The huge colossi guarding the entrance to the chamber.
There is no better example of the phenomenon called “mass tourism” than the trip to Abu Simbel (“Father of the Ear of the Corn” in Arabic). You all travel in a convoy to that place, have a look around, take all the photos that you can, then leave and come back all at the same time. All these in half a day’s time.
Some regulations in Egypt are pretty strange and one of them governs the visit to the Sun Temple in Abu Simbel, a town 280kms. south of Aswan, close to the Sudanese border. The main draw in this location are the gigantic statues of Rameses II carved on a rock face and, to a lesser scale, those of his wife Nefertari. Due to security concerns since the infamous 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple in Luxor by Islamic militants, authorities have clamped down on the movement of visitors the better to guard them. With nothing but a long ribbon of asphalt linking Aswan and Abu Simbel, they thought it would be safer to monitor all vehicular traffic both ways if they put all vehicles in a convoy that leaves in the morning. You can still take the regular buses that ply the route but that’s only allowed if there aren’t more than four foreign tourists onboard. That’s what makes it a bit weird – perhaps to cut down on casualties just in case….
Martian-like landscape along the way through the empty desert.
We booked with a tourist office a day before, paying LE100 (Egyptian Pounds) each – about $14/- for the return journey aboard a luxury coach. They picked us up in our hotel, the Old Nile Cataract, at 3:30AM for the convoy that was leaving at 4:00. We thought that they would be transferring us to a bigger and more comfortable bus (they promised we could sleep on the way in total comfort) but found out too late that that was it – 30 Europeans and Americans with us 3 Pinoys onboard the Toyota Coaster filled to the rafters including the middle aisle folding seats. Nobody raised a voice of protest for we were all too drowsy to argue, I guess.
Our bus took its position in the middle of the line of vehicles that snaked several kilometers through the road on the outskirts of the city. Buses of all sizes and cars of all shapes were parked, engines running, waiting for inspection by the police patrol manning the checkpoint. It seemed to me as if we were embarking on a slightly different version of “Wacky Races” and I wondered if Dastardly Muttly was seating ahead of the column.
These two mounds were built to house the two sets of statues for Rameses (left) and his wife Nefertari (right).
The view from the entrance.
We left under the cover of darkness at 4:30AM. Most of our fellow passengers were already fast asleep including two Britons whose necks were wedged between their knees which reminded me of ostrich heads stuck in the sand. Dawn found us 50kms. into the 300-kilometer, 3-hour journey. The first rays of the sun illuminated a stark landscape of red sand that stretched as far as the horizon. If someone told me that we had arrived in Mars, I wouldn’t have doubted it at all. After shooting a couple of frames with the Nikon, I fell asleep, lulled by rhythmic hum of the Coaster’s engine and warmed by the wife’s pashmina shawl which she wrapped around her shoulders before drifting off to dreamland herself.
Resting at the restaurant lawn before boarding the Coaster back to Aswan.
By 7:30, we arrived at a large, sandy parking lot in front of the entrance to the site. Right across was the beautiful, shimmering turquoise waters of Lake Nasser. There must have been 120 buses parked side by side disgorging about 3-4,000 passengers. What did I tell you about mass tourism! Everyone rushed to the nearby row of toilets which were surprisingly clean and well-maintained (Lesson: don’t drink any liquid while on the way). The ticket counter outside the gate was 100 meters away and there was a stone-clad souvenir arcade as well as a restaurant where we ate our packed lunch since they didn’t allow food to be brought inside. The entrance fee cost LE60/-.
As you enter, there is a brown hill right beside the paved walkway that dips down toward the lake. This is the backside of the temple and it is man-made. Back in 1963, after the authorities realized that the waters of the dam would submerge the site, a plan was hatched in cooperation with the U.N., to move the temples to a higher location. Sixty-four meters up to be exact. A reinforced concrete dome was built and the two temples were cut up into blocks, each weighing about 30 tons. Then they were moved like a gigantic 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle to this newly-built modern shelter that was later covered with filling material. Sand and dust did the rest and the place looks almost natural.
Our one and only groufie.
A Nile cruise ship gets ready to dock.
