More than a couple in our group comment: “Seen one dam, seen them all”. And in a way they’re right. Like any dam it’s concrete and holds back the water – not quite as intriguing on face-value as its structural ancestors which hold tales of pharaohs, treasures and curses.
But to appreciate the dam you have to understand what it means to the people who live there and the Egyptian nation as a whole.
While the Nile is the major artery of the nation, the High Dam is its heart. A vital organ controlling the flow of water from south to north, it has become a powerful symbol of a developing nation.
It also has associations with the Cold War. When Egypt won independence from the UK in 1952, it was decided the country needed a bigger dam than the Aswan Dam, which was built in 1902 and subsequently raised twice.
Thus plans for the High Dam were drawn up with both the UK and US offering financial assistance. But after adopting a foreign policy that’s still being played out today, the two nations decided to withdraw funding for the dam in 1956.
This was an attempt to force the removal of pro-Arab Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser who had signed an arms deal with communist Czechoslovakia.
Refusing to buckle, Nasser took control of the Suez Canal, which was majority-owned and controlled by the UK and France. Without the support of the US, the nations reacted by joining with Israel to invade the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and take control of the canal.
It was then that Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union was sealed, as Moscow successfully demanded the immediate withdrawal of all troops. In an attempt to shore up their position in Africa, the Soviets committed themselves to funding a third of the cost of the High Dam’s construction.
A stone monument recognising the relationship between Egypt and the Soviet Union sits on the west side of the dam.
While the Cold War days are long gone, the High Dam remains divisive.
Like much development throughout the world, the construction of the almost 4km-long dam came at a high price, with the displacement of 90,000 Nubians who inhabited the land before it was flooded by Lake Nasser.
According to our guide Waleed, the benefits of the dam to the nation, which include a 10-year water supply in spite of drought and enough hydro-electricity to power the country, mean little to the locals who were forced from their homes.
“The Nubian people are very kind, but they are very sad. Even when they sing they are sad because they will never be able to return to their land,” Waleed says.
Even the younger generations have little interest in embracing the development of their country.
“The Nubians have Egyptian passports and get free education like everybody else,” Waleed says. “Egyptians consider the Nubians Egyptians – but the Nubians do not. They will never see themselves as Egyptian.”
While the land itself was inundated, global co-operation ensured that many of the ancient Nubian sites were saved from going under water.
With the support of Unesco, an ambitious programme was established to move the ancient monuments, ensuring the region’s history was not left to diving enthusiasts.
To stand on the shores of Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel and stare up at the Great Temple of Ramses II, it’s hard to comprehend how the structure was carved into a mountain 3000 years before it was cut into sections and moved above water level in the ’60s.
While the modern day heroics are more easily understood, they are no less inspiring than those of ancient civilisations.
- Krysten Booth travelled on a King Ramses 13-day tour of Egypt with On The Go (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com). Prices start from £449.
Climbing Mt Sinai
If you’re heading to either Dahab or Sharm el-Sheikh, you may have the opportunity to climb Mt Sinai. Here are the Ten Commandments for a trek up the famous mountain.
I am the Lord your God
For those who need a little more incentive than the thrill of the climb and the promise of a stunning sunrise, this is the spot where God is said to have given Moses the Ten Commandments. You are sure to encounter pilgrims with bibles in hand along the route.
You shall not make wrongful use of
the name of your God
It’s not Mt Everest but it’s not a walk in the park either. There’s a good chance you’ll be cursing at some stage if you’re not fit. You should still make it to the top even if you’re not into the gym, but you’ll need to stop along the way to catch your breath.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
Mt Sinai can be climbed almost any day of the year, but access may be limited around the time of some religious festivals. It’s worth checking in advance whether it’s open.
Honour your father and mother
Get a cloud-free morning and you will indeed be thanking mum and dad for the gift of life. Be sure to make the effort to catch a sunrise, which means starting your climb about 2.30am. Not only will you enjoy the stunning but incredibly harsh landscape, you’ll also avoid the heat of the day, which is uncomfortably warm, even in winter.
You shall not murder
Remember that people of all ages and fitness levels make the climb, so be considerate to those who are a bit slower than you. As tempting as it may be, don’t push them off the mountain.
You shall not commit adultery
The only rocks you’ll get off here are the ones that litter the path on the way up. Trust me, it won’t even cross your mind.
You shall not steal
The only thieves on the mountain are the little stores that charge a bomb for a chocolate bar and a bottle of water. Admittedly, the prices are probably fair considering the working conditions, but do your wallet a favour by taking snacks and water with you.
You shall not bear false witness against
The only people you’ll be bagging up here are the blokes with camels. Avoid the temptation to take a ride for an easier trip – it won’t be. Unless you’ve got a fair bit of experience with camels, they’re not comfortable to ride and if you take a tumble (unlikely as it may be) there are rocks the size of your head waiting to break your bones. Save the camel rides for elsewhere in Egypt.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house
There’s a good reason everyone who’s climbing for the sunrise takes a sleeping bag. Even in summer the temperature on the mountain drops to near freezing, so you’ll need to keep warm while waiting for night to turn to day.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife
Don’t dress to impress. We saw a woman wearing stilettos at the bottom of the mountain – we didn’t see her at the top. Wear warm clothes and decent walking shoes – sand shoes will do if you don’t have hiking boots.
The Pyramids of Giza
No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, this is one tourist spot guaranteed to leave you awestruck. Constructed more than 4000 years ago, the scale of the tombs is fascinating. Don’t imagine you’ll be in the middle of the desert though – it feels as if you drive out of downtown Cairo and there they are.
Everything you want to know about ancient Egypt can just about be found under one roof at the Egyptian Museum. The highlight, though, is the Tutankhamun Galleries, which have a collection of treasures from the boy king’s tomb. If you are on a tour of Egypt, there’s a fair chance you’ll only get a couple of hours here, so it’s worth including a day at the start or end of your tour to have a proper look at this wonderful collection.
Do not make the mistake a lot of visitors to Egypt do and skip the Great Temple of King Ramses II at Abu Simbel because it’s a 4am flight or bus ride to get there from Aswan. It may cost you a bit of sleep and more money, but this amazing monument on the banks of Lake Nasser is stunning if you can make it there for sunrise.
This temple, located on the east bank of the Nile, was built in 1400 BC and is a collection of ancient pylons, columns, massive statues and other structures. It’s best visited at night when the lights provide a wonderful atmosphere and make it a photographer’s delight.