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xEurasia Odyssey

Nubian Riches Days 6-7

EGYPT | Monday, 19 December 2016 | Views [556]

Day 6 Nubian and Egyptian Gods and Goddesses

The boat docked overnight in Aswan. Aswan Ahmad met me on board and we headed out to a car waiting for us on the road above the boat dock. The first stop  was to the Aswan High Dam. What I found fascinating was that it is constructed of purely natural elements, there is no concrete holding the massive structure together, just sand and clay. Trees and bushes grow naturally on the top.  Looking south from the dam, I saw a structure that looked like a worship site and asked what it was, Ahmad said it was a Nubian temple.  Naturally, this needed to be explored, so we rented a motorboat, a rather long bark, to go across to the island where the Kalabsha Temple is located. This temple was moved due to the construction of the Dam, from about 30 km further to the south.  There are four temples/shrines on this island that came from different areas in the region.  The main temple was started in the late Ptolemaic period and completed by Caesar Augustus; it was dedicated to the Nubian solar god, Merwel, known to the Greeks as Mandulis. The temple was used as a church during the Roman persecutions and the early Byzantine period.  It has an eight column hypostyle with painted reliefs of various emperors and gods; the main hall has three chambers which is a bit unusual for these kinds of temples. There is also a Nileometer for taxation purposes. The temple is really quite interesting and it is fascinating to see Nubian faces depicted in the imagery in contrast to those northern Egyptian gods. The ancient Nubians had their own set of deities, and only a few of the Egyptian gods were recognized in Nubia; some share the same name but have vastly different functions.  For example, the Nubian mother goddess was Tefnut, whose name she shared with the Egyptian goddess of dew and moisture, but in Nubia she was the goddess of fire. Context is everything, so without knowing what region one is referring to it is very easy to get the gods and goddesses confused. 

Beit al-Wadi lies a short walk around the island from the main temple. It is a small box like temple/shrine built by Ramses II as a tribute to himself. He celebrates his victory over the Nubians and wars against Libyans and the Hittites in imagery on the walls. Artistically, the site is very interesting as the paintings are quite well preserved, but the general message of his site, does leave something to be desired unless one is interested in conquest for conquest’s sake.

The there is another temple on the site that I don’t know the name of.  It comprises a platform with some interesting columns in a beautiful setting in a niche on the hill overlooking Lake Nassar, but the most stunningly located structure is the Temple of Kertassi with two Hathor columns; it was beautiful site for the great goddess. By the Ptolemaic period Hathor had gone from the universal mother goddess to an Egyptian equivalent of Aphrodite.  It was a strange transition, but one that made sense culturally for the Greeks and later Romans. Hathor as the universal mother was one of the Egyptian gods/goddesses recognized by the Nubians as was her consort in later times, Horus, as a main deity. 

Ancient Nubia extended from the First Cataract to the merging of the White and Blue Niles near modern day Khartoum in Sudan. When the High Dam was built it flooded the majority of the Nubian villages and temples along the Nile Basin. In Pharaonic times Nubia was split into two regions, similar to Upper and Lower Egypt. The ancient area of Wawat was between the first two cataracts of the Nile River, while Upper Nubia, Kush, was below that to the joining of the two rivers. Nubian riches were prized throughout the region and trade from central Africa and Nubian gold made the region a direct competitor with their neighbors to the North throughout much of early Egyptian history.  Nubian civilization developed parallel to Egyptian starting around 3,500 BCE although artifacts from pre-historic times are also in the region.  During the Third Intermediate Period and a few times before that, Nubians ruled Egypt. Ramses II leading wife, Nefertari, was a Nubian princess.

Although Nubia had two major regions, it was a united culture until the British split Egypt and Sudan into two countries, dividing Nubia in two. The British had a habit of doing this sort of thing after WWII, and it has led to no end of problems in India/Pakistan, Cyprus, and, of course, in Israel. The Egyptians and the Sudanese wanted to avoid this kind of tension and have apportioned the water in Lake Nassar, which would likely be the greatest area of conflict in this desert region, according to the percentage of land mass it covers in the particular country; 70% is in Egypt and 30% now lies in Sudan. Lake Nassar currently has less water than in the past, but it is still doing quite well.  The rains from the south help keep it full.  What will happen to the peaceful agreement if the rains stop, or if any of the upriver countries decide to dam the river, and the lake which provides hydroelectrical power to huge portions of the country goes the way Lake Mead or Lake Powell are heading, has yet to be seen.

