Monday, 12 August 2013

Preview: Abu Simbel

Imagine I got into a fight down the pub with a hard guy. Fair enough, I didn't actually win the fight, but I didn't lose either - well, that's a win in my book. Ever since, I've been marching around telling everybody about how great I am and what a tremendous fight I put up. All my Facebook updates mention it, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. To celebrate my famous victory against my muscle-bound opponent, I go and build a shed in my garden. Outside it, I put four big statues of me looking godlike; inside I fill it with paintings of me winning the fight and lots of stories about how great I am. What would you think? At best, you'd take me aside for a quiet word, and tell me I was being a knob. But then, I suppose, I'm not one of the greatest kings of all time. Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty of ancient Egypt was - and if he wanted to go on and on and on about a draw, then he damn well could. And if he wanted to build something to celebrate this famous draw, well, he was able to conjure something up that was a little better than a garden shed. It's called Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel is a temple cut out of the rock in the far south of Egypt, just 20 miles from the modern day border with Sudan, which back then was territory of the Nubian people. In theory, it's a temple dedicated to creator deity Amun-Re, solar deity Ra-Horakhty, and a kind of creator god associated with the underworld, Ptah; in actuality it's a barely concealed effort by Ramesses II to glorify himself yet again. Never the most subtle of pharaohs, Ramesses II liked to express his wonderful majesty by constructing massive monuments to himself, and Abu Simbel is one of his greatest. Four huge statues of himself, around 21 metres high, adorn the front (one partly collapsed, the other three in remarkably good condition), guarding an entrance to an inner temple that goes 60 metres into the rock. And it's all, whisper it, because of a draw.

It all starts in the 4th year of his reign. That was when he conducted a successful campaign in Syrian territories to cement Egyptian control of the region. All very nice, but then in the spring of his 5th year, the Hittite empire from the north started making threatening manoeuvres. Ramesses II was having none of it - and like a man in a pub whose pint has been knocked, he squared up. The numbers might be exaggerated, but according to ancient inscriptions across Egypt, Ramesses sent in an army of 20,000, in four divisions of 5000. Near the city of Kadesh, in Syria, the Hittites launched a surprise attack, with around 40,000 men. It was one of the largest battles the world had ever seen.

What actually happened is still the topic of debate, but according to Ramesses II it was a glorious victory and his greatest ever military achievement. For the remainder of his epic 66-year reign, he went on about it a lot, mentioning it in the many temples he built, like spending all his time on Facebook reminding everyone that he'd totally won that pub fight. The thing is, no matter how much Ramesses might have beat his chest, it seems very unlikely the battle had much in the way of a decisive outcome for either side. Nothing conclusive seemed to come of it, and battles continued between the Egyptians and the Hittites for another decade or so, albeit on a lesser scale. But perhaps the Battle of Kadesh was decisive in its own way - actually losing it may have been disastrous, so a draw probably suited both parties. They both saved face, and both earned a little respect from each other, and Egyptian territory was never threatened. Ramesses II, who was leading the army, survived with honour and life intact. And he was going to damn well tell everyone about it.

Abu Simbel was started soon after, although it took somewhere between the 25th and 35th year of Ramesses's reign until it was completed. This equates to 1254BC to 1244BC as we know it. It certainly wasn't the only statue or monument Ramesses II built in his own honour - all across Egypt his buildings remain, especially around modern day Luxor, the site of the ancient capital of Thebes. You can even find one in the middle of Paris - the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde exalts the great reign of Ramesses II. But Abu Simbel is his best. It constitutes two rock-cut temples, the famous Great Temple, with the four statues of himself outside, and just round the corner is the slightly misleadingly named Small Temple (it's not that small), dedicated to Ramesses' favourite wife Nefertari. It has six statues carved into the front, not as large as those of the Great Temple, but still of a decent size, around 11.5 metres tall. Two are of Nefertari - the other four are of Ramesses II of course. You know, just in case you forgot about him.