When you come around the bend at the side of the artificial hill, the colossi and façade come into focus and it is quite a startling sight. Rising 21 meters (that’s about 7 stories), the four enthroned statues of Egypt’s greatest pharaoh-god who was described as “a powerful lion with claws extended and a terrible roar”, sat in silence, gazing into eternity while facing the sun that rose in the east. Even though I have seen these in countless pictures and films, nothing quite matches the sensation of seeing them up-close, face-to-face. My son – who had become jaded after gazing at dozens and dozens of Egyptian monoliths in Luxor earlier in our trip – was mightily impressed.
I think this was Rameses’ primary purpose in building this magnificent colossi featuring his likeness: to instill awe and fear in the hearts of his enemies, the Nubians, who were living at the farthest southern periphery of his empire. Centuries of neglect, however, allowed the desert to move in and slowly bury the site. This was a fortuitous event because it preserved the rock face from the elements. That is why they are so startlingly sharp in detail and look as though they were just recently carved. It wasn’t until the early 1800s when the site was accidentally discovered by a Swiss explorer who saw the upper parts of four giant heads emerge almost as if by magic from the sand. Another explorer, the Italian Belzoni, excavated the place and found the entrance that went into the interior sanctuary.
Tha chamber with fresh reliefs.
A large door leads visitors into the hypostyle hall which is flanked by four pillars fronted by ten-meter high statues of Rameses once again (the guy’s a megalomaniac!) with arms crossed in the Osiris position, holding a crook and a flail beneath a ceiling that is decorated with flying vultures. The walls on four sides are filled with bass reliefs of scenes from his campaigns in Syria and Nubia. There he was fighting his arch-enemies, the Hittites, in one panel while in another, he was shown decapitating captives single-handedly. The “Battle of Qadesh” (1300BC) is depicted in eye-popping detail: his army storming a Syrian fortress, lancing hapless Libyans and marching against fleeing enemies. Everywhere, it showed how victorious he was. The lighting from below made the reliefs stand out starkly, adding a touch of drama to the whole scene. If you close your eyes, you could just about hear the echo of horses’ hooves galloping across the expansive battlefield.
We are dwarfed by these huge statues!
At the end of the temple was the Sanctuary, a small room with four figures (now mutilated) of the deified Rameses and the gods Amon Ra, Harmakhis and Ptah. In front of them stood a stone block where once rested the sacred barque (the vessel that transports the dead to the afterlife). Twice a year, the rays of the sun reach into this deep chamber at dawn: first on May 22 during his birthday and second on October 22 during his coronation. You can just imagine the awe of his subjects when these gold-encased figures gave off a fiery glitter not unlike that of a laser show. Well, nowadays, the sun still illuminates this recess but does so a day later since the angle of inclination had changed after the relocation.
A little further from the Sun Temple stood a smaller hill where Rameses built another temple to honor his wife, Queen Nefertari. Here, six colossal 9-meter tall statues of both of them standing seem to emerge from the rock. They are accompanied by their children who stand knee-high in the shadows.
Mirage in the desert landscape.
On the way home….
Although the chambers inside are smaller, they are, nevertheless, also filled with intricate reliefs depicting husband and wife mingling with deities, making offerings and participating in various rituals. Quite a compelling and intimate scene of a couple showing a very human trait – that of being in love with each other. In some areas, a little paint still remained, a reminder how dazzlingly colorful the walls must have been.
Back outside, in front of the two hills fronting the lake was a wide esplanade where a “Sound and Light Show” spectacle is mounted nightly for the benefit of those who stay overnight. I was told that there are a couple of available lodgings in the periphery of the town. But mostly, the ones who attend are those who come in a luxury cruise ship that docks by the lakeside quay.
Humans look puny beneath these statues.
For us day trippers, the 3 hours spent at the site was a bit short. By 10:30, the convoy was about ready to head back to Aswan. But I think there was some logic to this mad schedule for by that time, the heat of the noonday sun began to be quite scorching. It would get worse later in the day and with no shade available outside, one could get fried to a crisp toast!
Posing by Nefertari’s likeness.
As we retraced our route, mirages appeared on the road as well as on the desert beyond the low sand dunes. What appeared to be like a shimmering body of water stretched out on the horizon, tantalizingly close but never quite reachable. Might not be the colossi in Abu Simbel be a mirage as well,? I wondered. I checked the camera. Well, I still got the pictures to prove that they were for real. Indeed.