After the boat ride back to the High Dam, we headed on to the original goal for the day, the temple at Philae. Philae, like Edfu, is among the few best preserved Ptolemaic temples. It was dedicated to the goddess Isis and was the site of annual pilgrimages until Justinian stopped all pagan worship in 535 CE. The temple one visits now is the original temple, minus a room and slightly off center, but it is in a different location.  When the Old Dam was built in 1902 the site was partially flooded, but when the new dam was to be built it was obvious that the temple would be destroyed. An international effort, led by the Italians, came to the rescue, though not before the structures had been partially submerged. They cut the buildings into pieces and hauled them over to the third of a three island grouping that lay just south of the First Cataract of the Nile. The new location is on Agilkia as the island Philae is now under water.  The second of the three islands was sacred to the eternal sleep of Osiris and was not allowed to be visited by anyone other than the high priest for special ceremonies. It, too, is now underwater. The oldest part of the site, the Pavilion of Nectanebo, from around 370 BCE, is the first place one comes to from the boat mooring. There isn’t much left of it. The monumental temple of Isis lies a bit behind the remains of the Pavilion; it was constructed by Ptolemy II or III (the accounts differ) at the same time as Edfu, and this is probably when Hathor’s shrine to the side of the main structure was built. Trajan’s pavilion gate obviously came later.

The temple to Isis is remarkable in a couple of ways; first, it is not just Isis who is worshipped here, but a number of gods and goddesses are depicted as deities to be venerated, and second, Hathor has probably more imagery than Isis herself. This may be because according to legend, Hathor stopped here after her blood drinking rampage as the lion goddess, Sekmet, seized as she was too drunk on the switched out fruit of the vine to continue. This legend is very reminiscent of Kali and Shiva’s.

The story of how Isis protected her brother/husband after his reassembly is recounted in the inner sanctuary, while Nephtys (!) is shown breastfeeding baby Horus. It is a family story, where they take care of one another. In one of the inner chambers there is an image of Trajan receiving Isis and Hathor’s blessings, and the concept of a Roman emperor asking for a blessing from a goddess – and not Sekmet  (who is also shown in a few panels), I find fascinating. Additionally, and worth paying attention to, are the illustrations on the ceiling of the atrium of navigating the sky and depictions of the sun’s journey during the day.

Aswan hosts a good Nubian Museum and I added that to the itinerary in the evening. It is constructed in the style of a Nubian house with a series of colorful round arches as the entrance. The complex is quite large and has imitation caves on the grounds outside the museum that have hunter-gatherer petroglyphs from the region imbedded in the walls. The collection in the museum follows a chronological pattern and is nicely laid out and for the most part decently captioned.  A tour through the museum gives the visitor a better insight into the similarities and differences between ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures as well as into the situation lower Nubians faced with the flooding of their villages.  Tomorrow I’ll be visiting one such village after a morning with the great statues of Ramses II in Abu Simbel. 

Day 7 Along the Nubian Nile

Awoke early for the three hour drive across the desert from Aswan to Abu Simbel. On this road, the sand stretches forever like a yellow sea with no sign of vegetation broken only by a few sandstone hills, not dunes, but stone hills. Above the land the sky changed from grey to rose to blue as the night changed to day. The moon stayed up while the sun rose so that both were clearly visible from opposite sides of the car. Eternity in motion captured in a moment.

Abu Simbel was another of the victims of the flooding from the construction of the High Dam, but this time, conservation efforts were proactive and an international team of experts and engineers cut the temples that were built into the rock wall cliff out before the dam was completed and moved them up a 100 feet and over to the right about 70.  The conservationists had a problem in that they needed an area higher than one that was available, but, letting the ingenuity of the Pharaohs reign, they created two new hills into which the two temples, the Great and Small, could be relocated.  The only problem was they couldn’t quite get exactly the same angle to the sun as in the original location of the Great Temple, so the day in which the sun shone directly into the inner sanctuary of the Great Temple onto Ramses II flanked by the gods Ptah, who remained in darkness as befitted his role, Amun- Ra and Ra-Harakhty was moved by a day from March and October 21st to the 22nd of those months.

The front of the Great Temple has the famous four statues of Ramses II towering over the region. On either side of the entrance by Ramses’ knees are statues of his wife, the Nubian Nefertari, and his mother Mut-Tuy.  Between his legs and between the huge sculptures of this most powerful pharaoh are smaller statues of four of his daughters that he married so as not to have them pollute the royal bloodline with anyone unfit. Directly above the entrance is a glyph with a figure of Ra with a human body and falcon head, Maat is depicted by his left leg, and a hieroglyph that depicts the head and neck of an animal that connotes Uber, meaning all powerful. This is yet another sign of how this particular ruler truly believed or at least want to appear to believe that he was divine as the image spells Ramses’ crown name, Uber-Maat-Ra. Above all this are a row of twenty-two baboons looking towards the east to greet the rising sun.

