Abu Simbel: the saved heritage
Текст: Lyudmila Smerkovich | 2017-04-10 | Фото: Rita Willaert / flickr; Stuart Rankin / flickr; gil7416 / dollarphotoclub; cliff hellis / flickr; unknown; Fredhsu / wikipedia; GeneralMills / flickr (“Progress thru Research,” Vol. 20, No. 3, 1966) | 8678
When the Aswan Dam was constructed on the great river Nile in the 1960s, the temples of Abu Simbel were under the threat of flooding. These temples are dedicated to Pharaoh Ramesses II and his beloved wife Nefertari and they were built three thousand years ago. The rescue operation for the temples became one of the biggest international civil engineering projects of the past century.

The Aswan Dam

The Egyptian Civilization, one of the oldest on our planet, emerged in the delta and on the banks of the Nile – a headstrong, powerful river that annually flooded a large area, bringing fertile silt and thus ensuring rich harvests. From the ancient times the Nile was a source of wealth and prosperity and at the same time a cause of natural disasters. In 1959 the government of Egypt (at that time it was called the United Arab Republic) made a decision to build a large dam that was supposed to regulate the level of water in the river as well as produce electricity. The construction of the Aswan Dam was undertaken and financed by the USSR. Over two thousand Soviet engineers, workers and executives worked in Egypt. The hydroelectric power plant project was designed and tested on a model in the Soviet Union.

You can get some idea about the sheer scale of the Aswan High Dam from its engineering datasheet: «Electromechanical equipment: number of units – 12. Power capacity – 2100 megawatts, electrical energy generation – 8 billion kilowatt-hours per year. The whole complex includes a rockfill dam with a puddled core that is 111 meters high and 3820 meters long, the over-water length being 520 meters. The quantity of the fill is 41.4 million cubic meters, the headrace canal length is 1150 meters long, the tailrace canal is 538 meters long, the tunnel conduits are 282 meters long and 15 meters in diameter, the flood spillway in the form of a concrete overflow weir is 288 meters long, and the dam also includes a reservoir with the storage capacity of 114 cubic kilometers. Under the base of the dam there is a unique 165 meters deep grout cutoff curtain. An innovative system of underwater sand soils compaction was designed specifically for its construction.

Besides generating an amount of electricity sufficient for the entire country, the Aswan Dam gave Egypt an opportunity to switch from seasonal to permanent irrigation on 300 thousand hectares of land as well as to reclaim 600 thousand hectares of new lands at the expense of water reserves in the man-made Lake Nasser. However, besides the obvious benefit for the national economy, the new hydroelectric power plant created a few new problems that only became apparent after a while. The natural movement of slit and sand along the Nile River was disturbed; its delta started to gradually deteriorate; lands that now couldn’t receive natural fertilizers during the high water period began to salinize. All these problems are gradually getting solved due to new projects that support the natural ecological state of the great river. But only one loss could have become a permanent one not only for Egypt but for the whole human civilization. The flood area that was formed at the startup of the Dam’s construction covered unique landmarks of the Ancient Egyptian kingdom, namely the temple complex of Abu Simbel built in the 13th century BC.

The Sacred Mountain

Judging by the available archaeological data, this place was considered a sacred site even before Pharaoh Ramesses II decided to immortalize his military victories and his just reign by building the monumental temples. Many centuries after, when these temples ended up buried under tons of sand, Arab sailors gave this rock the name of Abu Simbel – “father of bread”, because from the shore they could see one of the fragments of the stone bas-relief: a man in an Ancient Egyptian apron that resembled a measure of bread.

The Ramesses temples were re-opened only in 1813 when Swiss researcher Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who was traveling up the Nile River dressed as an Arab reached the third rapids of the great river. He noticed huge heads with pharaohs’ crowns protruding from the sand, but his tour guides could not tell him anything of sense about these statues. Burckhardt reported his discovery and an expedition of famous adventurer and treasure-hunter Giovanni Belzoni set off in Burckhardt’s footsteps immediately. Under his command the temples were excavated from the sand and, while there was no expected treasure in them, Belzoni wrote the following in his diary: “We entered the vastest and most beautiful crypt in Nubia. Our astonishment grew even more when we found out that it is not only a very large but also a lavishly decorated temple – with bas-reliefs, murals and statues.”

The Abu Simbel temple complex actually did turn out to be magnificent – historically, artistically and from an engineering perspective. Both temples, the Great Temple and the Small Temple, are cut in a sandstone rock about 100 meters high. Both temples have beautiful bas-reliefs, murals on walls and a multitude of cryptographs and inscriptions praising the Pharaoh. The Great Temple consists of 14 rooms that go 60 meters deep into the rock. The largest hall decorated with eight statues of the Pharaoh god is 18 meters long, 16 meters wide and 8 meters high. The murals on its walls mostly depict battle scenes. Some pictures on the walls of this hall depict the Pharaoh’s victories in Libya and Nubia but the most significant one shows the Battle of Kadesh, the decisive fight between Egyptians and Hittites.


The temple was built to ensure that twice a year the beams of the rising sun would penetrate the entire enfilade of underground halls and illuminate the statues inside the sanctuary. When the temple was moved, the engineers managed to reconstruct its configuration so that this interesting property would remain intact.

At the entrance to the Great Temple there are four colossal twenty meter high statues. With crowns on their heads, uraei on their foreheads and false beards, these enthroned collosi symbolize the highest power. Under their feet are the Pharaoh’s defeated enemies. On their thrones you can see depictions of the Nile gods that tie together a papyrus and a lily, the symbol of unity of the two lands, the Upper and Lower Egypt. At the colossi’s feet there are female figures that look very fragile compared to the giant statues of the king. These are images of Nefertari, the favorite wife of Ramesses’s, as well as his mother’s and his daughters’.

