Midwinter solstice at Abu Simbel

A visit to the temples of Rameses II

Midwinter solstice at Abu Simbel
8th January 2008 Jane Tomlinson

This blog contains human remains which some readers may find disturbing

At 5am on midwinter’s day 2007 we rose happily from our beds in Aswan, Egypt, to catch the plane for a half hour flight down to see the temples at Abu Simbel, just 20 miles from the Sudanese border.

The temples were built to aggrandise pharaoh Ramses II in 1265 BC, but when they fell out of use, they became lost in the shifting sands. An archaeo discovered them in the 19th century and dug them out.

As we flew south I watched the sun rise over the waters of the gigantic Lake Nasser, formed by the mighty dams at Aswan. It was these rising waters which threatened to inundate Abu Simbel, so in the 1960s a massive project was mounted to move them -stone by stone- to a new site on higher ground.

So there are many reasons to marvel at this place; the size and awesome beauty of the temples themselves, and the almost inconceivably ambitious engineering to move them. Saving Abu Simbel is proof that culture and history are important to the world! Hurrah to that! It is a proud testament to humanity – both ancient and modern – that both were achieved.

Knowing all this heightened my expectations and I was prepared to be disappointed. But I wasn’t. How could you be when you’re faced with stuff like this?:

Already at only 7am it was crawling with tourists. Despite the chilly breeze we spent a happy hour and half (not long enough) wandering in and out of the temples, trying to comprehend their size, the complex and colourful bas-relief images on the walls of the internal chambers, just trying to take it all in.

Cleo, Rupert and I pose for the camera

The ancient architects built the temples so that that twice a year, on significant dates, the rays of the sun penetrated the temple sanctuary and illuminated an important sculpture deep inside. Just like at many ancient British and northern European monuments, then, where our own ancestors used the sun – and the moon – at significant dates to create a natural light show.

A week later we visited the Egyptian museum in Cairo. Despite the huge entry fee, Rupert and I wanted to enter the Royal Mummy Room to see for ourselves the body of Ramses II – the Great – who ruled Egypt for 66 years.

He wasn’t pretty, lying there like a huge blackened doggy-chew, but it was amazing to stare into the face of this great man, responsible for so many of Egypt’s wonderful temples. His hands were uncovered, curled over his chest, so you could see his fingernails – perfectly preserved. I found myself thinking unRoyal thoughts like -I wonder if he picked his nose? He was just a man after all.

Photos of Abu Simbel by Moth Clark