It’s a sunny day in Madrid. In the Parque del Oeste (Western Park), a couple of teachers herd a group of excited young school kids dressed as Pharaohs into the long queue to enter Debod, one of three Pharaonic temples in Europe.
A visit to this ancient Egyptian site, reassembled in a European city, raises questions about whether sacredness is site-specific. Is it lost when the geo-cultural context is altered?
The temple of Debod may provide an answer. The setting is a perfect one from an aesthetic viewpoint: the temple dominates a beautiful park, surrounded by an artificial pond, in an attempt to recreate the original context.
A closer look reveals that it is not that perfect from a conservation perspective, because – unlike other Pharaonic temples outside Egypt - Debod is set in the open, subject to Madrid’s polluted air and extreme weather conditions.
Why Madrid then? What brought the temple to Spain in the first place? The answer takes us back to the Egypt of the 1960s, and to the epic UNESCO campaign to save the monuments of Nubia from being lost forever.
The world still remembers the incredible effort involved in dismantling and reassembling the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae (among others) through an international campaign coordinated by UNESCO and supported by several donor states.
The campaign came in response to the threat posed by the construction of the High Dam, in an attempt to save this unique heritage from being submerged once and for all by the resulting artificial lake.
A grateful Egyptian government paid back generously, with Nasser donating four entire temples to four of the donor states. Holland received the Temple of Taffah (Leiden), the US got the Temple of Dendur (New York) and Italy the Temple of Ellesyia (Turin).
One would expect that Germany would have been granted the fourth temple, as it was one of the biggest donors, but the last temple ended up being donated to Spain in 1968 through a twist of fate (or better said, a twist of Spanish diplomacy).
Madrid, the capital of Franco's centralist dictatorship, was the inevitable city of choice.
I approached a tourist on his way out of the temple and asked him about his impression: “It’s a luxury to have this temple here. It is obviously nothing when compared to Karank [Karnak],but still, to those who cannot make it to Egypt, it’s a good introduction," said Pablo Gutiérrez, one of the visitors.
“The temple is approached through three high, insulated gateways, with projecting cornices,” recorded Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in Travels in Nubia, published in 1819.
The gateway pylons that legendary explorer Burckhardt mentioned are still there to see, although in a different order than the original. However, contemplating the temple, it is impossible to imagine that it once stood close to the first cataract of the Nile and that there came a time when it was submerged under the Nile water for nine months every year, a fate shared with other monuments following the construction of the (First) Aswan Dam in 1907.
The temple is about 2,200 years old, but in its current form has very little to do with the original structure, which comprised a single chapel built by the Kushite kings and dedicated to the cult of Amun.
Later on, the Ptolemaic dynasty left its imprint, and so did the Romans. The Ptolemaic kings expanded the chapel into a temple dedicated to Isis, while the Roman emperors further embellished the structure.
It comes as no surprise that the walls of the temple are devoid of colours, since the polychromatic decoration was long lost through submersion and erosion. Inside the temple, the original chapel’s depictions follow the Philae aesthetic code and feature kings making sacred offerings to Amun.
Ever since it was inaugurated in Madrid in 1972, the temple has been subject to a series of abuses and conservation misfits, but things have been improving, or so thinks José Vidal, a Spanish teacher who shared his opinion with a smile. “Madrid has not been kind to Debod…but I doubt Egypt would do a better job conserving it had it been there.”