Photography is not allowed inside the temples and this is unfortunate as there are a number of images that I would have liked to use in classes. There is one with Ramses making an offering to Seth in one of the side chambers off the second interior chamber and another with Seth offering the ankh to Ramses that were especially interesting as Seth was not usually depicted in the earlier temples.  In fact it seems that until Ramses II’s father, Seti I, Seth was still viewed as the bad guy in Egyptian mythology. Seti I, a major warrior pharaoh, used his energy to build an empire and his son simply extended it and solidified its power; the walls of the Great Temple are lined with images of Ramses II conquering and killing and/or enslaving his enemies.  In a sense, it seems like Seti I made a bargain with the devil to gain prominence for what would become the 19th Dynasty. Ramses II inherited a large territory, but he needed wanted Nubian riches without having to constantly deal with battles and skirmishes on his southern flank. The best way to take care of this was to marry a Nubian princess and thereby gain legitimacy in Nubian eyes. To ensure that the locals would recognize his divine stature, he had the temples built in strategic positions to showcase both himself and his Nubian bride.  He did leave a clear message to those who might think that they had a chance to rebel by showcasing the miserable fate of those who went against him.

The façade of the Small Temple is unique in that the statues of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari are the same height.  In no other temple is the wife so honored; although there are twice as many statues of Ramses on the façade as there are of his spouse.  Inside the Small Temple, which is dedicated to both Nefertari and Hathor, there are only three rooms. The imagery in this structure is much more religiously aligned. Nefertari at first appeals to the goddesses Hathor and Isis and then later is portrayed as Isis. Sekmet and Isis guard the entrance to the inner sanctuary on the inside of the last pillar before the inner sanctuary. As her husband becomes divine, so does she – except that she passed away before the Great Temple could be completed.

 It generally takes between an hour and a half to two hours to visit the site. If they ever allow photography then that time should probably be extended.

 The location of Abu Simbel is beautiful. The ‘gods’ looked over the river, now lake, to the east; a view that encompasses colors as deep as those one the walls of the temples themselves.  It was a strategic location in the past and today it is a mere 50 km from the Sudanese border, although one needs to take a ferry across the lake to connect the roads from the two neighboring countries.

 Prior to going to the airport for the flight back to Cairo we took another motorboat ride from Aswan back up the Nile to remaining Nubian village that lives off the tourist industry as the agricultural products they once produced are under water.  I was told that in the past, prior to the High Dam, the villagers worked as fishermen or farmers, with their fields by the river and houses further away up the sandy hills. Now the water level comes up to the houses and beyond, so that most of the former villages have been wiped out.  The village consists of a series of sandy paths lined with craftsmen weaving and selling scarfs, spice dealers, and innumerable trinket salesmen. In between is the occasional house and mosque. The buildings are constructed in Nubian style, which has the previously mentioned colorful arches for the entrance, and lots of painted designs on the walls.  It seems the men are responsible for building the house, but the women “who have lots of time as they don’t work” decorate the inside and outside walls with pictures. There are a number of striking differences between Nubian and Egyptian cultures; one of the most prominent is that in Egypt fathers build houses big enough to encompass their sons’ families, whereas in Nubia the fathers’ build their houses large enough for their daughters’ families as the daughters are the ones who will take care of the parents when they are old. Interesting difference; in one case the girl leaves everything to move in with her husband’s family, in the other, the boy moves in with his wife’s family; the family dynamics are opposite.  Clearly, Nefertari moved into Ramses’ household, but yet he did build the temples in her land. On the other hand, the divine royal couple never got to enjoy a favorite modern pastime of the villagers, listening to Bob Marley.  I saw a motorbike that was painted with all kinds of colored designs with ‘freedom’ written below the windshield and ‘no woman, no cry’ on the side. Ahhh, yes, long live Reggae! (& just fyi, in Muktinah in the Annapurna range in Nepal, there is a Bob Marley Hotel for trekkers!)

 The original goal was to visit one of the remaining Nubian villages, but I found that the boat ride around Elephantine Island to the First Cataract Protected Area to be even more interesting than the village itself. The contrasting colors and shapes along the banks are stunning, with bright yellow sand and multi-hued green trees and bushes framed by a deep blue sky. As the boat meanders upstream, one passes the Aga Kahn’s mausoleum in the shape of a very large sandstone castle, a watchtower/mausoleum called, the “Dome of the Winds” high on a cliff, sand boarding dunes, fishermen in dinghies, feluccas sailing past, camel driver tents, and a myriad of bird life, including kingfisher, herons, seagulls, ducks, and a bird that I don’t know the name of that looked iridescent bluegreen, but apparently becomes black when it needs to hide. I’d not heard of a chameleon bird before. It was a wonderful trip, as was the entire time in the south. It was now time to head for the airport to return to Cairo and move forward in historical time to the early Coptic culture.


Tags: egyptian temples, nile cruise, nubia


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