CAIRO – 18 May 2017: The great Pharaoh Ramses II did not know he would be called “the beautiful youth with the bonnet” more than 3,000 years after his death by another youth; Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, also known as Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah.
In commemoration of Burckhardt’s life and his rediscovery of Abu Simbel Temples 200 years ago, the Egyptian Museum, Ministry of Antiquities, the Swiss Embassy in Cairo and the University of Basel are holding a 15May-20 June exhibition of Burckhardt’s finds, some of which had never been publicly displayed.
“Becoming a famous explorer was not the initial game plan, not the initial life plan of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Burckhardt was born in 1784; he grew up in a wealthy and influential family in the canton of Basel. He benefited from a good education and traveled to Germany to master the fields of law, philosophy and histories. He could have become a diplomat or a pursued a business career, but somehow, he was looking for something else,” said Swiss ambassador to Cairo Marcus Leitner during the inauguration of the exhibition on 14 May.
A picture of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt at the exhibition – Hanan Fayed
The exhibition of 26 items includes two Arabic and Coptic five-meter long scrolls attesting the ordination of Bishop Timothy in 1372, found in Qasr Ibrim archeological site in Lower Nubia, along with the bishop’s body.
A five-meter Coptic scroll attesting a 14th century bishop at the Egyptian Museum – Hanan Fayed
The top part of a five-meter Coptic scroll attesting a 14th century bishop at the Egyptian Museum – Hassan Mohamed
Part of an Arabic five-meter Coptic scroll attesting a 14th century bishop at the Egyptian Museum – Hassan Mohamed
Now an island, after the area was flooded by Lake Nasser in the mid- 20th century, Qasr Ibrim served as one of the last bastions of the ancient Egyptian religions during the Christianization of the country, and was also one of the last strongholds of Christianity before Islam spread in Nubia starting from the 1500s.
Qasr Ibrim – Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Two other fascinating items exhibited for the first time are fragments of a mural from a rock-cut sanctuary in Lower Nubia’s Wadi es-Sebua (Valley of the Lions,) which hosts two 18th and 19th dynasty temples.
A fragment of a mural in a sanctuary in Wadi es-Sebua, built by Amenhotep III in dedication to the god Amun. The feet of Amenhotep III can be seen in the upper left part of the painting, where he stood next to an offering. The three figures in the lower register represent Egypt’s fertility, according to the museum label – Hassan Mohamed
A fragment of a mural in a sanctuary in Wadi es-Sebua, where Pharaoh Amenhotep III is seen to the right holding a long staff and making the gesture of dedication. The god Amun is seen on the left, seated on a throne. Food offerings and ritual items are depicted between them – Hanan Fayed
Forecourt of Wadi es-Sebua temple – Dennis G. Javris via Wikimedia Commons
While Italian Giovanni Belzoni cleared the entrance of the Abu Simbel Great Temple in 1817, it was Burckhardt who rediscovered the two temples in March 1813 and informed Belzoni of the exact location. Minister of Antiquities Khaled el-Enany said Cairo and Rome will commemorate Belzoni’s contribution in the rediscovery in two months and a half, while a large celebration of the iconic temples will be held in October.
An old picture of Abu Simbel Temples at the Egyptian Museum – Hassan Mohamed
Had there been an eighth wonder of the world, Abu Simbel, depicted on Egypt’s pound, would have taken the title, Enany said.
Luckily, Burckhardt was able to enter the smaller temple, which houses the cult of queen Nefertari, Ramses II’s favorite wife, and the female goddess Hathor. He was the first European ever to see it after Nubians showed it to him as an occasional refuge.
An old picture of the smaller Temple of Abu Simbel at the exhibition – Hanan Fayed
However, only the heads of the royal statues of Ramses II at the Great Temple emerged above the surface of the sand. The Great temple was dedicated to Amun, Ra-horakhty and Ptah.
Abu Simbel Temples - Creative Commons via Wikimedia
“In later dynasties, like in the New Kingdom, religion becomes more of a state institution. In the Old Kingdom, religion is not so much yet formalized in the form of big temples… In the Old Kingdom, you do not have something like this. Temples that existed for god were small things usually built out of perishable materials, not stone,” Marleen De Demeyer, Dutch Egyptologist of the University of Leuven, told Egypt Today after the event.
Head of Nubian King Shabaka, adorned with two snakes to express ruling both Nubia and Egypt. First erected at the Temple of Karnak, it is currently placed at the exhibition – Hassan Mohamed
“I challenge you to go find a temple from the Old Kingdom that you can visit,” said Demeyer, who specializes in the Old Kingdom.
“Big stone temples that we have for the old kingdom are mortuary temples for kings, so the cult of the dead king was much more important than the cult of the deity, which later becomes [more important].”
