Three millennia ago Egypt was at the height of its Empire. After the war campaigns of Senusret III and a period of splendour and Egyptian pax during the government of Amenhotep III, and having saved a phase of weakness and decadence led by pharaohs like Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, the times of splendour returned with the help of a new dynasty.
Ramesses II was a warrior pharaoh who turned to war campaigns to maintain the dominion of the empire and stop the increasingly daring Hittite invasions. The battle of Kadesh between both armies should have been the turning point but ended practically in stalemates.
However the capacity of Ramesses for self-glorification was proverbial and not only he attributed himself an overwhelming victory but he sowed the country with monuments commemorating the feat. The temple of Abu Simbel is perhaps the most spectacular.
It is a hemi-speos, that is to say, excavated in the rock (in fact the name means pure mountain), which was endowed with an imposing facade of 34 meters high and 38 meters wide with four giant statues of the pharaoh himself (22 meters, measure).
It took 20 years to build (1284-1264 B.C.) on the border with Nubia because it was there that the flooding of the Nile entered Egyptian soil, and the bellicose local inhabitants were impressed. Furthermore, another temple was built next to it (dedicated to the goddess Hathor and to the favorite wife of Ramesses, Nefertari), also great although somewhat smaller.
Abu Simbel, which remained forgotten for centuries after being buried by tons of desert sand, was rediscovered in 1813 but entered the History of Art with capital letters already in the twentieth century, when the project to build the Aswan dam threatened to flood it under the waters of Lake Nasser along with many other monuments.
UNESCO launched an initiative to save it in 1959 and, with the funds raised, proceeded to dismantle it stone by stone to rebuild it 210 meters beyond, at 65 meters of height, safe from any flood.
Thanks to this, today it is a World Heritage Site and Spain, which collaborated in the works, received as a reward the Temple of Debod, installed in Madrid.
One of the peculiarities of this temple is that twice a year it is crossed by the rays of the sun from the entrance to the sancta-sanctorum, passing through the pronaos and the halls of colossus and hypostyle and, at the end, illuminating for 20 minutes the statues of the gods Amun, Ra-Heractates and the pharaoh himself divinized, leaving the statue of Ptah dark because it represents the darkness.
Traditionally, it occurred 61 days before and after the winter solstice, on 21 October and 21 February, anniversaries of the coronation and birth of the pharaoh respectively, but since the transfer, and due to the displacement of the Tropic of Cancer during the last 3280 years, the calendar was slightly out of phase, shifting to 22 October and 20 February.
Those days are when the perpendicular call takes place, celebrated by the present Egyptians with parties and spectacles. If somebody has a chance to be there, don’t miss it.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 6th, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en El alineamiento solar que ocurre dos veces al año en el templo de Abu Simbel