Let me start this post with a simple statement: my trip to Egypt was to-date the most astounding travel experience of my life; it is my favorite journey and I don’t think anything I will ever see will be able to match its ancient history, immensity, beauty and overwhelming presence, from both natural and man-made perspectives. However it may surprise you to read that I won’t be talking about the Pyramids in this series of posts – while they are a marvel, (and my cover art) they did not affect me the way other Egyptian sites did and that fact should give you a hint about the profound impressions left upon me by the places I will describe. And, since these sites are themselves so large, so intense, each one deserves and will get its own post. Today subject is at the top of the list: The Temples of Abu Simbel.
BACKGROUND – Hewn out of a solid sandstone cliff in the 13th Century , B.C., The Great Temple of Abu Simbel and The Temple of Hathor were built by Pharaoh Ramses II as a symbol of his power as well as his great love for his Great Royal Primary Wife, Nefartari. Yes, this is the Pharaoh of the 1956 movie, “The Ten Commandments” fame, and to this day, although I have seen the mummy of the Ramses II in the Cairo Museum:
I will always picture him as Yul Brynner:
Let’s dismiss the theatrics of the movie’s plot, (most of the storyline isn’t accurate) and talk about the actual Pharaoh – Ramses II or Ramesses or Ramses the Great as he was known, reigned for over 60 years during Egypt’s most prosperous New Kingdom (when the Upper and Lower regions of Egypt became unified) during the 19th Dynasty ( 1296-1186 B.B.). Ramses II was considered one of the most powerful and successful pharaohs of all. He sired over 100 children among his many, many wives and fought great battles, including the Battle of Kadesh (present day Syria) against the Hittites. To commemorate his hugely prosperous reign Ramses II authorized the construction of many gargantuan monuments, temples and colossi (really big statues). One of these spectacular sites is Abu Simbel, a group of temples built in Nubia, on the Left Bank of the Nile. The Great Temple of Abu SImbel was dedicated to the patron deities of Egypt’s great cities: Ammun-Ra of Thebes, Ptah of Memphis and Ra-Harakhty of Heliopolis. Hathor’s Temple (Hathor was the “Mother of Mothers Goddess” of women, fertility, children, childbirth, beauty, health and matters of the heart) was Ramses II’s love letter to his adored primary wife, Nefartari.
I remember having a philosophical argument with our Egyptologist guide, Sameh about Ramses professed love for Nefartari. I wondered how this love could be so singular, as the pharaoh had numerous wives whom he kept quite busy begetting children. Sameh is a very smart man – his explanation was simple and to the point – that as Pharaoh, Ramses II had a duty to produce heirs and due to the high infant mortality rate (due to disease as well as politically motivated murder) had to have as any children as possible. In addition, marriage alliances frequently were contracted in an effort to cement political power and mollify enemies – a notion common in other societies around the world. It was still possible and probable than despite all these additional marital duties, Ramses held a special place in his heart for his truelove Nefartari. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to try to impose my beliefs based on my modern-day upbringing to suppose that the Pharoah was anything but sincere in his love. And, after seeing her massive temple, I have to agree that he must have had a major jones for Nefartari.
The staggering presence that is Abu Simbel is apparent even before entering the temples, although it is not easy to even get to the site – but by taking a small 6-seater airplane we were rewarded with breathtaking views. Note, however, that there is absolutely NOTHING surrounding this area but sand – which posed a problem in the August 115 degree temperature (no exaggeration). There was one tiny tree that you will see below that became a battleground for visitors as we all tried to squeeze under its flimsy cover to get a break from the sun. It was worth every ounce of sweat – take a look at our arrival:
THE GREAT TEMPLE OF ABU SIMBEL – The facade of this temple is over 108 feet high and contains within it four 66-foot-high colossi of enthroned Ramses II wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Surrounding the statues are cartouches (an oval with a line at the bottom denoting a royal name enclosed within) of Ramses II. The small figure in the middle is the deity Ra – a testament to Ramses’ ego that it is so much smaller than Ramses. The smaller figures surrounding Ramses’ feet are some of his many children:
Unfortunately the second Ramses II colossus from left lost his head – and it lies face-planted in the sand below:
The Inner Sanctuary of Abu Simbel is located at end of this enormous temple, 185 feet from the entrance. It appears quite austere (although it was most likely alive with color when originally created) with four statues on a bench: Ramses II, Ammun-Ra, Ra-Harakhty and Ptah. This sanctuary was very holy and only priests could visit.
Now come the shivers: on only two days of the year, October 22 and February 22, reportedly Ramses’ birthdate and coronation date, the rays of the sun pierce through the entire length of the Temple to illuminate the 3 statues to the right. The first statue, of Ptah – which is now headless, remains in darkness, which is fitting since darkness is one of this god’s attributes. What is most striking here is that while Pharaohs are often depicted as Divine once they reach the Afterlife, in this instance we see a living Pharaoh already depicted as a god. Please note that in the picture below, Ptah is illuminated due to my camera’s flash – sorry, Ptah:
I cannot fathom how the engineers of the time figured out how to carve this sanctuary out in such a way – and actually position the entire Abu SImbel Temple so that this would occur – and it is easy to see how Ramses II was considered a man-god. It gets even stranger.
In the 1960’s the waters of The Nile and Lake Nasser rose and threatened to engulf The Great Temple and The Temple of Hathor. UNESCO cut the temples from their original mountain position and moved them to an artificially created cliff 688 feet back and 213 feet higher than their original placement. In keeping with the original location, modern-day engineers managed the positioning so that Ramses’ two dates are still highlighted by the sun’s rays hitting the Inner Sanctuary:
THE TEMPLE OF HATHOR – No less majestic is Nefartari’s Temple of Hathor. Although somewhat smaller in size, it is still imposing with six colossi standing on either side of the temple’s entrance:
Within the recesses of the facade of the temple, Nefartari, depicted as the Goddess Hathor, alternates with statues of Ramses II. This is the ONLY instance in Egyptian art that the statues of the Pharoah and his chief consort are equal in size. This is another indication of the great love and esteem that Ramses had for his Great Primary Consort. What a great place to end this story. This place was truly a humbling experience for me, emphasizing that I am but a mere mortal amongst the gods:
More Egyptian wonders to follow.