In his day, Ramses II built entire cities in Egypt, but nothing would have been as awe-inspiring as the Great Temple which was stumbled across in the depths of the Egyptian desert near the border of Nubia, buried under centuries of sand. No temple has such ancient, in-built heart and soul, and none have matched its passionate, modern-day story of discovery and rescue.
The Great Temple was first carved out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244 BC, Ramses II’s imposing temple was as much dedicated to the deified pharaoh himself as to the primeval Egyptian gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah.
Over the centuries both the Nile and the desert sands imperceptibly shifted, and this temple was lost to the world until 1813, when it was accidentally rediscovered by the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt.
The four colossal statues of the pharaoh fronting the temple were like gigantic sentinels watching over the incoming traffic from the south, undoubtedly designed as a warning to the strength of the pharaoh.
When the temple was discovered, nearly 200 years ago, only one of the heads was completely showing above the sand, the next head was broken off and, of the remaining two, only the crowns could be seen. Enough sand was cleared away in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni for the temple to be entered.
However, by the end of the century, plans were afoot to dam the Nile and it looked as though the Great Temple was doomed to be buried again, although on this occasion its coverage was intended to be water. As the plans for the High Dam were drawn up, worldwide attention focused on the many valuable and irreplaceable ancient monuments that would be destroyed by the waters of Lake Nasser.
Between 1960 and 1980 the Unesco-sponsored Nubian Rescue Campaign gathered expertise and financing from more than 50 countries, and sent Egyptian and foreign archaeological teams to Nubia. Necropolises were excavated, all portable artefacts and relics were removed to museums and, while some temples disappeared beneath the lake, 14 were salvaged.
Ten of them, including the temple complexes of Philae, Kalabsha and Abu Simbel, were dismantled stone by stone and painstakingly rebuilt on higher ground. Four others were donated to the countries that contributed to the rescue effort, including the splendid Temple of Dendur, now reconstructed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of all was the preservation of the temples at Abu Simbel.
Ancient magnificence and skill met with equally impressive modern technology as, at a cost of about $40 million, Egyptian, Italian, Swedish, German and French archaeological teams cut the temples up into more than 2000 huge blocks, weighing from 10 to 40 tonnes each, and reconstructed them inside an artificially built mountain, 210m away from the water and 65m higher than the original site. The temples were carefully oriented to face the original direction, and the landscape of their original environment was re-created on and around the concrete, dome-shaped mountain.
The project took just over four years. The temples of Abu Simbel were officially reopened in 1968 while the sacred site they had occupied for more than 3000 years disappeared beneath Lake Nasser. A plaque to the right of the temple entrance eloquently describes this achievement: ‘Through this restoration of the past, we have indeed helped to build the future of mankind.’
In October every year, the first rays of the rising sun reach across the Nile, penetrate the temple and move along the hypostyle hall, through the vestibule and into the sanctuary, where they illuminate the somewhat mutilated figures of Ra-Horakhty, Ramses II and Amun. Ptah, to the left, is never illuminated. Before the temple was moved, this would occur one day earlier.