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Solar unity
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 02 - 2019

Abu Simbel's solar alignment last week had a different taste. Thirty-six African ambassadors and heads of missions joined Egyptians in celebrating the phenomenon that takes place twice a year.
On 22 October and 22 February every year, the sun's rays travel through the Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel to illuminate the face of a statue of the pharaoh and the statues of the deities Amun-Re and Re-Hur-Akhty, leaving the god of darkness Ptah in the shade because of his connection to the underworld.
Despite the cold, the usually calm Upper Egyptian town of Abu Simbel was abuzz with King Ramses II fever. A crowd of over 6,500 people gathered at Abu Simbel 280 kilometres south of Aswan on Friday to witness the solar alignment. Visitors stayed awake all night in front of the temple on the bank of Lake Nasser waiting for sunrise, entertained by a musical troupe performing Nubian, African, Chinese, Moroccan, Belgian and other international folklore songs and dances. The atmosphere was joyous, as the sound of music filled the night air and women, men, boys and girls in colourful garb and folkloric attire danced to the rhythm.
Before the festivities, Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enani, accompanied by Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr, Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem, Tourism Minister Rania Al-Mashat and Minister of Communication Amr Talaat along with Aswan Governor Ahmed Ibrahim, ambassadors and heads of missions from 22 African countries flocked onto Abu Simbel Temple's bedrock to celebrate the event.
This year's celebration is not only a promotional campaign to celebrate the solar alignment but highlights the strong cooperation among five ministries to hold a seminal event for the ambassadors, especially after Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced that Aswan would be the city of African youth, coinciding with Egypt heading the African Union and hosting the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Al-Enani told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that it was also a unique message to the whole world that Egypt is a country of peace, science and a great civilisation and that its antiquities are the “soft power that can easily penetrate hearts”.
Abdel-Dayem described the event as “a good and strong beginning” for Egypt as it chairs the African Union.
Guests toured both temples of King Ramses II and his beloved wife Nefertari and the artificial rock on which King Ramses II Temple was reconstructed.
On the deck of a Nile cruise boat docked in front of the temple, they took their seats in a gala dinner hosted by the Ministry of Communication as streams of oriental music filled the night air of Lake Nasser.
Al-Mashat thanked the ministries of antiquities and culture for their cooperation in organising the event. She said the Ministry of Tourism “needs all efforts to make the best use of events to promote tourism to Egypt”.
“Here we are with our brother ministers from the Egyptian government and we feel for the first time that we are one entity, and this is what President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is adopting,” the Cameroon ambassador, who is the dean of African ambassadors, told the audience. He noted that it was the first time that the African ambassadors attend this solar alignment together, a fact that he described as a new beginning of a complete Egyptian-African era, showing “one African fabric”.
The salvage operation of both temples was proof that Egypt was able to adapt to changes and would not sit idly by in the face of difficulties it had to deal with. After the salvage, the equinox was visible on 21 February and 21 October, but after the relocation, that shifted by one day.
Hussein Bassir, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum, told Al-Ahram 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). The equinox takes place twice a year at the Tropic of Cancer some 50 kilometres south of Aswan at Bab Kalabsha in Nubia.
The architects and astronomers at the time of Ramses II, Bassir said, had planned the Temple of Abu Simbel and hewed it out of rock some 180 kilometres 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, and 25 days after the autumnal equinox.
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. 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 reverse 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,” Bassir 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 to the start of the cultivation season and the harvest.”


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