Egypt 98, p5

Abu Simbel and Philae

February 18

A very special day, as we were bound for Abu Simbel, the incomparable. From the Aswan airport we took a flight with Inch'Allah Airlines (aka Egypt Air), and we were off above the desert.
The following sequence illustrates how the Temple revealed itself to us upon arrival.

Close-up on a colossus
I don't know how to praise this Temple enough. It stands out from all the other extraordinary structures I had seen so far. Ramses II built it as a glorification to himself, and as he was a great sponsor of the arts as well as a military genius, he well deserved it. The trapezoidal shape of the facade is meant to recall the pylon of traditional Egyptian temples, but the rest of it is unique. The temple was actually carved in the living rock of the cliff. Now that it has been moved (to rescue it from the infamous dam), it looks as if it was built of blocks -- it had to be sliced in 1036 pieces to be transported. Imagine it as it was originally, though: all of one piece. From the colossi of the facade to the statues in the sanctuary, deep inside the cliff, everything is part of the original rock. This is one of very few buildings know to have been constructed negatively, i.e by removing matter instead of building it up. It is literally a sculpture. 

The colossi, 20 meters high, are beautiful. All of Ramses II's works have rather massive statues, but at this huge scale, it feels right. Their faces are perfect despite their 4 meters of height. Ramses II is instantly recognizable in statues and reliefs. It is not well known, however, what four traits the colossi represent; maybe four ages of the Pharaoh's life?

At the top of the facade, a frieze of baboons represents the god Toth, who incarnates Science. Just above the door stands the main deity of the Temple: Râ-Horakhty whom we encountered already in the tombs of the Theban Necropolis.

Inside the temple, we looked at reliefs both famous and less famous, all extraordinary, such as Ramses being crowned by Horus and Set together. This is not only to balance good and evil under his reign (the Egyptian had a vivid understanding of the necessity of balancing light and dark). The father of Ramses II was Seti, named after the thunderous Red God. Ramses always made it a point to acknowledge and show respect for that part of his ancestry, depsite the fact that this was the God most hated by the Egyptian people. Why then be connected to him? A startling fact is that Ramses II was a natural redhead. People with this physical characteristic were rather outsiders, precisely because they were seen as connected to Set the Red God. Ramses must have been no exception and this may explain not only his attachment to Set (out of defiance) and the fantastic energy which he deployed to make his reign the grandest of all the history of Egypt. I think of the fabulous treasures of Tutankhamon, a king so insignificant he was completely forgotten, and when I try to imagine the tomb of Ramses II I am ready to fall over...

On the right is a sketch of the famous relief of the Battle of Qadesh, where Ramses charges the enemy seemingly alone while his army is fleeing in disorder. The doubling of the arm is intentional and a part of the relief. There are several interpretations for this strange feature. One is that a mistake was done during the execution of the relief, and that the sculptor "erased" it with a layer of stucco, then carved again over it, but the fragile stucco disappeared in time. I think it unlikely, because the extra parts are so similar to the "right" ones that I fail to see how they can be considered a mistake. Another theory is that it represents movement (but why don't we see this anywhere else?) or the ka of Ramses (same question). The last theory I heard of, and which seems to me to fit best, is that this is the arm of Amon. Indeed memorable words accompany this scene: "I am your father Amon, my hand is in yours; I am your father, I, master of victory"... 

A nearby scene shows Ramses returning victorious from the battle, a lion at his side looking very happy at the outcome of the battle (lions were trained to serve in the Egyptian army). The victory, in reality, was not that complete. As a matter of fact, the battle was disastrous for both armies and there was a tie, but each went home under the impression that they had inflicted more damage than they had received.

This is my favourite relief detail ever: in a large scene depicting military camp life (soldiers training, wounded being tended, etc), we find a baker sitting with his arms crossed as he waits for the bread to bake! Priceless!

