The Race
Egypt, © 05.May.2002 gM
Photos of Egypt
Introduction to Egypt
The Race
The Unexpected
Looking for Gems in the Chaos
Show Me The Money
Gain Something, Lose Something
Aswan's harbor
Aswan's harbor / © gM
Two steaming cups of tea are sitting in front of us on the table. It is 3:30 in the morning - too early. In a few minutes, a microbus will arrive and bring us to the magnificent Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel, about four hours by car south of Aswan. After the terrible shooting of visitors and guides at the Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor in 1997, Egyptian authorities have been imposing travel restrictions on certain routes, and the road from Aswan to Abu Simbel is still classified as one of them. To guarantee best possible police protection, only one convoy of vehicles is allowed to travel to and from Abu Simbel per day.

Temple of Ramses II
Temple of Ramses II / © gM
Before joining the convoy, our driver picks up more and more people from different hotels until thirteen of us are crammed into the hot microbus. In addition to more minutes of sweet dreams, a later pick-up time coincides with larger packed hotel breakfasts - from our simple plastic bags to full-fledged take-away cardboard boxes. We are all budget travelers, though. Numerous fancier travel agencies offer more expensive tours to Abu Simbel with full-sized, air-conditioned buses. We are aware that we will not have the Temple of Ramses II to ourselves, but only when we are approaching the meeting point for the police convoy, it becomes clear to what extent we will be sharing the experience with others. Forty buses, the majority of them big 50-seaters, are already waiting for departure clearance.

I am picturing police cars with flashing lights up front, then the long convoy of buses, police cars at the end, and additional ones alongside the convoy. Not quite, as it turns out: it is more like a Formula 1 race. Once the green lights go on, all buses and microbuses start driving as fast as possible. I cannot even tell if police cars are traveling with us. Sometimes we are completely by ourselves with kilometers between us and the next buses ahead and behind us. Something obviously happened to our microbus driver during qualifying session since we are starting from the 36th position on the starting grid. The first part of the race track, however, winds through the city of Aswan where light, fast-accelerating microbuses have a distinct advantage over heavy, full-sized buses. We are making up many positions and have moved into the top ten by the time we reach the police checkpoint just south of Aswan. On the other side of the checkpoint, a caravan of trucks is waiting for the convoy to pass. Some of them are loaded with camels on their way to the market a few hundred kilometers down the Nile. I wish I could read their thoughts as their heads peer over the sides of the trucks, looking down on the procession of buses. Past the checkpoint, just as the speed limit sign clearly states that buses must drive more slowly than cars or microbuses, the horsepower-strong, full-sized buses start overtaking us - each and every one of them. We only manage to regain three positions by passing three microbuses ourselves.

Hieroglyphs in the Temple of Ramses II
Hieroglyphs in the Temple of Ramses II
Hieroglyphs (I / II) in the Temple of Ramses II / © gM
As with most average Formula 1 Grand Prix, we fall asleep halfway through the race. The road runs straight through desert, and the only attraction besides a colorful sunrise, is the occasional camel carcass on the side of the road. At this point, there are no overtaking manoevers anymore since the field is spread out and everyone is traveling at maximum speed. Technical defects are rather rare too. We wake up just in time to witness the arrival in Abu Simbel. All buses drop their passengers off at the same spot. For some obscure reason, entrance tickets to Abu Simbel cannot be bought in advance in Aswan. At Abu Simbel, the ticket office is well hidden around a corner and across a courtyard filled with 1000 to 2000 people who are all trying to stay with their groups, trying to buy tickets at one of the two ticket booths, or trying to enter the temple site. All of that as quickly as possible since there are only two hours before the convoy must head back. True bliss for anyone who likes pure chaos. Emotions are running high as a huge throng of people squeezes through a three to four person wide entrance where a single temple guard is trying to tear off entrance tickets. You can imagine how much space there is for each visitor inside the temple. Nevertheless, even hundreds and hundreds of sweaty, shoving people cannot diminish the grandeur of the Temple of Ramses II. From the sheer size of the four Ramses II statues at the entrance to the minute details of hieroglyphic paintings inside, the temple makes up for the tumultuous organization. Amazingly, the temple is in good condition despite being stormed by curious hordes almost daily, except for the summer months when the extreme heat deters all but the most determined. People lean against the hieroglyphs, flashes go off all the time, and the worst of the damage is most likely done by the exorbitant humidity caused by that many people inside the temple at the same time.

Relocated Nubian village near Aswan
Relocated Nubian village near Aswan / © gM
It is hard to believe that the whole temple has been moved piece by piece from its original location to about 60 meters higher, away from the rising waters of dammed-up Lake Nasser. Many Nubian villages and archaeological sites in this area were not that lucky. Not deemed worthy enough to be saved from the floods, their inhabitants were given little choice but to be relocated further downstream.

The convoy back to Aswan is just like the one leaving Aswan. Everyone waits until everyone is ready, the police sends us off, and we race as fast as possible. This time we have a lousy starting position because two of our group came back late - not us, although I wish we would have. This time we are also awake enough to fully realize how ridiculous the F1 style police convoy is. I truly hope that it is not safety concerns for visitors that make the convoy a necessity. What else could it be? It is certainly not done this way for the sake of the temple. That leaves as a possibility the registration fee each visitor has to pay for the police convoy. In a developing economy that depends to a large extent on tourism, it is always difficult to balance the need for hard currencies with the preservation of historical sites. The charge for the newly restored Nefertari tomb is ten times as much as for other tombs in the Luxor area. Visitors are limited to 150 per day. Ten minues maximum stay and no camera rules are strictly enforced. An approach like this would severely impact business in Abu Simbel and even Aswan because, contrary to Luxor, there is only one reason to visit Abu Simbel - the Temple of Ramses II. Maybe the current approach for Abu Simbel does indeed strike the right balance, however unlikely that may seem from the visitor's point of view.

Introduction to Egypt  /  The Race  /  The Unexpected  /  Looking for Gems in the Chaos  /  Show Me The Money  /  Gain Something, Lose Something