[Into the heart of the country] Mummies and tombs tell tales of ancient peoples

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[Into the heart of the country] Mummies and tombs tell tales of ancient peoples

The greater temple of the Abu Simbel in Egypt on Jan. 4 shows statues of Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, who is known for his successful military campaigns and monuments. The temple is located on the Nile's western bank, south of Cairo. [KHALED DESOUKI /AFP/YONHAP]

The greater temple of the Abu Simbel in Egypt on Jan. 4 shows statues of Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, who is known for his successful military campaigns and monuments. The temple is located on the Nile's western bank, south of Cairo. [KHALED DESOUKI /AFP/YONHAP]

Connecting the dots between civilizations of Egypt and Korea 

Even before Unesco World Heritage sites were a thing, there was a time when archaeologists and scientists from 50 countries got together to prevent a 3,000-year-old ancient temple in Egypt from submerging in the Nile.

 
“In a way, Abu Simbel paved the way for the concept behind Unesco World Heritage sites,” said Hazem Fahmy, ambassador of Egypt to Korea. 
 
The story dates back to 1954, when a dam was being created across the Nile to prevent destructive flooding in the area.  
 
But the project had a major drawback: A reservoir created from the dam would flood a huge section of the Nile valley that had been occupied by mankind for millennia and likely contained remains of Nubian, Egyptian, Roman and more civilizations.  
 
Egypt called Unesco for help in 1959. Thus was born the project that divided up the temple into more than 1,000 blocks, including the gigantic facades of Ramesses II (1303 B.C. - 1213 B.C.) and Queen Nefertari, and reassembled them on ground some 65 meters (213 feet) higher up.
 
Ensuring that the temple looked untouched after the move involved a great deal of science. Features inside the temple, in particular, needed absolutely spot-on calculations.
 
“Inside the temple are statues of Ramesses II deified, with three other gods: Ra, Amun and Ptah,” said Fahmy. “Ptah was the god of the underworld, and he was not to be seen. Thus the temple was designed so that when the sun hits the inner chamber of the temple on Feb. 22 and Oct. 22, said to be the coronation day and birthday of Ramesses II, every year, the three statues, all except that of Ptah, will be hit by the rays of sunlight.”
 
Inside the greater temple of Abu Simbel. [KHALED DESOUKI /AFP/YONHAP]

Inside the greater temple of Abu Simbel. [KHALED DESOUKI /AFP/YONHAP]

The temple was successfully relocated on Sept. 22, 1968. A month later, the engineers were thrilled to find the sun in the faces of the three statues.

 
Four years later, Unesco adopted its convention on protecting world cultural and natural heritage. To this day, more than 1,000 sites have been designated for protection by Unesco, including Abu Simbel.
 
The Covid-19 pandemic has restricted travel around the world for more than a year, including tours for many of these sites. But it hasn’t put a stop to the ongoing excavations and research in Egypt, a country that just might never be short of treasures to dig up.
 
Last year, a whole city once considered lost near Luxor was discovered. Just this month, the first known case of a mummified pregnant woman was discovered. The mummy was estimated to have been made in Egypt around the first century, B.C.
 
The first Egyptian mummy of a pregnant woman, housed at the National Museum in Warsaw. [EPA/ALEKSANDER LEYDO]

The first Egyptian mummy of a pregnant woman, housed at the National Museum in Warsaw. [EPA/ALEKSANDER LEYDO]

The fact that it was a group of Polish researchers who made the discovery speaks for the continued global attention on archaeological research in Egypt.

 
“Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had as many as 13 million tourists visit the country in 2019,” Fahmy said. “When the tourists are able to come back, we will have a new museum open and ready. We are excited to showcase the monuments found in Egypt so far, which is said to be less than a third of what’s hidden in Egypt.”
 
