Monday, January 24, 2011

Nubia and Abu Simbel

We check out of the boat, meet at 9:30 to go to the assembly point. We are riding in a small Kia sedan with hilarious big dog headrests. But it is more comfortable by far than that 14 seat van!

We will leave at 11 am in a convoy of about 70 vehicles. This has been policy since about 2005 when some tourists either got lost or were kidnapped depending on the story. No stops allowed on 175 miles trip so no second cup of coffee and hope the Imodium works. (It did.)
The drive through the Nubian Desert reveals an apparently sterile environment with few interesting features. There are rocky outcroppings amid the sand, and as we get deeper into the desert, water mirages, even though there is not that much heat today.

There a few turnoffs toward the east and Lake Nasser where several Nubian temples have been relocated away from the Nile. There were also some remnants of some small Nubian pyramids.

With the exception of military training, the Egyptians today make little use made of this land.

When the high dam was built, tens of thousands of Nubians who had been living along the river were relocated into virtual reservations near Aswan. Their way of life changed forever.
Our drive takes nearly four hours. (It usually takes about three hours.) Convoys move at the speed of the slowest vehicle. We arrive at Abu Simbel about 3 pm and go directly to look at the famous temples.

Abu Simbel is a set of two temples near the border of Egypt with Sudan. It was built for the pharaoh Rameses II who reigned for 67 years during the 13th century BC (19th Dynasty). He wanted to impress Nubians, so size was more important than fine carving.

At Abu Simbel, Rameses II made a huge statement intended to intimidate the Nubians. The image of the colossal statues that stand at its façade are world famous. When you see these massive temples carved from the living sandstone rock, they are incredibly impressive and you are awed by the skill f the builders. But even more awesome is the fact this is NOT their original location.
When the high dam was built, UNESCO and an international team of some 40 engineers created an artificial mountain and cut the whole enormous temple out of its original location and relocated it higher to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Here's an image of that project

Abu SimbelOriginally carved out of the sandstone cliffs above the Nile, these temples were moved to higher ground to protect them from the rising waters of Lake Nasser because of the High Dam. The process of salvaging the Temples by moving them more than 600 feet away and more than 180 feet higher took about four years, starting in 1964.

Because they had originally been carved into living rock, the temple had to be cut into blocks, each weighing up to 30 tons. These temples are is not just the façades but two temples that extend more than 300 feet deep into the limestone cliff. To save these ancient monuments from the rising waters, workmen cut them into immense blocks, lifted the blocks and refitted them into the artificial mountain. They did this so skillfully that you cannot spot the cuts in the rock. Today the setting is different. Instead of overlooking the Nile, they overlook an enormous man-made lake, larger than Lake Champlain.

The four 60-foot tall high statues of Rameses stare towards any possible invader from the south, demonstrating the power the Nubians will face if they continue north. The six colossal statutes of him at the entrance are unusual because because they show Rameses through life, from a young man to maturity, although idealized in all cases. The second statute broke in an earthquake in antiquity, about 40 BC. Though all the pieces are there, the decision was made to leave it as it has been for the last 2,000 years.

As you enter, there is a long frieze of Rameses herding captive Nubians on the left, with the same scene but with captive Syrians on the right.
Nubian prisoners

Within the first chamber there is an entire wall, about 80 feet long and 35 feet tall, depicting in great detail in pictures and hieroglyphics the “official" version of Rameses II victory and personal heroism at the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. A more objective version of the story is that the young Pharaoh (under 25 years old) charged in his chariot headlong at the enemy, was separated from his troops, fought his way clear, was undoubtedly brave but also rash and fortunate to survive. Based on Hittite sources the battle was probably a draw.

Deeper in the temple there are series of very large 40 or 50 foot deep side chambers richly decorated with painted wall carvings, the colors still impressive. These are offering rooms, actually storerooms for tribute brought to the temple priests by the Nubians. The tribute collection is encouraged by annual punitive raids.

Famously in this temple Rameses the king is seen making offerings to Rameses the god in equal standing to of other gods, Ptah, Amon-Ra, and Ra-Horakhty. (Egyptians always liked their gods in trios.) In another relief very deep in the temple both Horus and Seth, the eternal opponents signifying good and evil, are both seen blessing Rameses.

Next to this temple is one dedicated to the Rameses' Great Wife, Nefertari, portrayed as the goddess Hathor, a patroness of love and music. This Temple was built by Ramses II to honor both Hathor as the goddess of love/music and his wife Nefertari as the deified queen. On each side of the entrance, two statues of Ramses flank one of Nefertari dressed as Hathor. The colossal statues, in turn, flank smaller statues of their children.

Nearly all the scenes within are of Hathor blessing Nefertari and of Nefertari making offerings to Hathor. As expected, Isis is featured with Hathor in some scenes. As Dalia says, they were “best friends” in the Egyptian pantheon.

Interior of the queen's temple
After seeing everything we can at the two temples, we head to our hotel, the Eskaleh Nubian House.
This is a very interesting place built of mud brick and domed vaulted ceilings. This combined with clever ventilation helps keep these buildings warm in the cold desert nights and cold during the heat of the day. We go out for a walk and watch the sunset over Lake Nasser.

We really enjoyed the distinctive food and wonderful recorded Nubian lute music. Our host invited Eloise to download a selection of the music on her flash drive which she did. Isn’t technology wonderful, even in Nubia?

Much of the food here is raised on the grounds - eggs and chilcken, and an assortment of vegetables from the gardens. Eloise had a delicious chicken Tajine, a very distinctive Nubian dish. Jim had fried tilapia fish, from the nearby Lake Nasser.

We went out and looked at the stars – Orion was straight overhead and Canopus was high in the sky to the south and very bright. We did not feel comfortable walking far from the hotel to get a better view of the sky but we did enjoy what we saw of the sky.
Our room was very comfortable and pleasant. We had mosquito nets which worked except for Jim’s hand which he let slip outside the netting and acquired about 30 bites on it. But we both slept very well in this delightful quiet place.

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