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Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

It was a story straight out of the Arabian Nights. Two immense temples are lifted high into the air, and transported to a remote desert site. At the same time an entire hill is created in order to replicate the original setting. Such, essentially, is the story of Abu Simbel.

The twin temples of Abu Simbel, built by Rameses the Great, one dedicated to himself as a god, the other to his delectable wife-daughter Nefetari, were carved out of the living rock at a bend in the Nile. Rameses lived to be almost 100 and spent a considerable part of his long life building temples and statues to himself. Looking at the four huge and identical statues at Abu Simbel, and reflecting that other titanic identical statues of him are at other sites, the heretical thought occurs that Rameses the Great was the McDonald’s of the ancient world, planting his logo everywhere.

In March 1960, just three months after President Nasser had inaugurated work on the Aswan High Dam, Unesco appealed for funds to save the monuments from flooding, and invited plans for their preservation. The Italians came up with a truly pharaonic idea: the temples at Abu Simbel would be lifted up in their entirety, using 650 hydraulic jacks raising 1 millimetre at a time.


The cost — $90 million at the then rate — put the scheme in the limbo of great ideas. A French scheme proposed the construction of an immense dam in front of the temple. An imaginative American scheme proposed a membrane dam which would keep out the mud of the Nile water. Observation chambers within the dam would allow clear and dramatic views of the submerged temple. That, too, went into limbo.

For five years it seemed that every budding architect in the world was producing a Save Abu Simbel scheme. Meanwhile, the waters were rising, and in what seems to have been a mood of desperation a Swedish scheme was adopted. Put simply, the proposal was to cut up the temples into manageable blocks, haul the blocks to the plateau above and behind the original temple site, and assemble them there on an artificial hill.

Work began on 21 May 1965 with the building of a coffer dam. Then began the delicate task of removing the rock from above and behind the temples. Much of it could be removed in bulk, but 30,000 cubic yards had to be removed by hand as the excavations approached the richly decorated interior.

The most dramatic part of the whole operation was the cutting up and removal of the four colossi on the fa


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