August 15, 2013

Saving the monuments of Philae

Saving the monuments of Philae
The first Aswan Dam {El Khazan) was built between 1898-1902. This was when Philae was first threatened. Poets and writers lamented its destiny but their words fell on deaf ears. Between 1907-1912 the dam was heightened, and fears for the remains of all Nubia were voiced. The Egyptian Government set aside funds to survey, record and, whenever possible, excavate the endangered areas. At this time Philae was inundated for part of each year, from December to August. When it did emerge from the waters of the Nile, it appeared sorrowfully shorn of its vegetation. The picturesque ruins rose from black silt-laden soil with not a shrub nor tendril to break their barren appearance.

Philae
Between 1929-34 the Aswan Dam was raised another ten metres, to a height of 44.5 metres. Philae was now inundated for most of the year. Only the high pylon of the temple of Isis, and the kiosk of Trajan, situated at its highest point, could be seen. Small boats could, with difficulty, sail beneath the great architraves. The capitals of the lofty columns alone hinted at what architectural treasures lay beneath the water. Being constructed of sandstone, submersion caused no lasting damage. In fact, the monuments strengthened from contact with water. And the silt which packed against the reliefs, though stripping them of colour, actually protected them.

The decision to build the High Dam (Saad El Aali) in i960 (page 47) caused attention to be focused once again on the fate of Philae. For now, with the constant high level of the water, the monuments would be totally inaccessible. Moreover, the swirling currents from the High Dam that was built south of the island and the existing Aswan Dam to the north would cause them irreparable harm, if not bring about their total collapse.

Philae Temple
Egypt launched an international appeal through UNESCO. Philae was brought into the limelight. Projects for saving the monuments were many and varied. All were studied. One project was to build a protective dam on the west, cutting off the island from the main flow of the river and, theoretically, letting it rest in a lower- level lake of its own. This project was abandoned on the grounds that constant pumping out of water would be required to keep the lake at a constant level. The final decision was to dismantle the monuments and re-erect them on another island: Agilkai, slightly to the north of Philae.

An Italian contracting company was chosen to carry out the work. They started with the construction of a coffer dam in 1977. The water was then pumped out, and when the greyish-green blocks were exposed they were dissected, stone by precious stone (forty- seven thousand in number), cleaned, treated, marked and stored.

During the dismantling operations, many blocks of earlier monuments were found to have been reused, especially in the foundations of the buildings. For example, a kiosk dating from the 26th Dynasty during the reign of the pharaoh Psamtik II (594-588 BC) was found dismantled and reused on the western part of the island. Beneath the flagstones of the hypostyle hall of the temple of Isis, another temple, also dating from the 26th Dynasty, was brought to light. Nektanebos, the first ruler of the last, 30th Dynasty (387-361 BC) had reused granite and sandstone blocks inscribed with the names of Amenhotep II, III and Thutmose III for his own constructions on the island, but these had come from temples elsewhere since Herodotus made no mention of Philae when he visited Aswan in the mid-fifth century BC.

Philae
While dismantling operations continued, the Egyptian High Dam Company blasted 450,000 cubic metres of granite off the top of Agilkai island. They used some of this to enlarge part of the island to resemble the shape of Philae in order to contain the monuments without distortion. The stones from the dismembered temples were then transported to their new home, and, in a record of thirty months, have been re-erected in an even more perfect condition than before, for many of the reused or fallen blocks that were located were used to reconstruct the original temples.

In March 1980, following an impressive public inaugural ceremony, Philae was declared open to the public. Visitors may once again view the elegant colonnades, the celebrated kiosk and the magnificent Temple of Isis. Soon, when plants take root, the ‘Pearl’ will once again fit the description of Amelia Edwards who wrote in i873/74:

'Seen from the level of a small boat, the island, with its palms, /?.? colonnades, its pylons, seems to rise out of the river like a mirage. Piled rocks frame it on either side, and purple mountains close up the distance. As the boat glides nearer between glistening boulders, those sculptured towers rise higher and ever higher against the sky. The)1 show no sign of rum or of age. All looks solid, stately, perfect.''

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