The serenity of the Upper Egyptian site of Abu Simbel was less disturbed this week by the queues of visitors who ordinarily flock to it to admire the exceptional solar alignment phenomenon that occurs twice a year.
Although there is still enormous interest around the ancient Egyptian king Ramses II, the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown policy in various countries have been an obstacle to fans wanting to visit Abu Simbel.
Few people armed with face masks and keeping up social distancing visited the site and waited for the sun’s rays to penetrate the temple’s inner sanctuary on Sunday, wanting to see the sun illuminate the king’s face and the statues of the gods Amun-Re and Re-Hur-Akhty and leave the god of darkness Ptah in the shade because of his connection to the underworld.
To celebrate the moment, famous Danish pop band WhoMadeWho joined the ceremony this year and played their music before the Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel. The performance was live-streamed on the French music channel Cercle and the social media platforms of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Board (ETPB).
The trio commented on social media, saying that their performance before the awe-inspiring temple was the most special moment of their careers, even if because of Covid-19-related restrictions it had been without fans.
Mohamed Saleh, former director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the ancient Egyptians had observed astronomical phenomena such as the helical rising of the sun during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (21 March and 23 September).
At these times, a day contains exactly 12 hours, as does the night. The equinox is observed twice yearly on the Tropic of Cancer some 50km south of Aswan at Bab Kalabsha in Nubia.
Architects and astronomers of the time of Ramses II, Saleh continued, had planned the Temple of Abu Simbel and hewn it out of the rock in an area some l80km south of the Tropic of Cancer. At this point, the rays of the sun fall upon the mountain in the morning 25 days before the vernal solar alignment on 22 February and 25 days after the autumnal equinox on 22 October.
The temple axis runs perpendicular to the outer mountain surface. The inner halls of the temple were laid out exactly towards the main sanctuary, which contains statues of Ramses II and the gods Ptah, Amun-Re, and Re-Hur-Akhty. The sun’s rays penetrate into the sanctuary some 61m inside the temple. During the vernal equinox, they illuminate the statues of Amun-Re, Ramses II, and Re-Hur-Akhty for a few days. During the autumnal equinox, the statues are illuminated from the reverse side for the same period.
“It was an ingenious project accomplished by the astronomers and architects of the time, who chose the mountain at Abu Simbel because it faces east,” Saleh said.
“However, this phenomenon is not related to the king’s birthday or his accession to the throne. It was actually a way for the ancient Egyptians to identify the beginning of summer and winter and alert farmers of the start of the cultivation season and the harvest.”
Mohamed Said, director of Aswan and Nubia antiquities, said that the shining of the sun’s rays on the face of the statue of Ramses II in the temple sanctuary was more connected to the Abu Simbel Temples than to any other ancient Egyptian temples.
The effects of the solar alignment used to happen on 21 February and 21 October, but after the relocation of the temples during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s they had shifted by one day.
ABU SIMBEL SAFEGUARDING: The two Abu Simbel Temples were built by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE) to demonstrate his political power and divine backing of the ancient Nubians.
On each side of the main temple, carved into a sandstone cliff overlooking the Nile’s second cataract, sit a pair of colossal statues of Ramses. Though the statues have been damaged in earthquakes since their construction, they remain an awe-inspiring and tremendous sight. The temple is aligned to face the east, and above the entrance sits a niche with a representation of Re-hur-akhty, an aspect of the sun god.
Time has taken its toll on both temples, and by the sixth century BCE sand had covered the statues of the main temple up to their knees. The temple was forgotten until 1813, when Swiss orientalist Jean-Louis Burckhardt found the top frieze of the main temple and talked about his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who travelled to the site but was unable to dig an entry into the temple.
He returned to the site in 1817 and succeeded in entering the complex.
In 1960s, the Abu Simbel Temples Safeguarding Campaign was launched by the UN cultural organisation UNESCO in an appeal to member states to help to rescue the Nubian temples threatened by the building of the Aswan High Dam. The protection of the Temples at Abu Simbel, cut into the living rock, presented considerable technical difficulties.
