Ramses II had more than 100 children, and he probably had more than one wife. Maybe a harem or a concubine or two — or three or more. But he had one favorite wife, named Nefertari, and he built her a temple right beside his. Much smaller than his temple at Abu Simbel but more than the other mothers got.
Abu Simbel is on Lake Nasser, an artificial lake formed after the building of the High Dam at Aswan. Abu Simbel is about 700 miles south of Cairo, Egypt, and we flew and bused to visit. However, we visited other sites before leaving for Aswan and Abu Simbel. At Dahshur, we received a lesson in early pyramid building from a re-engineered pyramid that would collapse on itself if the angle of the sides were not changed, then to a “step” pyramid, think of smaller boxes stacked on top of each other. The Step Pyramid of King Djoser is considered the oldest stone structure on Earth, built more than 4,700 years ago. My favorite part came inside the tomb of Kagemni, a government official for King Teti (circa 2330 BC), where Eman, our guide, gave us our first lesson in hieroglyphics. The bas-relief carvings on the walls of the tomb show scenes from daily life.
But let’s get back to Abu Simbel. Pictured below is the Nefertari structure, at night during the light show and below that on our daytime visit. Known as the Temple of Hathor, a god usually depicted as a cow or woman, goddess of love, pleasure, patron of dancing and music. The six 30-foot statues show Ramses and Nefertari, her dressed as Hathor and the same height as Ramses’ statue. “Instead of knee-height, as most consorts were depicted,” according to Lonely Planet’s Egypt guidebook. Told you she was a fav.
At the upper far left (above) are carvings of baboons, active at sunrise and therefore greeting the sun and the sun god — something good to have on your temple. Ra-Horakhty stands between the broken statue of Ramses (down since ancient times) and the intact one. Nice to have gods on your temple as well. The temple was carved out of the mountain between 1274 and 1244 BC. Supposedly dedicated to gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah, but Ramses shows up more than they do. With four statues more than 60 feet tall of himself, Ramses stared out over the Nile as a warning to any troublemaker who thought they would venture into his land.
If it’s Ramses’ temple, there have to be prisoners. Note the tied prisoners (above) who have different hair styles, representing that Ramses had conquests to the south, Nubia, and farther into the east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Let’s talk about those shining in the light. Kathy is always lit, but the rest of those in the sanctuary only light up twice a year, and Ptah, on the far right, never shines except when modern electric lights are on. As Ramses designed and built this structure, the first sunlight on February 21 and October 21 would shine far back in the temple to illuminate Ramses and two of the gods. But the sunlight stopped before falling on Ptah, a god of darkness. The special days were Ramses’ birthday and coronation days.
The structures at Abu Simbel represent two marvels, one in ancient times and another in more modern times. First marvel, that people more than 3,000 years ago with no power tools or bulldozers carved this out of the mountain in a way to make the sun shine where they wanted it to. Second marvel, that it was cut apart and moved more than 200 feet higher on the mountain when the High Dam at Aswan was built. The dam opened in 1971, and by then a venture headed up by UNESCO had lifted 35 temples, moving them above the rising lake waters. And the sun still shines. But now it falls on Ramses and two gods a day later.
If I haven’t yet endorsed Road Scholar, the group we toured with, let me do so now — just for the way they let us see Abu Simbel. A wander around in daylight, with Eman’s full explanation of it, the nighttime light show and then the early morning sail-by (video below) as we started sailing across Lake Nasser. Can’t say enough.
More on the High Dam in later posts.