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The Temples of Abu Simbel and Philae

Last March my wife and I took a Nile cruise. On the last full day of the cruise we visited two of the most interesting temples in Egypt, Abu Simbel and the island temple of Philae.

Our day began at 4 am. We boarded a bus which took us to a rendezvous point with 13 other buses. There we were met by several truckloads of Egyptian soldiers. This was a sobering reminder of the 1997 massacre of 59 tourists known as the "Luxor Massacre" (we had visited that site a few days earlier). For our three hour ride, our convoy to Abu Simbel would have a truck load of soldiers at the front, another at the rear and a soldier rode in each of the 14 buses. I was glad they were with us.

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel is one of the world's most fascinating engineering marvels. Taking about 20 years to build, it was finished in about 1265 BC. It was dedicated to the gods Amon-Ra, Ptah, Harmakhis and Ramses II himself, who demanded to be worshipped as a god. The front of the temple had four spectacular statues, 60 feet tall, of Ramses. They depict him at different times of his life, from left to right, youngest to oldest.

The inside of the temple defies easy description. The artwork, the statues, the decorated columns and the hieroglyphics are incredible. Unfortunately they don't allow any pictures to be taken inside the temple, which is almost criminal. There is a lot more to see on the inside than on the outside, so it was frustrating in the extreme to not be allowed to use a camera.

One of the most interesting things about the Great Temple is that it was originally engineered so that twice each year (February 22 and October 22) the sun will reach through the entrance and down a 65 meter corridor to a room known as the sanctuary. Inside the sanctuary are four statues depicting Amon-Ra, Ptah, Harmakhis and Ramses II. For about 20 minutes the sun hits three of those statues, but not the one of Ptah. This is because Ptah was the god of darkness.

There is a second smaller temple there, dedicated to the goddess Hathor and to Ramses's chief consort, Nefertari. Although smaller in all aspects, it's a great temple in its own right, with plenty to see.

The most amazing thing about these temples, though, is that both temples had to be moved when the Aswan High Dam was built to save them from being submerged. Between 1964 and 1968 the whole site was cut up into large blocks averaging 20 tons each, dismantled, moved 65 meters higher and 200 meters further back, then reassembled so well that it’s impossible to see where the cutting was done. To make matters even more spectacular, man-made mountains had to be built of a proper size to house the temples like they had originally looked. And to take things from the incredible to the phenomenal, the twice yearly "miracle of the sun" still works, changed only a few minutes because of the higher elevation of the temples.

We boarded the bus back to the ship and slept most of the way home to Aswan, where the ship was docked. I got something to eat in the cafeteria, then got back on the bus to go see the island temple of Philae. My wife went back to the cabin to sleep. She was ill because she had eaten uncooked vegetables on board the ship (never do that…I missed getting to see Karnak for the same reason).

The temple complex of Philae was dedicated to the goddess Isis. Philae was so important that pilgrims came from all over Egypt to worship her there. This complex was unique in that it sat on an island in the middle of the Nile River. Early writers such as Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Seneca mentioned it in their writings.

The construction of the temple complex was originally begun with a small temple to Hathor in the fourth century BC. Most of what we see today was begun during Ptolemaic era, around 250 BC. Construction continued sporadically through the centuries and was finished during the Roman era, approximately 300 AD.

This temple had the same problem as Abu Simbel. It was originally built on the island of Philae, hence the name by which it is known, but when the Aswan dam was built, Philae was flooded most of each year, and it became necessary to move it to higher ground. So they dismantled the whole complex and reassembled it on Agilika Island, just 550 meters away. The move took eight years and was finished in 1980. This picture was taken from a long distance, so it makes the temple and the island look small. As we’ll see in later pictures, it was a good sized temple complex:

The pilot of our boat was a young African boy around 12 or 13 years old. He may have been young, but he did a very professional job of running the boat. The outboard motor belched exhaust fumes that made me glad it was only a ten minute ride from the dock. I felt bad for the boy piloting our boat, wondering what long term effect it would have on him over the years, working constantly in those fumes:

We passed this small boat on the way. Long before we got to it, I saw that the boy standing up was hitting the water every minute or two with his stick. I was puzzled until I heard someone on the boat explaining that the two men were fishing in a manner that was thousands of years old. The father was holding a net that was submerged in the water while his son was hitting the water to scare the fish into the net. It’s a simple but very effective, low tech way to fish.

Approaching Philae:

Upon disembarking from the boat and walking up onto the island, this was the view that greeted us. The seats in the foreground are for those who come to see the light show at night, evidently a popular feature:

Turning left from here we walked over to the west colonnade, then stopped to listen to the guide lecture. On the right side of the picture you can see part of the first pylon of the entrance to the temple:

I had learned earlier that the guide felt the higher priority was hearing himself talk, and he had left us very little time for taking pictures at each location. I had begun the practice of listening for a few minutes, then when he began his PhD course on deciphering hieroglyphics for fun and profit, I walked away from the group and went on picture safari.

Here I set up the small tripod I always carry in my backpack and took a self portrait. It was a mistake, actually, because I was standing too far from the camera for the flash to light me up. But when I saw the effect, I got a kick out of it, so I didn’t delete it. To the right of the Muslim women in the picture are more columns, known as the first east colonnade. Behind that colonnade is the temple of Imhotep:

Here is a better view of the first east colonnade, looking back in the opposite direction from the above picture. It still doesn’t show a good view of the temple of Imhotep, but there simply weren’t any photo-friendly angles:

After passing through the doorway of the first pylon and entering the area between pylons, I was greeted by the façade of the second pylon:


From there I entered the actual temple of Isis. It was dark in there and the ceilings were high and, making flash photography of limited use. I did take a picture of this cross on the doorway as I entered. After the Roman empire died out, this temple became a Byzantine church. Little evidence of Christianity is left other than this cross:

Just for the record I did take a picture of one of the columns in the temple, to document the classic Egyptian art. Here you can see ankhs carved into the column:

Leaving the main temple I saw an interesting building. This is the Kiosk of Trajan, or “Pharoah’s Bed” as the locals call it. Originally this was how one entered the temple complex from the river. There is art work inside depicting the Roman emperor Trajan offering sacrifices to Egyptian gods.

Then it was back to the boat for the ride "home." It had been a very long day, but one filled with spectacular sights not found anywhere else on earth.

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