en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 16, Number 1January/February 1965

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Monuments Of The Nile

Photographed by Tor Eigeland

In travel circles a few years ago the word spread quickly: "Abu Simbel is in." Sophisticated travelers galloped off to their travel agents and demanded immediate passage to the Nile Valley. The rush to Abu Simbel was on.

The temples at Abu Simbel, one dedicated to Ra-Horakhti, god of the rising sun, the other to the goddess Hathor, with their enormous figures hewn out of cliffs beside the Nile, had always been among Egypt's more impressive sights. Then, as preliminary work on the Aswan High Dam neared completion, the world press discovered that they were about to disappear beneath the rising waters of the irrigation lake that the dam would create. Published reports to this effect, accompanied by spectacular photographs of the great monuments, stirred world-wide demands that the monuments be somehow preserved. From all quarters there came suggestions on how that could be accomplished. Some were absurd, many were sound. Debates over the plans kept a steady flow of publicity and information pouring out of Egypt and a steady flow of visitors pouring in.

By the time UNESCO decided on a plan which apparently will save the monuments—by cutting them out of the cliff and hoisting them to another site on top—Abu Simbel was almost as familiar as the Eiffel Tower. Thousands of visitors, many roaring up the Nile in swift hydrofoils, traveled from all over the world to catch one last—and first—look. They found their own way of preserving the temples—on color slides, most of them excellent since Egyptian sunshine is particularly clear and the statues stay nice and still.

Justified though it may be, there is an amusing side to this sudden wave of attention. The temples at Abu Simbel, magnificent as they are and have been for more than 3,000 years, are only two of the many wondrous treasures in what could rightly be called the world's largest, oldest and most splendid outdoor museum. They are, moreover, temples that in size, weight, beauty and archeological significance simply do not compare with some of the other major monuments exhumed from the ruins of ancient Egypt's lost civilizations.

Those monuments are, unquestionably, familiar. Who could not recognize the Pyramids or the Sphinx of Gizeh, or perhaps the Colossi of Memnon? But are they less majestic for that? There they stand as they have, not merely for centuries, but for millennia, a record in stone written on that narrow tablet of sand stretching some 900 milesfrom Cairo to Aswan. There are the step pyramid of King Zoser, once the world's largest man-made structure; the Temple of Luxor in the heart of what was once ancient Thebes; the Temple of Amon at nearby Karnak, guarded impressively and eternally by rows of ram-headed sphinxes. Across the river to the east are the subterranean wonderlands of the City of the Dead, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Tombs of the Nobles. In this area, too, is the tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922 in all its unspoiled grandeur and with its fabulous treasures untouched.

This is the Egypt that was there long before Abu Simbel assumed its unique but transient fame. This is the Egypt that will be there long after the great figures have been hoisted to their new eminence above the great lake now forming at their feet, and long after the fashionable rush has slowed to the normal pace of the timeless Nile.

Tor Eigeland, a professional photographer who has handled assignments in Africa, Japan and Southeast Asia, was born in Oslo, Norway. After trying a number of occupations in Canada and earning a college degree in Mexico he became an American citizen and in 1958 turned to photography.

Threatened by the rising waters of the artificial lake being created by the Aswan High Dam, the great temples of Abu Simbel, most famous of all Nubian monuments, will be cut into 30-ton pieces, hauled up 200 feet and reassembled at the top of the cliff. This operation, planned by Italians and being executed by West Germans is sponsored by UNESCO and will cost $36,000,000. The temples were begun by Seti I and completed by Pharaoh Ramses II approximately 3,200 years ago. These four sitting statues at the larger of the two temples are each about 65 feet high, hewn out of sandstone and depict Ramses II.

Not far from the site in Memphis where the huge statues of Ramses II were found (see p. 15), an alabaster sphinx was discovered in 1912 in a good state of preservation. It was 26 feet long and 13 feet high, and weighed 80 tons. Like most of the Egyptian sphinxes, it depicts a pharaoh in his divine role of the sun-god Ra—with a human face but the body of a lion—though there are also sphinxes with the face of a ram or a hawk. In Greek mythology and art the sphinx was a winged monster with the head and the breasts of a woman and the body of a lion.

Fastest craft to ever navigate the Nile is a government-owned hydrofoil which maintains, during the winter months, a daily service for tourists and other passengers between Aswan and Abu Simbel in the south, a distance of approximately 170 miles.

One of the New Kingdom temples in the Thebes area is Medinet Habu, built by Ramses III. Facing southeast, it has a length of 503 feet and a width of 160 feet. Its enclosure contains both a palace in the form of a stronghold and a sanctuary. Externally the building is not particularly beautiful, but internally are many specimens of painted sculptures depicting the pharaoh's victorious battles against Libyans, Syrians and others. In their richness and splendor, they are of great value to students of Egyptian history.