Statue of the “divine wife of Amun” Shepenupet, a Nubian princess whose family ruled both Egypt and Nubia; hence the crown with feathers, horns and two Urens-snakes. Placed at the temporary exhibition, the statue was once entirely gilded – Hassan Mohamed
“They believed that in the statues, the god actually lived, so they were not dead statues; they were living statues. That is also why in a temple, if you have the statue of the god inside, every morning he was woken up, he was fed, he was given drinks and food, he was given clothes, so he was treated like a living creature,” Demeyer said while taking a picture of other ancient Egyptian statues.
She explained that spirituality is a modern term that is very difficult to pinpoint on an ancient culture, and while the statues of the gods were man-made, people at the time did not see it that way necessarily, as they believed that the deity already lived in the statue before it was created.
A man named Amenemhat is shown kneeling in a shrine, his hands raised in adoration to sun-god Ra. The private 25th Dynasty statue, found in Qasr Ibrim, was set up in a temple to assure the man’s eternal presence in the vicinity of the gods, according to the museum label – Hassan Mohamed
In Burckhardt’s book “Travels in Nubia,” he offered a detailed description of what he saw, saying “judging from the features of the colossal statue visible above the sand, I should pronounce these works to belong to the finest period of Egyptian sculpture.”
“Having, as I supposed, seen all antiquities of Ebsambal, I was about to ascend the sandy side of the mountain by the same way I had descended; when having luckily turned more to the south-ward, I fell in with what is yet visible of four immense colossal statues cut out of the rock, at a distance of about two hundred yards from the temple.
They stand in a deep recess, excavated in the mountain; but it is greatly to be regretted, they are now almost entirely buried beneath the sands, which are blown down here in the torrents.”
He could not determine whether the statues were in a sitting or standing posture, but he rightly suspected they are located at the entrance of a massive temple.
The author of “Travels in Nubia” fondly said “[t]he head which is above the surface has a most expressive, youthful countenance, approaching nearer to the Grecian model of beauty, than that of any ancient Egyptian figure I have seen; indeed, were it not for a thin oblong beard, it might well pass for the head of Pallas,” which is a Titan in the Greek mythology.
Ramses II at Abu Simbel – Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Oblivious of the identity of the great king, Burckhardt said the statue belonged to a “youth with a high bonnet,” which was in fact the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
He said the statue cannot be less than 65 to 70 feet in height in upright posture, as the ear is three feet and four inches in length. The statue turned out to be 20 meters high in a seated position.
Only weeks before the Great Temple resurfaced above the sand, Burckhardt died of fatigue and dysentery in October 1817 at 32 years old. However, perhaps he was not too desperate to see the temple as much as he was looking forward to finish his journey across the desert to the Niger River.
The Swiss explorer “brought to Egypt a deep respect for local culture; a scientific curiosity and a genuine interest in people. He blended into the new environment; a European that dressed as a sheikh and spoke Arabic fluently. He was a keen observer and his travel manuscripts are among the first European reports on culture, customs, and religious tradition of the people in Nubia and other Egyptian regions.
It might be somewhat ironic that Sheikh Ibrahim is known today for the monuments that he discovered, while his keen interests were on people and culture,” said the Swiss ambassador.
In fact, the space allocated for Abu Simbel in his writings is quite modest, despite his apparent excitement at the find. In contrast, he wrote a detailed description of the way of life in Nubia, as he was more of an ethnologist interested in cultures, dialects, and traditions.
“He noted all his observations in the most meticulous and most sober way. The only exception might be his description of Abu Simbel, where some enthusiasm transpired his text,” said University of Basel Professor Susanne Bickel during the event.
Leitner (middle), Enany and Bickel – Hassan Mohamed
Burckhardt was interested in the orient, but was more so in the southern part of Egypt “because at his period no description existed of this part in the country,” according to Bickel, a Swiss Egyptologist.
He was driven by a “general cultural interest, and given his Arabic skills and the unique manner with in which he traveled made his findings very different from other European travelers, as he was able to speak with peasants about their agricultural customs, with village heads about local politics and with traders about prices,” she added.
Displayed for the first time, the relief on to the left depicts Ramsesnakht, viceroy of Nubia. The other stela shows Priest Huy adoring Ramses II in the form of the falcon-headed sun-god and the god Thot with the full moon and crescent on his head. Tabes, Huy’s wife, is seen playing the sistrum for goddess Anuket - Hassan Mohamed
The young European traveler was buried a Muslim in Cairo’s Bab el-Nasr with the name Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah, but he had never mentioned the subject of his faith in his known writings. A Muslim identity was necessary to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he wrote the first Western description of the sites in the holy city.
Still wandering in the Egyptian Museum, as it is rare to be accessed at night and with so few visitors, Dutch Egyptologist Demeyer said of the exhibition that it is “beautifully done.”
“I like all these temple exhibits. It is a good way to get some details on smaller topics,” Demeyer concluded.