How the Abu Simbel Temples were Saved from Lake Nasser

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"How the Abu Simbel Temples were Saved from Lake Nasser"
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The Abu Simbel Temples are built on orders of Ramses II and dedicated to Ptah and Amun Re, the two greatest gods of the time. The temples were built in a way that allows the sun to light up sculptures on the back walls. Twice a year, a solar alignment lights up all but the statue of Ptah, the ancient god of the underworld. Had the high Aswan dam been finished before these temples could be rescued, they would be lost underwater forever.

The Threat To The Abu Simbel Temples

There are two Aswan Dams, the low dam and the high dam. Various attempts to build the low dam started in the 1000s and a dam was finally completed in 1902. The power of the Nile River was such that the low dam, despite its immense size, was not enough. The high dam where the Abu Simbel Temples were located was completed during the 1970s after 20 years of work. 

The high dam was the site of many architectural treasures, including sites monuments, and smaller treasures. According to Property, many of the treasures were salvaged by and given away to countries like the United Kingdom and America.

The Abu Simbel Temples, however, were successfully relocated despite their massive size. The Egypt Independent reports that the annual celebrations at the temples will still go on despite recent violence at other public events. The solar lighting of the interior still happens.

The Size and Location of The Abu Simbel Temples

The temple was carved from a sandstone cliff. The temple consisted of the outer facade which is dominated by four massive statues of Ramses II. The facade is 38 meters (124.6 feet) long and 31 meters (101.7 feet) high.

The temple interior contains 14 rooms that were set into the interior of the cliff. The largest room, the courtyard hall, is 18 meters (59 feet) long, 16 meters (52.5 feet) wide and 8 meters (26 feet).  high.

The Initial Stages

The Abu Simbel Temples were recovered during the 1960s by a complicated set of engineering, archaeological and other feats.

First, careful documentation, drawings, photographs and measurements were taken.

Next, proposals were developed and submitted by many individuals and nations to UNESCO and the Egyptian government which had established to support the salvage operation.

Finally, Messrs. Vattenbyggnadsbyrân (VBB) of Stockholm were chosen as the consulting  engineers and architects  for  the entire project. Also, an international consortium of Contractors called Joint Venture Abu Simbel carried out the work.

The Coordination and Financing Stages

The challenge was for archaeologist, architect and engineer to understand and balance the needs of historical preservation with respect to the limitations and opportunities that the technology and engineering science presented at the time. 

Financing was organized for the $36 million operation. UNESCO, as the umbrella for 50 contributing nations, agreed to provide $25 million and the United Arab Emirates (UAR) provided about $16 million. The US contributed $12 million. 

The Engineering and Geological Studies For Salvaging the Abu Simbel Temples 

Studies included extensive investigations of geological and geotechnical issues like internal stresses and fissures in the sandstone rock that surrounded and actually formed the temples.

Ground water and drainage below the temples, tests on rock excavation, issues with cutting the sandstone, strengthening the sandstone, and anchoring iron bars in sandstone are just some of the extensive evaluations, preparations and studies that were completed.

The Nile Cofferdam Protected the Abu Simbel Temples Site From Rising Waters

Work started in 1964, just as the waters of the Nile were starting to rise from the completion of the High Aswan Dam. A cofferdam and an ingenious drainage system was built to insure that the rising waters would not intrude into the temple areas.

The Sandstone Cutting and Moving

After steel scaffolding was built to support strategic areas, the cutting of the facade began. The rock was only cut to 80 centimeters (2.6 feet), and carefully excised to exacting specifications as if a giant puzzle was being made. 

Next, a series of lifting mechanisms and gantry cranes were used to move the Abu Simbel Temple's pieces to a storage facility. This was not as easy as it seems, since there were many "rules" such as not allowing a lifting mechanism to tilt the item or come into contact with the main structure.

Storing the Rock and Preparing for Reconstruction

It needs to be remembered that the sandstone was painted. This presented issues with rainfall and other natural exposures and damage during movement and storage. But rainfall and other issues proved to be no huge problem. Various coverings and other meticulous care was carried out, and the painted surfaces were fairly well retained.

The Final Move and Reconstruction

The goal was to move the entire temple up from the base of the plateau to a point where Lake Nasser would never reach the temple base again. The horizontal transit was 208 meters (608 feet). The vertical lift for the main temple was 65 meters (213 feet). The vertical lift for the smaller temple was 67 meters (227 feet).

The reconstruction was carried out, complete with temple domes and a "natural appearance".

Modern installations proved to be an issue, but the temple required electricity, equipment and ventilation for safety, dealing with human traffic, humidity and visibility. This was done in as non obtrusive way as possible. 

The Maintenance Program

VBB also completed a detailed maintenance and protection program that carefully considered "all conceivable circumstances which might influence the temples and their condition". This included such problems as temperature changes, wind erosion, interior humidity and physical and chemical changes to the substances in the temple. Also considered were wear and tear from human traffic, structural settlement and damage that could be caused by animals such as reptiles, birds, insects and more.

The Lasting Rewards

In salvaging and restoring the Abu Simbel Temples, the world came together to build one of the great museums and wonders of the world. The Abu Simbel Temples were a technological marvel in their origins. But to move and reconstruct the temples with such exquisite preparation, coordination, technology and care was another historical marvel. It is with great hope that the Egyptian government can stabilize and reconstruct after a major revolution to keep and maintain one of the greatest treasures of ancient African history.

International has a PDF file that describes the the Great Temple and its recovery in very good detail. The PDF file also provides an extensive bibliography for more information about saving the Abu Simbel Temples. 

African World Heritage Sites has more information about Abu Simbel Temples and other Nubian Monuments of the area surrounding the High and Low Aswan Dams.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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