, something very remarkable for that era.  With all that time, and the bounty of the Nile, he had at his disposal more resources and time to build and carve his name (literally in the form of cartouches) for posterity than any other pharaoh.

Amongst his most famous constructs in the Temple of Ramesses, beloved of Amun at Abu Simbel.  The location of the temple is at the border of Nubia (modern day Sudan) on the banks of the Nile.  Its purpose was more political than religious – to warn the Nubians entering from Nubia of his power.  To that effect, he placed four massive statutes of himself right outisde the temple. These would have created awe in any traveler passing that area.

Four massive statues of Ramses (note the size as I’m dwarfed next to them)

The inside of the temple is also lined with statues.  At the far end of the corridor are three statues, one of himself, one of Amun and one of Set (the evil God). The corridor was aligned so that two days in a year, his birthday and the day of his coronation, the sun would shine directly at his statue and the statue of Amun.

The interior of the temple of Ramesses

Next to his temple is also a temple of his favorite wife, Nefertari.  Being Nubian, he levereaged her heritage to advertise to the Nubians that they were entering the land ruled by their queen.  However, his ego (as with most pharoahs) demanded that even her temple have his statutes placed right by hers.

The temple of Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II

Africa’s largest open air market in Addis

Feven, our local guide referred to by Professor Rebecca was very deftly driving through the streets of Merkato, the Italian name for a market.  This was our highlight for the Adis tour.  We had read a little about it, but you only get the sense of the magnitude of organized chaos when you are in it.  She had given us express instructions to not roll down the windows and keep our expensive camera gear out of sight.  I think even if she hadn’t told us that, there is no way we would have done otherwise.

After some 30 min of driving through narrow alleyways where we passed several hawkers peddling a local hallucinogen called khat, she pulled the car to a gated parking and exclaimed “I *think* here the car will be *somewhat* safe”.  We had been discussing how everything under the sun could be found selling in this market.  The supply chain laws dictate no matter what the source or destination of goods within Ethiopia, the goods have to pass through this market.  Now this may seem highly inefficient,  but if you are driving a car in the market (or for that matter bringing an expensive camera here), you have just cut out the inefficiency.  The source of the goods is right here in the market, and all they need is a destination.  In fact, people walking around with used tires on their heads gave us a clue that this place would be a haven of chop shops.

Riding shot gun, I turned around to see if J & B had put away their gizmos, only to discover a pale sweating J clutching onto the door.  Not as much as giving me a chance to speak, he exclaimed “there is no way in hell I am getting out of this car.  And keep the car moving !”  I think all of us were secretly relieved that he made the call.  As a compromise though, we decided to drive to a safer part of the market to step out and explore.

Now safer is just a relative term.  Within  minutes of us stepping out, I was attacked by a person yelling something in Amharic that was so obscence that even though we understood nothing of what he said, Feven felt the need to profusely apologize.  For some odd reason, it wasn’t the white or the Asian looking guy who were the target in this market, but this brown dude.  It wasn’t long before 3 kids literally jumped on me, holding and pulling my arm with the intent to move it so they could get to my wallet.

It was a relief when we finally got to our restaurant where we intended to eat dinner.  Now this was a complete contrast to the Merkato.  It was a very large restaurant, but we were the only patrons.  Sadly this is what we encountered everywhere we went in Ethiopia – the country has been under an “Emergency” since last year that has taken a toll on its economy and tourism.  We encountered empty restaurants and empty hotels wherever we went.  The food was delicious though, perfect to fill us for the flight out of Addis.  And we were all looking forward to the airport security drill.

Our completely deserted restaurant in Addis

If you ever complain of TSA procedures in the US, Addis airport procedures make TSA seem like airport security pre 911 – there is a full security check before you enter the airport building, one after  you check-in and finally one before your board the aircraft.  Traveler tip: wear shoes that are easy to take off.

The Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa

The Road to Lalibela

The road noise due to the lack of pavement almost drowned out the constant shutter clicks of B’s camera, as the van bounced along at a somewhat reasonable speed towards the airport, on the road to lalibela.  There was nothing unusual when the driver’s phone rang and he answered in the local Amharic, one hand clutching the phone, the other barely making contact with the steering wheel. His reaction to the call, however, was a little alarming.  After hanging up, he looked back at us, clutched the steering wheel tightly with both hands, and started racing the van down the road as if we were going to miss the flight.

