A Glimpse of Abu Simbel
Rameses the Great wondered if his people could cut his face into a cliff. Lo and behold! A
stunning sunlit temple emerged on the west bank of the Nile just beyond the Tropic of Cancer,
280 km south of Aswan. By choosing a site not exactly on the Tropic of Cancer where the sun
appears directly overhead, the Egyptians were able to build on the grandest scale, while suffering
less from the blazing sun. This fine monolithic sculpture with its enormous figures predates
Mount Rushmore National Memorial and might have been its source of inspiration. This is the
story of how a king of Egypt programmed a celestial celebration of his birthday and coronation
day for eternity.
If you are born of the sun, that is, the hieroglyphic interpretation of Ramses, you celebrate your
birthday by reconnecting with the sun, and you celebrate your coronation day by thanking the
sun. Here, Ramses the Great is tagging himself, to put it in Facebook terms.
The nineteenth dynasty begins with Ramses I, then Sety I, then Ramses the Great, who is
Ramses II. Measured by his fame and fortune, Ramses the Second was second to none. We are in
Lower Nubia, where Ramses the Great cut a high image of himself into the living rock and
tagged himself on the west bank of Abu Simbel.
The priests were the first astronomers. Thanks to their correct orientation towards the sun. By
dint of a hint hailing from heaven, the rays of the rising sun illuminate the face of Ramses twice
each year. A shaft of sunlight passes down through a long hallway that leads into the darkest spot
in the temple. Today people pay to fly from across the world to watch the story of Ramses
carved on the façades of Abu Simbel, which is equivalent to a gigantic Facebook page.
One might be tempted to dismiss such a miraculous oracular occurrence since the illumination
would occur to all southern edifices at some point in time and space. However, to design the
temple in a manner that narrates the history and coincides with seminal events in the life of the
king is indeed a remarkable feat of human engineering. In a nutshell, Abu Simbel is complex. In
the sanctuary, Rameses keeps the company of the gods Ptah, Amun-Re, and Re-Horakhty.
Except for the second colossal statue that tumbled down in the life of Ramses, the temple is in an
excellent state of preservation. It is possible that the Great Sand Sea sent an army to preserve the
temples at Abu Simbel in the form of sand. I understand that under the sand is an excellent place
to hide the handsome royal face. So much sand covered the temple, such that the Europeans did
not see it until the 19th century when the Swiss traveler and geographer, Johann Ludwig
Burckhardt, made the discovery in 1813. It is worth mentioning that Burckhardt learned Arabic
and adopted an Arabic name and Arab dress code. And by assimilating himself or by devoting
himself to the quest, he was able to discover another city set in stone, Petra.
Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, as he is known to the Arabs, was about to leave the site of Abu Simbel
when, as he recollected, “by a lucky chance I took a few steps further to the south and my eyes
fell on what is still visible of four colossal statues, cut from the rock.”
In 1817, the famous Italian adventurer Giovanni Battista Belzoni penetrated the temple. Belzoni
describes the moment of entering the Great Temple of Abu Simbel:
“The sand heaped up against the rock that dominates the temple by the wind coming from the
north, had gradually encroached across the façade and buried the entrance by three quarters.
Thus, the first time that I approached the temple I lost hope of freeing the entrance as it seemed
quite impossible to reach the doorway. The sand was slipping across from one side to the other
of the façade and consequently, it was pointless to try to open a straight access towards the
entrance; it was thus necessary to excavate in the opposite direction so that the sand fell beyond
The morning of the first of August, we went to the temple very early, excited by the
idea of finally entering the underground chambers that we had uncovered. We stepped into the
passage we had opened and had the pleasure of being the first to descend into the largest and
most beautiful underground chamber in Nubia and to examine a monument comparable to the
most beautiful in all of Egypt. We were first astonished by the immensity of the place; we found
magnificent antiquities, paintings, sculptures, and massive statues.”
The different columns and their capitals recall the hype style in the hypostyle hall. Walk and let
the walls talk. The walls are decorated with Ramses in relief beyond belief. Head north as if you
were marching with the king of Egypt to smite the northern enemies, you see scenes of the king
in the Battle of Kadesh. Little, if anything would be known of the Battle of Kadesh had Rameses
not documented the events throughout Egypt and here in Abu Simbel.
The Façades of the temples beams like a TV screen, broadcasting news of the pharaoh and his
The New Kingdom is a time when nation-building depends on the pens of diplomacy and the war
machine. Rameses was proud of his military prowess and his successful diplomacy too. A news
bulletin board hewn in stone known as a stela tells the story of Ramses’ marriage to a daughter of
the Hittite, king Hattusilis III.
While touring the temple with my friend, Hossam el-Din Aboud, director of the Abu Simbel
Temples, he noted the odd number of priests carrying the boat. There are 21. February and
October every year is the day the sun used to illuminate the face of Ramses. And after the
relocation, it shines on the 22nd.
The construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s seemed destined to drown the town of
Abu Simbel. Instead, it rallied a great crowd around an international UNESCO campaign to salvage the temples.
The temples were cut into large blocks and relocated block by block. The
UNESCO engineers managed to preserve the solar alignment when they raised the temples
above the waters of Lake Nasser. What a marvel of modern engineering!
The colossal seated statues of Ramses that flank the entrance are among the grandest in Egypt as
you scan the land from the north to the south- this is a message to the enemies at the border, to
maintain the old world order.
Tourism days in our century are short. The Victorian novelist-turned-Egyptologist, Amelia
Edwards had the great luck of relishing the monuments in their original location. She “spent
fourteen days at the foot of the rock of the Great Temple, called in the old Egyptian tongue at the
rock of Abshek. It was wonderful to wake every morning close under the steep bank, and,
without lifting one’s head from the pillow, to see that row of giant faces so close against the sky.
For a moment, they seemed to glow, to smile, and be transfigured, then, came a flash, as of
thought itself. It was the first instantaneous flash of the risen sun. It lasted less than a second. It
was gone almost before one could say that it was there. The next moment, mountain, river, and
sky, were distinct in the steady light of day; and the colossi — mere colossi now — sat serene and
stony in the open sunshine. Every morning I waked in time to witness that daily miracle. Every
morning I saw those awful brethren pass from death to life, from life to sculptured stone. I
brought myself almost to believe at last that someone must sooner or later come that would snap
the ancient charm asunder, and the giants must arise and speak.”
An Arab saying reads, “Man fears time. But time fears the pyramids.” I can safely say that time
fears Abu Simbel too. On top of the temple, men managed to freeze time on this frieze of 22 sun-
saluting baboons. The baboons, the good children of the sun, are early to rise to greet their father,
the Sun God Ra. Did the baboons foresee the new dates the sun shines on the face of Ramses
after the relocations of the temple?
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