Al-Ahram Weekly Online
3 - 9 January 2002
Issue No.567
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

In the company of scholars

On a well-earned break from a heavy work schedule, Nevine El-Aref headed south to Aswan and beyond and found that Kalabsha and Abu Simbel are perfect places to relax

Kalabsha Temple bathed in dramatic light as it will henceforth appear at nightfall
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi
As a married woman with career responsibilities and multiple home chores, notably school-age children and homework supervision, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. I, therefore, leapt recently at a sudden opportunity to escape. My trip to New Kalabsha and Abu Simbel -- without the family -- was unhurried enough to allow me to regain my cool, at the same time it was educational enough to inspire a new burst of enthusiasm to greet the new year.

Whether at work or not, my interest lies in Egyptology. So was it by chance that, no sooner had I arrived in Aswan and settled down in my hotel, I found myself with a team of Egyptologists -- or are we automatically drawn to one another? After a while, and although it was already after 9pm, we decided to take a boat to Kalabsha temple which lies on the shores of Lake Nasser.

We crossed the High Dam to the western bank of the Nile and assembled at the pier. Some 20 of us, mostly professional archaeologists, including a team responsible for upgrading and developing the New Kalabsha area, clambered aboard three small motor boats, more like fishing boats than tourist vessels.

I must say that it was not the most pleasant of journeys, although a short one in terms of time. For one thing, it was dark. For another, the lights of the vessels kept turning off and on erratically. And my fear -- and I did, indeed, feel disturbed -- was because the sheen on the water cast shadows on what I imagined to be unrecognisable hidden creatures swimming around us. I felt as though I were taking part in an adventure movie.

"You're right to be afraid," one of the archaeologists teased me. "This lake is full of crocodiles, and they're all around you!" At that moment, the engine came to a halt, and as I looked into the water I was more than inclined to believe him. To me, if to no one else, crocodiles seemed to be swimming around everywhere. All efforts to restart the motor appeared to be in vain. Fortunately, the perseverance natural to every Nubian sailing in Aswan eventually brought it to life, and off we headed.

We docked in front of Kalabsha temple, which was brilliantly lit. Its stately entrance pylons and columns stood out against the darkened sky. We could make out the road leading from Kalabsha to the small temple of Ramses II known as Beit Al- Wali.

These monuments, along with the Kiosk of Kertassi, which was not floodlit, were transported to this site by a mission of the German Federal Republic during the 1960s salvage operations. But it has never, until now, been properly developed for tourism.

As we walked through the temple I picked up snippets of the scholars' conversation. They were saying that during the dismantling of the temple from its original site, 13,000 blocks of stone were disassembled and rebuilt on this promontory. It is, as a matter of fact, the largest free-standing temple in Nubia, and is dedicated to the Nubian god Mandulis, identified with the Egyptian Horus. Some historians call it the "Karnak of Nubia."

My past visits to Kalabsha had been in broad daylight. This time I gained a completely different perspective. My eye, for instance, fell on a delightful relief I had never noticed before. With the artificial lighting, its features stood out in dramatic contrast. It was the god Mandulis depicted as the human- headed bird-god Horus, with a multiple crown on his head, against a decorative arch of lotus blossoms.

It interested me to follow the experts and listen to their comments about the style of art in the temple. Since it was not built until Graeco-Roman times, the deities were no longer depicted in the idealised peak of physical fitness characteristic of Egyptian art, but showed more human characteristics: a bulging belly, fat buttocks, and the odd pair of arms and legs without muscles.

We spent a good hour in the temple of Kalabsha before taking the path to Beit Al-Wali. It was well-paved with slabs of granite brought from Gerf Hussein in the now-inundated Nubia, the original site of the temple, and huge blocks, also from Gerf Hussein, rose on each side. The overall effect, especially at night, was sheer drama.

Beit Al-Wali is a tiny rock-hewn temple. That is to say, in its original position it was inseparable from the environment. When it was moved, the whole temple had to be cut from the living rock and taken to this new destination, where it has been placed as though in its own natural state. Saving Beit Al-Wali was, on a minor scale, rather like the cutting out of Abu Simbel from its original rock and its re-erection on higher ground.

The focal point of interest in the small temple was the great battle of Ramses II against the Syrians, Libyans and Ethiopians. These scenes still retain their original colour, except for the reliefs in the Holy of Holies which were blackened by smoke created by early Christians escaping persecution in the time of Diocletian. I noted, not for the first time, the representation of the Pharaonic ankh, the key of life, converted into the shape of a crucifix.

