Monday, 3 March 2008

On the move

When the British slapped up the lower dam here in Aswan back in 1902, the fate of the Philae temple was already sealed. It was to die a long, slow death as the water levels inevitably rose. And rise they did throughout the twentieth century until the building of the upper dam from 1960 to 1970 finally left the whole thing completely surrounded by water and in danger of total submersion. 

In true heroic style befitting such an ancient treasure, there was only one way to save it and that was to literally up sticks and move it to dry land.

No mean engineering feat even by today’s standards. Of course the Philae temple is not the only world heritage site here in Egypt to have had to hit the road.

When the then Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, finally secured Soviet financing and support to build the dam that stands today, he wanted to prevent the regular flooding of the Nile that occurred further downstream in more densely populated areas.

But the construction inevitably meant that there would be a price to be paid – ecologically and in particular culturally – with some of the world’s most valued treasures coming under threat.

The solution was to move as many of them as possible. The most magnificent maybe is Abu Simbel – 250kms south of Aswan towards the Egyptian border with Sudan. There a whole mountain had to be built to act as a backdrop to the block-by block reconstruction of the temple.

International agreement and funding for relocating treasures such as Abu Simbel and most of the other sites had been secured before the construction of the dam had been completed. In other words, as difficult and unimaginable as it might have been, it was a “simple” case of moving across country - from dry land to dry land so to speak.

What sets aside the modern-day fate of the Philae temple is that it was already surrounded by water. Indeed work on moving it wasn’t started until after the Aswan dam had been completed in 1971. It took the best part of the next decade to lug the whole think just 500 metres to its new resting site – the island of Agilika.

So with all that effort put in to saving the site, Philae had better be able to come up with the goods. And of course it does although the frequency and relentlessness with which visitors snap away, does raise the question as to whether this wasn’t perhaps just another “thing to do” and place to have gone, ticked off the list.

One very popular way to see the temple is by night. It’s a trend the Egyptians have well got the hang of throughout the country – the tourist trap by day becomes a pay-again must-see after sundown as the Sons et Lumières show blasts out centuries of history in the matter of an hour or so.

Mind you that’s perhaps all it’s worth as it does come across rather as a 1960s Hollywood B movie, minus the actors but complete with cheesy music.

The plot is as incredible as the setting is majestic, but somehow loses a little in translation, especially if you miss the nightly English version and end up traipsing around the French “production”.

But in short the visitor learns that Isis, for whom the temple was built, resurrected her husband, Osiris after he had been bumped off and his body parts scattered (his private bits were never found) by his brother, Seth. She then of course marries him, bears a child (no mean feat given his still-missing genitalia) and is venerated for centuries to come. Clearly a lesson to all of modern civilisation somewhere along the line as Isis, Osiris, and Seth were siblings. But perhaps we’ll leave the matter there.

The problem with this particular Son et Lumière production – promoted, as “glamour pure” is that parts of the temple seem to be illuminated indiscriminately and a barrage of snap-happy tourists’ cameras flash seconds after the lights have moved on.

How much they’ll ever remember of the story or understand of the walls of hieroglyphics they’ve been shooting is open to question.

But if nothing else they’re sure to treasure the boat race back to the mainland after the show, which is itself not for the weak-hearted or loose-wigged.

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