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Ancient Temples Highlight Egyptian Lake Cruise
The Temple of Ramses II illuminated at night at Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser, Egypt. (AP Photo/Paul Schemm.

By: Paul Schemm, Associated Press

ABU SIMBEL (AP).- In the 1960s, rising waters from a new dam threatened to submerge the temples and monuments of Nubia, the ancient home of black pharaohs in Egypt's far south. To preserve them, the antiquities were dismantled, moved and reconstructed. Today, most of the surviving monuments can only be seen from the lake created by the waters that nearly destroyed them.

Cruises on the 300-mile-long Lake Nasser, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world, include stops to visit nearly a dozen of the temples. Four-day trips are offered on a pair of elegant cruise ships, the Eugenie and the Kasr Ibrim, that hark back to a golden age of 1920s travel in Egypt and carry more than just a whiff of an Agatha Christie novel.

For tourists, the lake's vast waters are also a welcome respite from the din of Egypt's teeming cities and offer a contrast to the intensely farmed verdant fields of the Nile Valley. Birds wheel overhead and Egypt's last crocodiles slip unseen through the dark waters. The only other sound is the gentle chug of the ship's engine.

But the temples, and the story of their survival, are a highlight of the trip. They were saved by the international community in one of the most dramatic feats of engineering and conservation the world had ever seen, painstakingly cut into pieces and rebuilt on higher ground, or in one case, carefully chipped out of the rock and slid on rails for more than a mile and a half.

The most dramatic project was the dismantling of the massive statues of Pharaoh Ramses II at Abu Simbel into a thousand pieces. They were rebuilt on high ground over a period of four years as the rising waters lapped at their feet.

The lake, which crosses over into Sudan, was created when Egypt, with the help of the former Soviet Union, built the High Dam, which would go on to provide half of Egypt's electricity in the 1970s. It also protected the country from the droughts and famines that ravaged east Africa in the ensuing decades.

But while some 50 countries, including the United States, pitched into save the monuments, nothing could be done for the people who had lived there for millennia, even ruling as pharaohs in the 8th century B.C.

Around 60,000 people had to be relocated north to rudimentary housing in Aswan, far from the fields and orchards they grew up in. Accounts describe families kissing the ground and pocketing handfuls of soil before leaving, even as the waters rose over their villages.

To this day, members of the surviving community are trying to preserve their distinctive language and culture. When the government started talking about cultivating the desert shores of the lake once again, the Nubians demanded to be allowed to return.

For now, though, the lake's rocky shores remain deserted, with only the occasional fisherman sailing around the barren islands that were once the crests of distant hills.

The lake is also the last home for Egypt's famed crocodiles, with some 5,000 flourishing in the cool waters, together with monitor lizards, Nile geese and the numerous birds that can be seen from comfortable lounge chairs on the Kasr Ibrim's polished wooden promenade deck.

The cruise includes several classy touches, like cocktails at the start of the trip as the ship sails past the Tropic of Cancer, the northern boundary of the tropics. Then as the awesome statues of Abu Simbel rise out of the waters on the final day, the triumphal sounds of Verdi's Egypt-inspired opera "Aida" burst out of the ship's speakers.

The biggest highlights, however, are the trips to the rescued temples along the way. Guests clamber aboard motor launches and dart across the lake to the ruins.

Many date from the time of Ramses the Great, Egypt's megalomaniacal pharaoh, who filled the Nile Valley with statues of himself in the 13th century B.C., culminating in the colossi of Abu Simbel.

Ramses was only the latest Egyptian pharaoh to invade and subjugate Nubia, carrying off its gold, ivory and cattle, but also recruiting its men for his armies.

At the Beit al-Wali temple near the High Dam, he filled the walls with carvings of his victories over the Nubians, his chariots trampling defeated armies and lopping off enemy heads.

Farther south at Ramses' Wadi el-Seboua temple, which includes an avenue of sphinxes at the entrance, history has left other signs. Crosses carved in the wall and paintings of St. George above the altar speak of the arrival of Christianity to the deep south.

Egypt experienced massive persecutions by the Roman Empire, culminating in 284 A.D. with Emperor Diocletian's "Time of Martyrs" that so scarred the Christians that the Egyptian Church now dates its calendar to it.

Many Christians fled to remote monasteries in the desert or deep into Nubia to escape the reach of the Romans and they converted the old temples into churches, often defacing the images of the old gods even as they worshipped in their shadow.

The temple of Kalabsha near Aswan and the Dakka temple farther south are interesting as well because they date to Egypt's Greek and Roman periods around 1,000 years after the heyday of the pharaohs.

Mindful of the culture of the country they were occupying, the Ptolemaic and Roman overlords closely mimicked the ancient styles and honored the old gods — with a few improvements.

Greek-trained craftsmen carved the familiar Egyptian deities in the more contemporary bas-relief style with more physical detail, yielding beautiful wall carvings that have now been artfully lit from below.

The ancient Egyptians often covered temple walls with plaster and carved into it — an easier method that did not, however, stand the test of time.

One exception, though, is the Amada temple, one of the oldest in Nubia dating back 3,400 years to the 18th Dynasty's Thutmosis III. It hosts a particularly fine collection of plaster carvings that posed a real dilemma to the French engineers who had to save it in the 1960s.

Afraid the carvings would be damaged if they took the temple apart like the others, the French ended up carefully chipping it out of its rock base and sliding it along on rails for 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) at a rate of about 100 feet (30 meters) a day.

After contemplating such wonders both ancient and modern for much of the day under a blazing sun, it is a relief to return to the cool environment of the ship, where passengers are greeted with ice cold towels and drinks in the main lounge.

An expansive room with high ceilings and broad windows opening on to the lake's beauty, it is an ideal place to relax and read — and wait for Detective Hercule Poirot to gather everyone together to reveal the murderer.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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