Son of the sun, king of eternal time, said the stentorian voice in the darkness. Clouds of light chased across the night sky to grow stronger until they illuminated the buildings before us, the temples of Abu Simbel. Whoever designed Egypt’s Sound and Light shows is a total drama queen.
The last stop before on our cruise from Aswan to Abu Simbel, there are two temples, the great temple of Ramses II and the smaller temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor, built in a fit of uxority by Ramses for his beloved wife Nefertari.
Ramses’ 20 meter high statues were buried by the desert until 1813, when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon them (they were later excavated by the Italian archaeologist, Belzoni, who consequently got all the glory). This is a rock-cut temple, carved into a mountainside, so when the temple was moved to higher ground as the Nile was flooded, engineers first built a buffer dam around the originals to protect the carvings from falling stone, then the massive statues were carefully cut into 830 blocks of stone. Only the faces remained uncut.
All throughout Aswan and Abu Simbel is the same 1960s video describing the rescue mission, which then cost USD$36 million, with nattily dressed paparazzi gathered to witness the cutting of the pharaoh’s face. You can’t see where the cuts were made, and if you were looking that hard, you’re just being picky.
Our ship sailed slowly back and forth while we had an Egyptian buffet lunch (how do the mortals do it?), then late in the afternoon, as the sun warmed the stone to a rich ochre, we climbed the stairs from our moored boat to the site.
This far south, just 40km from the Sudanese border, it seemed hotter, the desert stonier and the water bluer. The interior of the temples was cool and slightly musty, but in many places the colours have been preserved – we always see the statues with the blank eye, but they were painted in, and look far more human for it. Well, as human as a man with a falcon’s head or a woman with cow’s ears can appear.
Ramses had had carved a trilogy of scenes – going to war in his great chariot, lots of smiting (see earlier post) and treading on corpses, and returning home, his pet lion running alongside. In the depictions, he has long, lean limbs, broad shoulders, long eyes and is taller than any other man who walked the earth, as tall as the gods.
Officially, you can’t take photos inside the temple but for an idea of scale, thousands of tourists are snapped beside Ramses’ statues at the front of the temple – little ants, we barely reach the top of his toes.
I was taking photos then a couple of Japanese guys asked if they could have their photo taken with me. Um… whatever. So one took a photo of me and his mate, then they swapped, and so I asked them to take a photo with my camera. I didn’t get one on my own, so the only proof I have that I was at Abu Simbel is with some rogue Asian man…