Thursday 17 September 2020

Chapter 9 - Abu Simbel

Aswan was the end of Egypt, but not the end of the ancient Egyptian Empire.  In the earliest days of the nation, expeditions were made further south to procure wood, incense, slaves and - above all - gold.  It is from the ancient word for gold - 'nub' - that the name of Nubia derives.  To the Egyptians at the time of the Empire, though, the land was called Kush.  Such was the region's importance that it had its own viceroy, the third most senior official in Egypt.

As the land of Kush was conquered by the kings of the New Kingdom - the Ramessid dynasty - first forts and then later temples were built deeper and deeper into Africa, reaching down into present-day Sudan.  The greatest of these temples is undoubtedly that of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

The four seated statues of the king hewn out of the rock face, guarding the entrance to the temple, must be one of the most famous images of all Egypt.  But much of that fame derives from the dramatic international rescue that was mounted to save them from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.

The means employed were simple but extraordinary: teams of engineers from Italy, France, Sweden and West Germany carved the entire temple complex into a series of 2000 stone blocks, each weighing from 10 to 40 tons.  These blocks were then removed to a place of safety some 600 feet away from and 200 feet higher than their original location.  They were painstakingly put back together again with precisely the original orientation, and an artificial hill was then built around the temple.

As well as its dramatic location and impressive facade, the temple is noteworthy for its inscriptions and reliefs.  Hidden away at the front is the Hittite Marriage Stela, recording the marriage of Ramses II and the Hittite princess Maatherneferure.  This was a marriage born of an earlier treaty signed between the kings of the Egyptian and Hittite empires, ending their long-standing war.  It is the earliest such formal treaty between two great powers to have survived - and probably the first ever drawn up.

Remarkably, we have the treaty in both its ancient Egyptian and Hittite versions.  The Hittites were one of the first Indo-European peoples recorded in history, speaking a language ultimately related to English, and their sudden rise had far-reaching consequences for the existing ancient empires.

Inside the temple there are a number of reliefs depicting Ramses killing sundry Nubians and Hittites.  His great victories are recorded, in particular the storming of a Syrian walled city, and the famous Battle of Kadesh.  In addition to a graphic representation of scenes from the battle, there is a a long and impressive description, including perhaps the first epic poem in history.

The work is in three parts: the poem, a prose commentary filling in some of the details, and captions to the accompanying reliefs.  As the prose introduction tells us, the battle took place in the fifth year of Ramses' reign, about 1300 BC.  The king was on one of his expeditions against the Hittites who threatened the Syrian outposts of his empire.

Acting on the misinformation of two Hittite spies pretending to be deserters, the king had led the advance guard of his army's four divisions - each named after one of the great gods Amun, Re, Ptah and Seth - to the city of 'Kadesh the Old', believing the Hittite army to be 100 miles to the North.  Just as Ramses discovered from two more captured scouts that the army in fact lay nearby, the division of Amun which he had pushed ahead of the others was attacked by the massed Hittite forces.

According to the poem, his warriors broke ranks and fled.  It was only when Ramses led the counter-charge and drove back the thousands of enemy chariots - single-handed apart from his fearful shield-bearer Menena, and his trusty horses 'Victory-in-Thebes' and 'Mut-is-content' - that his men rallied.  In fact it is likely that the tide was turned in the Egyptians' favour with the arrival of a special force sent from the main body of the army - as shown in the reliefs, though conveniently omitted from the texts.  Although certainly no great victory for the Egyptians, a great defeat had been avoided, and in any case, a kind of peace was established as a result of the battle - cause enough for commemoration.

The work is remarkable in a number of respects.  As the first narrative rather purely laudatory poem, stylistic innovations were required in the compositional techniques employed.  The accompanying reliefs are also novel in their detailed depictions of the battle scenes around the mighty figure of the Pharaoh - normally shown on his own smiting enemies symbolically rather than naturalistically - visual analogues of the text's full account.

But above all what is striking is the intensely personal and realistic nature of the poem itself.  The character of Ramses II - royally proud, eloquent in his anger, superbly defiant - is delineated skilfully and through his own words.  It is easy to imagine the satisfaction of the king when his scribe first read it to him.  No wonder that he ordered it to be placed on all of his greatest monuments.  Our feelings today as we gaze on them, and our awe when confronted with the truly god-like Pharaoh who emerges prove the shrewdness of his decision.

At the back of the temple is the sanctuary with four statues, one each of the gods Amun, Re and Ptah, the fourth of Ramses II himself.  Interestingly, the orientation of the temple is such that on two days of the year - 22 February and 22 October - the rays of the rising sun line up with the axis of the outer hall and illuminate these four statues in what is a stunning piece of ancient planning - and theatre.

Nearby there is also a small temple dedicated to the cow-headed goddess Hathor, called the Temple of Nefertari after the name of the chief queen of Ramses.  In all the king had four, possibly five official wives, one of whom was his sister, and one his own daughter: as a god, Ramses was not subject to ordinary laws of morality.  In addition, he would have had a huge harem of concubines from all parts of his extensive empire - often given by foreign rulers who wished to win the king's favour.  From these queens and concubines he sired at least 50 sons and 53 daughters - and these are just the ones known to us from inscriptions.

The Egyptians' grip on these arid lands was relatively short-lived.  Within a few hundred years the local Nubian kings not only invaded Egypt itself, but eventually set themselves up as rulers of the whole of Upper Egypt.  The glory of Egypt was clearly over.  After a couple of centuries of power, the Nubians were in turn defeated by the newly-risen might of the Assyrians who soon added Egypt to their vast empire.  

The Nubians retreated back to Africa, where they kept alive many ancient Egyptian practices, as evidenced by their burials - sometimes involving pyramidal tombs even - of which some have come down to us from as late as the sixth century AD, and are to be found not far from Abu Simbel.  The artefacts unearthed there are now in the Egyptian Museum.

In one bloodthirsty respect, though, these last Nubian kings seem to have departed from standard Egyptian practice: in the royal tombs, alongside the kings buried in full regalia, were found the strangled and clubbed bodies of their queens and servants.  This primitive practice had ceased at the time of the foundation the Egyptian nation, some three and half thousand years before these Nubian graves.  Happily a number of such ancient rites - such as the killing of the old or failing king - seem to have died out in that earliest Egyptian kingdom.  Along with the invention of writing, the mastery of stone-building and the concept of the organised state, this particularly welcome achievement also marks out this time as the true dawn of our civilisation.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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