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Fulfilling a dream

The Southland Times
Last updated 05:00 03/10/2009
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For TREVOR AYSON, a visit to the famous Great Temple at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt was the realisation of a boyhood dream.

The definite highlight for me on our trip to Egypt this summer was seeing the famous temple at Abu Simbel, because I had wanted to see it for most of my life.

Not even the Great Pyramids or the Sphinx could top how I felt to see this particular wonder of the ancient world.

I can clearly recall as a schoolboy at Gore High School borrowing a National Geographic magazine from the school library. At home on the family farm I flicked through the pages on an article about the temple at Abu Simbel.

It mentioned that, in the 1960s when construction began on the Aswan high dam, international co-operation enabled the temple to be saved from being submerged when the man-made Lake Nasser was created.

In a four-year project, from 1964 to 1968, the temple was dismantled block by block and moved to a new site 180m back from the new lake shoreline and 65m higher on a purpose-built hill.

I mentioned this temple to my mother, who remembered the relocation project, describing it as a marvellous feat.

More than a quarter of a century later I realised I had the chance to visit the Abu Simbel temple while my wife Marie and I were planning our trip to Egypt. The trip out to the temple cost us US$80 (NZ$110) each. It was 275km across the desert by bus from Aswan to Abu Simbel, which is close to the Egypt-Sudan border.

Catching the bus at 4.30am, we travelled in a convoy of 30 buses with a police escort. Our bus passed through security checkpoints, with a mirror used to check under the vehicle for bombs. Luckily, they didn't find any.

After crossing the desert we arrived at the temple site about 7.30am.

The temple has two parts – the great temple with four huge statues of Ramses II, and a smaller temple dedicated to Ramses and his favourite wife Nefertari.

The Great Temple took 20 years to build and was completed about 1265 BC. Ramses reigned for 67 years, the longest ruler of ancient Egypt, and had 50 wives, 97 sons and 101 daughters.

One feature of the Great Temple was that twice a year on February 21 and October 21 the rays of the sun would penetrate to the rear chamber where there were several statues of gods, including Ramses, although Ptah the god of darkness appropriately stayed in the dark.

Since the temple was shifted, the sun reaches the rear chamber on February 22 and October 22 and a festival of the sun is held on those dates.

After lying buried by sand for centuries, the Great Temple was rediscovered by Swiss traveller Ludwig Burckhardt in 1813, although it was four years until the interior was penetrated by Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni.

In their relocated site, the two temples lie on the shore of Lake Nasser, the area being surrounded by a fence and security cameras. Lake Nasser itself is huge. At more than 500km long (380km in Egypt) it is one of the biggest man-made lakes in the world and, just like the Great Temple, is breathtaking.

Standing in front of the Great Temple, I felt elated. I had to touch the wall of the temple to prove to myself I was actually there.

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The colossal statues of Ramses II are more than 20m high, with the faces alone weighing 16 tonnes each, and are even more impressive in reality.

Sometime in antiquity an earthquake damaged one of the statues, and when the temple was shifted the broken pieces were placed back on the ground in front as they had been found.

A closer look at the statues revealed signatures left by people visiting the site in the 19th century, which was sheer vandalism and cultural ignorance on their part.

Before going inside Marie and I took a photo of each other by one of the huge statues. A temple guard offered to take our photo together. We were reluctant to accept his offer as we knew we would have to pay him baksheesh (a tip).

But incredibly, he offered to do it for free — the only person to do so during our Egyptian trip.

No photographs were allowed inside the temple but we marvelled at how well the temple had been reconstructed, both inside and out.

Entrance to the temple was via a big wooden door with a huge gold key used to lock the door each night. I took a photo of it, and the doorkeeper took a photo of us with the key — then demanded baksheesh, which spoiled the moment. We walked away without paying.

The second and smaller temple is 100m from the Great Temple. It is unusual in that Ramses' queen Nefertari is depicted almost the same height as him. Usually queens were depicted in small statues at the pharaoh's feet so this apparently showed how much Ramses loved his favourite wife.

While walking along the lakeshore, I sent a text message back to Mum and Dad in Gore telling them where we were. I knew Mum would realise the significance.

Eventually, after two hours at the temple site, it was time to leave, but I was reluctant to go and felt tears in my eyes.

Here was a place I had thought about as a boy across the other side of the world. I had finally come here and now I had to leave. It was a heartbreaking moment for me.

Marie saw I was upset, hugged me and said she understood the significance of the visit for me. I told our Egyptian guide Elia later about that moment and he said he was pleased that I had fulfilled a dream.

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