Sunday, January 6, 2008

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel and its Twin Temple

The gem of Nubian Monuments

Egypt; no doubt has the richest collection archaeological monuments, the first and the foremost being the colossal Pyramids other objects go without adequate attention; this twin temple of Ramesses the Pharaoh Emperor and Nefertari is one such. The twin rock temple is also famous for historical relocation from its former position between two rock cliffs and the river (under threat of submergence); to the present site which involved tremendous efforts, technology and resources, a relocation of such a massive structure was so far unheard of in history.

It is a part of the Nubian Monuments a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. The Great Temple Belong to Pharaoh Ramesses 2 and the other one located about 100 meters away from the Great Temple is that of Hathor (an Egyptian Goddess) and Nefertari.

Ramesses the indefatigable

Ramesses II Colossus at Abu Simbel Temple Egypt.

The story behind the construction of such a marvelous rock temple runs like this; Ramesses-2 was the most powerful emperor (1279 -1213 BC) of all the Pharaohs. The neighboring King Hittites of Muwatalli thought of containing Ramesses which resulted in the Kadesh war, one of the bloodiest in the history of the world. It is said that about 5000 chariots were mobilized by Ramesses –a record never broken by anybody so far. Hittites was defeated and fame of Ramesses rose like wild fire. This twin temple was built as a memorial of Kadesh War, as well as to impress and intimidate the other kings of that area.

Twin temple

Tomb wall depicting Nefertari, the great royal wife of pharaoh Ramesses II.

The temple of Ramesses is known as ‘Great Temple’ and the other one at about hundred meters away is the temple of Hathor and Nefertari. It is the second temple dedicated to a woman (a rarity in Egypt), the first one of this trait was that of Akhenaten which was dedicated to Queen Nefertiti. The work of the temple started on 1284 BC and it took 20 years to complete, Ramesses in his long reign constructed six temples in the Nubia region all carved on rock, this twin temple known as ‘Temple of Ramesses beloved by Amun’ (Amun or Amen is an Egyptian deity that rose in to prominence during Ramesses period and later got forgotten) is the most remarkable among them.

The Great Temple

This Great Temple which took twenty years to be built is undoubtedly the grandest structure of ancient Egypt. Its facade –cut in standing rocks- represents the front of a pylon; on its front stands four gigantic statues of Ramesses which are 67 feet high! The facade is 100 feet in height and 119 feet in width. There are statues of 22 baboons at the top of the pylon over the cornice. The baboon statues are made as if they are stretching their hands towards rising sun. The forecourt of the temple contained two tanks for storing water for ablutions of the priests.

Sacred Monkeys!

The Egyptian mythology has it that the ‘Sun God Ra’ was engaged in a bitter war with the God of Darkness; and the baboons strongly stood by Sun God Ra thereby enabling his victory over darkness. This has striking similarity to Indian myths where also monkeys lent helping hands to Lord Ram (please see the similarity in names ‘Ra’ and ‘Ram’) in building bridge across the strait and defeating the Demon Ravana; in his efforts to save Sita (his wife); kidnapped by Demon.

Ramesses deified

As in most of the Egyptian temples this one also has a triangular shape with a wider entrance and narrower sanctuary. This temple has some extra features like side chambers consisting of rooms and halls all made of carving rock. There is a hypostyle hall (18 * 17 meters) which is supported by eight huge Osirid pillars in two rows, with images of deified Ramesses (human beings raised to the status of deities) interacting with Osiris the god of the netherworld. This has been believed to be done to impress the viewers that Ramesses had contacts with Demons and Gods.


Ramesses II Temple at Abu Simbel.

Four colossal statues of Ramesses with double crowns stand there to amaze the spectators all carved in the rock that was standing on the original site. Next to the structure of Colossi (giant statue at least double the size of human size) are comparatively smaller statues of Nefertari (foremost wife of Ramesses) the queen mother (Mut Tuy), his first two sons, and first six of his daughters all these are having heights less than that of the knee of the statue of Ramesses.

