November 6 – 17
As I was finishing my beer others in the group joined me for a hasty round and then we made our way to the hotel’s dock to board our ferry for the trip down the Nile to Elephantine Island where we’d partake in our Nubian Dinner. Our host for the evening, a Nubian professor whose name we can’t recall, joined us as we set off and provided us with background on the Nubian people, the island we’d be landing at and a host of other facts.
I didn’t catch all of it as the timbre of his voice meshed with dropouts in my hearing, most likely produced by listening to music really, really loud. What I did get provided a nice framework for the meal to follow.
We landed on the western side of the island and walked up a rocky dirty slope into the village, which itself was full of dirt lanes.
We entered one of the houses at ground level and ascending a flight of stairs came to a large seating area, the kitchen, and then an even larger seating area adjacent to some bedrooms. We picked out our places to sit and waited eagerly for the meal to begin, all while one of the children living there entertained us with various dance moves and skits.
Soon enough our first course came out, a tureen of some of the best lentil soup ever, lightly spiced and blended to a smooth consistency unlike a typical bean soup. Other courses would follow, including fried chicken, hummus, vegetables, and a dessert.
As we ate and afterwards, our host continued to entertain us with stories about his education, Nubian customs and his recent marriage, which had come later in his life and now appears to bring him great joy.
We returned to the hotel and after a good night’s sleep, arose early for a long day that would involve a six-hour round trip by bus to Abu Simbel for an additional cost of 1,800 EGP ($120). Marty had contracted some form of a stomach bug overnight and had to cancel, spending the day napping and recovering. For the rest of us, we stopped midway at a primitive rest stop, seemingly plucked from space and dropped into the middle of a vast expanse of nothingness.
Arriving at the temples we walked around the backside of the reconstructed site. The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Nubian Monuments”, which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae. The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside in the 13th century BC, during the 19th dynasty reign of the Pharaoh Rameses II. They serve as a lasting monument to the king and his queen Nefertari and commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh.
The complex was relocated in its entirety in 1968 under the supervision of a Polish archaeologist, Kazimierz Michałowski, on an artificial hill made from a domed structure, high above the Aswan High Dam reservoir. The relocation of the temples was necessary as they would have been submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser.
During his reign, Rameses II embarked on an extensive building program throughout Egypt and Nubia, which Egypt controlled. Nubia was very important to the Egyptians because it was a source of gold and many other precious trade goods. He therefore built several grand temples there in order to impress upon the Nubians Egypt’s might and Egyptianize the people of Nubia.
With the passage of time, the temples fell into disuse and eventually became covered by sand. They were forgotten until 1813 when Swiss orientalist Jean-Louis Burckhardt found the top frieze of the main temple and shared his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who travelled to the site, but was unable to dig out an entry to the temple. He returned in 1817, this time succeeding in his attempt to enter the complex. A detailed early description of the temples, together with contemporaneous line drawings, can be found in Edward William Lane’s Description of Egypt (1825–1828).
The single entrance is flanked by four colossal 66 ft statues, each representing Rameses II seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The statue to the immediate left of the entrance was damaged in an earthquake, causing the head and torso to fall away; these fallen pieces were not restored to the statue during the relocation but placed at the statue’s feet in the positions originally found.
It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that on October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, a god connected with the Egyptian underworld, who always remained in the dark.
These dates are allegedly the king’s birthday and coronation day, respectively, but there is no direct evidence to support this. Because of the accumulated drift of the Tropic of Cancer due to Earth’s axial precession over the past 3 millennia, the event’s date must have been different when the temple was built. This is compounded by the fact that the temple was relocated from its original setting, so the current alignment may not be as precise as the original one.
The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner; it cost some $40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars). Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 213 feet higher and 656 feet back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.
After a briefing by Mahmoud on the temples, we were cut loose to tour them by ourselves, which as we had experienced at other sites was less than pleasant due to the large number of people crowding into tight spaces.
I quickly went in and out of Nefertari’s temple and then braved the crowds at Ramses. Extensive carvings on the walls of the outer rooms there depict scenes of the Battle of Kadesh.
The battle took place between the forces of the New Kingdom of Egypt under Rameses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River, just upstream of Lake Homs near the modern Lebanon–Syria border. The battle is generally dated to 1274 BC from the Egyptian chronology and is the earliest in recorded history for which details of tactics and formations are known. It is believed to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving between 5,000 and 6,000 in total.
Finished inside, I found a bench outside both temples to wait for Joanna and Kim to be done, and then the three of us braved the seemingly never ending gauntlet of souvenir stands and their aggressive vultures, shoving one souvenir or another in your path and all shouting out a similar sales pitch. Drained of all compassion, we relaxed with others in our group at the outdoor café and then boarded the bus for the long ride back to Aswan.
With one final stop at a different isolated rest stop, we completed our journey and waited at the hotel for a special dinner at its restaurant that Mahmoud had arranged for us. It would be a feast of epic proportions, one with an array of dishes that would leave us stuffed. We’ll capture that meal and our overnight journey down the Nile on a Felucca in the next post.
Abu Simbel: https://www.britannica.com/place/Abu-Simbel
Edward William Lane’s Description of Egypt: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies/article/edward-william-lanes-description-of-egypt/AB52FD7D302623E6635E5CCE84141EA8
Battle of Kadesh: https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Kadesh