Marvelling at Abu Simbel and Philae Temple on a cruise down Egypt's Nile River

Once, Egypt's mighty temple complex of Abu Simbel on the Sudanese border was a potent symbol of a pharaoh's dominance. Then, for centuries it was forgotten, lost to the desert sands. Re-discovered, it faced annihilation, consigned to the bottom of the Nile's waters forever.

The tale of how two absolute gems of ancient art – the colossal Abu Simbel and Aswan's Philae Temple – were saved from oblivion is a love story to shared cultural heritage in the face of hardnosed progress. UNESCO puts it succinctly: "Many people thought they had to choose between culture and development, between flourishing crops and the traces of a glorious history. UNESCO has shown that we can have both."

It is a searing heat that accompanies our group to these twin temples of the rising sun, originally carved from the mountainside in the 13th century BC. The monolithic structures do not reveal themselves immediately. Visitors must trek from the entrance around to the enthroned colossi that have endured for 3000 years.

Slowly, they come into view, facing east towards the sunrise. How to describe their scale? The statistics do not do them justice. The Great Temple of Abu Simbel stands 30 metres tall and 35 metres wide with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, each 20 metres tall. The nearby Small Temple is 12 metres high and 28 metres wide.

Abu Simbel is truly the work of a man who would be god – Rameses the Great, Ancient Egypt's supreme ruler, third pharaoh of the 19th dynasty, who reigned for 66 years from 1279BC to 1213BC.

The Great Temple is dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah and to the deified Rameses. He built four statues of himself to celebrate his victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. Abu Simbel is a manifestation of his absolute power, built on the border of conquered Nubian lands. The Smaller Temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Rameses' favourite wife, Queen Nefertari.

They are magnificent. And yet, in the name of progress, they were to be destroyed in 1964, submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser – the massive artificial reservoir over which we have just flown from Aswan – formed after the building of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile.

Understanding this great loss of heritage, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments asked for help in 1959. UNESCO launched a worldwide appeal, 50 countries rose to the occasion and one of world's greatest engineering feats began.

It took almost five years, 3000 workers and cost $US42 million to cut the brittle Abu Simbel sandstone temples into more than 1000 blocks between three and 20 tonnes. They moved the blocks 64 metres above and 180 metres west of their original location, now flooded. Once there, they were re-assembled exactly as they had been and inserted into two soaring reinforced, natural rock-covered concrete "mountains".

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Such a process, if undertaken insensitively, could have produced a kind of tacky theme park. But they stand, doubtless as they have always stood, so precisely aligned so that twice a year (October 22 and February 22) the sun's rays illuminate three statues in the inner sanctuary.

Other schemes were discarded – to protect the temples with a counter-dam that would have cost as much as the Aswan Dam. Another was to enclose them in a glass bubble to be viewed underwater. Another was to cut the temples out in one piece and float them down the Nile to a new site.

The cool, dark, gargantuan innards of the Great Temple stretch about 64 metres into the mountain – two atriums, the inner sanctuary, pillars, storerooms, all inscribed with beautiful hieroglyphics and images, telling Rameses' stories of battles and spiritual journeys. Nefertari's temple is simpler but stunning.

We also visit the lovely temples, shrines and gateways of Isis on what is now called New Philae Island in Aswan. In 1972, the temples were moved from the original Philae to nearby Agilika, which was fashioned to resemble the original. The raising of these Philae Temples, which cost $US30 million, carries an equally impressive engineering pedigree.

Philae had been permanently submerged and its monuments flooded to about a third of their height. A simple marker rising from the waters now indicates the location of the original island.

Altogether, UNESCO saved 22 temples from the Nile waters – a magnificent task for the world's heritage – and its 20-year campaign to save the treasures of Nubia ended in 1980.

But there was still a great cost. The waters significantly obliterated Nubian life both in Egypt and Sudan as far south as Sudan's Dal Cataract. Whole villages with the decorated walls and facades vanished, as did the cultural remains of their ancestors.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/egypt

www.scenic.com.au

www.egypt.travel

FLY

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi and Egypt Air flies from Abu Dhabi to Cairo. See etihad.com; egyptair.com

TOUR/CRUISE

Scenic's 11-Day Treasures of Egypt journey from Cairo to Abu Simbel includes a four-night Nile cruise on Sanctuary Sun Boat III, four luxury hotel stays, an Egyptologist guide, temple, tomb and museum visits, internal flights, most meals, accommodation, tipping, complimentary wine with lunch and dinner. From $8595 a person twin share departing Giza (Cairo) on May 8 or May 22, 2020; partner flies free. See scenic.com.au or phone 138 128. For the Sanctuary Sun Boat III, see sanctuaryretreats.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of Scenic.

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