Ramesses’s Temple at Abu Simbel; or, Progress vs. History

Model of the Temple at Karnak
Model of the Temple at Karnak, a massive but traditionally-built temple complex, unlike the one at Abu Simbel.

Ramesses’s temples at Abu Simbel are awesome for two reasons.  The first is the incredible novelty of their construction: it’s dug into the rock face rather than built as temples commonly were.  The second, however, is what happened to them in the 1960s.

Ramesses II

Ramesses never did anything small or half-assed.  Ever.  I’d suggest he was compensating for something, but his 100+ children might contradict that theory.  Some call him “Ramesses the Great,” but I’ve come to think of him as “Ramesses the Overachiever.”

He came to power at age 25 and died at age 90.  That gave him 65 years to cement his influence on Egypt.  It certainly helps that he was also a really capable pharaoh.

Two statues of Ramesses at Abu Simbel
Two of the four statues of Ramesses. They originally all bore a beard and headdress, both indicating this is a pharaoh.

Abu Simbel

Even today, Abu Simbel is incredibly remote, home to a small airport, some tourist shops, and absolutely nothing else.  It’s in the middle of Sahara close to the Sudan border.  As such, you pass an awful lot of barricades manned by people with AK-47s.

This is completely contrary to most of ancient Egypt, which is almost always located within the Nile valley.  The only reason this grand temple was built at Abu Simbel was because of a rich mine located there.

The Superiority of Ramesses

The more famous temple at Abu Simbel features four 60 foot statues cut into the rock face, all of…himself.  They used to be identical, but over 3000+ years each has lost a few things: beard, crown, head, etc.

The figures between and beside Ramesses’s legs are select wives and children.  Size shows superiority and inferiority in Egyptian art.  Some pharaohs show their wives as of equal or near equal height, but here his mother, wives and daughters don’t even reach his knee.  Still, they’re all taller than tourists, so”inferiority” is highly subjective here!

Temple of Nefertari, great wife of Ramesses II
There is a second temple at Abu Simbel, one dedicated to his wife, Nefertari, and the goddess Hathor. It depicts six colossal figures: two of the wife and four of Ramesses. At least she got to be the same size, the only wife who ever got that honor.

ra-harakhteReferences to other gods on the front of the temple are small, even though it is dedicated to four.  Over the doorway is Ra-Harakhte.  He’s holding two items, a mes and ses, and images of these items are used in Egyptian hieroglyphics as letters.  So what you have is ra-mes-ses. It’s a 3000 year old joke. There are also two figures making offerings to Ra-Harakhe.  That would be Ramesses again.

Inside Ramesses’s Temple

Inside the temple, the outer chamber is held up by eight columns in the shape of – you guessed it – Ramesses.  The ceiling is covered in a bird motif, probably the sky god Horus as a falcon.  The walls are also carved in a variety of scenes depicting Ramesses as triumphant leader and Ramesses as properly honoring the gods.  The last is actually standard for temples.

Interior of Ramesses's temple at AbuSimbel

Four gods: Ptah, Amun, Ra-Harakhte and RamessesThe innermost chamber is the “holy of holies,” where statues of the honored gods are kept.  Here there are four: Ptah, Amun, Ramesses, and Ra-Harakhte. You can identify them by their hats and, in the case of Ra, also his animalistic head.  (Ptah’s head, at left, is missing.)

Need for Modernization

Now, the present.

Egypt has no oil of note, making it dependent on neighboring states for energy.  In fact, it has few natural resources, and its primary source of income is tourism.  After the country gained independence, its leaders felt it important to become more self-sufficient.  The solution was the Aswan Dam.

Temple carved into pieces; facew being lifted away
Dismantling the temple

The dam provides Egypt with hydro-power and keeps a reservoir is case of drought.  That reservoir, known as Lake Nasser, stretches for 300 miles behind the dam, flooding a great amount of formerly desert land, including the location of the Abu Simbel temples.

The Egyptian government was willing to destroy numerous temples in the name of progress, and today, some sit at the bottom of the lake.  Abu Simbel was only rescued by a group organized through the United Nations, which built a temporary barrier around the temple, cut the temple into 1200 pieces, built an artificial mountain, and reconstructed the temple within it.

The result is almost undetectable unless you’re looking for it.  The rough rock face looks the most piecemeal, and I doubt it was high priority for the workers.

Wall cut into blocks and reassembled
The cuts are most obvious in the surrounding rock face.  Click on the image for a larger image to better see the cuts.

Below, a model shows the current location of the temples in relation to Lake Nasser, as well as the would-be location of the temples underwater had it not been moved. Ramesses’s temple is on left; Nefertari’s is on right. The hills are entirely artificial.

Model of the current temples in relation to Lake Nassar, as well as the world-be location of the temple underwater had it not been moved.

Restoration or Repair?

The temple was damaged long before it was transplanted.  The most notable damage is the figure second from the left, whose head and torso broke away from the body many centuries ago.  When the temple was disassembled and reassembled, what was to be done with the head and torso?

The answer was to drop them at the foot of the statue just as they had sat before the move.  The purpose was to save the temple from flooding, not to reconstruct it, and with that outlook it made sense not to repair the damage.  As historians and archeologists, we often see value in both the original piece and damage it has sustained since its creation.  Thus, we may continue to preserve broken bits as broken.

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