Unable to take any more pictures due to the fact that the van ride had just been converted to what seemed like a roller coaster ride, B  turned to me and exclaimed “isn’t he flying down the road a little too fast”.  Sensing the concern on our faces after a few minutes, as even I put on my seat belt, he turned to us to explain that our plane was waiting on the tarmac for us, and we were (at normal speeds) still a good 30min from the airport.

“That’s not possible” we exclaimed in unison.  After all both J and I have a penchant of getting to the airport way too early.  Not ready to take any chances in Africa (after my previous experience in Tanzania of several breakdowns), we were heading to the airport a whole 3.5 hrs before our scheduled departure.  In most countries, flights get delayed, or people get bumped to later flights.  Here, you could get bumped to an earlier flight… welcome to Ethiopia !!




Lalibela is a town in the northern region of Ethiopia, famous for 11 monolithic rock-cut churches.  Most people in this town are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, a form of Christianity and predates modern Christianity.  The town is located at a fairly  high elevation of 8500 ft (2600m).  Even so, it is fairly warm, and there are mosquitoes to battle at night.

A little history lesson:  A 12th century king by the name of Lalibela decided to create his own Jerusalem here in Ethiopia following the capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims.  So he commissioned these churches that were carved from within the earth.  The unique thing about these churches versus other historical sites – they have been in continuous use for worship till today.  The most famous of these is of course the Lalibela cross, or the Church of St. George.



However, I found some of the other churches in town far more fascinating.  For example the biggest of them, Bete Medhane Alem in my personal view qualifies amongst the seven wonders.  The sheer size of it makes you wonder how someone could have carved something so intricate out of rock working into the ground !  I also noticed swastikas in the carvings in the churches, and hence the Indian influence :-).


Being different from mainstream Christianity, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th.  We were lucky to be there during lent when we got to participate in local worship ceremonies.  For these ceremonies, they wear a white shawl over their clothes and sing while chanting, almost sounding like chants in a Hindu temple to my untrained ear.



Practical Tips

Getting there

Two flights daily from Adis Ababa in a tiny turboprop are your best bet. The hardest part was getting from the international terminal to the domestic terminal in Adis.  Lets just say there are no shuttle buses, the terminal is under construction (as of 2017) and you have to walk out onto the road and drag your luggage a fair distance.  The domestic terminal itself is a museum; an airport frozen in time from 1940s or earlier. Getting the visa at the airport was a breeze though.  It cost $50.


I’m not much of a guide person, and believe in grabbing a book and discovering a place myself.  However, this is one place where it helped to have a local guide.  Be aware though that everyone in town pretends to be a guide; okay I like to exaggerate a little, so take that with a grain of salt, but in this case, it might be true.  Lucky for us, Professor Rebecca, whose interests in human and ape evolution take her to Ethiopia very often, set up up with a very able guide named Fish.


I would recommend two restaurants: Ben Abeda for a spectacular sunset dinner and Seven Olives.


Food in Ethiopia consists of Injira for breakfast, injira for lunch and injira again for dinner.   Every time we thought we would order something different, there would magically be a big loaded plate of injira on the table.  Needless to say, I’m out-jira-ed  for a while.  Beer is cheap and readily available, and they have a local “honey-wine” that is a must try.


The three wheeler Bajaj auto rickshaw (or as most tourists call tuck-tuk) is the king of the road (okay, the use of the word “road” is a bit of a stretch, but you get the point).  We hired one with a driver that fit all of us (4 people in total) and we took it off-roading on a mountain trail to get some scenic shots.  Lets just say a Jeep or an FJ Cruiser might not have made it there !!



One thing that struck us from the beginning was that the town was full of kids.  I mean not just many kids, but pretty much only kids… and lots of them.  If you’ve ever watched “The moaning of Life” with Karl Pilkington, there is an episode about the sea gypsies that let the kids roam free to the point where the town seems to be run by them; I think I just discovered another similar town.

Do Not make the mistake of being nice to the kids.  You talk to one, and pretty soon you resemble the pied piper of Lalibela.  One morning, while still dark at 5 AM, J and I decided to step out to check out the church services.  Along the way, we met a young worshipper heading that way.  Assuming interacting that early with someone, that too a worshipper was perfectly safe, so I let my guard down.  Lets just say every time I passed by that intersection, no matter what time of the day, Mogees was waiting for me yelling “Mark, Mark” ; in case you are wondering, that was what I had told him my name was.  So I suppose he was just there to remind me what my name was.



What my Travel Buddies have to add:

J (aka Kurmudgeon Korean):

“Ethiopia made me feel like a kid again; it made me shit my pants”

“I’m not sure what I am coughing up here, but I believe I can fix your shoes with it”