Just 25 miles north of the Sudanese border, the two temples originally built into the sandstone cliffs of Abu Simbel are not only a tribute to the genius of their builders in the 13th century BC, but to the miracle of modern engineering. More on that later.
These were the final temples we visited during our two weeks in Egypt. By this time, we felt that we knew Ramses II pretty well! He and the temples and statues dedicated to him and his fourth and favorite wife Nefertari seem to be omnipresent throughout Egypt. I came to the conclusion that he was either very good at marketing himself or that he was a narcissist - or both! Either way, I wonder if he knew what a legacy he was leaving for millennia to come.
These temples were actually buried under sand and forgotten until the early part of the 19th century when a Swiss geographer discovered the top of the main temple. Joined by an Italian explorer, they were eventually able to completely uncover the temples.
The larger of the two temples was dedicated to the gods Amun, god of Thebes (modern Luxor); Ra, the sun god; and Ptah, god of craftsmen and architects who is also thought to be the father of the vizier Imhotep. The building of the temple took about 20 years. Four 66-ft. statues of Ramses II at various stages of his life flank the entrance. The face of the second statue came off during an earthquake and was never restored, resting where it fell. You can see it clearly in the photo at the top of the page.
The statue above the entrance is the falcon-headed god Ra with the familiar symbol of the sun above his head.
What's equally amazing is that the great temple as it's called, was built so that on certain days two times a year, in February and October, the eastern sun shines through the entrance to a chamber deep within to illuminate two of the three gods. The third god, Ptah, was also connected with the underworld, so he is not illuminated.
There are 24 monkeys carved into the stone above the statues to represent each hour of the day.
The smaller statues at Ramses' legs represent his wife Nefertari and some of his 200 children.
Another beautiful carving on the outside of the temple.
This is a view of the main hall. The morning sun shines through these doorways to illuminate the figures at the back. Eight statues of Ramses II and Osiris, the god of the afterlife, line this large hall.
Many of the scenes inside the temple celebrate Ramses' skill as a warrior and his many victories.
Take a close look at the horse, below. It looks like it has eight legs. There are two theories; one is that doubling the number of legs showed great motion and the other is that there are actually two horses, one behind the other. You can decide which one you think is accurate!
There are also many carvings of gifts being offered. The lotus flower as in the carving below, figured prominently in Egyptian mythology and represented Upper Egypt.
The Temple of Nefertari
Only about 100 yards from the Temple of Ramses II is the smaller temple dedicated to his favorite wife Nefertari and the goddess Hathor, goddess of the sky, fertility, women and love. The statues flanking the entrance of this temple are about 33 ft. high; smaller than Ramses' statues, but nevertheless impressive. Interestingly, this is one of the only examples where the consort of the pharaoh is depicted as the same height as the pharaoh. In the photo above, there are two statues of Nefertari, each between her husband.
The carvings in this temple are equally beautiful.
Hathor, with her little cow ears.
There were a number of side rooms such as this, each with beautiful carvings.
The Relocation of Abu Simbel
As impressive as the temples themselves, is the fact that they were both moved, stone by stone in the mid-1960's. As the Aswan High Dam was being built and the waters of the Nile were rising, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments asked UNESCO for international assistance in relocating the temples to higher ground. A multinational team of archaeologists, engineers and heavy equipment operators went to work dismantling and rebuilding both temples.
They were reassembled exactly as they had stood for thousands of years, but our guide told us that the timing of the sun shining into the Temple of Ramses II twice yearly is off by one day! It was at the time of the move and after much debate that the Egyptian government and Egyptologists decided to leave Ramses' head as it fell during the earthquake. The project lasted a mere four years, from 1964 to 1968 at a cost of $36M which is the equivalent of about $300M today.
The temples still rest on the shores of Lake Nasser, but safely above it.
There are documentaries which tell the incredible story of how the temples were dismantled and rebuilt and they're worth a look. This is one.
Visitors have a few options for getting to Abu Simbel. There are flights from Cairo and non-stop flights from Aswan, there are cruises, or you can choose to drive from Aswan. Abu Simbel is a small village with a population of about 3,000. It has a few hotels where you could opt to stay, but we chose to spend two nights in Aswan and drive the 175 miles - or rather be driven. Some would call the drive through the Sahara Desert monotonous, but we found it fascinating and our driver was great.
This is basically what we saw for 175 miles.
We even saw our first mirage!
The road was excellent and there was a refreshment stand run by a Nubian family about halfway through the drive where we were able to stretch our legs and buy snacks, coffee and mint tea.
Many visitors leave Aswan in the middle of the night to arrive while the eastern sun is still shining into the temple. I can understand why they do that, but we chose instead to leave after breakfast and we arrived just after noon. We passed many buses coming back as we were going and by the time we arrived we had the site almost to ourselves. We arrived back in Aswan in time for dinner.
It was another full and amazing day in Egypt!
➜ Top Tips
You could certainly say that Abu Simbel is off the beaten path and some people debate about whether to visit it. I would highly recommend that it not be missed. Even after two weeks of visiting temples and tombs, these two were stunning.
If you're in Aswan, you can easily fly to Abu Simbel and back in a day. We spent about 1 - 1 1/2 hours at the site.
At some sites, including at Abu Simbel, mobile phone photos were allowed inside, but in order to take photos with a traditional camera, we were required to buy a ticket for about $18. I don't know why that practice is in place, but unless you're an expert or professional photographer, I wouldn't spend the extra money.