To find out more about the treasures whose stories are yet to be accounted for, the Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with Ambassador Fahmy at his residence. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
 
Hazem Fahmy, ambassador of Egypt to Korea, speaks about the Unesco heritage sites in Egypt with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the diplomatic residence in Seoul last month. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Hazem Fahmy, ambassador of Egypt to Korea, speaks about the Unesco heritage sites in Egypt with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the diplomatic residence in Seoul last month. [PARK SANG-MOON]

There are quite a number of stories surrounding the temple of Abu Simbel. One of them concern how the temple got its name when it was said to have been discovered by a Swiss explorer. Can you tell us more?
It was in the early 19th century that a Swiss explorer by the name Johann Ludwig Burckhardt came to discover the temple, while he was being shown the way by a young boy named Abu Simbel. So the temple came to be called after the boy’s name. No one knows yet what the temple was originally called. But since its discovery, the temple is now one of the most beloved sites in Egypt, as the second-most visited in the country, following the Pyramid of Giza.


What are some features of the temple that a visitor should look out for?
The temple is a gigantic complex of two temples carved onto a rock cliff. The bigger temple stands 98 feet high and 115 feet long, with four colossal facades at the entrance depicting Ramesses II on his throne. Smaller statues stand beneath, and these depict the conquered enemies of Ramesses II at the time.

Once inside, visitors will see engravings on the wall showing Ramesses II and Nefertari worshipping the gods, and the hieroglyphic writings tell of the king’s triumph in battles against the Hittites, Nubians and Libyans at the time. The walls also contain the first peace treaty signed between Ramesses II and the Hittite king of the area that is Syria today. The exact replica is also found in Turkey, and the United Nations also has a copy of this treaty, as it is a symbol of peace.

Visitors should also look out for the four statues, three of whose faces will be lit by the sun twice a year.

The smaller temple stands nearby, with facades depicting Ramesses II and Queen Nefertari. What’s interesting here is that the statue of the queen is the same size as the king, which is only one out of two such instances in Egypt. It shows that she was especially beloved by the king.
 
The carriage carrying the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses III advances as part of the parade of 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies departing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square on April 3, 2021, on their way to their new resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Dubbed the Pharaohs' Golden Parade, the 18 kings and four queens traveled in order, oldest first, each aboard a separate float decorated in ancient Egyptian style. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/YONHAP]

The carriage carrying the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses III advances as part of the parade of 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies departing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square on April 3, 2021, on their way to their new resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Dubbed the Pharaohs' Golden Parade, the 18 kings and four queens traveled in order, oldest first, each aboard a separate float decorated in ancient Egyptian style. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/YONHAP]

To see the queens and kings of Egypt, one used to have to visit the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This is no longer the case since last month, when the royals moved their abode. Can you tell us more?
It was a parade of 22 mummies of kings and queens of Egypt, who were being transferred from the Egyptian Museum to National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The move was part of the changes we are implementing in Cairo, to turn the city into an open museum. The museum on civilization will be the go-to museum for mummies.

Later in the year, the Grand Egyptian Museum will open, and it will be the largest museum in the world, sized at 117 acres and holding 100,000 pieces. And we’re speaking of pieces from the Pharaonic civilizations only. Egypt had so many civilizations — we had the Greek, Roman, Islamic and Coptic Christian civilizations, and we have different museums for these. So you can imagine what it’s like trying to make spaces for all of these monuments — but we are making it happen.

The golden lost city near Luxor that was newly discovered also opened to the public last month.
 
Are there sites in Korea to see and experience Egyptian antiquities?
I have been in close touch with the National Museum of Korea, and have recently placed them in touch with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. They are now discussing hosting a five-year permanent exhibition in the museum in Seoul. The goal is to launch the exhibition in 2024.

Currently, there is an ongoing exhibition between the National Museum of Korea and the Brooklyn Museum showcasing 94 ancient Egyptian treasures and artifacts, that will be open until November this year.

