It happens only twice a year. On 22 October and 22 February, the rays of the rising sun creep into Abu Simbel temple and travel all the way through the dark interior to rest for a few minutes on the Pharaoh’s face in the inner sanctuary.
Those who saw the stunning illumination have only superlatives to describe it. “This incredible phenomenon provides for a most spectacular sight,” a blogger posted on Facebook. “Crowds packed into the temple before sunrise and watched the shafts of light slowly creeping through the rock hewn inner Hypostyle Hall and through to the sanctuary, a journey of some 260 metres long. We pause for a few seconds to watch the sun illuminating the statues of the three gods and and the deified Ramses, whilst the statute of Ptah—the god of darkness—remains in the shadows.”
The twice-a-year marvel of the sun bathing the Pharaoh’s face is just one of the epic features of Abu Simbel temple. The temple itself, one of two a few dozen metres apart—the second was dedicated to Ramses’s beloved wife Nefertari—is sculpted out of the mountain rock, and is possibly the most awe-inspiring of ancient Egypt’s monuments. It was built in the 24th year of the reign of Ramses II, known as Ramses the Great, in 1265BC and took some 20 years to complete. Dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Harakhti, and Ptah, as well as to the deified Ramses II himself, its façade is graced with four colossal 20-metre statues of the Pharaoh with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The interior of the temple features a hypostyle hall 18m long and 16.7m wide supported by eight huge pillars depicting the deified Ramses linked to the god Osiris of the Underworld. The bas-relief on the walls depict battle scenes in which the Pharaoh was victorious, including in the main part his famous triumph over the Hittites in Qadesh, as well as victories in Libya and Nubia.
The hypostyle hall leads to a second pillared hall decorated with scenes of offering to the gods, and of Ramses and his consort Nefertari with the sacred boats of Amun and Ra-Harakhti.
A vestibule at the end of the pillared hall leads to the sanctuary where, against a black wall, stand rock-cut sculptures of four seated figured: Ra-Harakhti, Ramses, Amun, and Ptah.
In the 1960s, Egypt’s decision to build the Aswan High Dam to secure the country’s increasing need for water threatened to drown Abu Simbel under the huge reservoir that was to form behind the dam. Egypt appealed to the international community to save the monuments which would have forever been lost to humanity. A UNESCO-led endeavour managed the epic feat of dismantling the two temples and raising them 64 metres up the sandstone cliff on which they had been built some 3000 years ago. At a cost of USD36 million, 265,000 tons of stone were cut, numbered, and raised then reassembled in the exact same relationship to each other and the sun, and covered with an artificial mountain. The feat was accomplished in 1986.
Back when it was built so many centuries ago, the axis of the temple was positioned so that, on 21 October and 21 February, the rays of the rising sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld who always remained in the dark. When the temples were lifted in the 20th century, however, these dates shifted one day to 22 February and 22 October.
Egyptologist Samy Harak explains that the ancient Egyptians discovered that the sun rises from one given point on the eastern horizon and sets in one given point on the west only twice a year. The time interval between the two dates is dependent on the distance between the sunrise point and the exact east. Every day in the northern hemisphere, the sunrise point moves a quarter of a degree to the north. The ancient Egyptians calculated that at Abu Simbel the twice-a-year dates coincided with 21 February and 21 October. The axis of the temple was aligned so as to allow the sunrays to penetrate the temple and travel into the sanctuary on precisely these days. The opening that allows in the sunlight, Mr Harak says, was designed sufficiently narrow to ensure that the sunrise of the previous or following day, which would be a quarter of a degree away, would miss the opening.
According to Mr Harak, Amelia Edwards who in 1877 wrote her book A Thousand Miles Up The Nile and was the first to describe the Abu Simbel sunrise event, claimed it was one of lasting impression. As the rising sunrays fall on the statues in the holy of holies, she contemplated, they glow in a halo of splendour and glory. The enchantment is yet alive.
22 October 2014