There are moments in life when you just get lucky. The universe offers an unexpected wonderful gift. Today was one such day for me. By some unlikely stroke of good fortune, Jack and I had Abu Simbel to ourselves for 90 minutes.
These two temples, created in 1264-44 BC during the reign of super Pharaoh Ramesses II, are one on Egypt’s top 5 must dos. They have been attracting visitors for more than 150 years. You can still see the graffiti of tourists who had the audacity to carve their names into the statues back in the 1800’s.
Ramesses reigned for 66 years and was arguably the most powerful Pharaoh Egypt ever had. He was a master propagandist. He united, conquered, built and eventually declared himself a living god. The larger of these temple commemorates his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. It was actually a draw. It shows him hanging out as an equal with the other long revered gods. He left statues, temples and monuments to himself everywhere. He added his cartouche (hieroglyphic name) to structures build by earlier Pharaohs. He was determined to never be forgotten.
The smaller temple was dedicated to his favorite wife, Nefertari. Scholars can’t be sure but most estimate he had around 50 wives. She must have been truly special to earn such an honor. Ramesses did not lack ego. Four of the six statues on the facade of her temple are of him. But uniquely her representations are the same size as his. In every other example of wives or children being shown with the King, they are never higher than his knee.
Abu Simbel is located in the far south of modern Egypt about 50 km from the Sudanese border. Ramesses had these huge temples carved out of the rocks to impress and intimidate his neighbors, and sometimes enemies, at the south of his Empire. Do you really want to mess with a guy who has the power to build something this magnificent?
Jump ahead 14 dynasties. Egypt is part of the greater Roman Empire when around 325 AD Constantine declared Christianity the official religion and outlawed pagan worship. These temples were abandoned, covered by sand and forgotten.
Until Johann Ludwig Burckhardt saw the top of the frieze sticking out of the sand in 1813. He didn’t excavate himself but told former circus performer turned egyptologist Giovanni Belzoni about his find. Belzoni managed to dig away the sand by 1817. The temples have been a magnet for travelers ever since.
The annual flooding of the Nile has been central to Egyptian life since before history. The unpredictable fluctuation in levels led to periods of feast and famine. Dams had been tried before, but in 1959, Egypt decided to build the mother of all dams, The Aswan High Dam. It would creating a huge lake and regulating the flow of the Nile. Good for the people of Egypt. Not so great for the archeological gems which would now be under water, including these two temples.
The world banded together to help save them. From 1964 to 68 as the water of the new lake quickly rose, teams of engineers and workmen labored around the clock to cut the carved temples out of the mountain, into 20-30 ton manageable chunks and move them piece by delicate piece 65 meters up and 200 meters back from their original site. They were completely and perfectly rebuilt. This is what we woke up early to visit.
I have always been nuts about Egypt. While my friends decorated their walls with posters of David Cassidy I hung up pictures of King Tut. I wanted to be an archaeologist. To have the site to ourselves made it easier to imagine the excitement of first discovery.
Timing is everything. We decided to drive not fly. But didn’t want to get up for the typical 4 am start. We opted for 6 am instead. Abu Simbel is about a 3 hour drive south of Aswan. As we pulled into the parking lot we saw buses, minivans and private cars. Their passengers were gathered under awnings. I was horrified by the crowd. What I didn’t realize is that they were all waiting to get back into the aforementioned vehicles. The daily flight from Aswan lands at 10:55. We fell into the window between these groups. We were lucky and it was magic.