We now reached the heart of the Temple, the sanctuary which we have seen is at the origin of every Egyptian temple -- except this one, where obviously it was the last thing to be carved. I was spewing: if we had come here only 2 days later, we would have been able to witness the staggering event of the sun illuminating the sanctuary. This amazing temple was built so that twice a year only, on the dates of the birth and of the intronisation of Ramses II, the rays of the sun would enter the sanctuary. The miracle does not end here. The four statues represent, from left to right: Ptah, Amon, Ramses and R?-Horakhty. The sun would illuminate Amon, then Ramses, then R?-Horakhty without touching Path, God of Darkness. This alone is a statement of Egypt's unimaginable advance in civilization -- when the temple was moved, it took several computers and endless calculations to determine how to place it in such a way as to preserve this extraordinary event. What could not be avoided, because the Temple is now higher up, 60 meters away, is that it happens with a two-days displacement, on the 20 October and on the 20th of February of our calendar.

The Temple to Nefertari not far from the Temple of Ramses II
In another great rock to the left of the Temple of Ramses II, a smaller temple, half the size of the first one, was carved. It is the Temple of Nefertari. Ramses II venerated her and this temple built out of love is uniquely touching. It may seem odd to see Ramses himself represented four times on the facade while Nefertari only appears twice, but this should not be taken as a proof that Ramses was egocentric and opportunistic. This is a very real show of concern and care -- Ramses protects Nefertari, and the latter is represented on the facade like no Queen ever was before, at the same size as her husband. Near their legs, their children are represented. 

The temple's façade

Inside the temple, Nefertari is represented as Hathor on the capitals of the columns. In the sanctuary we find the Goddess herself in the shape of a cow, milking Ramses II: this is the counterpoint of the facade, as now it is Ramses who is under the protection of Nefertari deified in the shape of Hathor. It is not idly that Hathor is chosen to deify Queens of Egypt. The name of the Goddess means "House of Horus". All Pharaohs become Horus when they are crowned; therefore when Nefertari is deified as Hathor, she becomes "the house where Ramses finds peace".

It is with much regret that I had to leave Abu Simbel. I will come back, but it may never be the same. We had the temple to ourselves; under normal consequences a sea of tourists would have spoiled it.

That evening we took a small boat to the island of Philae... There stands the Temple of Isis, the most poetic of them all. We went at night to watch the Sound-and-Light, a show recounting the legend of Isis and Osiris, and the next day we returned in daylight.

Pylon of Philae
February 19
View of the court
Philae now sleeps under the waters of the Nile, forever. The island where the Temple of Isis was rebuilt (after moving the 40,000 blocks of which it is composed) is actually Agilkia, 500 meters away. But the small isle of Bila that lay by its side, and which was said to shelter the tomb of Osiris, is gone for good... It is just as well. The sacred place is now inviolable. In the old days no human could set foot on it; only priests could access it to celebrate the sacred rites. As for Philae (from Pilak meaning "corner isle"), it was a place for pilgrimage, which every Egyptian was supposed to do once a year. On the Island it was forbidden to harm any living thing, as it was sacred to the gentle goddess Isis. This very old temple was tolerated by Christians and functioned until 535 AD, where the last priests of Isis were exiled by Justinian. The hammerings started then, and coptic crosses were sculpted on either sides of the gate. The hypostyle hall was used as a Christian chapel and it was "necessary" to destroy the reliefs to avoid distraction for the faithful.... Fortunately, the site was abandoned soon and the right side of the Temple was spared. An interesting detail is that a relief of Isis breastfeeding Horus has been kept, except for the head: it appears that the representation was kept for blessing, because Isis was assimilated to the Virgin Mary.

In the vestibule there was a relief depicting Hathor with a swollen belly offering the Ankh to a pharaoh; the latter is accepting it from her. This symbolizes the fact that he takes eternal life from her. I wish I had taken more notes and more pictures in this beautiful place, but I was too busy just looking... So peaceful and so graceful.

I don't know where this cat came from... but he looks very appropriate in this sacred, quiet place.

Outside the temple, this kiosk (at right)was built under Roman influence... It's beautiful but I don't like it. It feels like an intruder -- and all the Egyptian-style works of the Roman just say "hypocrisy" to me. Building in the style of the nations they conquered was just another political way of making them accept their domination.

As my stay in Upper Egypt came to an end, I spent the rest of the day quietly by the pool, in a contemplative mood (actually I was slightly ill)... In the evening we took the plane back to Cairo, which we reach at midnight for dinner.