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The Mighty River Nile

PUBLISHED: 11:37 18 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

'Nile Afterglow' by Augustus Osbourne Lamplough. Sold at Bearnes in 2008

'Nile Afterglow' by Augustus Osbourne Lamplough. Sold at Bearnes in 2008

Travellers have been drawn to the mysteries of the Nile for thousands of years as Martin Scadgell of Bearnes, Hampton and Littlewood reveals.

It is January and we are in the throes of one of this country's coldest prolonged periods. Yesterday, my family's haven and winter retreat for luxury exercise on a budget, which included a superb, warm spa suite, went into liquidation and shut down overnight. Seated in a somewhat bemused state in our living room, my eyes alight on a watercolour by Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 'Sunset on the Nile', and my spirits lift a little.

Travellers have been drawn to the mysteries of the Nile for thousands of years, from 5th-century BC Greek historian Heroditus, to the artist David Roberts and the writer Agatha Christie. As for the ancient traveller, the best way to appreciate the timeless beauty of the Nile is from the river itself.

From the vantage point of a boat it is easy to see how the river filled all areas of ancient life with symbolism. The Nile represented (and still represents) life itself to the people of Egypt, ancient and modern. In religion the sun god Ra was ferried across the sky by boat - and what a view he must have had! The 'butterfly' feluccas silently skimming the water; women washing clothes on the riverbank as they have been doing since the time of Moses; ancient temples retrieved from the sands of obscurity.

The Nile links the important sites of the Pyramids with the temples of Karnak, Edfu and Abu Simbel. Perhaps lesser-known and less-visited temples on the Nile include that of Dendera, which in terms of the Nile is one of the more modern Romano-Greek temples. The temple was dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of fertility and healing. The later temple (AD 14) at Kom Ombo is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, in honour of the sacred crocodiles which basked in the sun on the nearby riverbank. The above-mentioned temples are to be found near Luxor on the eastern side of the Nile.

Egyptian gods often took the form of animals found in the region. For those of us lucky enough to have visited the Hadrian Exhibition at the British Museum last year, you might recall it was a Nile crocodile that did for Hadrian's much-loved companion Antonius; and at his sumptuous summer palace numerous statues of the boy and crocodiles can be seen around the great pool.

Philae is in an outstanding location, situated in a most beautiful natural setting on an island south of the Aswan Dam. This temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis. It is of particular interest that the temple was dismantled and re-assembled on an island 550m from its original home, which was flooded when the High Dam was built.

The building of the dam caused considerable controversy at the time, not least because of the forced relocation of local people and the end of the natural fertilisation caused by the annual flooding of the delta and banks of the Nile, necessitating modern farming techniques to be introduced and expensive and problematic artificial fertilisers. The advantages, however, were the ability to generate large quantities of much-needed electricity to the whole of Egypt's populated areas and an increase in the agricultural area that could be farmed.

The eternal Nile has so far survived the effects of mass interventions, but if the doomsday merchants are to be believed, and the predictions for global warming are correct, 40% of the population could lose their homes through flooding from the sea, and large areas would be unable to be cultivated because of salty soils and drought.

Before I leave the temples of the Nile, I must mention the top tourist attraction in Egypt, the temple at Abu Simbel. The temple, dedicated to Rameses II in 13 BC, was lost to mankind for many years. Situated at the southern end of Lake Nasser, it was rediscovered in 1813, and in 1817 the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni attempted to excavate the site, with limited success. He did, however, manage to enter the complex and took everything portable and of any value.

It was not until 1959, after an international campaign to save the monuments of Nubia, that salvage work began in earnest. The southernmost relics of this ancient human civilisation were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile that would result from the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

Between 1964 and 1968, at a cost of some 40 million, the entire site was cut into large blocks, dismantled and reassembled in a new location 65m higher and 200m back from the river, in what many consider to be the greatest feat of archaeological engineering.

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