January 7, 2010
“Open, open bag” said one of them impatiently, his flashlight flickering over my daypack. When the beam ebbed he muttered under his breath and thumped the flashlight against his palm until it steadied. “Permit?” barked the other one as he looked at the straggly line of people who had got off the bus, most of them still half asleep bundled into their coats and jackets. Annoyance and impatience radiated from him in equal measure. It was 3:40 am and there was a more than a nip in the air. We were at a checkpoint – one of the several we passed. I was among the hordes of tourists in a convoy of some twenty or more buses heading to the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae.
The journey had started at the freakish hour of 2 am when a couple of others from my guesthouse and I had been herded to a meeting point and bundled onto a bus. Soon we realized that there were other stops and we were joined by other buses, cars, trucks and finally a couple of military vehicles. The temples of Abu Simbel are some three hundred kilometers to the south of Aswan and barely forty odd kilometers from the Sudanese border. The instability in Sudan and possibility of border incidents has prompted the Egyptian government to mandate police and military escorts for these convoys.
We dozed off and on in the freezing bus and the sky had lightened by the time we reached the shore of Lake Nasser. The massive expanse of blue-green water looks dark, almost indigo in the early hours of the morning. This man-made lake was created when the high dam was built on the Nile and twenty four Nubian villages lie submerged at the bottom, the people relocated to Aswan and surrounding areas. The temples of Abu Simbel too would have been flooded had not UNESCO intervened. With the aid of several countries, the temples were dismantled stone by stone, carried to the shore, twenty meters above the water level and re-assembled. The surroundings too were re-created to approximate the original surroundings. And incredible feat for an incredible temple!
Four colossal statues of Rameses II guard the entrance to the larger of the two temples dwarfing the crowds of tourists. As with the pyramids of Giza, the idea that I am looking at these temples with their sculptures and intricate details which are more than three thousand years old blows my mind and I gaze slack-jawed. 1274 BC, I tell myself, this was built in 1274 BC! And this is no rudimentary art; every inch of the interior walls, the columns and ceilings are painted. The scenes of course depict the glory of Rameses – Rameses showing his prowess at battle against the Hittites, Rameses making an offering to the Gods, Rameses sitting in judgement, Rameses being honored by his wife Nefertari. The walls are covered in bas-relief and were once painted. In some places there are vestiges of paint, still vibrant after more than three thousand years! Hieroglyphics march along the walls next to the scenes describing the events no doubt. Some of the signs seem obvious and I try to imagine the stories they tell.
The next stop on the trip was the Philae temple. This too is another site that would have been flooded and lost had it not been for UNESCO’s efforts. In the aftermath of the previous dam parts of it had been submerged and tales abound of nineteenth century travelers who rowed out in boats to peer down into the ruins through the translucent waters. Re-located, this temple built in honor of Isis now stands in all its splendor on the tiny island of Agilkia in Lake Nasser.
The story goes that the god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth. Isis then searched for the fragments, collected them and with her magic powers brought Osiris back to life. Osiris became god of the underworld and judge of the dead and Isis gave birth to Horus and is thus known as ‘Mother of God’. This temple was built in 380 BC but Isis was worshiped far beyond the boundaries of Egypt. During the Roman period her cult spread throughout Greece and the Roman Empire. There was supposedly even a temple dedicated to her in London.
Guarded by two colossal granite lion statues, the typical taping walls lead into the interior of the temple. The images on the walls and ceilings for the most part depict Isis, Osiris and Horus and just like the others are beautifully wrought. They show scenes of Isis being revered, blessing kings and feeding Horus. Graceful columns, delicately drawn figures and intricate carvings on every inch of the walls takes my breath away.
With the advent of Christianity came crusaders intent on defacing and destroying what they viewed as heathen images. Crudely marked crosses are chiseled on top of various sculptures. The next wave of religion that came to these shores was Islam. Its ardent followers in their turn chiseled out faces of the gods in keeping with their faith. Graffiti! Layers upon layers of it. Who says graffiti is a new art?