King Ramesses on the warfront riding chariot and shooting arrows at the fleeing enemies is perhaps the most popular motif. Egypt’s victory over Nubia and Libya are also pictured in other motifs. Beneath the giant statues there are small figures of bound captives. One of the very large statues got damaged in an earth-quake has been left as such as its head was missing.

A marriage of convenience

Both sides of the entrance are crowned with bas-relief (3-d images sculpted on wall or pillars), on the left side the king is pictured as worshiping a falcon-headed god (Ra Harkhti) standing in a niche on the wall. This Ra Harkhti god has on one hand a hieroglyph (hieroglyph is figures representing words in ancient scripts) user on his right hand and Goddess Ma’at (goddess of truth). Another beautiful motif is that pictures the marriage between Ramesses with the daughter of king Hattusili (It is said that this marriage was arranged on convenience to end territorial dispute existed between the two nations!)

The smaller temple

Egyptian Goddess Hathor

Wearing the hieroglyph for 'west' on her head, Hathor is identified as the mistress of the west, the land of the deceased.

This temple is dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess Hathor (a goddess representing heavenly cow, it is also considered as personification of the Milky Way, worshipping cow exists in Indian culture also). The main significance of this temple is that here the king is wearing a whit crown flanked by Nefertari his consort whose statue is as large as that of the king, both about 10 meters in height. Generally in ancient Egyptian architecture the statue of the king is far larger than any other statues.

Rediscovery or Robbery

Took away all he could but made a village boy famous!

The existence of these wonderful temples was first brought to the attention of the world by Mr. J L Burckhardt a Swiss orientalist in 1813. Mr. Burckhardt being at the fag end of the visit he brought it in to the notice of an Italian explorer by name Giovanni Belzoni.

What Mr. Belzoni saw was only the facade (frieze) of the temples and all other structures covered by the desert sand. He later came with all tools and entered in to the temple removing sand, that man went away with all that could take but gave a name to the site ‘Abu Simbel’ after the name of a boy who first led them to the site.

Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser

Map of Abu Simbel Temple

The construction of the Aswan dam blocking the River Nile was Egypt’s most ambitious projects, its president Abdul Nasser made it possible in 1960 with Russian help. This gigantic dam is 3830 meters long, 980 meters wide at the base (top 40 meters) and 111 meters tall. It required 43 million cubic meters of materials; 18 times the materials used for the construction for the Pyramid of Giza!

The Lake Nasser formed by the swelling of the River Nile due to Aswan Dam was 550 km long and 35 km broad (at the broadest part). The idea of the 3000 year old monuments getting submerged in water was great concern and on the initiative of the UNESCO the temple was cut in parts and in a Herculean feat got replaced on the slope of an artificial mountain! The present location is about 200 feet above its original place.

The relocation

The cutting of the existing temple in to blocks and transporting them to the new sites about 65 meters above the existing site and about 200 meters from the river, then assembling them on the side of an artificial mountain specially made for this purpose all were quite unique a work. It was a challenge to archaeologists, engineers and every one involved in the mega project. UNESCO was there with a fund raising spree, about 40 million dollars were spent and the work has been done joining the blocks almost seamlessly.

Approaching near to the Grecian style

In Burckhardt who was an Egyptologist could find only the facade of the temple other parts being covered by desert sand. Yet he was astonished by his discovery and remarked; in his own words “It was the most expressive, youthful, countenance approaching nearer to the Grecian model of beauty than that of any ancient Egyptian figure I have seen”

Abu Simbel now

statue of Ramesses II, wearing the double crown of Lower and Upper Egypt.

Abu Simbel is a hot spot attracting tourists from all over the world Guarded convoys operate twice a day from Aswan –the nearest city. The city of Aswan has an air-port which mainly caters the travel needs of tourists to this location. Here visitors watch with awe the numerous statues, bas reliefs, and the huge structures that were carved in rock etc. The story of relocation of these huge structure make them filled with wonder, if the temple is an ancient wonder, the work of its relocation was some thing more surprising than the wonder itself!

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