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Cruising Lake Nasser: When Egypt’s past and present collide

Abu Simbel–In the 1960s, rising water 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 monuments can be seen only from the lake that nearly destroyed them.

Cruises on the 480-kilometer-long Lake Nasser, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world, include stops to visit nearly a dozen temples. Four- and five-day trips are offered on two elegant cruise ships, the Eugenie and the Kasr Ibrim, that hark back to the golden age of 1920s travel.

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

The temples' preservation by the international community is one of the most dramatic feats of engineering and conservation the world had ever seen. The structures were painstakingly cut into pieces and rebuilt on higher ground.  

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

Lake Nasser, which crosses into Sudan, was created when Egypt, with the help of the former Soviet Union, built the High Dam, which would yield 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 in to save the monuments, nothing could be done for the people.

Some 60,000 people were 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.

To this day, the people are trying to preserve their 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 the occasional fisherman sailing around the barren islands that were once the crests of distant hills.

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

The cruise begins with cocktails as the ship sails past the Tropic of Cancer, the northern boundary of the tropics. As the awesome statues of Abu Simbel rise into view on the final day, the triumphal sounds of Egypt-inspired Verdi opera "Aida" burst out of the ship's speakers.

Finally, the trips to the temples. Passengers 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.

Ramses was only the latest Egyptian pharaoh to invade and subjugate Nubia, carrying off its gold, ivory and cattle and forcing its men into 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, 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 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 Romans. They converted old temples into churches, often defacing images of the gods even as they worshipped in their shadow.

The temple of Kalabsha near Aswan and the Dakka temple farther south 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 familiar Egyptian deities in the contemporary bas-relief style with more detail, yielding beautiful wall carvings that now are artfully lit from below. The ancient Egyptians often covered temple walls with plaster and carved into it – an easier method that did not stand the test of time.

One exception 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 challenge to the French engineers who had to save them in the 1960s.

Afraid the carvings would be damaged if the temple were disassembled like the others, the French carefully chipped it out of its rock base and slid it along on rails for 2.4 kilometers at a rate of about 30.4 meters a day.

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