There are many sphinxes in Egypt, and indeed elsewhere in the Middle East and Greece, but the largest and most famous of these mythical beasts is the Great Sphinx of Gizeh, near Cairo; it is also the largest piece of sculpture ever carved by human hands. Finished about 2640 B.C., it is 240 feet long and it has the face of King Chephren who, upon his death, became the symbol of the sun-god Ra. The sphinx guarded the western passage through which the sun and the dead disappeared.

Oldest of all pyramids in Egypt is King Zoser's remarkable step-pyramid at Saqqara, southwest of Cairo. It was built 100 years before the Great Pyramid at Gizeh. Traditionally kings in those days were buried in mastabas, burial chambers resembling houses. King Zoser's grave was originally also a mastaba about 25 feet high, but it was later enlarged. A 4-step pyramid was built on top of the mastaba and then that was enlarged to a 6-step pyramid, 200 feet high. It was not only the largest man-made structure in the land, but also the first made entirely of stone.

The Separeum at Memphis is the vast underground gallery where the Pharaohs buried the Apis, or sacred bulls. These catacombs house dozens of granite and basalt sarcophagi or coffins, the heaviest weighing almost 70 tons. Each has its private side-hall off the main passage. Outside nearby is the place where the bulls were prepared for mummification and burial. The Apis, according to historians, were not allowed to die a natural death. They were killed, partly consumed at a ritual feast, and the remains mummified and ceremonially buried.

A crocodile ready to devour a baby hippopotamus being born, is one of the bas-reliefs inside the rarely photographed tomb of Princess Adut near Unis' pyramid at Saqqara. Most of such decorations in those days were in stone, and colors were seldom used, probably out of fear that they would not last forever. The religious belief of that period held that the happy afterlife of the deceased depended a great deal on the depictions, in the most durable materials, of scenes which happened during his earthly existence.

The magnificent temple of Deir el-Bahari near Nag Hamadi stands at the foot of the rugged Theban hills in a recess of the desert wall. Built as a funerary temple for the famed Queen Hatshepsut (18th dynasty) and designed by one of the Queen's advisers called Senemut, it has an enormous processional ramp leading up to two successive spacious terraces and a columned court and then into the main sanctuary cut back into the cliff. Originally the terraces were planted with rows of palms and other trees and plants brought in from distant lands.

Looking out over the fertile fields west of Luxor, across the Nile, are the two colossi of Memnon. These gigantic seated sandstone figures are almost the sole remains of the huge temple of Amenhotep III who was all-powerful from 1405-1370 B.C. The legend that the colossi represented the Trojan hero Memnon grew up many centuries later. Time truly seems to have stood still here. The farmers till and irrigate their land and guard their flocks the way their forefathers did, safe beneath the perpetually alert presence of the colossi.

King Ramses II, "The Great," who reigned from 1292-1225 B.C., held court at Memphis. Practically nothing is left today of the splendid white-walled city, the site of which is about 16 miles southwest of Cairo. At Memphis two giant statues of Ramses II, a great builder who left monuments all over Egypt, were found. The one pictured here, originally 44 feet high when standing, is enclosed in a special hall built around it. Its condition is such that it cannot be restored to either a sitting or standing position.

As soon as a new ruler came to the throne in old Egypt, he selected a site for his future tomb. Remains of the mortuary temple of Amenhotep II, who reigned from 1450-1425 B.C., were found in West Thebes, but his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is well preserved. Nine mummies and a list of gods and spirits, containing 504 names, were among the subjects found in it. Amenhotep, who, or so he said, was a great athlete and warrior (historians call him a cruel and bloodthirsty man), is shown here with Osiris, god of the Dead.

Most famous pyramids of all are those at Gizeh near Cairo. There are three there and the one finished in 2680 B.C. by Khufu—also called, by the Greeks, Cheops—founder of the fourth dynasty, is the largest. Its original height was 481 feet, but it is now only 450 feet. An estimated 100,000 men worked three months each year for 20 years to build it, using 2,250,000 blocks of solid stone, each averaging two and a half tons in weight. Whether visited by day or by night, the pyramids are always an overwhelming and unforgettable spectacle.

Luxor Temple, built on the site of a chapel to celebrate the New Year feast, was erected by Amenhotep III and dedicated to the god Amon, his wife Mut, and their son, the moon god Khensu. Tutankhamen and Ramses II altered and enlarged, though not always improved, the temple, which in its original form was severe of design and 623 feet long. Of the two fine granite obelisks, one was taken to Paris where now it is the famous landmark of the Place de la Concorde. From Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple an avenue of sphinxes is presently being excavated.

From Luxor it is only a brief ferry ride across the Nile to the City of the Dead, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Tombs of the Nobles. There one finds also the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple built by Ramses II and dedicated to the god Amon. It is mostly in ruins, but even its remains are impressive. On the western side is the broken, giant statue of Ramses, made from one single granite block and weighing more than 1,000 tons. Once the largest statue in all Egypt it was smashed by King Cambyses of Persia—in itself quite a feat.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the January/February 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1965 images.