LAST IN A 10-PART SPECIAL SERIES: EGYPT, LAND OF ETERNAL REBIRTH
The Egyptian Embassy in Mexico, in cooperation with the National Academy of History and Geography, organized a special presentation late last month to mark the 51th anniversary of the salvation of the iconic Abu Simbel Temples in southern Egypt, with Mexican architect and renowned Egyptologist Manuel Villarruel Vázquez, offering a detailed explanation on how the ancient twin rock temples were disassembled, lifted and reassembled in order to prevent them from being emerged in Lake Nasser when Assan Damn was constructed.
There was also a presentation of a short film on the Abu Simbel project and photographs taken by Mexican architect Enrique Franco Torrijos, as well as a discussion led by Egyptian Ambassador to Mexico Yasser Shaban, who focused on the importance of having salvaged the ancient site.
The incredible engineering feat to rescue Abu Simbel, which took place between 1964 and 1965, entailed dismantling the two 3,000-year-old temples into more than 10,000 blocks (weighing up to 30 tons each) and later reconstructing the entire complex 65 meters higher and 200 meters further back from the lake’s shoreline.
The project was the result of a joint effort by more than 50 nations around the world under the umbrella of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and represented a cost of $40 million, which in today’s money would represent more $250 million. Half of that money came from Egypt and the rest from other nations.
The new venue for Abu Simbel, which was positioned to maintain the same lighting and perspective as the temples’ original site, also required the construction of two massive concrete hills capable of supporting the 10,000-ton structures.
The transporting of the temples, which constituted one of the largest and most ambitious archeological preservation projects ever endeavored, is a perpetual monument to both pharaonic and modern engineering prowess.
The majestic New Kingdom shrines, erected by Ramesses II, the greatest builder of ancient Egypt, in the 13th century BC to glorify his own political and military accomplishments, were hewn from the sandstone cliffs and survived relatively unscathed for more than three millennia in Nubia, on the west bank of the Nile, between the first and second cataracts.
Throughout his vast panoply of constructions — which included the Rameseum in Thebes, the hypostyle hall at Karnak, the major temple at Tanis, the lofty pylon at Luxor and his own magnificent mortuary temple in the Valley of the Kings — Ramesses consistently aggrandized his own greatness using the principle of augmentation both by size and repetition.
And Abu Simbel was no exception.
Carved into the main temple’s façade are four massive images of Ramesses that visually commanded respect and flagrantly elevated him to near-godlike status.
The grand scale was carried out in the interior of the temple as well, where giant figures of the king formed as columns, faced each other across the narrow corridors, their exaggerated mass appearing to appropriate the architectural space.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature of the main temple of Abu Simbel is that the construction is oriented in such a way that, twice a year, the rays of the morning sun shine through the length of the inner temple cave and illuminate the statues of the four gods seated at the end of the structure.
There was also a smaller temple dedicated to Ramesses’ queen Nefertiti, with a foyer dominated by four statues of the king and two of his favorite consorts.
Ramesses, it seems, was determined to outdo in magnificence all of his predecessors by erecting at the southern entrance of his kingdom a set of monuments worthy of the civilization that Egypt had imposed on the region.
With Abu Simbel, he sent a clear and inculcated message to his enemies and potential detractors — with the enormity of the statues, the battle scene murals, the fettered Asiatic and Nubian prisoners depicted in notable reliefs on the foundations, the same captives shown being drug away before the gods as offerings — that here was a king with superhuman powers that should never be opposed.
But in the early 1960s, modern engineering and the construction of the great Aswan High Dam threatened to destroy Abu Simbel with submersion under the Nile’s rising water that were about to result in the creation of the Lake Nasser reservoir.
Determined to spare the temples of Abu Simbel from their pending watery fate, the government of Egypt and UNESCO embarked on a project that was as challenging and perplexing an undertaking as the construction of the original temples must have been.
Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the stone blocks of the temples were carefully disassembled, dismantled, removed, inventoried, numbered, hoisted and, eventually, painstakingly rebuilt piece-by-piece inside concrete dome-shaped structures in a simulated environment on higher ground, onto a ridge just above the original site.
In total the massive Lego reassembly venture involved more than 1,000 blocks, each averaging 13 tons.
The procedure was no easy task, and took an international team of 2,000 historians, craftsmen, scientists, archeologists and engineers and four years to complete.
Two artificial hills with steel tube frames were constructed to house Abu Simbel, and the operation involved not only the moving of the temples but also part of the mountain that surrounded them.
And with the waters of Lake Nasser already rising, a special coffer dam had to be constructed while the dismantling operation was in progress.
Fragile parts of the temple structures had to be braced with steel beams to make them strong enough to endure the journey to the new site.
Never before had such a determined effort been launched by the international community to save a world heritage historical site from obliteration.
In addition to the Abu Simbel temples, 21 other ancient structures were rescued from what was to become the bottom of Lake Nasser.
The whole project was successfully completed, and the re-sited temples were officially reopened on Sept. 22, 1968.
Today, Abu Simbel, in its new, loftier location, is one of Egypt’s leading tourist destinations, visited by no less than 10,000 people each year.
Ramesses II’s great three-dimensional selfie is still the subject of awe and wonder, and the 19th dynasty Egyptian king’s message, so gracefully and impressively rendered in the architecture and décor of Abu Simbel, still proclaims the extraordinary talents of the country’s master engineers, both ancient and modern.