The Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
comprise 10 archaeological sites in the far south of Egypt. They were the products of the pharaonic attempts to dominate Nubia.
Many trip reports from the past about Abu Simbel start with the compulsory convoy that has to be taken to travel there from Aswan, effectively limiting arrival times to two times a day. The convoy has been discontinued however since October 2016. So after leaving my dahabiya
near Aswan, I was picked up by a car and driver at 9 a.m. for the 3 hour drive south. The drive is incredibly boring, just a desert road with maybe one or two gas stations. There are road signs however to temples into the desert – two of them are Amada and Wadi es-Sebua which are also part of this WHS .
4x Ramses II at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel
I was staying overnight to be able to visit the temples without tour groups being there, and also to get a hint of the Nubian feel of the town of Abu Simbel. My latter wish was completely satisfied by the Eskaleh Lodge, an oasis of friendliness where hypnotizing Sudanese music was played all day long. At 3 p.m. I was picked up by driver and guide for my scheduled visit to the temples. Somehow the tour company had found it necessary to send a guide, although it isn’t of much use (they are not allowed inside the temples). But well, he bought the tickets and explained the essence of the site to me sitting outside. We just sat at the entrance to the main temple, as no one else was there!
The Abu Simbel site covers two temples next to each other. The largest one is to glorify Ramses II – the famous four huge statues at its facade all show himself at various ages! I even can’t think of a modern day dictator who would be so bold. One of the heads has fallen off (already 2000 years ago), but it still is laying at the statue’s feet like a toppled moai at Easter Island. The interior of the temple is well-lit, via a similar method as they use at the Valley of the Kings. As this temple was carved into the rock, not much natural light gets in. I had to forget about the delicate carvings and symbolism of the Ptolemaic sites that I visited earlier: the temple is a brash statement of power of Ramses II, mainly showing his accomplishments on the battlefield.
The second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari, one of the wives of Ramses II who was of Nubian descent. It does show her, and him again. The interior is decorated with remarkable heads representing the goddess Hathor. I finished both temples within an hour – except for the facades with the mega statues and an occasional glance at Lake Nasser there isn’t much that will keep you there longer. I tried to find the “seams” where they pasted the temples together again after the rescue effort in the 1960s. If you look closely they can be seen, but it has been done very well. Only the back side of the rock where they are now located feels manmade.
Head fallen off
The next morning I got up at 5.20 and walked through the streets of Abu Simbel once more. The temples are especially beautiful at sunrise, as they are illuminated by the sun at that hour. I had read that sunrise tours (even from Aswan) are popular here, but again no more than a handful of other visitors were present.
After Abu Simbel, I unfortunately had only one afternoon left in Aswan. So there was little time to check out the other monuments included in this WHS. I decided to focus on Elephantine island, the island just in front of Aswan town center. A very short public ferry ride (costing about 2 minutes and 1 Egyptian pound) brought me there. At the southern part of the island lies the Aswan museum and the archaeological site. The museum did disappoint, I was expecting something to the level of the Luxor museum but this one is much more simple. It shows lots of small objects that were found on Elephantine island, but only the votive objects I found worth a second look. I did not do well at the rest of the site either: the temperature had risen so high that I had little energy to roam around ruins. I made my way directly to the Nilometer – the third of its kind that I saw on this trip, and the closest one to the Nile itself.
Nilometer at Elephantine Island
ICOMOS had its doubts in 1979 whether such a string of sites a long distance from each other would not set an unwanted precedent: “Does this not invite all countries to define the physical boundaries of their cultural heritage too broadly?” Well – almost 30 years later such loosely coupled WHS have almost become the norm, with the Works of Le Corbusier even stretching continents.
The Sound and Light Shows (Son et Lumiere) are still very much a tourist magnet, at Abu Simbel, Philae and Karnak. It doesn't appeal to me indeed, that's why I skipped them.
For our first visit to Abu Simbel back in 1978 we flew from Luxor – officially there were no seats available but we went out to the airport and a bit of baksheesh there unlocked 2. The only problem was that we (naturally!) were given no tickets! We were told, however, to say “Mr Qtab” at every occasion and this worked Ok at Luxor – but how on earth would we get back into the airport and onto the plane at Abu Simbel? No worry – The magic words “Mr Qtab” were like “open sesame”! There must have been quite a web of corruption distributing our fares (and no doubt those of many others) up and down the chain of employees! In ‘92 we had rented a car in Cairo and driven up to Aswan. The potential problem of driving on to Abu Simbel (this was before the “convoy era”) was whether there was any petrol in Abu Simbel as our small saloon car tank wasn’t definitely enough for the c600km round trip. No one in Aswan could state for certain that the only gas station in Abu Simbel (none along the road in those days) had any. Based on the belief that some $$$ would find some in Abu Simbel if really necessary, we set off early and alone on the empty road and had an excellent full day there – and got petrol ok! The tourists were like “waves” as coaches /planes arrived and departed and there were long periods when the Temples were virtually empty. Again – no limitations on taking photos in those days.
You made no mention of “Son et Lumiere” taking place at either Karnak or Abu Simbel. Is this because they have been cancelled due to lack of tourists or simply that this form of “entertainment” doesn’t appeal to you? I would agree that it is an over rated medium which always reminds me of some 1950s Hollywood epic movie with its booming sound track and overblown rhetoric but still worth experiencing at Karnak I believe.