Several projects were considered, but the one that was finally chosen consisted of dismantling the temple façades and the walls of their rooms by cutting them into large blocks, removing them, and then rebuilding both temples inside concrete dome-shaped structures in a simulated environment.
A cofferdam had to be built while the dismantling operation was in progress because of the already rising water of Lake Nasser behind the dam. The whole huge puzzle was then successfully completed, and the re-sited temples were reopened officially on 22 October 1968.
This was a task requiring considerable international engineering resources when the High Dam caused Lake Nasser to rise and inundate the area. For this reason, the sun now strikes a day later than Ramses had originally planned, though the event itself is no less stunning.
A facility-management project was later carried out at the site to make it more tourist-friendly. A visitor centre has been established to put on show a collection of 21 graphic banners and 18 photographs and models relating to the temple salvage operation that started in 1964 and was completed in 1968. A collection of tools and equipment used during the operation is also exhibited.
The centre also has a photographic laboratory, a museological garden, and a children’s creative centre to raise the cultural and archaeological awareness of children. A cafeteria has been provided along with huge screens outside the temples to broadcast the solar alignment phenomenon live.
THE GREAT TEMPLE: The main Temple at Abu Simbel, which took about 20 years to build, was completed around the year 24 of the reign of Ramses II and was dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, as well as to the deified Ramses himself.
It is generally considered to be the grandest and most beautiful temple commissioned during the reign of Ramses II and one of the most beautiful in Egypt.
Four colossal 20-metre-tall statues of the king with the double atef crown of Upper and Lower Egypt decorate the façade of the temple, which is 35m wide and topped by a frieze with 22 baboons and worshippers of the sun flanking the entrance.
The hypostyle hall is 18m long and 16.7m wide and is supported by eight huge Osirid pillars depicting the deified Ramses linked to the god Osiris, the god of the underworld, to indicate the everlasting nature of the Pharaoh.
The bas-reliefs on the walls of the hypostyle hall depict battle scenes in the military campaigns the ruler waged. Much of the sculpture is of the Battle of Kadesh on the Orontes River in present-day Syria, in which the Egyptian king fought against the Hittites.
The most famous relief shows the king on his chariot shooting arrows against his fleeing enemies.
On the back of the sanctuary are rock-cut sculptures of four seated figures: Ra-Horakhty, the deified king Ramses, and the gods Amun Ra and Ptah. Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra, and Ptah were the main divinities in that period, and their cult centres were at Heliopolis, Thebes, and Memphis.
THE SMALL TEMPLE: The Temple of Hathor and Nefertari, also known as the Small Temple, was built about 100 metres northeast of the Temple of Ramses II and was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramses II’s chief consort Nefertari.
This was in fact the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen. Earlier, the Pharaoh Akhenaten had dedicated a temple to his royal wife Nefertiti.
The rock-cut façade of the temple is decorated with two groups of colossi that are separated by a large gateway. The statues, slightly more than 10m high, are of the king and his queen. On either side of the portal are two statues of the king wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt (south colossus) and the double crown (north colossus), and these are flanked by statues of the queen and the king.
As in the larger temple dedicated to the king, the hypostyle hall is supported by six pillars. In this case, however, they are not Osiris pillars depicting the king, but are decorated with scenes with the queen playing the sistrum (an instrument sacred to the goddess Hathor), together with the gods Horus, Khnum, Khonsu, and Thoth, and the goddesses Hathor, Isis, Maat, Mut of Asher, Satis and Taweret. In one scene, Ramses is shown presenting flowers or burning incense.
The capitals of the pillars bear the face of the goddess Hathor. This type of column is known as Hathoric. The bas-reliefs in the pillared hall illustrate the deification of the king, the destruction of his enemies in the north and south (in these scenes the king is accompanied by his wife), and the queen making offerings to the goddesses Hathor and Mut.
On the back wall of the temple, which lies to the west along its axis, there is a niche in which the goddess Hathor, depicted as a divine cow, seems to be coming out of the mountain. The goddess is depicted as the mistress of the temple dedicated to her and to queen Nefertari, who was intimately linked to the goddess.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly