I am the first to admit that I used to fall asleep during Ancient History. So I am fully geared up for a dose of temple fatigue, which I confess was starting to kick in yesterday, despite a gorgeous guide, Mary, and the beautiful island setting of the Temple of Philae, just near the famous High Dam and Lake Nasser, built in the 1960s to reign in the excessive, damaging floods of the River Nile.
Built in Egypt’s Greco-Roman period by er, Greco-Romans who had a fetish for all things ancient Egyptian, the Temple of Philae and its surrounding temples (templettes?) were then admired in turn by romantic Victorians, who painted them in idyllic rustic settings – you know the types of paintings, where a lissom dark-eyed shepherd would be lounging suggestively by a rock in the foreground while his charges nibbled sweet herbs amongst the picturesque ruins.
The modern-day version of Philae was slightly out of kilter with the Victorian view. The shepherds were shepherds of tourists, umbrella-wielding clockwatchers, and their charges, instead of woolly lambs, were battalions of over-exposed tourists, including, frighteningly, a team of English Women Of A Certain Age wearing spaghetti-strap singlets with beige shorts that rode up at the crotch, revealing lumpy, veined legs and swinging tuck-shop arms.
“That’s the worst sight I’ve seen in Egypt yet,” muttered Mummy, whose seen a few horrific things in her few brief days in this country including (a) my apartment, (b) Cairo’s mildly rabid cat population and (c) the toilets on Egyptian trains.
Aswan is Nubian territory. Nubia is one of those ephemeral concepts of a country, sort of like the Basque region, where a distinct ethnic group’s traditional lands have been swallowed up by surrounding countries. So Nubians, which are scattered as far as Cairo to northern Sudan, on Egypt’s southern border, are concentrated around Aswan. The diaspora was further exacerbated by the former prime minister Nasser and his High Dam, which just happened to swallow 42 (or 47? the numbers keep changing) Nubian villages.
The government relocated the 800,000-odd villagers, paying them a small compensation, and when the global village realised the proposed dam would also immerse a swag of significant temples, they rushed in to save the temples, performed by heroic piece-by-piece removals. Interestingly, while the Czechs, Dutch etc slaved away to painstakingly restore the temples on higher ground, other countries (no names, but here’s a hint, New York) scraped up a few gems, thus saving them and to accept thanks instead of money, said oh, ok, we’ll take the temples to our own countries and they will be looked after very well in our museums that we charge a lot of money for people to enter… ‘Nuff said. Elgin’s Marbles (Now how did that slip in??)
So anyway, now the tat that’s foisted upon us tourists is all Nubian. Bright hats in colours not dissimilar to reggae colours (and I’ve seen at least one Bob Marley flag hoisted on one of the small local boats that sail between the islands), pretty weaves and, gruesomely, necklaces made from camel bones. Ok yes, I DID buy one. It is chic, in a faintly grotesque way, though you could never pick the pretty beads for being camel bones. Unless you’re Nubian. Perhaps they’re just cat bones…