Temples, and Toilets, and Tombs, Oh My — Part 5

I’m not at my best early in the morning when the sun’s rays are first coming over the horizon. Should I be forced to awaken at some such ungodly hour, my thoughts center on how soon I can be reacquainted with my pillow. There are many advantages to being on an organized tour – which is why we go on them – but the need to be ‘on the bus’ at 8AM when we only arrived at the hotel at 1AM is not one of them. However, if we wanted to get from the hotel in Aswan to Abu Simbel, a distance of 280 kilometers, we had no choice but to start out before we’d like to. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get back to the hotel in time for dinner, and who wants that?

I would have been more than happy to spend the time en route trying to catch as many zzz’s as I could, but Cindy – God bless her – had other ideas (as she often does). Why not use the time to let each of us take a few minutes to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group? And so, starting in the front of the bus, each person was requested to dutifully take the microphone (every tour bus has a mike, so the guide doesn’t have to yell) and say something of interest, which each person did, at least enough to keep me awake, which is saying something.

Not counting the ‘staff,’ there were thirty-five of us: thirteen couples and a group of nine women. Of the thirteen men, six of them were doctors (seven, R. Berman helpfully pointed out, if we include his Ph.D.) But it’s not just the men with impressive résumés; there were several high-powered women in our group as well, among which were a prominent journalist and activist, a high-powered attorney, and a tour guide who has shepherded young women hither and yon. We got to hear about one couple whose marriage has lasted for over 60 years, and how another couple, both of whose first spouses had recently died, found each other. Then there was a woman who told us that she had been F.F.H. (frum from habit), basically going about conforming to community norms, and how she was able to pack a little more meaning and spirituality into her life. I was thinking about what I would say about myself, but right after Barbara’s turn, we got to where we were going, and we put our autobiographies on temporary hold. I’d have to wait until the return trip to strut myself.

Holy moly, look at that!

Abu Simbel, that must have been the name of a clan head sometime back when. It survives as the name of the area where the temple, built by someone much more famous, Ramesses II, is located. We were at the southern-most part of Egypt at the border with the ancient kingdom of Nubia, and Ramesses wanted to build something so grand that the Nubians would know who was who and what was what. You get off the bus and you don’t see anything. You walk down a ways, turn the corner, and this is what you see. Holy moly, look at that! Even if you didn’t know what all this is about, you’d have to be impressed.

But because we were with Migo, we learned a lot more than you would if you were just wandering around and staring at the statues. The stones for the pyramids built a thousand years before were quarried and floated up or down the Nile to where they were needed. But these enormous behemoths? They were chiseled out of bedrock, if you can imagine that.

And then, you walk inside the temple, and this is what you see. (Note the small entrance between the two sets of statues.) Being there, especially with R/P Berman, one is sort of forced to consider the monuments of the New Kingdom as being built during the period when our ancestors were on the scene. (Although it’s unlikely that any person of Jewish ethnicity was ever this far south to see this particular project. We were far away up north, finding straw to build the store cities.) When you come across something this impressive, you realize that the Egyptian dynasty of that time was a lot more, shall we say, magisterial than Abraham’s four kings vs. five kings. Something to keep in mind when you’re going through the Haggadah and thinking about what we were up against when God took us out with a mighty hand – an expression any self-respecting Egyptian at the time would have recognized.

You can’t do that!

There’s a lot more there than the one temple in this complex, but what’s most impressive is the modern-day story about how we were able to see what we saw. If you think chiseling these detailed statues was difficult, how about having to move the whole kit-and-caboodle from one place to another? The Egyptian government (read: Gamal Abdul Nasser) was going to build the High Dam at Aswan, which would have put the entire temple complex underwater. YOU CAN’T DO THAT! That would be like someone tearing down Pennsylvania Station and putting up the world’s dreariest building in its place. (Oh wait a minute, ‘someone’ actually did that.) Fortunately for all concerned, UNESCO stepped in and moved the entire complex hundreds of meters up and out of harm’s way. The pharaoh’s feet will forever remain dry.

After an appropriate amount of time at the site, we again got back on the bus, heading back to our hotel. In case anyone had forgotten, it was my turn to take a seat in the front of the bus and tell my story. One of the topics we were encouraged to talk about was how we got our name. And, no surprise, many of our fellow travelers were named after somehow who had perished during the Holocaust. My formative years were spent with Jewish kids in The Bronx whose parents, and even their grandparents, had made their way to the New World before the nice people in the U.S. government shut the doors to immigration in the 1920’s. We were, by and large, a little more removed from the Shoah. To this day, I have no knowledge of the fate of those relatives left behind in Europe when my grandparents set sail for the Goldene Medina in the late 1880’s. It was only later in my life that I started to come across – big time – Jews whose connection to the tragic events was more immediate, and I still am caught short when I think about it.

