For four days, the Kasr Ibrim (and yours truly, ensconced in a Royal Suite) coasted over the still waters of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake. Compared with the cruise up the narrow Nile from Luxor to Aswan, you can barely see the coastline – at times the lake stretches up to 30km wide.
Dotted along the coastline are tiny shacks for fishermen who live out here for six months at a time. Our boat buys their catch for the freshest fish.
Other signs of life are just weird: on the first night, we moored by a tiny rock of an island whose inhabitants included an egret, a handful of hunting kestrels and…seven cats. I don’t know how, but the staff all know there are seven. I saw one, a tri-coloured marmalade one. It was my first sign of land animals here. It was digging a hole to um, defecate in… it was slightly depressing.
There is no mobile phone reception, no tv and no other humans save the fishermen and the guards of the temples, shipped out here by Egypt’s antiquities department for their sins or serving out their compulsory National Service, the young men in grubby white uniforms with ‘police’ poorly embroidered in red spending their time staring vacantly and growing soft moustaches. They must have been very bad. There are no women, and they live in close quarters, huddled against the harsh, rocky desert.
These temples are remote now, in 2008. Imagine: they must have been considered the other side of the moon in 1390BC.
So why build here? Ramses II (and this whole cruise is about the man) used the far reaches of his kingdom to slap up some pretty heavy propaganda – the temples’ facades are covered in images of his greatness. Smiting a Nubian here. A Hittite there. He was one for the smiting, our Ramses II.
The ruins of the fortress Kasr Ibrim, after which our ship is named, once guarded a narrows of the Nile, extracting tolls and providing safe haven for villagers when under attack. The mud-brick fortress was 70 meters above the water, but today, thanks to the flooding of the countryside, the waters of the Nile and Lake Nasser lap at its skirts.
The Nubians, it has to be said, have been beaten by both ends of the stick – their heritage has been lost to the shifting desert sands, to be rediscovered in the early 1800s only to be lost once again to the rising waters of the Nile. It takes a whole new meaning to being between a rock and a hard place.