Abu Simbel, Amazing Nubian Monuments near Aswan, Egypt
I thought I'd seen the best of the best. What can top the Pyramids of Giza? The legendary Sphinx? Zoser's Step Pyramid? The pyramid texts inside Teti?
What single experience could approach the claustrophobic bliss of ascending the narrow passageways inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops and emerging into the vaulted Great Gallery, the enormous and empty King's Chamber?
For the Love of Gods (Egotism Too)
An earthquake in 27 BC cracked the head off one of the statues, and it lies in the sand in front of the monument. Towering over the shoulders of most visitors, this broken head provides a superb sense of the statues' scale.
Eight additional statues of Ramses form the giant pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall, directly inside the main entrance. The walls in this hall are adorned with deeply-carved, larger-than-life bas-reliefs depicting a series of military victories. In one scene Ramses holds a great cluster of severed enemy heads.
The lighting in this room – and the whole temple – is superb: concealed bulbs on the floor throw soft, warm light up onto the bas-reliefs, accentuating their deep lines and fading colors.
Occupying the innermost chamber of the temple are life-sized statues of Ramses and three gods – Amun, Ptah, and Ra-Hurakhti. Once encased in gold, the crumbled remains of these statues wait silently each year for February 22 and October 22 (Ramses' birthday and coronation day), when the sun's first rays penetrate the depths of the temple and illuminate all but Ptah, god of darkness.
Much Love for His Nubian Queen
The inner columns and walls of the temple feature beautifully cut and painted bas-reliefs of Nefertari standing before the gods, honoring her husband, and being attended to by servants. Not one to stay out of the limelight for long, Ramses also presides over military victories in a few scenes.
I Can Move, Move, Move Any Mountain
To regulate the flow of the Nile, control flooding, increase the amount of cultivable land, and provide the country with tremendous amounts of hydroelectric power, Egypt (along with Soviet funding and designs) began construction of the monumental High Dam in 1960. This dam would create the biggest man-made lake in the world – Lake Nassir – and, in the process, rob Upper Egypt of many ancient monuments.
The dismantling and relocation of Abu Simbel was the crowning achievement of the multi-national, UNESCO-led effort to save Nubia's antiquities. Because they were hewn out of single pieces of stone, the temples had to be sawed into more than 3,000 10-40 ton blocks. The blocks were then moved away from the riverbank to higher ground where a specially-built artificial mountain had been constructed.
A sign at the entrance of the Great Temple commemorates the achievement. "Through this restoration of the past," it reads, "we have indeed helped to build the future of mankind."
One can only hope that the future of mankind can approach the beauty and complexity of this monument built on the banks of the Nile more than 3,200 years ago.
Posted on June 01, 2003 03:06 PM