13 - 19 June 2002
Issue No.590
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New Kalabsha at Aswan

Twenty-three Nubian monuments were saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser back in the 1960s, but only now is the Temple of Gerf Hussein seeing the light of day, writes Jill Kamil

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Egypt has a new temple -- the Temple of Gerf Hussein, now rebuilt on the island of New Kalabsha, where the stone blocks transported from the old site half way between Aswan and Abu Simbel have been lying in the searing sun for 30 years.

The blocks of Gerf Hussein, alone among the monuments transported to New Kalabsha, were left unattended, appearing to all intents and purposes to be no more than rocks carefully laid out for some obscure future construction. Yet these anonymous blocks were actually a dismantled rock temple that went by the name of Per- Ptah, the "House of Ptah", founded in the reign of Ramses II by Setaw, a high- ranking official who held the post of viceroy of Nubia, and who supervised its construction on the same plan as Ramses' temple at Wadi Al-Sebua (Valley of the Lions).

Since few people can lay claim to having seen the temple in its original location in the Nubian village from which the temple took its name (see map), its reconstruction ranks as one of the most momentous archaeological activities of today. It recalls those days, back in the late 1960s, before the completion of the High Dam, when one could still sail from the port of Shellal south of Aswan through Nubia and see the temples in their original locations, mostly overlooking the Nile.

Last month the island of New Kalabsha was inspected by officials from the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in preparation for the official opening of New Kalabsha and its five monuments -- three temples, a kiosk and a tomb. However, that one, Gerf Hussein, only so recently been reconstructed, begs the question: why the long delay, and, indeed, the delay in officially opening up New Kalabsha to the public? One explanation could lie in that the site was originally expected to remain as a part of the mainland, but when the River Nile backed up on itself after the completion of the High Dam, New Kalabsha -- and its salvaged monuments -- found itself an island, unapproachable except by launch from the High Dam port.

Among the temples was the famous Kalabsha Temple itself, dedicated to the Lower Nubian sun god Mandulis, a structure 76 metres long and 22 metres wide, which was rescued by the Federal Republic of Germany in a major operation during which 20,000 tons of dismantled stone were transported and re- erected within a space of 18 months. The Temple of Beit Al-Wali -- one of Ramses II's rock-hewn temples, known as "the house of the holy man" because it was used as a hermit's dwelling -- was saved by a Polish archaeological team financed by a joint Oriental Institute of Chicago/Swiss Institute of Cairo project. The elegantly columned structure known as the Kiosk of Kertassi, dedicated to two Nubian deities, and the small rock-cut chapel with reliefs of an unidentified Pharaoh offering to the Nubian god Dedwen (known as the Chapel of Dedwen) were reconstructed by an Egyptian mission of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation, now the SCA.

When President Gamal Abdel-Nasser went ahead with plans for the construction of the High Dam and it became clear that the beautiful land that once linked Egypt and Sudan would be lost forever, the monuments were surveyed and an archaeological rescue operation was launched on an unprecedented scale. The magnitude of the task forced Egypt to seek the help of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Within a few months, the Documentation and Study Centre for the History of Art and Civilisation of Ancient Egypt was founded and missions started making detailed surveys, plans and photographs of all the threatened sites and buildings.

A photogrammetic survey of the area lying within the Egyptian stretch of Nubia, Lower Nubia, was carried out by L'Institut Géographique Nationale, and in 1959 UNESCO took the first major step of calling together a group of leading authorities in various fields of archaeology and architecture to make recommendations. This "committee of 13", as it was called, was drawn from eight countries. Its task was to consider how the excavations should be handled, whether the monuments should be removed to safety or preserved in situ, and, of course, what the work would cost and who should pay for it.

To encourage collaboration -- and with time running out -- Egypt's then culture minister announced that his government would cede to the foreign archaeological teams half of all finds made during excavations, other than those considered unique or essential to Egypt's national collections. Moreover, any country which sent an archaeological expedition to Nubia would be given a concession to dig in Egypt itself. Finally, Egypt would allow the transfer abroad of certain Nubian temples and various antiquities from the state reserves.

MapThe response was immediate. In March 1960 UNESCO's director-general, Vittorino Veronese, launched the appeal which resulted, eventually, in the saving of 23 temples -- some completely, some only partially. Some were transported abroad and have been erected in fine locations: the Ptolemaic Temple of Debod in Madrid, Spain, on a cliff with an artificial channel in front of it; that of Tafa (also Ptolemaic) in the courtyard of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, Netherlands; Dendur, which dates from the Roman period, in a vast hall, the Sackler Wing in the Metropolitan Museum in New York; and a rock-temple from the time of Thutmose III (ca. 1450 BC) in Turin Museum, Italy.

The temples saved near to their original locations in Nubia included the most well known, the Temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, which were rebuilt atop the mountain; the Temple of Isis, now constructed on the neighbouring Island of Agilkai (still known as Philae); and the temples of Maharraka, Dakka and Sebua, which were dismantled and re-erected at a site at Wadi Al-Sebua. The temples of Derr and Amada were transported to a safe site near Amada.

Now, at last, Gerf Hussein has been added to the list. It is a fine temple, approached through a large quadrangular court surrounded on three sides by covered colonnades of elegantly fashioned lotus columns, and dedicated to the cults of Re-Harakhte and Amun-Re. In the rock- hewn part of the temple is a large hall, its ceiling supported by six pillars against which stand colossal statues of Ramses II. An ante- chamber leads to the three chapels, the largest of which is the sanctuary decorated with reliefs of Ramses II in the company of the gods; in one relief he offers fresh vegetables to the god Ptah.

In the Nubia Museum at Aswan, on a rocky slope of sandstone and granite overlooking the ancient Egyptian granite quarry which houses more than 3,000 items from various sites in Nubia, the focal point of its central exhibition hall is a colossal statue of Ramses II which hails from Gerf Hussein. It is unique in not having been fashioned by royal sculptors, but by the people of Nubia, in sandstone. It was too fragile to be transported to New Kalabsha along the architectural elements of his salvaged temple and the other statues.

The Nubia Museum, like New Kalabsha, had an inordinately long gestation period. It was originally scheduled for completion in 1987, subsequently postponed, more than once, and finally opened to the public only in November 1997.

It has taken a long time to resuscitate Nubia's heritage but, based on the popularity of the Nubia Museum, where Nubian family groups roam around the two-level, well laid-out galleries to show their children a glimpse of their past -- the dioramas of Nubian village life and folklore help them to do so -- it is fair to postulate that, once reconstruction of the temple of Gerf Hussein is complete and the island of New Kalabsha opens with all its reconstructed temples and its visitors' centre, it, too, will be one of the main attractions in Aswan.

Recommended reading:

Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser, Jocelyn Gohary, AUC Press, Cairo, 1998

Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa, David O'Connor, University Museum, Pennsylvania, 1993

Temples and Tombs of Ancient Nubia, T Save- Soderbergh, Thames & Hudson, London, 1987

Nubia under the Pharaohs, B G Trigger, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976

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