The puzzle of the Philae Temple near Aswan reflects a fascinating truth about modern and ancient Egypt.
Philae Temple, Aswan
For over two thousand years people have stood where I’m standing now.
And yet they haven’t.
The Puzzle of the Philae Temple in Aswan
For although these honeyed flagstones brought Philae Temple to life back in the Greco-Roman days (around 370 BC,) come the time of flared trousers, big hair and D-I-S-C-O, people moved it.
That’s right, in the 1970s, UNESCO took the whole thing to pieces, stone by stone, rebuilding it on the Island of Agilka to escape the floods from the Aswan dam. Metallic numbers still glint in the sun on the stone, jewelled remnants of one of history’s greatest jigsaw puzzles.
One of history’s greatest jigsaw puzzles
Yesterday, I stood in the chilled dark heart of the Egyptian Museum looking at the mummy of the Great Ramses II. He too had been disassembled, although not according to any plan. He visited France, at around three and bit thousand years after his death, for a sprucing up of his embalmment process, a croissant and the removal of a rare fungus. The Frenchman behind the project snipped off a few locks of hair and a dash of mummified linen cloth, labelled them in a neat, curling handwritten script and then hid them away somewhere. The whole escapade only came to light in 2007 when his son tried to sell the hair on eBay.
I kid you not.
Outrage ensued, France returned the fragments and now they sit next to the smoky black mummy of Ramses II, still in their neatly labelled plastic bags.
But that was yesterday. This is today and I’m standing alone.
Of all the footsteps that have crossed from the sunshine into these shadows, it’s particularly strange to think that some were mine. I visited around ten years ago and instead of echoes and silence, the walkways squeaked and shuffled with flip flops and trainers, dust-ridden sandals and battered leather shoes. In short, there were crowds of tourists. Lots of them.
They walked, as I did now, past the hieroglyphics of suckling infants and warrior princes and the faces and shoulders that had been scratched away. When Christianity swept through the Roman Empire, it reached this sandy offshoot from the Nile and was distinctly unimpressed by the devotion to pagan gods. When Islam followed suit, a few centuries later, the temple remained the same although the diet and dress codes did not.
Then came the Arab Spring. And the temple changed again.
Smoke and mobs filled the evening news, tourist numbers plummeted and a new kind of poverty, spread through Upper and Lower Egypt: one borne from human emptiness.
After three decades at the helm, President Hosni Mubarak resigned with near unprecedented speed, charged with the deaths of over 800 protestors. Democracy followed, albeit unevenly, and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.
That was last year [this article was first published in 2013.]
With so much going on, it’s no surprise that people like to talk politics, even if the stone carvings of ancient Egypt have nothing new to say.
Already, I’ve heard from tour guides and taxi drivers, of course, but also crisis workers, UNICEF ambassadors, exchange students, expats and even a rather dazzling local movie star.
They paint a picture of a vibrant, passionate Egypt. But of an Egypt still desperate for change.
An Egypt still desperate for change
Standing in the silence at Philae, their voices twine around the bas-relief hieroglyphics that line the wall and I know I need time to let them sink and settle in. To have them sift and solidify into sense.
I embrace the solitude. The songs of the minarets. The sand and the dust at my feet. The drawings frozen in place over thousands and thousands of years. The hush of the Nile and the whispering water that laps around this island.
Like Ramses, this temple was taken apart and then put back together. Perhaps that’s what’s happening to the country as a whole.
And perhaps, like this temple, the end result will be both peaceful and beautiful.
Whatever the age, whatever the point in history, I believe that there are some wishes that always remain the same.
Is it safe to travel to Egypt?
Always check out the advice from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office before you travel anywhere.