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Celebrating Abu Simbel
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 02 - 2016

The usually sedate Upper Egyptian town of Abu Simbel was abuzz with king Ramses II fever as visitors waited for the sun's rays to penetrate through the temple's inner sanctuary on Monday to illuminate the king's face and the statues of the gods Amun-Re and Re-Hur-Akhty, leaving the god of darkness Ptah in the shade because of his connection to the underworld.
This phenomenon only takes place twice a year, on 22 February and 22 October, and it coincides with the birthday and coronation of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II who built the Temples at Abu Simbel. Some believe that the phenomenon also marks the days of cultivation and harvest.
This year, the event coincides with the launch of an international campaign to celebrate the golden jubilee of the saving of the Abu Simbel Temples in the 1960s when they were threatened by the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
The celebrations will last until October 2018 in order to mark the day when the Abu Simbel Temples were reconstructed at their new location on a 65-metre artificial hill above the High Dam in order to protect them from being submerged under the waters of Lake Nasser.
On Sunday at midnight hundreds of people descended on the Abu Simbel Temples 280 km south of Aswan to witness the special equinox event organised this year by the Abu Simbel Temples 50 Campaign in collaboration with the ministries of antiquities and tourism, the Egyptian Tourism Authority, the Engineers Syndicate, the Egyptian Architects Association, the Aswan governorate, the Nubian Club and a number of universities.
Unfortunately, after staying up all night to witness the equinox, the assembled visitors were disappointed to find that fog had blocked the sun's rays from illuminating the face of the statue of Ramses II in the temple's inner sanctuary.
However, this did not affect the celebrations, or the entertainment that had been laid on for visitors. As strains of music from musician Aziz Al-Shawan filled the night air at the archaeological site, visitors were able to watch a re-enactment of the Abu Simbel salvage operations that started in February 1966 and were completed in October 1968.
Engineer Hamdi Al-Sotouhi, who heads the Abu Simbel Temples 50 Campaign, told Al-Ahram Weekly that ten days before the beginning of the event a group of engineers and artists had made a replica of Ramses II's face in an attempt to re-enact the removal of the king's face from one of the four colossi decorating the temple's front entrance as a first step towards its relocation.
The replica face was shown tied with ropes and suspended from a huge crane during the relocation process. Afterwards visitors paid a visit to an exhibition of paintings entitled “Abu Simbel in the Eyes of Painters,” which displays paintings by Egyptian artists expressing their thoughts on the temples and the salvage operations.
Al-Sotouhi said that among the artists was Ahmed Nabil who had returned to Abu Simbel for the event more than 50 years after his first visit. Nabil, Al-Sotouhi said, had been among artist Hussein Bikar's team responsible for the documentation of the temples from 1963 to 1966 by drawing every inch of their structures, decorative elements and hieroglyphic texts.
“This exhibition is the nucleus of a planned museum inside the artificial hill that now supports the temples,” Al-Sotouhi said, adding that the idea was to show the salvage operations as they had happened 50 years ago to a new public. The museum would be a dream come true for him, he said, as he had first submitted plans for it to former minister of culture Farouk Hosni in 2009.
“Now my dream may come true,” Al-Sotouhi said, explaining that the art exhibition could help provide the required budget. Plans are afoot to take the exhibition on a tour around several European countries for two months. The first part of the tour will head for those countries which helped in the 1960s salvage operations, including the former Yugoslavia, Germany, and Italy.
Al-Sotouhi said that visits had been undertaken last year to these countries in order to encourage them to take part in the golden jubilee celebrations.
At the footsteps of the Temple of Ramses II's wife queen Nefertari, another exhibition has been organised on “Women who have Enhanced Egypt's History.” The exhibition displays a collection of 20 images of women who have added to Egypt's history from ancient Egyptian times until the present day. A Bedouin tent displaying a collection of Aswan and Abu Simbel traditional handicrafts has been set up in the temple area.
