Journal: Tuesday 12 December 1995
The following morning at 3.00am, ten of our group congregated bleary-eyed in the lounge to begin another exciting day. We were to travel by coach in convoy with a police escort, across the Nubian Desert to Abu Simbel, only 50km from the Sudanese border. Leaving in darkness with our pillows and blankets and a packed breakfast we set off on the long journey across 280km of straight bumpy tarmac road. The idea had been to try to sleep on the coach but I found I was much too excited by the prospect of seeing my first real desert landscape, expecting wonderful vistas of huge golden sand dunes. After half an hour of driving at break-neck speed, one of the coaches in front of us crashed into the back of another causing quite a lot of damage. There was a great deal of shouting in Arabic and waving of arms, each driver blaming the other, while the tourist police tried to sort out the problems, but luckily no-one had been hurt and after a while we were able to continue. The highpoint of the journey was when we stopped to watch the sunrise, piling out of the coach wrapped in blankets in the freezing morning air as the sky slowly turned a pale gold. Suddenly the bright fiery ball of the sun began to ascend into the heavens. It was truly a magical moment and I almost expected to see a great scarab beetle, the god Khepri, pushing the sun upwards into the sky in the solar barque of Re to continue its daily journey, so immersed was I in this new magical mythology I had been discovering. Or maybe it was just sleep deprivation inviting hallucinations…. As the light began to increase the powdery golden dunes of my dreams turned into flat expanses of dirty pale yellow sand interspersed with dark crumby rocky outcrops, looking like heaps of coal piled up at the roadside. Later, as we crossed the Tropic of Cancer the outcrops became larger, cones or pyramids moulded by the wind, but still the empty desert stretched on and on as far as the eye could see.
After four hours we arrived at our destination and went straight into the complex of the Temple of Rameses the Great. Since Abu Simbel was first visited by Burckhardt in 1813 many adventurers have been struck by the awe-inspiring facade of the temple built by Rameses II around 3000 years ago with its giant colossal statues of the king sculpted from the mountain rock. I was no less awe-struck than those early travellers as I came face to face with the four giant seated figures of the king. An unexpected freezing wind was blowing off the lake as we went into the temple in search of shelter. We were the first of the day’s visitors and the guardian opened the huge wooden door for us with an enormous golden key fashioned as an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. Inside were colossal statues and painted reliefs of the great Rameses, mainly depicting scenes of the might and strength of the king during his military exploits. His most famous campaign, as advertised on most of his later monuments, was the Battle of Kadesh – incidentally considered a great victory by both sides. The temple was dedicated to Amun-Re, Ptah, Re-Horakhty and the deified Rameses himself and each god is dramatically portrayed in the sanctuary.
A second smaller rock-cut temple, built in honour of Nefertari, the Great Wife of Rameses II and dedicated to the goddess Hathor, lies to the north of the Rameses Temple. Never before had a queen been depicted alongside her husband and on the same scale, as Nefertari is on the facade of her temple. Inside this simple but beautifully feminine monument, the queen is shown taking part in divine rituals with her husband. The accumulation of Nile water after the construction of the new High Dam at Aswan had threatened to engulf the monuments along its Nubian shores, just as it had at Philae Island. In a dramatic race against time UNESCO began a grand rescue operation in 1964, the like of which had never been seen before. In the incredible salvage operation the temples at Abu Simbel were dismantled and cut up into manageable-sized blocks, marked and then painstakingly reconstructed 65 metres higher than the original site, away from the dangers of the encroaching lake. Inside a specially constructed mountain, two gigantic reinforced concrete domes protect the rebuilt temples. I was amazed by this gigantic undertaking and had to keep reminding myself that the temples were no longer in their original position, since tremendous care had been taken with landscaping and orientation of the monuments. Only the fact that we could enter the artificial dome to view its construction reminded me that the original site of Rameses’ temple has now vanished below the waters of the lake.
The journey back to Aswan on the coach during daylight was much more interesting, with strange shimmering mirage-lakes appearing regularly on the horizon, often reflecting the rocky hills behind. We stopped once to photograph a large camel train on its way from Sudan to the camel-markets in Egypt, the poor beasts walking for the whole of their journey of more than 900km.
Amazingly we were back in Aswan in time for a well-earned nap before dinner. Pity the camels didn’t have that luxury.