A crowd of over 4,000 people descended on Abu Simbel 280km south of Aswan on Wednesday to witness a phenomenon that only takes place twice a year. On 22 February and 22 October 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.
Despite the cold weather, visitors stayed awake all night waiting for the sunrise, entertained by a musical troupe performing Nubian folkloric songs and dances as well as other troupes from Indonesia, Greece and India.
The atmosphere was joyous, as hibiscus and tamarind drinks were sampled along with stuffed dates served on large, coloured bamboo plates. The sound of music filled the dry night air, as women, men, boys, and girls in colourful Nubian garb danced to the rhythm of the duf, a kind of tambourine, while other foreign dancers in traditional costumes danced to their music.
Archaeological chief inspector Hossam Aboud said the celebrations took place every year and that people from neighbouring villages often flocked to Abu Simbel to attend. According to Aboud, couples have even been known to plan their weddings on the day. One couple had chosen to have their wedding ceremony within the temple itself, he said.
Beit Fekry, the house of a Nubian citizen called Fekry, was also buzzing with people who had come to celebrate the sun’s alignment in their own way. They danced to Nubian music and moved in rows backwards and forwards.
At 3am, people began to reserve their seats at the foot of the monumental temple.
At 6:25am, the sun struck the innermost wall of the temple’s sanctuary, illuminating images of the right arm of the god Re-Horakhti, the face of Ramses II, and the right shoulder of the god Amun-Re, leaving only the god Ptah in darkness.
Twenty minutes later, the temple was dark again.
Afterwards, a Swiss tourist who had come to witness the festival and celebrate 200 years since Abu Simbel’s discovery told Al-Ahram Weekly that although the event was “great it was also difficult because people had to position themselves so as not to obstruct the sun’s rays and move quickly so that others could see.”
He said he had been so wrapped up in being careful that he had almost not been able to see the event.
Mahmoud Afifi, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, said people sometimes wrongly confused the event with Ramses II’s coronation or birth, while it was actually the way the ancient Egyptians identified the beginning of summer and winter in order to alert farmers to the start of the cultivation season or harvest.
The two Abu Simbel Temples were built by Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE) to demonstrate his political clout and divine backing to the ancient Nubians. On each side of the main temple, carved into a sandstone cliff overlooking the Nile’s second cataract, sits a pair of colossal statues of the pharaoh.
Though the statues have been damaged in earthquakes since their construction, they remain an awe-inspiring, tremendous sight. The temple is aligned to face the east, and above the entrance sits a niche with a representation of Re-Horakhti, an aspect of the sun god.
In the early 1960s the temple was moved to higher ground, a task requiring considerable international resources, when the building of the Aswan High Dam caused Lake Nasser to fill and inundate the area. For this reason, the sun now strikes a day later than originally planned, though the event itself is no less stunning.
This year, the event also marks the celebration of 200 years since the discovery of the Abu Simbel Temples by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who died shortly after his discovery, and his colleague Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni.
To highlight this in advance of the gala ceremony to be held in October, the ministry organised a photographic exhibition in the area’s visitor centre that related the history of the temples since their discovery in 1817. The exhibition was inaugurated by ministers of culture Helmi Al-Namnam and of antiquities Khaled El-Enany.
Hisham Al-Leithi, head of the Antiquities Registration Centre, told the Weekly that the exhibition put on show a collection of 50 vintage photographs showing the temples covered with sand, while others showed their excavation. Other photographs showed the salvage operation of the temples in the 1960s and their relocation and reconstruction at their current location in the desert on a 65-metre artificial hill above the High Dam to protect them from the waters of Lake Nasser.
Restoration work is also shown in the photographs.
COMMEMORATING “SHEIKH IBRAHIM”: At the steps of Burckhardt’s final resting place in Babul Nasr in Cairo, Swiss ambassador to Egypt Markus Leitner made a speech commemorating 200 years since his death and coinciding with the celebration of 200 years since the discovery of the Abu Simbel Temple.
A few months after discovering the temples, Burckhardt passed away at the early age of 33 due to food poisoning. His Italian colleague Belzoni continued the exploration work and brought the temples to light.
“Burckhardt was a great Swiss traveller, a scientist-scholar who linked Switzerland to Egypt,” Leitner told the Weekly. He added that Burckhardt had been very interested in the life of the modern Egyptians and that his notes had contributed significantly to knowledge of Egypt and the life of its inhabitants as well as their traditions and habits in the early 19th century.
In order to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the discovery of temples, several events were to take place in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities until 23 October when a gala ceremony was to be held at the footsteps of the Temple of Abu Simbel, Leitner said.
He explained that in May a temporary exhibition on the life of Burckhardt and his discoveries was to be held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The exhibition, Leitner continued, would also include other major discoveries that had been made in 1817 with other scholars.
During this same year, he said, the magnificent tomb of Seti I had been uncovered in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor by Belzoni. Also in May, a project called the “Swiss Trail” would be launched identifying different places in Cairo with Swiss links.
During the sun’s alignment on 23 October, he said, the Swiss Embassy would commemorate 200 years since the death of Burckhardt by organising a special performance on the steps of the Abu Simbel Temple and bringing Swiss artists to Egypt.