Still, I had something to say (I almost always have something to say!) about why I was named ‘Fred’ (or ‘Frederick Lewis,’ if you want to be technical). And, of course, I said it, something like this:

Frank and Fred

My parents, Nathaniel Casden and Lucille Jacobson, were married in 1927, and my late sister, Marilyn June, was born in 1929. And that was it, no more kids. At some point later, my mother had an ovary removed. Definitely, no more kids. And then she got pregnant, not even realizing it until many months had gone by. Her doctor, using a stethoscope, the only diagnostic tool available at the time, confirmed her pregnancy. And then came March 16, 1941, one of those fateful days in world history when my brother was born.

My mother was always prepared. She was the kind of person who had her greeting cards signed, addressed, stamped, organized by date, ready to be mailed, months in advance of their due date. She was not going to be caught by surprise, not my mom. Her baby, who sex she did not know in advance, would be named Francis or Frances, after my father’s mother (Faigie or Fannie in the New World), who had died in the 1930’s. What only God knew was that there was another soul tucked behind my mother’s rib cage, whose beating heart the doctors never heard. And so I came into the world, a miracle of sorts.

What to call this surprise package? Pick another deceased family member to name this blessed baby after. Or choose Harry, or Barry, or Larry, or some-such. Not my mom. No, if number one was Frank, then male child number two would have to be Fred.

Frank and Fred. What I couldn’t anticipate was that everyone on the bus remembered: ‘Frank and Fred.’ Perhaps a lesson in getting the crowd’s attention.

You can’t pee for free

Cindy has told me that she has fond (???) memories from our trip to Morocco. She would be sitting in the front of the bus – where tour guides sit – and, out of the corner of her eye, she would spot me walking down the aisle. I didn’t have to say a word; she knew exactly what was on my mind, whereupon she would speak to the driver.

We had been forewarned. You might need to bring your own toilet paper on this trip. Definitely have Egyptian five-pound notes with you, as you will need them for the rest rooms along the way, because in Egypt you can’t pee for free. At least they had them. Every site we visited had the requisite ‘facilities,’ some not-so-bad, some, well, beggars can’t be choosers. Each of them had some bedraggled pensioner at the entrance collecting the entrance fee and handing you a few crumpled sheets of toilet tissue. A five-pound note was sufficient, or three people could enter for a one dollar bill. That tells you something about the exchange rate in February 2022.

If someone were planning to do an update of the 1929 Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt, it might be useful to include a section on lavatory facilities. I remember doing something similar myself. There was a time when, on an as-needed basis, I could provide the location of the nearest W.C. on the City College campus or in Central Park (both in NYC). We need someone today to step up to the urinal and do something similar. (At the Valley of the Kings, they’ll give you eight sheets of toilet paper, whereas as the Luxor Temple, you only get six….) Some smart – or lucky – Egyptian entrepreneurs had opened a snack bar with a rest area on the road between Abu Simbel and Aswan, where we stopped going and coming back. While you’re milling about, waiting for everyone to do their ‘business’ so you can all get back on the bus, you might as well get a snack or a soda or a coffee. But don’t eat too much, remember there will be dinner waiting at the Aswan Tolip Hotel, as well as a comfy bed to rest one’s head. Tomorrow would be another day.


Barbara, does this look familiar? A non-question, because I knew the answer and I knew she would know the answer. I handed her the newspaper and showed her the old black and white photograph of the Abu Simbel temple. The picture was accompanying a review by Joshua Hammer of Lynne Olson’s book, Empress of the Nile: The Daredevil Archaeologist Who Saved Egypt’s Ancient Temples from Destruction. (The New York Times International Edition, Wed. March 8, 2023) The daredevil in question is Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, who, as a curator at the Louvre, saved the ‘Mona Lisa’ from the Nazis. In the 1950’s, as the chief of a UNESCO mission to Egypt, “embarked on what she called a ‘David and Goliath’ effort to move the colossi out of harm’s way. Turning on the charm and twisting arms, she got Nasser’s government to embrace the project and enlisted the support of UNESCO’s leaders, the Kennedy administration and the French government.” Who knew? That’s a story more interesting than ‘Frank and Fred.’ We could have used her in NYC when they were tearing down the old Penn Station.

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