Tuesday, 23 August 2011

... Egypt: Restoration Of The Past...

On the waters of the artificial Lake Nasser 280 km south of Aswan and 40 km north of the Sudanese border lies the village of Abu Simbel.

In 1813 Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt discovered a huge head of a Pharaoh sticking out of the sand along with another head that looked broken off and two crowns. He had rediscovered the Great Temple of Ramses II and by 1817 enough sand had been cleared away for the temple to be entered.

To travel by road from Aswan to Abu Simbel takes around 3.5 hours one way. Oh and you have to do it in a police convoy which you pay for and also means your schedule is rigidly dictated to you. The convoys were introduced by the government to give tourists a sense of personal security & safety in the 90's at the height of the Islamist insurgency when they were going around massacring people that unfortunately happened to include tourists. These days? Aside from providing duties for a large & underemployed tourist-police force, they are actually now more a means of a traffic control so that people don't speed along the highways. I kid you not. Most routes that previously had them no longer do. Alas this was not one of them.

The thought of 3.5 hours each way in a minivan in temperatures likely to hit over 50 around Abu Simbel not to mention a 330am start wasn't exactly filling me with joy. I would have sucked it up and just meshed it in with all my adventures but then I found out that for a mere Cdn$40 more I could fly there! HELLO!!!! If that wasn't sweet enough then I wouldn't have to leave my hotel until 830, a short 45 minute flight (if that) and a shuttle bus to the site. I would also get longer at the site to look around before doing the entire journey again in reverse. Have I mentioned yet how deliciously sweet this all was?

And so a mere 2 hours after leaving my hotel, bouncing down the runway at Abu Simbel airport thanks to a pilot whom I think thought he was behind the wheel of a tank and an entrance fee of LE£95, I was stood in front of four colossal statues of Ramses fronting what is best described as breathtaking.

The gigantic sentinels are more than 20 metres high and sit majestically guarding a temple as much dedicated to this rather vain Pharaoh as Ra-Horakhty, Amun & Ptah. They're accompanied by smaller statues of his mother, his wife Nefertari and some of his children and then the falcon-headed sun god Ra-Horakhty is above the entrance alas lacking part of a leg & foot due to being incredibly old.

You are allowed to take photos inside both temples at this site BUT from the doorway only. Get caught snapping away inside and they will make you delete what you have taken. One poor Japanese tourist almost had their memory card confiscated. Still I got some amazing shots from the doorway plus nothing beats the brain for a memory card anyway.

More statues inside the temple lead you to what are known as "reliefs" on the walls. Think Bayeux Tapestry except carved into stone. All depicting the Pharaoh's prowess in battle, walking all over his enemies before slaughtering them in front of the gods. The north wall of the temple depicts the famous Battle of Kadesh (Syria) dominated by the scene of Ramses in his chariot shooting arrows at the fleeing enemy. This was so strangely peaceful & beautiful that I simply took a seat and just gazed at what was around me. To the sides there are a series of storerooms all decorated and well worth your time.

A four-columned vestibule follows and then leads to a sacred sanctuary where Ramses & the 3 previously mentioned gods sit on their stone thrones. The temple is aligned in such a way that on the 22nd of February & October the first rays of the sun penetrate the temple and illuminate the figures except for Ptah. I was pretty sure as I finally left the Great Temple I could hear the Indiana Jones theme....

The smaller Temple of Hathor next door is fronted by six 10 metre standing statues of Ramses & Nefertari with some of their munchkins by their sides. Unusually the Queen is depicted as being the same height as her husband instead of coming only up to his knees like most consorts were shown. Even inside this temple she is shown in front of the gods as equal to Ramses and the reliefs in here show her honoring her husband. Inside is no less magnificent than the Great Temple.

One of the most interesting facts about this immense masterpiece is that since the late 1960's you are not actually visiting the true sacred site. That, along with other temples, disappeared beneath the lake with the construction of the High Dam. Ten temples were dismantled and moved then rebuilt on higher ground atone-by-stone and one of the greatest achievements was the preservation of the temples at Abu Simbel. More than 2000 blocks weighting from 10 to 40 tonnes each were moved and reconstructed in an artificially built mountain in a project that took over 4 years at a cost of UD$40 million. The skill and use of modern technology allowed for the temples at Abu Simbel to be carefully oriented to face their original direction in a re-created landscape of their original environment.

The temperature is believed to have exceeded 50 degrees whilst I was there. This will explain why I had drank 3 bottles of water before I even boarded the plan back to Aswan. But where better to cool off from the intense heat than inside one of these amazing temples?

The entire experience is certainly not being done the justice it truly deserves by my words. I returned to Aswan knowing I had been lucky enough to see something out of this world. Definitely not one to miss if you visit Egypt. The plaque to the right of the entrance sums it up wonderfully, "Through this restoration of the past, we have indeed helped to built the future of mankind."

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