A “spirited” knock on my hotel room door came at 2 a.m. on that August morning. I was in Aswan, Egypt, and I was about to begin a 190-mile bus ride to the southwest–so deep into Upper Egypt that I would be only 12 miles from the Sudanese border. My destination? Abu Simbel–the most visited ancient site in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza. Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world flock to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. With the dawn of this new morning, I was to become one of them!
Abu Simbel is a small town of about 3,000 residents and is, in itself, a rather unremarkable place in this vast country so rich in historical treasures; however, near this small town are two amazing temples, and it is they that prompt tourists to expend the effort necessary to visit here.
By 2:30 a.m. I had settled into my seat on the bus and the journey began. Having been repeatedly forewarned about the unrelenting heat that would await me once I reached this ancient site, my backpack was stuffed full with bottled water. The whole idea of departing Aswan at this ungodly hour was to arrive at Abu Simbel at first light so that the site could be visited while the temperatures still hovered below 100 degrees, if only slightly!
The highway to Abu Simbel was not up to American standards by any means, but it was well above the “average” when compared with other roadways in Egypt. The bus was air-conditioned, at least according to a sign painted on the outside. As the day wore on, however, and the sun began to rear its head, I would soon learn that no air-conditioner known to humankind could deal with the inescapable heat of Upper Egypt. I realized, too, that the return trip to Aswan commencing around noon, with the sun at its full height, would be an even more “heated” journey.
After about four hours the guide proclaimed that the temples of Abu Simbel were less than 5 kilometers ahead. A palatable degree of excitement and anticipation swept through the 15 or so sleepy passengers on this now extremely “warm” bus.
The light from the morning sun had just pushed away the darkness of the night as I made my way toward the twin temples that were carved out of the mountainside in the 13th century BCE, during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1213). These temples serve as a lasting monument to the king and his queen, Nefertari, and commemorate his victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh (1275 BCE). This battle led to the first peace treaty ever signed among the nations of the world and was the battle that was the most meaningful to Ramses.
Over the ensuing centuries, the temples fell into disuse and began to be overrun by the sands of the desert. By the 6th century BCE, the statues of the main temple were more than half submerged. Well before the turn of the millennium, the temples were no longer visible at all. They remained unknown until 1813, when a Swiss archaeologist, Johann Burckhardt, discovered the top horizontal band of the sculpted head. Upon a subsequent expedition he succeeded in uncovering the base of the four-statue complex and actually entered the temple.
This single entrance is flanked by four colossal, 66-foot high statues, each representing Ramses II seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. One of the four statues was damaged during an earthquake, causing the head and torso to fall away. The pieces that fell lie exactly where they were found when the temple was uncovered. Archaeologists made no attempt to repair the damage, opting rather to leave the temple precisely as it was “rediscovered” in the early 19th century.
The guide led our group inside the temple and explained the meticulous planning that went into its design and construction. The main temple is situated so that twice a year the earth’s rotation aligns the temple in such a way that the Pharaoh’s face is illuminated by beams of sunlight that pass through the doorway into the interior of the temple. This astronomical phenomenon occurs twice a year, marking key dates in the ancient pharaoh’s life. The first alignment falls on February 22 and marks the day of the pharaoh’s coronation. The second is on October 22 (which also happens to be the date of the publication of this article). It celebrates the day of his birth. On each of these days thousands of tourists flock to Abu Simbel to witness the sun’s perfect alignment with the face of Ramses. Most years local and international folk-art troupes perform in the vast open area between the temples and Lake Nasser.
The preservation of these temples was threatened with the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1970. According to the dam’s sponsors, this 364-foot high dam would yield enormous benefits to the economy of Egypt by directing water to hundreds of thousands of new acres as well as generating enormous amounts of electrical power for both residential and business consumers. The critics of the project, however, were quick to point out that approximately 50,000 Egyptians would be uprooted from their homes and forced to relocate. Critics also concluded that the twin temples at Abu Simbel would be completely buried under Lake Nasser–a new, giant lake created along the Nile by the dam’s backwaters.
As the debate about the dam raged, some observers were beginning to conclude that a choice would have to be made between the preservation of a glorious culture and much-needed economic development. Happily UNESCO stepped in to demonstrate that Egypt and, indeed the other countries of the world, could have both. Before the construction of the Aswan Dam was completed, causing Lake Nasser to rise from the desert floor and flood the temples, an international team of UNESCO archaeologists and engineers invested five years and millions of dollars to move the twin temples to higher ground.
Of course this meant dismantling the temples, stone by stone, and then reassembling them on higher ground. By means of this extremely complex, if not daring, engineering feat the temples were miraculously salvaged for humankind to enjoy for decades to come. And, yes, the re-location of the main temple has been carried out so that the sun’s rays continue to stream inside the temple to illuminate the head of Ramses twice a year on the same two days as they have done for 33 centuries. If you were there today, you would be able to witness the semi-annual feat for yourself.
This breathtaking colossus has captivated generations of travelers who now also marvel at 20th century technology that enabled these temples to escape the waters of Lake Nasser. Even the mountain into which the temples have been reassembled is nothing more than a modern-day fabrication–completely man-made. Ramses himself would have been proud of the results of this Herculean task!