Perhaps to give you an example of an Egyptian influence closer to where we are now, the Egyptian Embassy building has been designed after the Rosetta Stone, which helped scholars decipher the hieroglyphics in the 19th century. We have ongoing research in Korea on hieroglyphics, and just last month celebrated the publication of a new Korean children’s book on the writing system.
 
Daereungwon Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang. The Gyeongju Historic Areas has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000 for its sculptures, pagodas and the remains of temples and palaces dating back to the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 935). [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Daereungwon Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang. The Gyeongju Historic Areas has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000 for its sculptures, pagodas and the remains of temples and palaces dating back to the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 935). [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Tell us about some of your experiences in visiting Unesco heritage sites in Korea. Did you find any that had interesting links to the heritage and culture of Egypt?
Upon visiting Gyeongju, I thought that the place is a museum by itself. There were several aspects about Korean culture and heritage that I thought run parallel with those in Egypt. When I visited the park with tombs dated to the Silla Dynasty [57 B.C. to A.D. 935], I saw that the concept of burial then, of having a hill, with a chamber inside where the nobles are buried with their belongings, was very similar to the Pharaonic concept. In Egypt, we had three main ages of the ancient times, which can be roughly divided into the times of the old, middle and new kingdoms. The pyramids were born in the old kingdom, the temples in the middle kingdom, and it was in the new kingdom that we started to bury the dead inside the mountains. I was awed by how similarly human beings could think even though they were so far apart geographically.

Another theme that runs parallel across the two cultures and peoples that I noticed in my trip in Gyeongju was the importance people placed on astrology. There is a theory that the pyramids of Egypt are aligned with the three stars of Orion’s belt. Cheomseongdae Observatory in Gyeongju attests to the value the Korean people placed on astrology in the ancient times.


Where do you see the two cultures converge today?  
Korea has very advanced tech skills and especially with those that deal with virtual space. Egypt has so much content on culture and heritage that could be transformed into state-of-the-art technology like holograms. This would be one of the areas that we can see some interesting, new collaboration.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we recorded some 20,000 Korean tourists per year. We launched direct chartered flights between Egypt and Korea in 2019, and the first-class program sold out within a week. We had 20 charters planned in 2020 before the pandemic hit.

The two nations are collaborating closely on battling the pandemic to normalize travels. Egypt is importing some 5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines produced in Korea, as Korea is supplying vaccines for the North African region. So we are hoping to see a return to normalcy soon in the people-to-people exchanges that are key to diplomacy.
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
 
Egypt in brief

Capital city: Cairo
Area: 1 million square kilometers (10 times the size of South Korea)
Population: 106.4 million (2021)
Main language: Arabic (official), English and French
Ethnic groups: Egyptian and others
Religions: Islam and Christianity
National day: July 23, Revolution Day
Government type: Presidential republic
Currency: Egyptian pound
 
 Travel tips
Best time to visit: The week of Feb. 22 and Oct. 22, where the sun will rise and set on the chamber of statues in the greater temple of Abu Simbel.
Recommended tours: There are many package tours that include Aswan and Luxor.
Recommended accommodation: Two four-star hotels are in the area, as well as options for less luxurious accommodations.
Recommended modes of transportation: Daily flights from Cairo to the area of Abu Simbel have been reduced to twice a week since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Driving by car from Aswan to the temple is also an option.
What to eat: Koshary, foul and falafel, and shish kebab.
Books to read before the trip: “The Mysteries of Abu Simbel” by Zahi Hawass and “Abu Simbel and the Nubian Temples” by Nigel Fletcher-Jones.
Movies to watch: “The Yacoubian Building” by Marwan Hamed and “The Night of Counting the Years” by Shadi Abdel Salam.
Music to listen to: “Nour El Ein” by Amr Diab, “Ta3ala” by Talaat Zain, “Mostafa” by Bob Azzam and “3 Daqat” by Abu, which has also been performed by K-pop boy band B.I.G. in 2019.

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