I feel like I know very little about Egyptian history, and that is even after I’ve spent three weeks traipsing about the country with a well-educated history-buff guide in tow. If there is one thing I do know though, it’s that Ramses II was a guy that hung around for a seriously long time. The other brilliant thing about his reign is that the Battle of Kadesh was the only major event recorded, and although pictures depict a defeat over the enemy, the outcome is said to be a little more even; a kind of shaking of hands and walking away, if you will. His time was a little like the Byzantine era in Turkey – not a lot to do except write and make pretty things. So he built stuff, and plenty of it.
After a three hour convoy to Abu Simbel, we came to find ourselves standing in front of the grand temple, and it really is breathtaking. I’m not sure it’s six-hours round trip breathtaking, but if you’ve got the time, it’s a solid trip and adventure across the sands towards Sudan. What I found most fascinating about the temple was in the major project that engineers from around the world undertook to save it from being forever flooded and hidden from the world.
When Nasser Lake was being planned as a means to provide hydro-electricity to the country and provide supplementary income, they realised that a wealth of Nubian communities would be flooded, as would a great number of temples. It took years, but engineers, scientists, construction workers and local artists raced against the construction of the lake for years to pull apart the entire temple, piece by piece, then re-established it again on higher ground.
Strict rules were imposed on how the stones should be cut and separated, with no sawing to be greater than 4 millimetres in width to ensure they could piece it back together with the same precision it was originally constructed. Looking at the temple now, you would never even know it had been pulled apart. The large masks stand grandly out the front of the temple, representing strength and reverence to the gods, for the sake of the Nubian people. Even the fallen blocks sitting at the front were maintained as they were found: fallen, broken and sitting at the feet of the statues. The colours and stories on the walls inside inside depict love, offerings and cherished time between Ramses II and his wife Nefertari, who he created a whole extra temple for just 100m away.
Most haunting is the wonderful play of light created in the sanctuary at the very back of the temple. Twice a year (22 October and 22 February), the light from the sunrise will reach all the way through from the entranceway to the sanctuary, where representations of three gods and one of Ramses II himself sit in wait. One of these gods, Ptah, who is said to be the master architect for the building of boats used to transport the souls of the dead, will forever continue to sit in lonely shadow as the other three figures light up. In honour to Ptah, and to guarantee himself an easy trip to the afterlife, Ramses II chose to maintain the darkness and somehow create this architectural wonder. Most incredibly, even after the relocation of the entire temple, this phenomenon still occurs.
That’s the kind of magic you can create when you’ve got a 67-year reign and not a lot to do.
I want that job.