Aswan: "Rescuing Abu Simbel"

Aswan, Egypt

10 October 2009


The August/September edition of Horus, the in-flight magazine of Egypt Air, published an article called "Rescuing Abu Simbel."

The recollections of the engineer Medhat Ibrahim are both informative and powerful. He describes the enormous project to save the ancient Nubian monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. I have reprinted his article below.

My best moment at Abu Simbel came when, after strolling past several wall carvings and decoration, I turned the corner of the mountain, looked to my left, and was startled; "There it is!" "There they are!"

I was impressed at how "African" the faces look. The faces of the royalty inside the tombs are the faces of very young men. Colorful frescoes and wall carvings of battles and daily life still remain.

The monuments are monumental. The Nile is serene. The Aswan villages are lively and welcoming -- the boys are boisterous, the girls shy. To relax, an afternoon glass of tea at a sidewalk café. And finally, a felucca cruise. The eternal Egyptian sky turns from bright blue to golden red to desert black.


Aswan Facts:

As befitting its name, the Marhaba Hotel was comfortable and convenient.

The Makka Restaurant . . . I went twice! Roast lamb and potatoes, mixed vegetable stew, rice, and as the standard gesture of hospitality, the owner covered the table with small plates of baba ghanoush, hummus, raw vegetables and pita.

Rescuing Abu Simbel


An engineer recalls how the world united to Save the Nubian Monuments.

Written by Consultant Eng. Medhat Ibrahim.

The two great temples of Abu Simbel, with their colossal guardian statues, have become synonymous with Egypt’s ancient heritage. Built by Ramses II, ruler for most of the twelfth century BC, they are masterpieces of Pharaonic architecture. However, were it not for a monumental modern engineering effort, they may have been lost forever.

In 1954, planning began on a second project to dam the Nile at Aswan, the completion of which would create the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Nasser. The expansion of the Nile would submerge an area peppered with ancient monuments including the two rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the request of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. From 1959 to 1980, thousands of archeologists, engineers, architects and laborers worked day and night to relocate 22 monuments and architectural complexes between Aswan, Egypt and Khartoum, Sudan, away from the rising waters.

Engineer and architect Medhat Abdel Rahman Ibrahim was there, and recalls his experience of the Abu Simbel project with Horus, Edited excerpts:

"It gives me great pleasure to take you on the elaborate engineering journey we embarked on in Nubia some 50 years ago. In this world, it is more and more common to see artists and intellectuals, rushing to complete a project, only to see it soon eclipsed by something grander. There are some achievements, however, whose magnificence seems never to fade with time. Egypt was lucky enough to inherit such a masterpiece in Abu Simbel, and now 50 years on, we are celebrating an engineering feat that I hope will prove as timeless.

The temples were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile because of the construction of the High Dam. Every day, the water moved closer and closer to submerging these structures which were cut into the mountainside. The first task at Abu Simbel was to build a temporary cofferdam around the two temples to keep the water from entering the site.

Next, iron scaffolding was created inside the temples to support the roof, which was covered with a protective layer to ensure no damage was done to the ornate decorations. The temple façades were the covered with sand to protect them while the mountain around them was being excavated. During this time, large culvert pipes allowed workers to pass into the temples and any excess water to be pumped out.

Bulldozers began carving away the mountain, but they stopped eight meters from the temple roofs and walls for fear of a collapse. Engineers used light hand-held drills to get within 70 centimeters of the temple structure before using electric saws and finally handsaws for the last 10 centimeters.

The same fine saws were then used to carefully cut the temples into hundreds of blocks weighing between 20 and 30 tons each. The blocks were numbered and two holes drilled into each one into which steel bars were attached with epoxy resin for easy transport.

Each piece was carefully lifted by crane and transported by truck to a nine-feddan storage area to await reconstruction. The detailed carvings in the ancient stones were wrapped in rubber to protect them during the transition. Following thorough analysis of the ground and orientation to the sun, a new location was chosen on a plateau 70 meters higher and set 200 meters back from the water.

The most important element of the entire project was to align the temples so that the sun would touch the face of Ramses II inside the sanctuary of his temple on February 21 and October 21, just as it had done in the original location. (In the end the temples had to be aligned to that the solstice occurred one day later on February 22 and October 22.) After surveyors had determined the precise orientation and a reinforced concrete foundation had been laid, workers started to reassemble the temple walls, followed by the ceiling using the block numbers as a guide. Once the interiors had been reconstructed, the outer surfaces of the blocks were covered with 80 centimeters of reinforced concrete.

It was not possible to relocate the surrounding mountain mass, as the newly reconstructed temples would not be able to bear such weight. Accordingly, our UNESCO team set about building a reinforced concrete dome, on top of which a man-made hill could be created to mimic the original. The dome is one of the largest such structures in the world: 65 meters in diameter, 25 meters high, 1.4 meters thick at the top and 2.1 meters thick along the foundations.:

Finally the seams in the temple façades and inner walls were filled in with a mixture of epoxy resin and rock dust collected during the carving process, giving the surfaces a natural, uncut look. In fact, anyone who visits the temple today will find it difficult to identify the original fissures.

As well as being a part of the team that worked on Abu Simbel, I also supervised the construction of a Nubian village where the international team of experts – 40 technical missions from five continents – stayed while we were working on the project. Abu Simbel united us all in a truly international community; we would all gather our families together in the evenings to relax and share stories.

In March this year, to commemorate the project’s golden jubilee, UNESCO, in coordination with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the Sudanese Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth, invited all of us involved in rescuing the Nubian monuments to attend a four-day celebratory conference in Aswan. It was fantastic to be reunited with all those international experts in the same place after all this time and enjoy the lectures and discussions on the Nubian community as well as the traditional dancing performances. Nubians who had been resettled during the High Dam project were also invited to the event.

During the celebration, some of the original team were taken for a visit to Abu Simbel. We went for a tour inside the temple to observe how the reconstruction was faring. While we were at the temple, some were wondering: ‘Did our efforts really succeed?’ Our success has endured nature’s tribulations for 50 years – only time will tell if it continues to do so."

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