Ever since elementary school we have been fascinated by stories of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Numerous pharaohs were mentioned in the Bible, enslaving the people of Israel. The dynasties of those ancient rulers is surely the most fascinating story there is. Egypt’s Cairo is an hour flight away from Ben Gurion airport. However, regardless of the peace treaty between the two countries, signed almos 45 years ago, a visit to Egypt is not that popular. The reasons are more than a few. Organized groups do arrive in Egypt, escorted by military backing. Since I am a solo traveler I couldn’t imagine joining such a tour. For my birthday happening in May I have decided that it’s time. It’s now or never. Together with Liat, the woman I love, we decided to make the full scale journey deep into Egypt on our own with our Israeli passports.
Applying for a visa requires 3 visits to the embassy in Tel Aviv. Quite a hassle for the drive, parking and standing in a queue. After two weeks, we got the required stamp in our passports. The first stage was completed. Booking a direct one hour flight to Cairo is apparently a rip off. For a third of the cost it’s recommendable to fly via Amman, Jordan. Getting into Cairo airport was a simple normal procedure. The immigration officer welcomed us with a warm smile. He was friendlier than numerous airports I visited in Europe. Changing terminals for a domestic flight to Aswan was hectic. Security procedures in Egypt are the tightest I have experienced. However, with patience, surrounded by hundreds of foreign tourists eager to get to Aswan – our first destination, made us feel the safest.
After an hour comfortable flight we found ourselves in a cranky old taxi crossing bustling Aswan to the hotel we arranged in advance – the lovely Movenpick Aswan, by Accor. We booked it mainly for being an internationally recognized brand which guarantees both quality, security and peace of mind. The hotel is located on its own arcadian island on the Nile, a five-minute tiny motor boat ride from the point the taxi dropped us. Our check-in at midnight was overwhelming. “Welcome, we are hosting a lot of Israeli groups here”, said the smiling, surprising receptionist.
This Movenpick Resort Aswan offers guests a spectacular view over the Nile River from its 404 rooms, suites and villas. The scene from our balcony was just outstanding. Staff made us quickly feel at home, adhering to our needs after the long 3 flights. We ordered a 4 a.m. wake up call for our first adventure – a ride to Abu Simbel temple, 3 and a half hours away. When we booked the trip via an authorized local agency, we were asked to deliver a photocopy of our passports for the relevant permits. This was alarming as we heard that Israelies must be escorted with an army vehicle and join a convoy driving our way. We were curious about what to expect. A light continental breakfast was waiting for us at 5 a.m in the dining room. Not a familiar sight, as in most hotels you will have to settle for room service. This is true hospitality, being aware of guests’ needs.
Our worry was in vain. There was no need for any soldier to join us. Egyptian driver and a guide waited for us on time. Our guide explained that the official convoy we heard so much about is organized due to lack of internet reception in the desert and no available petrol stations. It was meant for all drivers that wished to feel comfortable and secured driving there. Our van was new and air conditioned and the adventure began.
The road, crossing the empty desert, was long (we stopped once halfway for a quick break in a hospitable kiosk) and when entering the small town of Abu Simbel our Egyptian hosts offered us another break in a homemade Falafel stand. This Egyptian dish, made with a local pita bread with no hummus we are so used to, was just divine. The most famous temple in Egypt, perhaps in the entire world, was waiting for us.
It was more breathtaking than I had imagined. By the water of lake Nasser, created by Aswan High Dam built on the Nile, stood in front of our eyes the magnificent Abu Simbel temple. Certainly one of the world’s most well-known ancient sites. When the Aswan High Dam was planned an urgent need was required to dismantle and rebuild it on a higher hill, 60 years ago. The temple was constructed by legendary Egyptian King Ramesses II who celebrated the victory over the Hittites 3300 years ago. The temple was built here in Nubia, an important source of gold. Ramesses II wished to impress the Nubians and Egyptianize them. It is hard to believe that the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks and reassembled in this new location. This was one of the greatest ever archaeological engineering projects, that included another smaller massive rock-cut temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II’s chief consort, Nefertari – his beloved wife, known for her beauty. Was this one of the most ancient love stories, long before Romeo and Juliet?
It was the first time we heard of Nubia. Apparently this old kingdom was home to some of Africa’s earliest. It was the gateway through which luxury products like incense, ivory, and ebony traveled from their source in sub-Saharan Africa to the civilizations of Egypt. Archers of exceptional skill provided the military strength for Nubian rulers. Their Kings ultimately conquered and ruled Egypt for about a century.
After returning back on the similar long road, we were eager to discover Aswan and hear more about the Nubians. A motor boat was waiting for us at the Movenpick dock for an insightful experience. Crossing the Nile on our way to the Nubian village of Aswan. “Our history can be traced from 4000 years ago to modern day. It was culturally close to ancient Egypt, and the two regions had periods of both peace and war”, says our Nubian guide Abdulla. Today his people live in Nubian villages, known for their colorful streets near Aswan and their rare skin tone and also a unique language that no one in Egypt talks like. The village is so colorful that it was a joy to spend a few hours with those welcoming inhabitants. The lovely Om Qasim hosted us for tea and sweets on her terrace, where we understood how courteous Nubian hospitality is.
The next day we enjoyed a super long relaxed breakfast at the wide terrace of the Movenpick – overlooking the magical Nile. Observing a spectacular scene of Feluccas – the traditional wooden sailing boats and endless decorated motor boats that dominate the mighty river. Aswan was for centuries a strategic and commercial gateway since antiquity.
We made our way to the breathtaking Philae Temple on an island near the city, approachable by a water taxi. The river was crowded with similar motor boats with hundreds of tourists on a typical hot desert day. This temple was sacred to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of healing and magic and one of the last places of worship built in the classical Egyptian style, created by the last of the pharaohs. Tarek, our qualified amazing egyptologist, explains that it was rescued and relocated to the island of Agilika with the building of the Aswan High Dam. A trip in this country can not be impeccable without a professional egyptologist or a private guide.
We didn’t miss a visit to the famous Aswan High Dam, built more than 50 years ago. It is Egypt’s monumental project with its ability mainly to better control flooding and provide water storage creating Lake Nasser. Till these very days it is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. Its effect on the Egyptians is still controversial, however it saved millions along the river from the seasonal flooding.
We felt extremely safe and content, experiencing Aswan and parts of Nubia. There was no language barrier. We managed with our English, using some welcoming words in Arabic to be courteous. Naturally our egyptologist, guide and hotel employees were speaking fluent English. At this stage, we were ready for our next independent couple travel chapter. A cruise on the Nile up to Luxor.