Temples, and Toilets, and Tombs, Oh My — Part 6

If your tour group is traveling for over a week up and down the Nile, it would be inevitable that, sooner or later, you’d be riding ON the Nile. And because Egypt is not known for having the latest technology, you’d be riding on the Nile in small boats that, while picturesque, have an engine that seems to have made the journey once too often and, in our case, whose slogan should be taken seriously.

And where were we off to on this Thurs. morning? If you’ve been there, there’s a chance you might recognize the place, otherwise not. There, smack dab in the middle of the Nile, accessible by boat from a dock not so far from the Tolip Hotel, is Elephantine Island. There’s lots to say about this fortress as it relates to Egyptian history, but we were not there because of the temples to Khnum the ram god or Seti, his consort; not even Anuket, who was a ‘local’ goddess. We were there because there were Jews on this small island for a hundred or maybe two hundred years around the beginning of the New Kingdom (which corresponds to the destruction of THE temple, the Beit HaMikdash); and because these guys built their own temple, which they weren’t supposed to do; and because they worshipped our God and someone else’s god, which they also weren’t supposed to do.

And so we boarded two river-worthy crafts and headed to the island. Along the way, we were intercepted by two local lads, paddling their way to our boat, who serenaded us with a rendition of Frere Jacques (Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, dormez vous, dormez vous? Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines, ding, dong, ding, ding, dong, ding.) Itgoes without saying that they expected – and received – appropriate remuneration for their efforts.

You need a guide. If there’s any place where you need a guide (or guides), it’s Elephantine Island, because all that remains is rubble. There are a few buildings – a few people live there – and there are a few signs to point out what’s what, but on your own… Maybe that’s why there are few tourists and one lone dog. At least with R/P Berman explaining the Jewish connection and Migo translating the hieroglyphics, you come away with something.

Why were the Jews there in this god-forsaken (literally) corner of the diaspora? They were probably mercenaries, a garrison of sentries on an island strategically located to protect against marauders going up or down the river. They didn’t stay too long, as I said, and then they disappeared from history, but leaving behind enough a sufficient number of intriguing letters, contracts, and documents, all written on papyrus, to prove that they were there.

I don’t remember seeing it, but we were told there was (or had been) a nilometer on the island, which I consider a precursor of modern economic analysis. A decade or two ago, some American professors figured out a way to analyze the state of the economy months before the official figures came out from the government. They selected a certain number of truck stops along some major roads and monitored their sales. That enabled the researchers to determine the volume of truck traffic during a specified period of time. The more traffic, the more trucks, the more stuff was being shipped, the better the economy, and the opposite. Simple. The three nilometers, strategically placed along the river, measured how high the Nile had risen in a given year, indicating how much land the flood waters would irrigate, and, hence, how good the crops would be. That’s how they figured out how much to tax the farmers each year. The moral of the story is that the taxman always wins.

On our return trip, we were followed by a different pair of young men, who must have been absent the day the teacher was having her wards memorize Frère Jacques. These lads had nothing to entertain us with but still hoped for some remuneration for their paddling ability. A few days later, noticing the constant stream of young ‘uns hanging around, I asked Migo, Don’t these kids go to school? It seems that our tour corresponded to a mid-winter break, and that was the reason why so many boys were helping out on the boats or selling guidebooks. I can’t say I’m convinced, but you never know.

One thing I do know: all the tourists who were not with us on Elephantine Island were waiting for us when our bus arrived at the Aswan High Dam. The dam itself is controversial (as in merits vs. demerits), but I will say with some confidence that it’s not that exciting to look at – apart from noting the prodigious amount of water being held in check on the southern side. I did ask MIgo what I thought was an obvious question, something like this: Granted, Egypt has a lot of water, which is being used to generate electricity, but you have even more sunlight. Is there any effort being made to generate solar energy? The answer was that they’re just starting. They’ll never catch us here in The Land, that’s for sure. And while we’re at it, with all that water from the Nile in reserve, we tourists can’t drink any of it – unless it comes in a pristine plastic bottle. Third world, that’s for sure.

Speaking of third, our third site this Thursday was the temple on the island of Philae, another place saved from death by drowning. It had been partly submerged when the first dam was built and would have been at the bottom of the dam had not UNESCO intervened. By the time we got there, most of the tourists at the High Dam had finished taking selfies and had moved on to the temple. I found it difficult to photograph there, too many people milling about, but here’s something of interest. As all of you who majored in Egyptology can attest, that spells out the name of a well-known Egyptian lady about town.

And if you need a little music to go with it (start at 1:00).

You have to give credit where credit is due. A few of the boat operators realized that they had a golden opportunity to make a few extra dollars. They must have reasoned (although maybe not the way I’m presenting it): We have a captive audience; in fact, every day we have many, many captive audiences. They’re in our boat for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes with nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing and nobody to distract their attention. We’ll have a table of jewelry – nothing too expensive – and once the boat starts moving, we’ll uncover it and let the tourists check out what we have – no pressure. Guaranteed someone will buy something.  On one of our rides, it was a whole lot of somebodies, including me and Barbara. We have to bring back something for Liel (that’s our step-grand-daughter); it would be her ninth birthday a few weeks after we return. Barbara picked out a necklace, which set us back a few Egyptian pounds, and sure enough, the child liked it! Coming back on the boat from Philae, there was this Nubian dude selling a multi-colored instrument that looked like a cross between an oboe and a kazoo. Sure enough, someone had to have one.  I wonder if they had buyer’s remorse once safe and sound back home, explaining to friends and family what they had purchased and Why?

Speaking of why, our final destination of the day was for me an enormous Why?, as in why are doing this? Stuck in the middle of a quarry was a monument to hubris, an enormous obelisk built during the reign of Hapshepsut. (You remember him, don’t you?) Except the thing was so big that it cracked while it was being chiseled out of bedrock, so it’s still lying there, unfinished. So what’s the big deal; everything in life is not always what it’s cracked up to be. I guess the moral is that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. What I remember most from this site was that the toilet attendant there wanted to charge me ten Egyptian pounds to use his facility. I glared at him, handed him five, and I guess he got the message, because he let me in.

After dinner, most of the group went off to visit a Nubian village, which was a big deal for the villagers (as in, they could use the money), who even brought out some sleepy youngsters in their pajamas to greet their guests. Barbara and I stayed behind. My feeling is, rather than watch other people in pajamas, I’d rather be in my own. And on that note, let me wish one and all, Goodnight. We would have a full day ahead of us on Friday, heading up to Luxor to spend Shabbat.

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