The Swiss had made many contributions to archaeology since Burckhardt, he said. In collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities a team from Basel University had restored the Stoppelaëre House in Luxor with a view to developing it as a cultural and scientific centre for heritage, he added.
Swiss archaeological missions were very active in Aswan. Since 1969, the Swiss Institute had been working alongside German colleagues on the Nile island of Elephantine, and the Swiss Water Programme in Aswan was inaugurated recently to improve the potable water supply to 100,000 inhabitants of the informal settlement of Al-Nassereya, an area that had long suffered from irregular supplies, he said.
“This is one of our international cooperation investments in Egypt,” Leitner told the Weekly. He said that water was an important issue in Egypt and that Switzerland was a “water country, which is why we have a particular focus on water”.
“Switzerland promised this project and laid its foundations two years ago. Now it is delivered,” he said.
Leitner explained that more than 100 Swiss companies had major investments in Egypt. Some of the largest pharmaceutical, cement and food production companies in Egypt were Swiss, he said.
“We have major investors in Egypt, and they are continuing their investments. But to attract new investors, a new framework should be put in place. We see that the government is moving in that direction and introducing reforms. Once they start implementing these reforms, many more investors will come,” Leitner said.
Leitner at Borckhardt’s tomb
JOURNEY OF AN EXPLORER: When Burckhardt travelled to the Near East, Egypt and Arabia at the beginning of the 19th century, he did not expect that he would stumble upon what are believed to be the most important monuments ever found in the region: the forgotten city of Petra in Jordan and the unique Temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt.
During his long voyage from 1809 to 1817 under the auspices of the African Association in London to discover the interior of what was still the Dark Continent of Africa, Burckhardt acquired an intimate knowledge of the orient. He dressed in traditional Arab garb, grew his beard long, spoke Arabic fluently, adopted an Arabic name and called himself Sheikh Ibrahim Abdallah Al-Mahdi.
He converted to Islam, studied the Quran, and became one of the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
He started his exploration in Syria, where he visited the remains of Palmyra and Baalbek. In 1812, he left for Egypt, crossing Palestine and what is now Jordan where he discovered Petra, the forgotten city in the desert with its rock-hewn palaces, temples, lavishly decorated funerary vaults, amphitheatres, aqueducts and other wonders that make these ruins one of the most interesting places in the world.
He continued his trip to Egypt and went to Upper Egypt and Nubia. He was the first and last traveller to describe Nubia in pre-colonial times. His detailed descriptions in his diary resemble a film documentary.
He was fascinated by the Bedouin’s life, culture, religion, kinship relations, festivals, music and traditional oral narratives. He also collected a large collection of Arabic proverbs.
On his way back to Aswan, Burckhardt stumbled upon his second major discovery: the Abu Simbel Temples.
He saw the Queen Nefertari Temple, then largely buried by sand dunes, and when climbing up the sandy slope of the mountainside through a cleft in the rock he stumbled upon the Ramses II Temple.
He wrote in his diary that “having luckily turned more to the southward, I fell in with what is still visible of four immense colossal statues cut out of the rock at a distance of about two hundred yards from the temple. It is greatly to be regretted that they are now almost entirely buried beneath the sands, which are blown down here in torrents… The head which is above the surface has most expressive, youthful countenance.”
Burckhardt talked about his discovery with Belzoni, who travelled to the site but was unable to dig out an entry to the temple. Belzoni returned to the site in 1817 and succeeded in entering the complex.
Back in Cairo, Burckhardt spent his time revising his travel diaries while waiting for the caravan to Fezzan in Libya with which he was to leave for the African heartland.
With the help of the then British consul, Henry Salt, Burckhardt organised the transport of a life-size granite head of a statue of Ramses II from the Ramesseum Temple in Luxor to London. The head weighed 12 tons, and Belzoni was in charge of the transportation from Luxor to Alexandria to London.
Almost 110 workers worked for a month to remove the head from its original location in the temple and ship it to London where it was put on display in the British Museum.
Burckhardt also offered the library of Cambridge University his manuscripts collection, which contains more than 300 valuable Arabic manuscripts. The collection includes some very early pieces along with important historical, literary and philological texts.
Regretfully, Burckhardt was not able to make it to Libya. Shortly before the Fezzan caravan at long last set out, he fell victim to a severe attack of dysentery, which led to his death in October 1817.
He was buried in Cairo in the Bab Al-Nasr cemetery. A memorial tablet reads: “He [God] is the only constant One. This is the tomb of the blessed and received in God’s mercy — sublime be He — the deceased Sheikh Ibrahim, the righteously guided son of Abdallah Burckhardt of Lausanne. The date of his birth is the 10th of Muharram of the Hijra, the date of his death, by God’s mercy in Cairo, the well-guarded, is the sixth of Zul-Hega in the year 1232, in the name of God the Father of Mercy, the Merciful.”
Between 1819 and 1830, the London African Association published the original English text of Burckhardt’s notes and diaries in five volumes. These books were very successful owing to the enormous enthusiasm in Europe for oriental memoirs, and they were soon translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish.