I’ve been squished into the back seat of a small van for nearly four hours. With knees pressed against the seat in front of me, I’ve watched the Saharan desert tumble into the distance, its straw-colored sand occasionally punctuated by a tiny Egyptian village. I am in a caravan with hundreds of other tourists, an endless stream of vehicles making its way from Aswan to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt.
The caravan is led by military personnel. Along the way, we’ve passed rocky mounds armed with serious-looking men, machine guns at their side, rounds of ammunition draped across their bodies. This is a few years before “Arab Spring,” and the fear now is not so much a collapsing government as it is terrorism. Abu Simbel is a remote destination, just 25 miles from the Sudan border. In the past, it has been a target of terrorists seeking to cripple the tourism industry. I admit I feel uneasy the entire ride to its gates. We arrive safely, though, and my friend and I rush through the unloading tourists, anxious to beat the crowd.
Abu Simbel is the more-modern name given to a complex comprising two ancient temples: The Temple of Re-Harakhte and its nearby Small Temple. In about 1250 BC, Ramses the Great built the two temples to commemorate himself and his favorite wife, Nefertari. The temples also served as demonstrations of Ramses’ rule over Nubia (southern Egypt and northern Sudan). The larger temple was a massive construction project, with the four Ramses statues along its façade an outstanding 65’ high and its inner hall and chambers stretching for meters into the mountain. It sends a chill up my spine to look at it. It’s hard to believe such a colossal monument was created in the absolute remoteness of the surrounding Sahara.
Abu Simbel is notable not only because of the complex’s size but also because of its relocation. In the 1960s, the construction of the Aswan High Dam along the Nile threatened to flood Abu Simbel. Rather than forever lose the temples beneath the waves of a man-made lake, the decision was made to move the entire complex to higher ground. The cliffs into which the temples were built were sawn into hundreds of giant pieces. The pieces were then carefully reassembled in the exact same layout as they had been before the move. (An interesting look at the relocation process can be found here.) If I closely peer at the stone, I can just see the lines between pieces of this giant jigsaw puzzle.
The grounds begin filling up with tourists. Rapidly Abu Simbel becomes a sea of people as all members of the massive caravan enter the site. Though a slight breeze comes in off the water of Lake Nasser, it is uncomfortably hot. I am grateful for the shade offered inside the temples, but the swarming people and midday sun mitigate most of the relief from the heat.
Soon my friend and I grow weary of shoving elbows and snapping cameras, and so we begin our long trek back to the van. Along the way, we have to fight through throngs of merchants trying to sell us overpriced memorabilia. The only purchase I make is for a few postcards and a bottle of semi-warm water. We have a long wait before the caravan starts up again.
On the hours-long return trip across the desert, I am reminded of Shelley’s poem about Ramses the Great. I decide I disagree with the poem’s assessment—yes, Ramses’ empire collapsed and now his monuments exist along planes of open sand, but Ramses and his realm have not been forgotten. And, as I scan the long string of vehicles behind me, I can’t help but think that our pilgrimage to Abu Simbel was exactly what Ramses would have wanted. He would not see this as a demonstration of the inevitable wane of power, as Shelley did. He would see it as continued adulation across the millennia.
In the end, Ramses won.