The Abu Simbel sound and light show took place as usual, and this time round it was attended by Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty and a number of the surviving engineers, archaeologists and workers who took part in the salvage operations in the 1960s.
On the fringes of the golden jubilee celebrations, Eldamaty, along with minister of culture Helmi Al-Namnam and Aswan governor Magdi Hegazi, inaugurated the Abu Simbel Temples International Salvage Operation Documentation Centre.
Director of Abu Simbel antiquities at the Ministry of Antiquities Hossam Aboud explained that the new Centre had been established at a cost of some LE2 million and included a collection of 21 graphic banners and 18 photographs and maquettes relating to the salvage operations that were completed in 1968 at a cost of some $42 million. Egypt paid $14 million of the total cost. A collection of tools used during the salvage operations was also on show.
The Centre has a photographic laboratory and a museological garden, and in its second phase it will include a children's creative centre to raise the cultural and archaeological awareness of Abu Simbel's children.
As the assembled dignitaries waited for the equinox, musical troupes performed Nubian folkloric songs and dances. The atmosphere was joyous as hibiscus and tamarind drinks were quaffed and stuffed dates served on coloured bamboo plates were eaten. The sound of Nubian music filled the dry night air, as women, men, boys, and girls in colourful garb danced to the rhythms of the duf, a traditional tambourine without bells. A pharaonic ballet and dancing tableau was also performed.
“This year's celebration is not only a promotional campaign to encourage tourism in Egypt and prove that the country is safe, but also a unique message to the whole world that Egypt is a country of peace, science and great civilisation,” Al-Sotouhi said, adding that the celebrations would be continued to 2018 in order to mark the golden anniversary of the completion of the Abu Simbel Temples salvage operations.
During the two-year celebrations cultural and archaeological events, seminars, exhibitions and conferences would take place in order to raise awareness not only of the salvage operations but also of Egypt's heritage and civilisation, he said.
Eldamaty said that the shining of the sun's rays on the face of the statue of Ramses II located in the temple's sanctuary was connected to the Abu Simbel Temples more than to any other ancient Egyptian temples. “If the equinox produces similar effects at any other ancient Egyptian temple, it is just a coincidence,” Eldamaty commented, explaining that the effects of the equinox used to happen on 21 February and 21 October, but after the relocation they had shifted by one day.
The salvage operations were proof that Egypt was able to face changes and would not stand by in the face of any difficulties it had to deal with, he said. “The present celebration is a great event that will help promote tourism to Egypt,” he added.
Mohamed Saleh, former director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, told the Weekly that the ancient Egyptians had observed astronomical phenomena such as the helical rising of the sun during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (21 March and 23 September). On these days, the day contains exactly 12 hours and so does the night. The equinox takes place twice yearly at the Tropic of Cancer some 50 km south of Aswan at Bab Kalabsha in Nubia.
The architects and astronomers of the time of Ramses II, he continued, had planned the Temple of Abu Simbel and hewn it out of the rock in an area some l80 km south of the Tropic of Cancer. At this point, the rays of the sun fall upon the mountain in the morning 25 days before the vernal equinox, i.e. on 22 February, and 25 days after the autumnal equinox, i.e. on 22 October.
The temple axis runs perpendicular to the outer mountain surface. The inner halls of the temple were laid out exactly towards the main sanctuary, which contains statues of Ramses II and the gods Ptah, Amun-Re and Re-Hur-Akhty. The sun's rays penetrate into the sanctuary some 61 m inside the temple. During the vernal equinox, they illuminate the statues of Amun-Re, Ramses II and Re-Hur-Akhty for a few days. During the autumnal equinox the statues are illuminated from the reversed side for the same period.
“It was an ingenious project accomplished by the astronomers and architects of the time, who chose the mountain at Abu Simbel because it faces east,” Saleh said. “However, this phenomenon is not related to the king's birthday or his accession to the throne. It was actually a way for the ancient Egyptians to identify the beginning of summer and winter and alert farmers of the start of the cultivation season and the harvest.”

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