Up before the sun
Freezing with the Japanese
Up freakishly early today. We wanted to see the sunrise at Abu Simbel. It is supposed to be the thing to see. Sleeping lightly, we awoke with the early birds. However their internal clocks are a bit messed up by all the lights in the hotel, and we were a good couple of hours early! Still, we have time to make the most of it. A gentle stroll towards the temple, and it was time for morning prayers. Here it is a subdued thing. Almost as if the Imams are saying across a quiet loudspeaker that it is time to get up, but if you don’t want to, we understand. There were some people moving around already, and a few coffee shops were open. Probably to supply the workers at the temple a much needed shot of caffeine before work. As we approached the last section to the temple complex, a lot of tourist buses came past. This was a bit surprising, as there did not seem to be that many tourists in town yesterday. On arrival, the gauntlet of tourist shops on the way in were all still closed, so that was a blessing.
Getting our tickets we wondered why the price marked on there is 80LE, but cost us 95. Apparently a guide is compulsory, but at 5.30am there were none to be seen. We were told we could get one at 8! This is pointless, as most of the guides we have had or overheard only point out the blindingly obvious. This is the temple of so and so, this is a chariot, look at the crocodile here. Completely ignoring most of the history of the temple, and if you ask what a room was for, it is always storage. Apparently the holiest of holies was used for storing those bits and pieces that couldn’t fit anywhere else… A gross exaggeration, but it feels as if the guides have no idea, and not very interested anyway.
Making our way around the fake concrete hill that the temple now resides in, we got our first glimpse of the massive statues Abu Simbel is famous for. These are big!! Very big. One would go as far as saying beyond colossal. They are that big. Even in the pre dawn light they are impressive. Standing there, staring out over Lake Nasser waiting for the sunrise. Ignoring the throngs of people milling around its base. All these people were Japanese, and apparently flew in for the sound & Light show last night, dawn this morning and then flying back before lunch. All rugged up in thick coats. We envied them, as it was cold. Finding a place out of the wind was impossible, but at the moment it was not too bad. So with teeth chattering and knees knocking, we waited for the sun to rise in an hour and a half’s time. The pre-dawn light turned into a glow, and the dark statues became more visible. Finally there was a slither of light appearing over the horizon. All the Japanese people started applauding as if some ancient Egyptian priest had come back from the dead to create this monumental event. Quietly putting the scarab back in his box before anyone could see it. It was a nice sunrise though. Now the colours of the rock were starting to change, deep red through to orange and then back to its base colour. As there is no mountain between it and the sun, there is no distinct line of light traversing the statues from top to bottom (as with the treasury of Petra) but as you can see the changes are vivid.
Mission accomplished, we headed over to Nefertari’s temple, to let the others into the main temple, as we would be able to enjoy it later.
Nefertari’s temple also has large statues outside, but as it was built by Ramses, most of them are him. However he consented to having two statues of her flanking the doorways. Stepping inside was fantastic.
I could go on about how well preserved it is, or how seamlessly moved, the press of thousands of years on your shoulders, or even the brilliant carvings, but no, what was fantastic was the warmth! Every part of me was frozen solid by now, and the regulated temperature of an underground chamber helped thaw my blood. After a few minutes we were able to appreciate the above. The temple is good, intact and in its own way impressive in its simplicity. Hathor pillars and carvings depicting Ramses’s accomplishments. On one wall there is the great megalomaniac himself slaughtering his enemies, with her standing behind watching approvingly (our “guide” later said it was her telling him to stop, showing caring compassion to her enemies). After taking our time here we headed out and into the main temple.
The Japanese had left, and the tour buses not yet arrived, so we had it mostly to ourselves. The people here are picky about the no photos rule. In Nefertari’s temple they just watched us.
Here we had to put the camera away entirely. However it did not stop them from smoking or using flash lights. So we pulled out our own flash light to look at the fine details. This was then duly inspected to make sure it did not contain a hidden camera by one of the chain smoking guards. Not in a polite way either. This was needless and demeaning behaviour, and the guy was not friendly at all. Almost as if we were criminals and he just had to catch us. It was not a pleasant feeling. Later there were Egyptians here, and he had no problem with them taking photo’s with their phones!
Still we got to wander around the large complex for a while by ourselves (and the guy constantly popping his head around corners in the hopes of catching us taking sneaky photos). The entrance chamber pillars are flanked with more statues to his mightiness, and again the battle of Garesh with him slaughtering his hapless captives. The statues at the end of the temple have been badly defaced, apparently because they were covered with gold, and it was the easiest way to get it off. Personally I do not believe this, but it s a good story.
Then we started exploring the side storage chambers. These are all still intact, but the work is cruder than most places we have seen. It is good to see it due to the scenes depicted and the lack of destruction, but not for the quality of work. A fair bit could have been done by a talented four year old. However if you want to become a master craftsman, you have to start somewhere. Ramses is also known for his quantity of buildings, rather than his quality.
By now the tourist buses from Aswan had arrived, so we went back out to soak up the atmosphere, and watch the tourists run hectically from place to place so they can see it all before piling back on the bus to return after an hour.
Glad we did not do that ourselves. The other thing that is worth mentioning is the torch. TAKE ONE! The lighting in the complex is all lit from the bottom, and while it provides a nice atmospheric lighting, it does nothing to show up the details. The carvings are intricate if rough in places, and the painting that remains can be stunning in sections. How the dresses looked, the necklaces and anklets, even the headdresses. You cannot see any of this without a torch.
We had had enough by now. We were going to stick around until the convoy left, but did not see the point in waiting. Heading back out, we looked for a guide, but could not find one until we exited the complex. We had paid for one whether we wanted to or not, so we were going to use him. Finding one, we were taken into the small room off the ticket office where they have all the details and images of moving the temple two hundred metres whilst battling with the rising waters of lake Nasser.
Here the only real information we got from the guide was that there was an earthquake in around 27BC that caused one of the statues to collapse. The statues at the back being covered with gold (as mentioned above) and Nefertari being compassionate while her husband executed his enemies. Big deal. He went on at length about moving the temple, but the things in the room were more explicit and better represented. One issue we had here, was how it was all through Egyptian expertise and how good they were. Looking at the foremen in the photos, it may have been the Egyptians doing the grunt work, but it was Europeans telling them how to do it. Seeing modern constructions in Egypt, I am glad this was the case. It never once mentioned UNESCO (I Know, I Know. UNESCO – we love to hate them, but they do do good work.) or the Hundreds of Millions of dollars given by America and Europe to pay for this. Egypt itself would have been happy to see it submerged for the next thousand years. Admittedly, it is before they realised how much money they could make from tourism.
We wandered back to the bus station, lamenting that Abu Simbel town is such a nice place that we could easily have stayed in for a week, if there was more affordable accommodation and waited for a mini bus. The French connection showed up, happy with the time they had spent there as well. They were not present for sunrise, but they did get to see it deserted after the convoy left. It was easier to get the bus back than out, but took a lot longer to fill. Still, we were right. The trip back was the same monotonous route, so we tried to get some sleep. This was probably a bad idea, as we were sore and stiff on arriving at the halfway mark, let alone when we got all the way back to Aswan! Still, we accomplished what we had wanted, and Abu Simbel town is great, the temples are worth doing if you have the time, especially if you do not have to do it on a day trip, and we had met very good people there.