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Sunrise in the Abu Simbel sanctuary

Abu Simbel–Outside the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, a long line of people are waiting for a first chance to glimpse the sun’s rays as they fall on the faces of the statues of Pharaoh Ramses II, and the gods of creation and light, Ptah, Amen and Heru-khuti.

At exactly 6:20 AM, the first beams of light fell on the sanctuary.

The Abu Simbel Sun Festival occurs biannually, on 22 October and 22 February, dates on which the sun shines directly into the temple’s sanctuary. Many people wait to go inside the sanctuary and two troupes perform music and dance for about an hour until officials allow the visitors to enter.

Some people are confused about whether they will even get into the temple to see the site.

"I hope it’s beautiful, I hope," says a tourist from Holland.

The police have a considerable presence at the event, creating a rope corridor for tourists and another for VIPs and officials. The window of just six minutes of sunlight in the sanctuary passes quickly as visitors are ushered, in a circle, around the interior. Men shout "No photos!" but the clicking of cameras can still be heard.

The long wait for entry far exceeds visitors’ actual view of the sun on the sanctuary statues, which is over in just a few seconds as ushers keep the line moving.

Although this is the busiest day, it’s not the only day when the sun reaches into the sanctuary. That will continue to happen at least a few more days.

Some say the sun shines in this way twice per year to commemorate the coronation and birthday of Ramses, which would indicate that the temple was built to honor the pharaoh on these days specifically. This could just be legend.

One local says the light used to shine just once per year, and another said that the celebration is in honor of the marriage of Ramses to his beloved queen, Nefertari. The temple was also relocated between 1964 and 1968 by UNESCO to save it from flooding after the construction of the High Dam, so the sun may not have shone exactly the same way in the past.

A description of the sanctuary from 1910 notes that it was best viewed at sunrise, so this may have been a daily occurrence in the past. "[The four seated statues] are badly executed, and one of the shoulders of the figure of Rameses [sic] is higher than the other; but when, at sunrise, the shaft of light strikes full upon them, even these statues become impressive and fraught with dignity," writes Arthur Weigall in "A Guide to the Antiquities of Upper Egypt."

Many dates in ancient Egypt are still in dispute, so one can never be sure if the modern days of sunlight in the sanctuary correspond with those of the pharaohs. But the temple was designed with the hour of sunrise in mind. It faces east, and this is the only time a visitor can distinctly see its interior.

"Those who visit it at dawn and pass into the vestibule and sanctuary will be amazed at the irresistible solemnity of that moment when the sun passes above the hills, and the dim halls are suddenly transformed into a brilliantly lighted temple," Weigall writes. "Though one has sickened of the eulogies of the literary traveller in Egypt, one may in this case adopt his language, and describe the hour of sunrise here as one of profound and stirring grandeur. At no other time and in no other place in Egypt does one feel the same capacity for appreciating the ancient Egyptian spirit of worship."

The few seconds permitted to view the illuminated sanctuary may unfortunately fail to capture that spirit, but making a trip to experience the festival is hardly a waste of time. The Sun Festival has become as much an event for the residents of Abu Simbel as it is for tourists.

The small town lights up the night before with music, dance and decorations. After a performance in a tent set up in the main square, hundreds of locals stay up late dancing at the Nubian House hotel and restaurant.

Fikry Kachif, the affable proprietor of the Nubian House, is credited with the idea of the Sun Festival. He says he came up with the idea in 1985, when he returned from years in Europe and opened up his business.

"At the time there was just one or two people going to see the sunrise," he says. "I wanted to make an event that could bring together many cultures, Egyptian, African and Western. Of course, bringing more tourists could make this event bigger."

A local airport authority official, who is not authorized to speak to the press, says that Abu Simbel receives about 600,000 visitors per year and expects to receive more in the coming years. He acknowleges the importance of the festival as a way to get people to spend more time in town.

"People come to Abu Simbel and leave after a day," he says. "Sometimes they go right back to Cairo without going to Aswan. That’s not good."

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