The Small Temple looks more graceful and feminine, as it is dedicated to Nefertari, “the one the sun shines for”. It has 5 halls, also decorated with statues of gods and the royal couple. As traveler and author Christian Jacq wrote in his book “Voyage dans l’Egypte des pharaons”: “Ramesses is also present in the sanctuary of his spouse, in two capacities: as the military commander and the conqueror of the forces of darkness, and as the high priest that makes sacrifices to gods. The columns here are crowned by the images of the goddess Hathor, the mistress of love and joy. There are many images of flowers around, and Nefertari’s tall silhouette consecrates everything with its noble beauty. At the entrance to the temple there is an image of the Pharaoh extending his arm to give flowers to Hathor and the queen depicted here to resemble the goddess Isis. On the opposite side of the gate Ramesses is protecting Nefertari by defeating Nubians and Asians; he lays his enemies under tribute and bestows honors to Amun-Ra and Horus.”

All these cultural treasures of the ancient civilization, marvelously well-preserved under a thick layer of sand, could have perished for good at the bottom of Lake Nasser reservoir. But saving the Abu Simbel temples was declared an action of global importance under the auspices of UNESCO. Urgent planning of the rescue operation was started.

Moving to the New Place

Several ideas were suggested to preserve the Ramesses II and Nefertari temples, from building a high dam that would protect the area of the temple complex from the reservoir waters to a transparent dome through which tourists from river boats could feast their eyes on the beauty of the ancient statues at the bottom. The most palatable option was the project of Italian engineers who suggested using extra-powerful lifting jacks to lift and move the rock together with the temples sculptured in it, but this idea was too expensive to execute. In the end they settled on the project of the Swedish company Vattenbyggnadsbyran (VBB) that involved cutting the temples into blocks, transporting them and reassembling at the new place.

This project had its risks and difficulties. Firstly, it was necessary to cut and transport the blocks before the reservoir would be filled with water, and there was not much time left. Secondly, there was a risk that the cuts would open up the inner cracks and cavities in the rock or damage the soft sandstone in such a way that it would be impossible to reassemble the structure. This problem was solved by strengthening the natural stone with polymeric compositions in all the weak places. And finally, the new place for the temples was different from their native hill. The selected patch of land was still to be turned into a likeness of that rock into which the temples were originally built.

At the first stage of preparation every little detail of the temples was measured and photographed, and then the cutting lines were planned according to the resulting drawings. Also, the area around the old and the new locations of the temples was mapped in detail. At the same time geographical and geological examination of the area was carried out. This included researching the properties of the local sandstone and the behavior of ground waters, as well as carrying out excavations and ground works. Considering that the Aswan Dam construction was going on at the same time, the water level in the Nile rose several meters per year. To protect the construction site that Abu Simbel was being turned into, a temporary dam was erected. But the Nile waters made the engineers work faster and faster, because very soon the temple complex area was to be flooded.

Before the temples were divided into blocks by special thin saws normally used for cutting marble, extra safety precautions were brought in. Very strong steel scaffolding was installed inside the temple halls, sand fills were created before the temple facades, and protection plates were placed above the facades. All loose stones lying on the slopes above the temples were removed. By October of 1965 the “temple roof”, the natural rock that served as a vault for the temples, was completely removed. The engineers then proceeded with moving the statues and the interior decoration elements. On October 10th they started to dismantle the giant statues of the Pharaoh at the entrance to the Great Temple. A journalist that was witnessing this wrote the following in his diary: “The sun hardly rose above the horizon, when the crane operator received the order to begin. Slowly, very slowly the face of the god-king separated from his ears... This was a sight I will never forget. For a second I was overcome by the thought that modern barbarians were trying to destroy the great Pharaoh. Hanging on a pull rope, the giant face was slowly turning around its axis. It seemed that the facial expression was transforming under the sunlight, by the play of light and shadow... Then the Pharaoh’s face was gently placed on a bedding of a special trailer so that the latter would then take it to the platform that already contained all the other parts of the temple.”


The transportation operation took three years, from 1965 to 1968, but works on changing the landscape so that it would match the temples’ previous form continued up until 1972.

Each of the blocks was numbered so that the temples could be reassembled at the new place without any visible change. When the internal structure of the temples was reconstructed on a huge platform cut out specifically for that purpose, the temples were covered with a reinforced concrete dome, and a hill was banked on top of them. During the assembly the blocks were additionally solidified by a resinous composition which was injected into drilled holes so that the fragile sandstone wouldn’t crumble after cutting, moving and erecting the temples. A lot of new questions arose during the reconstruction: is it feasible to “improve” what had been destroyed by time? For instance, should the head of one of the colossi that had fallen off in the ancient times be placed back? How to disguise the side effects of the transportation? The director of the Egyptian Administration of Archeology wrote the following during the final stages of the project: “The damages caused to the Pharaoh will be remedied. The joint seams will be filled with mortar up to the level of several millimeters from the surface. We could achieve more than this: not only heal the wounds but also make the seams invisible. But would it be fair to our ancestors, to ourselves and to those who will come here after us?”

Now the temples look almost the same as before the transportation, and the broken head of the colossus lies exactly where it had been before, at his feet. Thousands of tourists visit this place, as popular as the Great Pyramids, although not as old. Today this monument of Ancient Egyptian art is at the same time the monument in honor of the talent and the hard work of engineers and workers, people from various countries that united their efforts to move the temples of Ramesses and Nefertari. President of Egypt Anwar Sadat said this about the rescue of Abu Simbel: “Peoples of the Earth are capable of miracles when they unite with good intent.”



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