By Nigel Fletcher-Jones
When Giovanni Battista Belzoni entered the Great Temple at Abu Simbel on 1 August, 1817—as recorded in a carved graffito which can still be seen in the sanctuary—he quickly realized that much of the decoration was centered on the same ancient hero he had seen the year before at the “Memnonium” (now known as the Ramesseum), and at the temples of Luxor and Karnak.
While he immediately recognized the quality of the reliefs inside, both Belzoni and the Nubian villagers were dis-appointed to find that there was little inside the temple. Belzoni recorded only decayed wood and some copper work rom long-vanished doors, plus “two lions with hawk’s heads,” and other small statuary.Adding to their great discomfort, the temperature in the newly opened temple was around 54° Celsius (almost 130° Fahrenheit), which made a preliminary survey and drawing of the reliefs difficult. Perspiration made the expedition sketch-books so wet that Belzoni simply had to give up and return to Cairo.
Two years later, Henry Salt, the British Consul, led a second expedition to Abu Simbel, and did more careful work on the inscriptions and paintings. The temple was lit this time by small wax candles and, perched on ladders, the other artists and draftsmen were able to record the inscriptions and images in detail, including the cartouches of Rameses II which were to prove so vital—alongside the Rosetta Stone—to Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs, three years later.