3,300 years ago, when the Pharaoh Ramesses II started in Abu Simbel the construction of the great temple in honour of the God Ra and himself, as a demonstration of his own greatness, he certainly could not expect that such a project along with a smaller temple dedicated to his wife Nefertari, would would have happened. He could not know that it would have become an extraordinary engineering project  in order to guarantee its preservation that, in a certain sense, get closer to the concept of immortality, at least from a historical point of view.

The Abu Simbel Temples

Above: picture by Dennis Jarvis via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Ramesses II, who ruled for a long time (beyond 70 years, including the period of co-government with his father), had reasons to be proud: he defeated the Hittites in the battle of Qadeš after a moment of wars, he subdued the Nubia and unified the Upper and Lower Egypt.

Statue of Ramesses II inside the Great Temple of Abu Simbel

Above: picture by Blueshade via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

He guaranteed stability and wealth to his country and when the first Jubilee of his kingdomn approached (30 years), he begun the construction of the Great Temple that, amongst the many ones he commissioned, it is to be considered the most majestic one.

 The Great Temple of Abu Simbel

Above: picture by Blueshade via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Four colossal statues of Ramesses II stand on the facade of the temple, entirely dug into the rock (just like the Small Temple), while some other smaller ones which represent his mother, royal spouse, siblings, are placed on the outline.

Above: picture by Olaf Tausch via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 2.0

Inside there are other statues of Ramesses II and a series of representations of the victories of the Pharaoh; however it’s in the Sanctuary that the real meaning of the construction appears: Ramesses II was represented as a deity, sitting between the Gods Ptah, Amon-Ra and Ra-Horakhty.

Decorations in one of the rooms of the GreatTemple

Above: picture by Blueshade via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pharaoh then ordered to build another temple, this time dedicated to his wife and Hathor, Goddess of the cult of Love and maternity. On the facade of the building there are 6 statues, four Ramesses II and 2 Nefertari as well as some other smaller ones representing their children.

The Small Temple to Nefertari – Abu Simbel

Above: picture by NicFer via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

This is a construction that has no equals since it’s the only one where a Wueen was represented to the same level of a Pharaoh. Ramesses II was aware of this, so that he decide to engrave it on the facade. The house of millions of years, no other similar construction has ever been dug.

The two Temples of Abu Simbel

Above: pictureshared via Wikimedia Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0

The great Pharaoh imagined his buildings as eternal even though the temples, throughout the decades, get abandoned and the sand covered them all. They all forgot about the great Abu Simbel Temples and only in 1813, the great Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, same man who discovered the city of Petra, noticed a frieze poking out of the sand. It was his friend Giovanni Battista Belzoni, to whom the Swiss man told about the detail, to free the entrance of the Great Temple in Abu Simbel.

The Great Temple partially dug in a picture before 1923

Above: public domain

In the following decades, the temples were freed from the sand and cleaned up on their inside but, by the end of  1950’s a bigger issue arose. The Egyptian government decided to build the great Aswam Dam, which would have submerged many ancient vestiges, included the Abu Simbel temples.

The Great Temple in a picture from the 1854

Above: public domain

The dam seemed essential, both to control the Nile flood and to produce electricity. The loss was the fact that the project would submerge the valley in ancient Nubia, where the human civilization had developed throughout the years; the remains of many cultures, known and yet to be discovered, were doomed to be flood for good. In 1959 the Egyptian governor, aware that such treasures could not go lost, asked to the UNESCO for some help, which at the time was still not the organisation entrusted to the conservation of the artistic global heritage; this function instead arrived afterwords, just after the relocation of Abu Simbel.

Mock-up showing the position of the temples before/after the relocation

Above: picture by Zureks via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Many countries in the world, through UNESCO, answered to the Egyptian call and contributed with donations and projects on how to save the temples of Abu Simbel.

The massive work involved around 2,000 experts like archaeologists, architects, restorers, engineers and other specialised workforce coming from Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and Egypt too. In order to gather the necessary funds, the Egyptian government organised a touring exhibition on the “Tutankhamon’s treasures” which ran in the US, Japan, France and Canada between 1961 and 1967.

