Click here for tourist video of sunlight entering Abu Simbel sanctuary.
Egyptian temple tourists see the light in solar event
In the minutes before dawn, four tourists walked between eight colossal statues of the ancient pharaoh Ramses, deified to represent the underworld god Osiris and to symbolize his eternal nature.
Not another soul, not even a guard, appeared for several minutes.
Now we had to hope the sun would show itself — even if it would be a day late.
The Great Temple's interior narrows from its entrance to its inner sanctuary, where another statue of Ramses sits beside the sun god Amun Ra, the creator god Ptah, and the horizon god Ra-Horakhty, Egypt's main divinities during the 13th century B.C.
In the predawn, the sanctuary was dark. As the clock ticked closer to sunrise, eight more tourists appeared, huddling together in the morning chill to wait, like worshippers of Amun Ra, for a solar phenomenon.
Twice a year at this breathtaking temple, fronted by its four 65-foot statues of Ramses, the sun and Earth align and a ray of light shines into the sanctuary, lighting three of the statues; the fourth, Ptah, connected to the underworld, remains in the dark.
As sunrise neared, it cast the statues in hues of gray, green and pale yellow.
And then, the sun peeked from the blue water of Lake Nasser — and everyone fell silent as it bathed the statues in golden light.
“I was astounded at how golden Ramses was,” said Mary Robinson, an artist from Vashon, Wash. “It was mystical, magic. It gave me shivers.”
“These eternal figures were sitting there as if they were alive,” said Louisa Ermelino of New York City, a reviews director at Publishers Weekly. “I had the sense they were watching us and performing for us with the sun.”
Ramses, Robinson thought, “seemed to gain power from the sun.”
How different from 24 hours earlier.
As many as 5,000 people, including 400 foreigners, massed Monday to watch the sun line up; some waited for hours in long lines, watched by hundreds of police and entertained by Nubian and international performers.
Dancers twirled, drums resounded; anticipation rose as sunrise neared.
But the one thing Egypt has in abundance — sunlight — remained hidden by clouds; 20 minutes passed with the sanctuary still dark.
“The sun isn't rising,” disappointed watchers murmured before drifting away.
Workers at Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge shared a secret with some guests: The sun also shines into the sanctuary the day before and after Feb. 22.
So, guided only by a full moon and stars in the crisp predawn, an intrepid few set off at 5 a.m. Tuesday for another chance to see the spectacle. The previous day's fanfare and throngs were missing. “The temple is ours,” said Ermelino.
“When you are alone in a temple, you can feel the magic,” Robinson said. “They are always talking about the mystery. I understand it now.”
Abu Simbel is a small town in the southernmost region known as Nubia, 175 miles south of the Nile River's Aswan High Dam and just 24 miles from the border with Sudan.
The Ramses temple is a “spectacular piece of architecture and engineering,” says Salima Ikram, head of Egyptology at American University in Cairo. A smaller but impressive temple — carved, like its companion, from a mountainside — is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and personified by Nefertari, Ramses' favorite wife.
Construction of the Aswan dam in 1960 created Lake Nasser, the world's largest artificial lake; its rising water threatened Nubia's ancient monuments, including the two temples.
Tour guide Bishoy Hakim recounts that the temples were “cut into pieces and moved” 218 yards from the lakeshore “just five days before the waves … submerged the ancient site.”
The temples' reconstruction continued through Egypt's 1967 war with Israel and was completed in 1968; they were declared a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Moving them changed the days of the solar alignment, although experts differ on how much.
Ikram, the university Egyptologist, says the date changed by one day: “It used to be on Feb. 21 and Oct. 21, and now it is on Feb. 22 and Oct. 22.”
Mamdouh Damaty, Egypt's antiquities minister, insists the dates changed by a month.
“It was the equinox, so it is a much more powerful festival day in terms of seasons and the movements of heavenly bodies,” Ikram explains. “It is … like a rejuvenation of the god figure when he is bathed in sunlight.”
Ramses' face, arms and headdress once were gilded in gold, she said, “so when the sun shone on them, they really were illuminated and were quite flashy.”
But Tueday's curious were not disappointed.
“If there had been the gold there, the light would have been blinding,” said Robinson.
“The statues acted in collaboration with the sun,” said Ermelino. “It is not just ancient, it is ongoing. The ancients are still controlling it, in some way.”