Out of Luxor airport: bougainvillea erupting, vegetation waving, lush crooked palm trees growing by giant irrigation ditches. Rough roads, studded with speed bumps and military checkpoints every few kilometres; a land locked down tight. My driver chortles and guffaws at the traffic around him, and drives like Sebastian Vettel. For an hour he suffers interruptions, then pulls awayfrom the Nile and heads flat out at speed across the barren lands to the west. Ahead of us the falling sun is shattering amid grey crazy-paving clouds. As it hits the horizon, we swing south again, the fertile lands of the valley a broad green smudge away to the left. I am expecting darkness almost instantly, as they say of the tropics, but light lingers for a half hour and more, leaking slowly from a ribbed and bubbled crimson sky over desert hills to the right. During this time headlights are used only in flashes, to let oncoming traffic know we are there.
Night falls. In Aswan by seven o’clock, I fancy a beer; but in the souq these days, amid tightening conservatism, it is nowhere to be found. An enterprising youth sees me peering into fridges, and whispers “you want beer? I have beer, wine, whisky – shhhh!” – but I don’t want it badly enough that I’m willing to get dragged into an expensive backstairs transaction which will end up with me pressured to buy God knows what else. Further on, another lad grabs my hand and won’t let go, then forces a tiny blue scarab into it. I try to refuse, but he insists. He says he is Nubian, then asks me where in England: I always say Manchester, since nobody has heard of Yorkshire, and predictably always get the same response: football. He drags his dad in on the act; with a self-congratulatory grin, senior recites a long list of English towns. Their goal is to get me to buy something I don’t want or need; my goal is to avoid doing this at any cost. I tell them I have to meet someone and can’t stay. They concede that English people don’t like hassle, so they give me their card, show me exactly where their shop is, and try to get me to commit to tomorrow. “English promise?” checks the son; I wonder if he has heard of perfidious Albion. “Inshallah” is allI will say.
I find a place that serves beer, but no food; the proprietor tells me that this is because it is Eid Al Adha, and tomorrow there will be plenty to eat. His non-restaurant spills down three levels beside the Nile: the uppermost, indoors, is dark; the second is mosquito-ridden; the third is floating on the water, and connected to land by a half-submerged gangplank. Apart from a couple of shisha smokers, the only customers are teenage girls who want to have their photos taken with me. I polish off a couple of beers and head for four hours’ sleep.
The wake-up call is at 2.50 and my driver for Abu Simbel is in the lobby by 3.20. We head through town in the darkness to a police checkpoint where the car is bomb-detected. We are clear, but he pulls around and switches the engine off. Over the next half hour an assortment of cars and minibuses joins the queue. Turns out we are to be the lead vehicle in today’s convoy; a bullet-cropped cop squeezes himself and a large black automatic into our passenger seat. My driver regards this as a great honour. I don’t share his excitement; I would honestly prefer to be tucked away somewhere inconspicuously in the middle ranks of the convoy, but I’m left hoping that with a motherfucking gun that size, our man really does have a master plan.
As it is, all seems quiet; we head out across the British dam (1898-1933), through more checkpoints, and into the blackness. At about five o’clock the landscape turns grey, disclosing endless level desert speckled with rough gravelly bluffs.
We are doing over 120 kph, I can tell, in spite of a cigarette packet placed coyly over the speedo; is the driver trying to hide his excess from the copper sat next to him? The car behind couldn’t be tailgating more tightly; in the back, I don’t fancy my chances if anything goes wrong. Shortly before six o’clock the sun rises; as we swing back towards the Nile a series of conical hills of rubble scatteracross the desert. Is this where the ancients got their inspiration for pyramids?
The first striking thing about Abu Simbel is the glittering blue expanse of Lake Nasser, several miles wide and surrounded by more of those conical desert outcrops. This used to be Nubia, a narrow land along the Nile for hundreds of miles south of the lowest cataract of the Nile at Aswan, populated by black Africans. For millennia it was the bugbear of theEgyptian dynasties, repeatedly conquered and falling back out of their hands. Nubia no longer exists; it has disappeared beneath Lake Nasser, created when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s.
Abu Simbel used to tower above the Nile, visible stamp of Egyptian domination of Nubia.
But where it was, it would have drowned; so they cut it into pieces and moved it, block by block, to the top of the hill, where they reassembled it, stuck onto the side of a purpose-built hill of rubble. I remember this; it happened while I was at an American primary school in Germany, and it was held up to us – in a National Geographic story, if I remember rightly – as a fantastic example of what could be achieved by UNESCO (back in the days when Americans believed in UNESCO). That was the 1960s.
You can argue all you like – and people have – about whether it was justified to drown this land and its civilization so that another equally ancient and more populous one could achieve agricultural stability by eliminating the Nile floods below Aswan, or whether that was not just cultural genocide but also a long-term ticket to an unsustainable population boom and unsustainable chemical dependence in downriver agriculture (Egypt, which used to be the breadbasket of the Roman Empire – Cleopatra wasn’t the only reason why they were scrapping over it – can no longer feed its own people, but has to import). But there is no doubt, on the spot, that there is something about Abu Simbel, colossal as it is, that no longer quite works. Its purpose – the domination of Nubia – has been usurped by the waters at its feet; and that cliff-top heap of rubble onto which it is glued looks like, well, a heap of rubble. Looking at it, you know it is the real thing, that it was carved over 3200 years ago, that it is not a Disney reconstruction of itself; but still – that’s what it looks like. The utopian dreams of the 1960s are gone, and Abu Simbel is high and dry. Still, that’s undoubtedly better than submerged and wet – at least we still get to see the interior detail. But it has none of the power of Karnak or Luxor, not any more.