Abu Simbel

February 22, 2010 — The revelation went something like this:

BRAIN: Hey.

ME: What?

BRAIN: Hey.

ME: What!? I'm watching TV here.

BRAIN: You've been there.

ME: What are you talking about?

BRAIN: You've been there. That place on the TV with the giant pharaoh sculptures behind the guy that played Obi-Wan in the prequels.

ME: Are we on a first-name basis with Mr. Kenobi?

BRAIN: Just look.

ME: What are you...Wait...What the?

I'd totally forgotten that I'd been to Abu Simbel…and it took Ewan McGregor to remind me. I happened to be watching Long Way Down, the sequel to the amazing multi-episode road documentary Long Way Round. In the first documentary, McGregor and his friend Charley Boorman travel west across the world by motorcycle, from London through Asia to New York. In the sequel, the pair bike from the top of Scotland south through Europe and Africa to Cape Town. At one point in the latter documentary, while being ferried across the Nile River, they pass on the shore the gargantuan statues that form the entrance of the famous Egyptian temple of Ramses II.

And I’ve been inside that thing.

Now I have to write the memory down so that I'll never be embarrassed by my brain again.

Abu Simbel is the location in southern Egypt of a pair of sandstone temples that were built by Ramses II, the 13th Century (BC) pharaoh who ruled for almost seven decades and built tons of cool stuff that Percy B. Shelley later made fun of in his poem Ozymandias. The most impressive of the two temples is called, naturally, the Great Temple. It’s 100 feet tall with an entrance that is flanked by four identical and colossal 66-foot-tall seated statues, all of Ramses II and all but one of them well preserved. The fourth has disintegrated from the waist up and is basically just a giant lap and pair of shins. The fallen pieces of the upper body sit at the statue’s base. Always back up your files and the gigantic testaments to your vanity.

The second temple is smaller and located right next to the Great Temple. It’s called both the Temple of Nefertari and the Temple of Hathor, the former being one of Ramses’ wives and the latter being an Egyptian goddess. Royalty and deity were often interchangeable back then. The entrance to the Temple of Nefertari is flanked by six recessed standing statues, two of Nefertari and four of Ramses. These statues are technically only about half as tall as the Great Temple entrance statutes, but are proportionally even smaller as they have to stand to hit 30 feet and the Great Temple statues are seated.

The ornate facades of both temples include smaller statues of others in the royal family, while inside are more statues of Ramses, gods, and Ramses-as-a-god, as well as columns and walls covered in all the Egyptian hieroglyphs and images that mummy movies and the Bangles have made us so familiar with. The interior areas are not too vast and are quickly explored, although I remember the dimness being a welcome change from the eye-searing desert. They say that the Great Temple was constructed in such a way that two days a year, sunlight penetrates all the way to its Inner Sanctum. Sounds like a party.

After being built in 1284 BC, the temples were lost for a couple of millennia until being discovered in 1813. In the 1960s, they became even more famous when they were almost destroyed. You see, the temples were originally built into a cliff overlooking the Nile, but the creation of the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser threatened to destroy them.

As a result, super-engineers found a way to cut the temples from the rock and place them in man-made mountains far enough back from the flood plain that people like me could visit and then shamefully forget. All right, you already know that the whole “forgetting” angle is hyperbole, but it’s definitely true that I haven’t thought about my visit to Abu Simbel as often as is commensurate for having firsthand experience with such a massive wonder…which is even more shameful than mere forgetfulness.

I visited Abu Simbel about eight years ago. Looking back in my files, I could only find one picture from my foray there, but in looking online at other pictures I'm not sure how this place hasn’t haunted my dreams since. My sense of wonder must not have been adequately developed yet. Re-reading my piece on the Great Pyramid, I'm inclined to agree...with myself. These days I’d definitely look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.

After visiting during the desert-hot day, we actually returned to Abu Simbel again that night for a light show that was projected onto the Great Temple itself to tell the history of Ramses and the construction of the temples. And as seemingly disrespectful as treating an ancient work of art, engineering, and culture like a theater screen, it all paid off in the end when they used the light effects to rebuild the one statue that had crumbled and to colorize the details of all four statues to restore them to their/Ramses’ original glory.

Now, with my Abu Simbel memory officially transferred to O.T.I.S. for safekeeping, I have room in my brain for an episode or two more of Jonathan Creek. Still trying to forget the prequels, though.

5 comments:

  1. The 'disintergrated' statue was actually destroyed by Napoleon's forces when they occupied Egypt during Boneys' reign as Emporer of France. The Frenchs' Army Engineers tried to blow all of them up by using explosives in a drilled hole at the rear of the head of the statue (check the photograph). I don't know (or have forgotten) why the destruction only went this far, but since Napoleons' Army, as I recall, was good at destroying things, it is a wonder that's as far as it went.
    Why did you leave that out?

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  2. According to what I’ve read, it fell down shortly after its creation due to an earthquake. Insurance wouldn’t cover the damage, so they left it as is.

    http://www.google.com/search?source=ig&hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS247&q=abu+simbel+earthquake&aq=f&aqi=&oq=

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  3. Anonymous may be confusing Abu Simbel with the Sphinx in Cairo (although this popular legend is apparently not true either).
    http://www.napoleon-series.org/faq/c_sphinx.html

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  4. The axis of the Abu Simbel Temples is arranged so that on two days of the year, in February and October, the rising sun shoots its rays through the entrance and halls until it finally illuminates the sanctuary statues.It is beautiful.

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  5. @ Parag
    it reminds me of Newgrange in Northern Ireland. On 21th of June and December (I think...) the sun illuminates the chamber for a few minutes. As far as I remember Newgrange was built 5000 years ago. It's interesting that different cultures in different ages still seem to honour the sun in the same way (or whatever they believed in and tried to state)
    pretty asome I think :)

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