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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Abu Simbel, Egypt

The Temple of Ramesses II, Abu Simbel, with Lake Nasser in the background.
Several years ago (2010), like any self-respecting art and history buff, I visited the Pyramids of Giza. To say the least, I was underwhelmed--three really, really big piles of stone guarded by a gigantic lion desperately needing a nose. Had I had the time and money, what I'd really like to have seen lay some 425 miles (1108 Km) south at the tail end of Lake Nasser--the Temples of Abu Simbel. In visiting such manmade world landmarks, I prefer to be overwhelmed. Though technically not as large as even the smallest of the pyramids, the temples are far more interesting "Egyptionally" speaking (my spell-checker did a double-take on that one). I'm no Egyptologist, but as I delve into art and artists from the past, hardly a week goes by that I don't come upon a reference to some "first" involving Egyptian art; so it's a topic impossible to ignore.
From Cairo, Abu Simbel is a day-long, not-very-scenic
bus ride or a two-hour flight.
Abu Simbel is a small town lying south of Aswan in Egypt. It has a number of simple offices and eateries of little interest to tourists. However, the temples of Abu Simbel are breathtaking. They are arguably the most magnificent monuments in the world. During the mid-1960s, there removal and reconstruction was an historic event in itself, which endlessly fascinates tourists. The temples of Abu Simbel were formerly located further down the hillside, facing the Nile, but due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, and the resulting rise in the water level of Lake Nasser, the two temples were threatened to become attractions fit only for scuba divers.
Even sliced into pieces, some of the temple
stones weighed as much as fifteen tons.
The original locations are now underwater. An international fundraising drive allowed the great stone cubes to be moved uphill and reassembled before the water rose. The Great Temple at Abu Simbel took about twenty years to build. It took four years to move. The temple complex was completed during the reign of Ramesses II (the Great) around 1265 BC. It was dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, as well as to the deified Rameses himself. Four colossal sixty-five feet-tall (20-meters) statues of the pharaoh with the double Atef crown of Upper and Lower Egypt decorate the facade of the temple, which is over 114 feet wide (35 meters). The temple is topped by a frieze with twenty-two baboons (bottom). Worshippers of the sun flank the entrance.

The new location of the temples looks very much like the old. A concrete dome protects the interior as the rocky hillside surrounding the temples was recreated.
Situated in the Nubia region of Egypt, overlooking the emerald waters of Lake Nasser, are the two ancient pharaonic rock temples of Abu Simbel (the Temple of Ramesses, and the Temple of Hathor and Nefertari). The temples are magnificent examples of ancient Egyptian art and draw a large number of tourists, second only to the Pyramids of Giza. Ramesses II commissioned the temples as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, following the alleged triumph at the Battle of Kadesh. It was finally completed during the 24th year of his prosperous reign. Historians suggest the design of the temple expresses the pride and ego of the long-reigning pharaoh while also serving the purpose of impressing Egypt’s neighbors to the south and reinforcing the status of Egyptian religion.

An artist's depiction juxtaposing the ancient religious rituals to present day tourist rituals.
Over the centuries as the Egyptian dynasties turned the pages of history, the temples fell into disuse, eventually becoming covered by sand. By the 6th century BC, the sand already covered the statues of the main temple up to their knees. Thus the temple was forgotten until 1813, when Swiss orientalist Jean-Louis Burckhardt saw only the top frieze of the main temple (the baboons). Burckhardt discussed his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who traveled with him to the site. Even together, they were unable to dig out an entry to the temple. Belzoni returned in 1817, this time with more manpower. He succeeding in entering the complex. A detailed early description of the temples, together with contemporaneous line drawings, can be found in Edward William Lane's Description of Egypt from about that time. Legend has it that 'Abu Simbel' was the name of a young local boy who guided these early explorers to the site of the buried temple which he had seen from time to time in the shifting sands. Eventually, they named the complex after him.

The earliest photos of Abu Simbel are those of the French Egyptologist, John Beasley Greene dating from 1854. A later photo (above-top) indicates the complex had been mostly excavated by 1923. 
The rescue of Abu Simbel from Lake Nasser is as interesting from an engineering point of view as the temples themselves. The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers, and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner. The cost was astronomical for its time, some $40-million (equal to $300-million in 2017 dollars). Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, but averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.

A model of the site suggests the extreme lengths engineers had to go to in moving the temples above Lake Nasser's high waterline.
Inside the temple can be found the same triangular layout of most ancient Egyptian temples with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary. This temple is complex in structure and quite unusual because of its many side chambers. The hypostyle hall is 18 meters long and 16.7 meters wide lined by eight huge Osirid pillars depicting the deified Ramesses and linking him to the god Osiris, the god of the underworld. The colossal statues along the left-hand wall bear the white crown of Upper Egypt, while those on the opposite side are wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The bas-reliefs on the walls depict battle scenes in the military campaigns the ruler waged. Much of the sculpture depicts the Battle of Kadesh, on the Orontes River in present-day Syria, in which the Egyptians fought against the Hittites. Other scenes also show Egyptian victories in Libya and Nubia.

Everywhere, Ramesses sought to insure that his glorious military victories would never be forgotten. It seems he succeeded.
It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that on October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, a god connected with the underworld, who always remained in the dark. People gather at Abu Simbel to witness this remarkable sight, on October 21 and February 21. These dates are thought to be the king's birthday and coronation day, respectively. Though there is no direct evidence to support this. It's logical to assume, that these dates had some relation to a great event, such as the jubilee celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the pharaoh's rule.

Far less is known as to the much smaller Temple of Hathor and Nefertari.
The temple of Hathor and Nefertari, also known as the "Small Temple," was built about one hundred meters northeast of the temple of pharaoh Ramesses II and was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II's chief consort, Nefertari. This was in fact the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen. The first time, Akhenaten dedicated a temple to his great royal wife, Nefertiti. The rock-cut facade is decorated with two groups of colossi that are separated by the large gateway. The statues, slightly more than ten meters high, are of the king and his queen. On either side of the portal are two statues of the king, flanked by statues of the queen.

The statue flanking the left side of the entrance to Ramesses' temple (second image above) was damaged during an ancient earthquake. The face was destroyed during the fall.
In visiting a third-world country such as Egypt, it's hard to decide at times where serious studies of archaeology, religion, art, and culture end, and crass, cash-driven tourism begins. Like many such sites, not just in Egypt, but around the world, Abu Simbel departs from all reference to history with a spectacular light and music show. There is a five-star hotel within walking distance of Abu Simbel, while Lake Nasser allows whole boatloads of tourists to come and go hourly. The small town of Abu Simbel even sports a sizable airport for the convenience of visiting tourists. Yet it's not fair to criticize a country like Egypt for capitalizing on one of its few major assets, even to the point of providing armed escorts for its tourist buses or Giza pizza parlors within sight of its pyramids.

Would Ramesses be impressed or aghast?
I'm not sure what the significance
of the guardian baboons might be.


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