Few 19th-century artists did more to popularise travel in Egypt than Edinburgh-born David Roberts. His work managed to convey not just the romantic spirit of sites up and down the Nile, but to capture much of the architectural and decorative detail, a good deal of which – including a number of the sites themselves – has been lost to us since. His prints are still among the first choices of tourist souvenir-hunters, and presentation collections take pride of place in the bookstalls, art shops and airport souvenir stores. One of the pleasures of returning from a trip to Egypt is comparing your own record of the country’s ancient sites with Roberts’ famous images. Are the places still recognizable over 150 years later? Were our viewpoints similiar to his? Are we still able to convey anything of the evocation of place, and of oriental travel, that his drawings do so well? Having previously compared my images with some of Roberts’ famous views of Islamic Cairo, in this essay I want to carry out a similar exercise with regard to his work in the deep south of the country. Located immediately to the north of the first cataract of the Nile, where granite outcrops and boulders provided a natural obstacle to travel upstream, from ancient times Aswan developed as a natural commercial and defensive staging-post on the border with Nubia, Egypt’s neighbour and historical adversary to the south. David Roberts and his travelling companions arrived in the town on 29th October 1838. The first view he recorded was from the shore just to the north of the town across to the island of Elephantine on which the first ancient settlement had developed during the third millennium BC. On completing this first work he took a boat across to the island itself but was unable to make much out of the jumbled ruins which were only cleared systematically for the first time in the latter half of the 20th Century. My own first journey to Aswan was in January 2009, an encounter which left me completely enchanted and which I have described elsewhere. I made subsequent visits in December 2010, mainly to explore the ancient desert quarries, and with my wife during our visit to Egypt to celebrate my 50th birthday in 2011, on which occasion we also took in the ancient temples of Philae and Kalabsha.
Aswan and the Island of Elephantine
Drawn by Roberts: 29th October 1838 My photo: 25th January 2009
“We walked over the ruins of this ancient city, which crowns the height of a rock jutting out into the stream. Nothing remains but the brick walls; so, after making a drawing of this part of the river, we crossed over to the island of Elephantine, where we found no vestiges of its ancient temples save a few columns and masses of rubbish.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
The sheer amount of Nile traffic, especially in the form of tourist feluccas, makes it difficult nowadays to get the same view as Roberts. My own photograph was taken from the boat in which I was being rowed round the Nile islands by my local guide, Nasir Mohammed Abbas, and features the Roman ruins near the southern tip of the island, clearly visible in the centre distance of Roberts’ drawing.
A little earlier, while exploring the island myself I had come across the upper part of a statue, probably of Ramesses II, half-submerged in the baked-mud street of the main village. I wondered whether this might be the same one that Roberts described 171 years earlier? “I saw one solitary figure, with the arms folded on the breast, holding flagellum and crook; and on examining the wall next the stream I found it composed of stones covered with hieroglyphics, which must formerly have belonged to a temple.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
The Island of Philae
Partly as a result of Roberts’ drawings, the well-preserved and romantic ruins on the island of Philae, a little to the south of Aswan, became one of the high points of any Victorian traveller’s voyage on the Nile. The Temple of Isis was a relatively late construction, dating from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods and it was not until the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.D. that worship of the goddess was halted once and for all. The very last hieroglyphic inscription from ancient Egypt is also to be found here. The construction of the first Aswan dam between 1902 and 1912 resulted in the temple being half-submerged for most of the year and the completion of the High Dam in the 1960s prompted an international rescue effort that moved all the structures to the neighbouring island of Agilkia when Philae itself was completely submerged. To a remarkable degree, the new location was landscaped to replicate the appearance of the original. Roberts arrived at the island on 30th October 1838 and spent a number of days among the well-preserved ruins, his drawings recording a good deal of colour eventually lost in the inundations of the 20th century. One of the notable features of my own visit on 26th October 2011 was that in the aftermath of the Revolution of January that year Philae, usually one of the most visited sites in the whole of Egypt, was practically deserted.
View of the Island of Philae, Showing the Kiosk of Trajan
Drawn by Roberts: 30th October-1st November and 19th November 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“There are four temples on the island. The first I visited, with lotus-shaped capitals, is the southernmost one. It gives the impression of being unfinished. It is made of very fine sandstone, and the details of the decorations are so clear as to suggest that the stone cutters have only just finished work. I can hardly convince myself that I have seen a 2,000-year-old monument. We set off again, and at sunset we finally entered Nubia.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
Colonnades and First Pylon of the Temple of Isis at Philae
Drawn by Roberts: 19th November 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“A long esplanade is in front of the two propylons, between which is the main entrance to the great temple. On either side is a colonnade of small pillars, beautifully proportioned, and not rounded at the base, like those of Thebes. The capitals are chiefly of the lotus and palm, but they all differ. This esplanade terminates abruptly, overlooking the river at a considerable height.”[Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
An interesting comparison of the two images is that at the time of my visit the site was as deserted as Roberts had found it 170 years earlier. Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Isis at Philae
Drawn by Roberts: 19th November 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“Today I made some drawings of the interior of the temple and copied many of the figures covering the walls, all in excellent condition, with brilliant colours.”
“I was entranced by the splendid composition of its colours; they seem to be freshly painted, and even in the places where they are most exposed to the implacable sunlight, they have retained their radiant freshness.” [Extracts from Roberts’ Journals]
The most striking feature of Roberts’ drawings of the temple interiors is the remarkable survival of so much colour, especially on the higher stages of columns and ceilings. The vividness of the colour was doubtless emphasised in the drawings, and has been exaggerated somewhat by subsequent printing. Nevertheless, his work is an invaluable record of the state of the monuments at the time of his visit as well as a reminder that all the monumental architecture of ancient Egypt would once have been a riot of colour, not the uniform sandy hue that is the usual condition now. At Philae all remaining traces of colour were effectively scoured away during the first half of the 20th century when the structures spent most of the time underwater.
The Temple of Kalabsha
The original Graeco-Roman temple of Kalabsha, dedicated to the Nubian solar deity Merwel, known to the Greeks as Mandulis, was situated some 50km south of Aswan. Like the temples of Philae, the decision was taken to relocate it during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s which created the massive Lake Nasser behind it. The present location is on a promontory jutting into the lake, not far beyond the dam. Two smaller temples structures, those of Qertassi and Beit el-Wali, were moved to the same site. It is worth remembering that while some other notable structures were also rescued at this time, much of the physical evidence of Upper Nubia was lost beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, and its people displaced from their ancestral homeland, for ever.
Drawn by Roberts: 15th November, 1838 My photo: 26th October 2011
“…towards evening we were again in sight of the Temple of Kalabsha, the loveliest in Nubia. Situated in a loop of the river in the middle of a stretch of barren rocks, surrounded by palm and acacia trees, it is only seen to be ruined from close by. The reliefs have such clear-cut edges that they seem to have been recently carved, and the whole, with its elegant proportions and delicate details, is in no way inferior even to Philae.” [Extract from Roberts’ Journal]
“The temple has some of the mysterious feel of Dendera about it, more so than Philae. This is enhanced by the whispering of the breeze from external windows blowing through the columns. Otherwise, silence.” [Extract from my Journal]
The Small Temple of Qertassi This takes the form of a Roman-era ‘kiosk’, similar, but on a smaller scale, to that on Philae. Though little remains, the combination of slender papyrus-topped columns and two remaining columns topped with the heads of the goddess Hathor, give the structure a grace and atmosphere all its own.