The interior of the Small Temple is quite impressive, one main chamber cut 20 metres into the rock, supported by six columns, and decorated by texts and drawings, with much of the original colour remaining. But the Great Temple is the main event. It goes 60 metres into the rock, with a central pillared hall lined with statues, and a further ten or so halls and chambers leading off it. Like the Small Temple, it's decorated with texts and pictures, often featuring Ramesses II's alleged epic victory at Kadesh.

It has cute little secrets - twice a year (February and October 22nd) the sunlight shines in the entrance at a precise angle that illuminates a small sanctuary at the very back of the temple. For just 20 minutes, the faces of three out of four statues are lit up. The unlit one, appropriately, is a statue of Ptah, the god of the underworld.

By lucky quirk of fate, Abu Simbel has survived the centuries in relatively excellent condition. Two factors conspired in this - its remoteness and the sand that effectively buried it for around 2000 years. Abu Simbel therefore avoided the vandalism that hit much of Egypt's ancient artefacts. The sweep of Christianity and Islam alike passed it by, and it was never defaced. In fact, it wasn't rediscovered until 1813, when a certain Johann Burckhardt happened to pass by. Burckhardt had an uncanny knack for this kind of thing - he discovered Petra just the year before. The Abu Simbel name appears to come from his time also. The original name of the temple is now long lost, although surely extolled the virtues of Ramesses II somewhere in it. The new name, so the story goes, is taken from the boy that first led Burckhardt (or his follow-up explorer, Belzoni) to the sand-covered temples. Perhaps he'd played there with his friends in his spare time.

Despite thousands of years of existence, Abu Simbel's biggest ever threat came in the 1960s, in the form of the Aswan Dam. Smaller dams had been built near the city of Aswan ever since 1902, causing upstream flooding and damage to a number of ancient monuments. But from 1960, the biggest yet was planned - the mighty Aswan Dam that would finally control the Nile. The catch was - it would entirely submerge Abu Simbel. Fortunately, help was at hand in the form of UNESCO. Dedicated to the conservation of the world's unique sites, it was only started in 1954 and Abu Simbel was to be its first mission. How do you stop a 3000-year-old monument from drowning in the waters of a new lake? That was the question posed. Various different solutions were proposed. One plan involved cutting away the surrounding rock and encasing the actual temple in a concrete box, then jacking up the entire structure with 650 synchronised jacks. Another was to build a special "shield" dam so that the water would flow around Abu Simbel. And another was to simply leave Abu Simbel underwater, in a special zone of purified water - with tunnels for visitors. But in the end, in a quite phenomenal feat of organisation, Abu Simbel was cut up into hundreds of pieces and moved to artificial hills about 200 metres away. It took five years and $42 million, and involved the assistance of numerous countries, individuals and even contributions from children's pocket money. It was a global effort, and a major success for UNESCO. The Aswan Dam was built, the waters of the Nile rose, but the temples of Abu Simbel were safe.

Having seen Abu Simbel before, albeit it on a hasty day-trip many years ago, I know roughly what to expect. It may not be as technically big as many monuments or statues around, but it very much has a sense of grandeur. It's going to be a difficult one to assess though. All the ancient Egyptian monuments are heavyweight contenders in this Wonder quest, and while Abu Simbel doesn't have the vast sprawl of Karnak, or the mythical air of the Valley of the Kings, it has a very visual appeal. It is not a mute structure or set of ruins, it has a personality which shines through, blending monumentality with the ego of Ramesses II, and remains in excellent condition. In fact, it has been suggested that its good condition may be why it wasn't suggested in the original Seven Wonders list. Remote and covered by sand, it was saved for another day, left obscure to the world. It took 2000 years before we were reacquainted.

I'll hopefully be visiting Abu Simbel at the end of this year or the beginning of next, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

“Abu Simbel” William MacQuitty
“The Mysteries of Abu Simbel” Zahi Hawass
"The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt" Richard H. Wilkinson
"Egypt" Joyce Tyldesley
"Aswan, Philae, Abu Simbel" Giovanna Magi

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