Middle East | Egypt
June 24, 2008
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1992, Monday 03 August: through heat and dust to Abu Simbel.

The Great Temple, Abu Simbel, Egypt.

Some of the blocks weighed 30 tonnes; all of them had to be cut from the native limestone, then hauled 200 feet upwards out of reach of the flood. Once in its new position, each colossal fragment of ancient history had to be placed precisely between its neighbours and stuck onto the side of an artificial mountain - built specifically for the purpose.

The rescue of the Abu Simbel Temples between 1966 and 1968 was the culmination of an intense campaign to save the ruins of ancient Nubia from the new lake backing up behind President Nasser's Aswan High Dam. It was perhaps the first time the world held-up its collective hand and said, 'this shall not happen" when faced with an irreplaceable loss to the global patrimony in the name of economic development. From this beginning sprang the impact assessments and environmental audits that are now routine for any project, however small, right down to checking for newts before the village pond can be weeded and dredged.

Of course, Abu Simbel is far more than a footnote in the study of social trends, it's one of the most iconic ancient sites in the world. So, when I came to Aswan in 1992, there was no way I was going to leave without visiting. But, in truth, it is my memory of the journey, not the monument, that is the strongest: three hours each way across the midsummer desert, in a coach whose air-conditioning existed solely in the mind of an itinerant ticket-seller. As we drove, the red rock of the Sahara outside was as lifeless as Mars; inside the vehicle's plastic seatbacks melted to putty. The only thing that moved was the shimmering heat-haze. In contrast, Abu Simbel, when we arrived, seemed oddly inconsequential. It wasn't that it wasn't big - the seated statues of Pharaoh Ramesses II truly are gargantuan; but more that there didn't seem to be any context; the setting gave no purchase for my imagination to grasp onto. The artificial rock-face, though well done, was plainly from another age (and positively surreal after you went through the little side-door and inside the 'hollow mountain'), while the shores of man-made Lake Nasser were as silent and sterile as the desert.

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