Accompanying the archaeologists on this trip were Gaballa Ali Gaballa of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Ayman Abdel-Moneim, who was responsible for the development project of New Kalabsha. From the time the temples were saved and relocated, and until recently, they were isolated from the mainland and few tourists visited the remarkable site. Now a wooden dock has been constructed and Lake Nasser vessels can easily take their clients to the temple. Even Aswan inhabitants can hire a motor boat and make their way there -- as an increasing number of them do. In other words, New Kalabsha has at last become a tourist destination.

It seems that during the years when these temples were off the beaten track, they became a sanctuary for bats and snakes. Abdel-Moneim described how the temples had been cleaned and cleared of their unwelcome occupants. It took more than six months to carry out this task. "When we found that some of the bats refused to move out, we had to light up the temples every night over a period of two months before we could finally get rid of them," he said.

To upgrade the area, said culture minister Farouk Hosni, it was decided to transport to New Kalabsha some of the sculptures created by artists competing in the annual international symposium in Aswan. These have been placed at appropriate positions. Soon to open will be a cafeteria with full facilities. I would have appreciated a cup of hot coffee just then, but had to settle for the few sweets in my pocket.

As I mentioned, I had come to Aswan for an R and R. I had planned nothing more than to sit in the sunshine reading a book. But no sooner did we return to the hotel than I found myself signing up for a place on the hydrofoil to Abu Simbel the following morning.

On the way, we watched a documentary film about the salvage operations of both the temples of Abu Simbel -- the great one built by Ramses II and the smaller temple he constructed for his wife Nefertari. It reminded us of the enormous international effort that went into saving these unique monuments.

I had been to Abu Simbel countless times, but the last occasion was more than a year ago. So on this occasion I was most conscious of the many improvements. One was the wall -- a controversial issue -- which has been built round the whole temple area; another was the visitors' centre; but most noticeable was the shaded path laid out to guide visitors to the temples in an orderly fashion. The latter is intended for traders in crafts, replica antiquities and other local exotica to ply their wares. There is no doubt that the environment at Abu Simbel has been cleaned up and much improved, and the temples -- need I stress-- are as magnificent and awe-inspiring as ever.

I spoke to Hussein Mokhtar, head of the Information Authority Office in Abu Simbel city, and he expressed concern that tourism is not being fully exploited. "True," he says, "the main attractions of Abu Simbel are the two famous temples built by Ramses II, but I am concerned that until now it remains a question of 'Good morning Abu Simbel ... Good-bye Abu Simbel.'

His comment was apt. Tourists are transported to the site by cruise ship, air or by road, but having completed their tour of the two temples, they just go away.

Mokhtar said he felt that an opportunity should be given to the tourists to visit Abu Simbel city, which he described as rapidly growing and being developed in typical Nubian style. "Although the population is not large, their architecture is distinctive; the Nubians practice traditional crafts; and there are old-style coffee-houses." He took me to the village to prove his point, and I agree, there is much to be seen and enjoyed by visitors, and including the village in the itinerary would help promote local industries.

We spent the night at the Seti I Hotel, four stars and very luxurious for Abu Simbel. Sadly, though, there was hardly anyone to appreciate it. Apart from our group it was unoccupied except for two engineers from Toshka. We swam in the pool, and later went on a walking tour of the town of Abu Simbel. This is still in its early stages, its houses confined to two storeys, with many of them featuring the Nubian style of architecture. Needless to say, most of the inhabitants are Nubians and speak the Nubian dialect. I hear that many Nubian inhabitants of Aswan have now returned to what they regard as their ancestral home.

Naturally, we attended the Sound and Light show. It was a magnificent evening; the sky glittered with a thousand stars, and there was that quiet peace that only the desert in Nubia can provide. The show is now presented, thanks to modern technology in the form of ear-phones, in seven languages simultaneously. The new programme uses computer simulation to depict the history of the monuments as well as the period in which this greatest and best-known of Pharaohs, Ramses II, lived. It features his coronation and his battles, particularly his victory at the famous battle of Kadesh in Syria, with details from the huge battle relief on one wall of the temple. We witnessed scenes of his marriage to the beautiful Nefertari, his construction of his temple in Nubia, and its official opening in his reign.

I was thrilled to see, through computer simulation, the temples intact and in their original colours. The four rock-cut colossi of Ramses are in rich hues of blue, red and yellow, colours long eroded by centuries of sandstorms. During the show, the temples briefly disappeared and emerged from the surrounding desert, appearing as it did when discovered in the early 19th century, half-covered with sand.

This is the first time that computer simulation has been installed in an ancient monument. "The experiment has been so successful that it will replace the existing Sound and Light show at Karnak temple, and, eventually, at other sites as well," Mohamed Shafiq, managing director of the Egyptian Sound and Light Company, said.

My break in Aswan was immensely rewarding. Relaxed and unhampered by deadlines -- professional and domestic -- I returned to Cairo filled with renewed energy.

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