Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Egypt’s 19th Dynasty pharaoh the Great Ramesses or Ramses II built imposing temples in the Nile Delta and one of the magnificent ones (if not the best) was the Temple of Abu Simbel located in Nubia in Aswan Governorate near the border of northern Sudan.  The two massive temple rock mounds were built during the 13th century BC and a representation of the pharaoh's ego perceptively with its colossal magnitude.  Covered in piles of sands, the temple was discovered by Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1813.

It is on the top 50 places to see before you die list according to BBC and for this reason I included it on my itinerary for this trip to augment my own bucket list.

With its original location beside the river and under imminent risk of submersion from the rising water of Lake Nasser due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the temples were moved – cut into large blocks – and reassembled in its current cliff side location 200 meters away from the lake by UNESCO multinational team of archeologists and technical workforce starting in 1964, in one of the greatest feat in archaeological engineering history at a staggering (that time) cost of US$40 million.

As one accustomed with DIY, a trip on my own to Abu Simbel is not possible as going there has to be on escorted convoy for security and safety reason, perhaps as the location is near the country's border.  I booked the trip through Memnon Hotel where I was staying, paid EGP80, which is basically for the transportation, joining a group of visitors to the site on a minibus not including the entrance fee to the site.

Joining the tour means waking up at around 3:00am and I woke up even before as excited as I was.  I found two other foreign visitors joining the tour as well quietly sitting at the hotel’s breakfast salon.  As it was still early, we were handed a box each containing our breakfast for the day which we will have to eat upon arrival at the site.  The minibus arrived at half past 3 and already half full traversing the dark streets of Aswan, it made a couple more stops to pick up other joiners.  All of which were holding their own packed breakfast, a group at the back started to gobble theirs.  The bus is full when we reached the checkpoint where we waited for other vehicles in our convoy.  There were some locals selling hot beverages at the checkpoint and people taking the time to puff cigarettes while waiting for the other vehicles.  Finally, all the buses, vans, cars started to move from there for the 3 hours sleepy journey to Abu Simbel, passing through patches of barren desert.

Lake Nasser fronting the Temples of Abu Simbel.

The sun was already shining when we arrived at 7:00am.  Our driver informed us that we have 2 hours around which would be sufficient to explore the small site.  The entrance is located few meters from the back of the temples thereby not visible from the parking lot, which means that if you don’t pay the fees – and I don’t see any reason why you should not after going through all the efforts of sluggishly waking up before dawn with probably only few hours of sleep then joined the trip just to sleep on the bus? – you won’t get even a glimpse of the temples. 

Entry consists of 3 tickets – EGP80 entry fee + 13 guide fee (that never existed, where the heck are they?) + 2 for council tax, that's EGP95 in total, and you'll get 3 small tickets for each.  There are several stalls of souvenir shops, mini stores and eateries right before the entrance, bathrooms are available too.

Approaching the Great Temple from the side.

Entry to the temple is in the middle of the huge statues.

I was in awe upon seeing the bigger of the two temples which is the first sight on the left side after entry called The Great Temple.  That sight very well established the rumor of Ramses' oversize ego.  (See the insignificance of the people against the pharaoh's gigantic figures on the photo above)  Then the images of BBC’s Belzoni documentary video I watched a month back came rushing on my mind’s eye, still unbelieving that I’m actually seeing the real thing which is truly mind-boggling in person.  The façade flanking the entrance of the temple are four massive statues of Ramses II sitting on its throne, one of the statue on the left side of the entrance is broken, huge blocks, fragments of its head and torso lying just below its feet.  The smaller statues standing in between the legs lower than the knees of the huge statues are images of the members of the royal family (prince and princesses).

Just a thought -- Somehow I was thinking if the toppled head was really due to an earthquake or left intentionally to create a more dramatic scene?  Or perhaps that was how it was originally found and rearranged the same way when it was relocated?  Give me the benefit of the doubt.  Just speaking my mind out loud. When history can be rewritten, everything is possible, the bible was rewritten countless of times, weren't they?

The temple was dedicated to the three ancient deities Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun. Security personnel roam inside the temple as I get in, photography is strictly prohibited.  Not sure about this though.

Entry to the Great Temple is through an inclined pavement, the main hall is flanked by tall statues of the king as Osiris (the deified Ramses), four on each side supporting the ceiling and inside are series of hallways and chambers decreasing in height and apportioned by big pillars.  The innermost part holds the sitting statues of the ancient gods Ptah, Amun-Ra, deified Ramses II, and Re-Horakhte.

The second temple beside the Great Temple on the right side is called The Temple of Hathor and Nefertari or the Small Temple and is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and the personified Ramesses's most beloved wife Nefertari (in all, the pharaoh had some 200 wives and concubines).  The façade of this temple stands two sets of 30-feet high statues – two of Ramses II and one Nefertari – on each sides of the entry in the middle.

The Temple of  Hathor and Nefertari.

 Statues Ramses and Nefertari at the entrance of the Small Temple.
This writer with the Small Temple in the background.

Elaborate images are carved and painted on the interior walls and ceilings of both temples and difficult for me to remember and describe as photography is strictly prohibited inside the temples. 

Considered as the world's largest man-made lake, Lake Nasser is a picturesque background providing dramatic backdrop to the temples.  The lake was a result of the construction of the high dam of Aswan between 1958 and 1971 and  was named after the former President Gamal Abdel Nasser who initiated the project. The lake measures 550 km long and 35 km across covering a total surface area of 5,250 square kilometers and has a storage capacity of some 157 km³ of water.  The lake extends up to the Sudan territory of Wadi Halfa Salient.

Panorama of the two temples rising above Lake Nasser.

In addition to the souvenir shops lining before the entrance, there are also lots of persistent sellers in and around the parking lot and similar with those loitering around the Pyramids of Giza (Cairo), they can get annoying at times but, hey, they're just trying to earn their income and you can always politely refuse.

If you want to save money on food and drinks, bring your own. A small bottle of water at the site cost 5 times more expensive than in a store in Aswan. The food are likewise expensive that is why most hotels provide packed lunch when you book your trip with them.  I ate mine after touring the temples as my excitement was stronger than my hunger.  

BTW, there were accommodations in the village nearby if one wishes to stay overnight near the site.

The minibus arrived back in Aswan a little after 12:00 noon and stopped right in front of my hotel.

A total of 8 hours all-in-all spent for the entire trip, 3 hours journey getting there, 2 hours at the site and another 3 hours journey back to Aswan.  It's worth it, believe me.


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