Egypt celebrated the phenomenal solar alignment at the Abu Simbel temple complex in the southern province of Aswan despite a national mourning period for government troops killed in a recent terrorist attack.
Hundreds of Egyptians and foreign tourists travelled to the Great Temple of Ramses II to witness the event that occurs twice a year, on Ramses’ birthday, October 22, and again on his coronation day, February 22.
Visitors arrived at the site on the western bank of Lake Nasser, the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River, hours before dawn, waiting for the sun to send a beam of light into the ancient temple’s dark inner chamber.
The sun rays illuminated the colossal 22.5-metre tall statues of the temple, surrounding them with an aura of praise and respect. The beam set on Ramses II’s face from the east from a narrow opening.
“Everybody present was ecstatic to see such a wonderful phenomenon playing out in front of their eyes,” said Ahmed Saleh, the head of the Aswan Section at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. “The solar alignment is a phenomenon that shows the vast advances made by the ancient Egyptians in astrology.”
Egypt was hoping to turn the sun alignment at the Abu Simbel temple into a magnet for international tourists and revive its tourism sector after almost two years of recession.
The sector received a painful blow in 2015 when terrorists bombed a Russian passenger plane over Sinai. The incident led to tour cancellations and flight suspensions, causing unprecedented losses to the tourism sector, which employs more than 5 million Egyptians.
Authorities in Aswan prepared for the sun alignment inside the Ramses II temple months earlier.
“We repaired the roads, upgraded the temple itself and provided comfortable places for visitors to witness the solar alignment,” said Mohamed Anwar, the head of the Abu Simbel Council. “We wanted tourists to enjoy the sight of the sun illuminating the statues inside the temple and have memorable moments.”
The celebration was low-key because of the terrorist attack October 20 near Cairo. Militants ambushed security forces during a raid on their desert hideout.
The event saddened Egypt but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of those who converged at the Temple of Ramses II hours before dawn amid tight security.
The solar alignment was especially important because it coincided with the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Abu Simbel Temple by Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt.
The temple, a UNESCO Heritage Site, had been buried in the sand for several centuries. It was built during the reign of Ramses II 32 centuries ago. It is hailed as one of the most beautiful of Egypt’s ancient monuments and is well-known for its four colossal statues of Ramses II, the sun gods Re-Horakhty and Amon-Re and the Theban god of darkness Ptah, the only one not lit during the solar alignment.
The alignment brings the rays of the sun around 60 metres inside the temple, where walls are inscribed with records of important events.
“The sight of the sun illuminating the gigantic statues was more than splendid,” said Akram Abdullah, who travelled more than 1,000km from Alexandria to witness the solar alignment. “It gave me a lot of pride to be part of an event that demonstrated the ancient Egyptians’ astrological and engineering mastery.”
Egypt had planned a two-day celebration to mark the alignment and the anniversary of the temple’s rediscovery.
Egyptian Culture Minister Helmi al-Namnam, who attended the solar alignment ceremony, was to inaugurate the new Aswan Palace of Culture, which should function as the new cultural hub of the southern province, not far from the temple. However, the inauguration and folklore activities were cancelled out of respect for those killed in the terrorist attack two days earlier.
Anwar said he and the Abu Simbel council would continue working to make the temple a favourite site for tourists.
“This is a site of unmatched beauty, which never fails to make those who visit fall in love with it,” he said. “Ramses II was a great king whose greatness manifests itself clearly in the monuments he left behind, including this temple, of course.”
Abu Simbel temple was relocated in the 1960s to make way for Lake Nasser. The move caused the solar alignment to occur one day later in the year than in the original site.
Mohamed Abu Shanab is an Egyptian reporter based in Aswan.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.