The relocation of the Abu Simbel temples appeared to be complex project to realise, considering the building was sculpted into the rock. The realisation of the work seemed impossible for the technology of the time, but plenty of projects started arriving from all over the world of how to possibly handle the situation: one was suggesting to keep the temples underwater, with chambers able to be accessed through lifts; another one was thinking of gradually raising the structures with some hydraulic jacks, all the way above the water level. The first 2 options were rejected both for the costs and for the high risks they would have entailed. Eventually the Swedish project was approved, the one which appeared as the most demanding one: disassemble the temples, cutting them in blocks for then reassembling them in the new site, just as if they were Lego bricks.

The operations started in November 1963, with the construction of a protective structure around the temples, in order to be able to keep on working even when the water would have flooded the valley. In order to chop the blocks, weighing approximately 20 tonnes each, many mine experts coming from Italy came by. They could not use power saws as they would have produced way too visible cuts at the time of the reassembly. It was necessary to work with hand saws and steel wire, which, eventually, divide the Great Temple in 807 blocks and the Small Temple in 235.

1st October 1965, the face of one of the Ramesses II statues gets reassembled

Above: public domain

The new site is 65 m higher (215 ft) and 200 m more “inside” compared to the original (650 ft), in an artificial valley made up in order to look as closer as possible to the one chosen by Ramesses II thousands of years earlier.

After four years of work and a cost of 40 millions of dollars (around 300 millions from 2017), the Abu Simbel temples found their new location, aligned according to the project of the ancient Egyptian architects who planned nothing without extreme care: only on the 22nd of October and 22nd of February the sunlight lightened all the statues placed in the sanctuary of the Great Temple, apart from the one of Ptah, God of the underworld hence of darkness. The two dates were supposed to correspond, even though it is not assured, to the date of birthday and coronation of the Pharaoh Ramesses II.

The reconstruction of the temples terminated on the 22nd of September 1968, but the engineers who studied the repositioning were waiting with thrill the dawn of the 22nd of October. The sun rose and enlightened the faces of Ramesses II, Ra and Amon, but, as expected, not the one of Ptah: a huge success, even though at the time of the Pharaoh 3,000 years before the date must have certainly been some other ones.

From left Ptah, Amon-Ra, deified Ramesses II and Ra in the sanctuary of the Great Temple

Above: picture by Man77 via Wikipedia – licence CC BY 3.0

Beside the transfer of the Abu Simbel temples, many other monuments have been saved from the valley of Nubia: the Amada Temple, the Wadi es-Sebua Temple, the Philae Temple, always thanks to the help of UNESCO.

Just the success of the complex project of Abu Simbel gave insight of how necessary and important it was to have an organism such as UNESCO, able to gather economical support and the necessary specialised competences from all the countries involved. In 1965 the “World Heritage Trust” was born and in 1978 the list of the world heritage sites. The Abu Simbel Temples were inserted in the list of the sites to protect in 1979.

In 1980 the international campaign under the protection of UNESCO terminated, which allowed to rescue the monuments of Nubia, doomed otherwise to be forgotten underwater. Egypt, who supported the project with around half of the necessary funds, was able to demonstrate its gratitude towards those countries which have mainly contributed to that journey:  US, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy have all received as a gift one of the saved temples.

In Italy, reassembled inside the Egyptian Museum of Turin, it has been sent the the rock-cut Temple of Ellesyia, dating back to 1430 BC and saved in 1965 thanks to the help of the Italian Egyptian Museum and the generous fund of the businessman Giovanni Farina.

The rescue of the Abu Simbel temples and the other monuments in the valley are the demonstration that the economical development can progress along with the conservation of the historical and cultural heritage. Today more than ever, after the destruction of important sites for the history of the whole humanity, it is necessary to keep in mind that lesson of international collaboration which allowed, 60 years ago, a project that not a single country could have ever completed on its own.

Vanilla Magazine - History, Culture, Mistery and Legends