The southernmost destination of an Egyptian tour should extend to Abu Simbel. I sure hope YOURS does! This is a town that sits on the southwestern shore of Lake Nasser close to the Sudan border and is home to two massive Egyptian temples built by the famous Ramses II, the most powerful Pharaoh of Egypt's 19th dynasty. His fame was brought on by his successful military campaigns into Syria, the Levant, and Nubia. The temples at Abu Simbel were carved into the eastward-facing mountainside in approximately 1244 BC not only to celebrate Ramses' victory over the Hittites in Kadesh (an ancient city in what is today western Syria) but also to serve as an intimidating reminder to Egypt's southern Nubian "neighbors", of Egyptian power and dominance. Abu Simbel was THE southern frontier of Pharaonic Egypt and faced Nubia.
The Two Temples
The GREAT TEMPLE (the first temple pictured above) is the temple dedicated to Ramses II (or Ramses The Great). The façade has four colossal statues of Ramses II seated in the throne position. Inside the temple are still more statues of him standing in attention and seated with the gods. The interior walls are completely covered with carved murals and hieroglyphs celebrating his victory over his enemies, with numerous scenes depicting his battle and victory at Kadesh, as well as illustrations of his offerings to the gods. The innermost sanctuary is particularly special as it showcases seated statues of, you guessed it, Ramses II alongside the three major gods, Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, in essence, deifying himself. The directional alignment of the temple was so precisely carved that the first rays of the rising sun traveled through the entire length of the temple and naturally illuminated the statues along the back wall of the innermost sanctuary on only two mornings of each year, those being February 22nd and October 22nd, thought to be Ramses' birthday and coronation day.
The SMALL TEMPLE (the second temple pictured at the beginning of the post) is slightly smaller than the Great Temple and dedicated to Ramses II's favored and royal wife, Nefertari, as well as to the goddess Hathor. Along the façade, are colossal statues of Nefertari standing alongside Ramses II which are nearly equal in height to his. This rare honor symbolized her status and his love for her. Inside are numerous wall murals of Ramses II, Nefertari, and the goddesses Hathor and Isis.
Buried in Desert Sands, but Rediscovered
With time, like many ancient structures, the temples at Abu Simbel fell into disuse. The sands blew in and buried the two temples for millennia.
It was not until the early 19th century that the temples were rediscovered. Interestingly, Abu Simbel was NOT the name of that temple complex in antiquity. It is alleged that a local boy named Abu Simbel took part in leading the Swiss explorer, Burkhardt to the temple site in 1813 AD. There, Burkhardt found the colossal Ramses heads of the Great Temple buried up to their necks in the desert sands. He named the site after the young boy. Burkhardt, however, unable to uncover the site, shared his discovery with a fellow explorer, Giovanni Belzoni. Belzoni proceeded to excavate the site in 1817. Some allege that the boy, Abu Simbel, actually led Belzoni, not Burkhardt, to the site. Whichever version is correct, one thing that is agreed upon is that the site was named after a young boy who was instrumental in the rediscovery of the temple complex. The original name of the complex, if it even had one, is unknown.
Once rediscovered, the immortality of the famous temple complex seemed assured... until threatened in 1960.
Nile River to Lake Nasser
In ancient Egypt, the snaking Nile River and its many cataracts existed. As noted in my recent post, 5 Reasons to take your Nile Cruise on a Dahabiya, The Nile River flows from south to north. As it flowed through Nubia (now Sudan) and Egypt, the Nile had multiple cataracts. Abu Simbel is located between what were the first and second cataracts. The economy and prosperity of the kingdom of Egypt were dependent on the Nile River for several millennia. In fact, the Egyptians' annual calendar was delineated by three seasons... inundation (flooding), planting, and harvest. Excessive drought or excessive flooding severely impacted grain production and thereby wealth. Grain equaled wealth.
In the early 20th century, Egypt finally decided to better control the Nile flow and built the Aswan Low Dam in 1902 (shown in the photo below), thereby creating the Aswan Reservoir. Later in the century, in 1960, to obtain even more hydroelectric power, to serve as a larger reservoir for excess rainwater, to better regulate water flow, allow for irrigation during times of drought, boost agriculture, and prevent excessive flooding of the Nile River valley, a second dam, the Aswan High Dam was built. This dam resulted in a 298-mile-long artificial lake upriver from the dam, known as Lake Nasser. The drawbacks of this engineering proposal were that 90,000 Egyptian peasants and Sudanese Nubians needed to be resettled to higher ground and many ancient temples and monuments, including those at Abu Simbel, risked being submerged into Lake Nasser, thereby being lost forever.
Maps of ancient Nile River (L) and Nile River today with Lake Nasser (R)
A Monumental Movement
An unparalleled engineering feat and salvage operation was undertaken in 1964 by UNESCO and the international community to save some of the archaeological monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Top priority was given to the Ramses II temple complex in Abu Simbel. After reviewing many proposals to save the temples, a decision was made to cut the two temples out of the sandstone mountainside into which they were carved and to relocate them to higher ground. That higher ground, however, was a flat sand surface. Engineers then needed to determine how to reproduce the original environment as faithfully as possible. To give the appearance of a mountainside, two artificial concrete domes, one for each temple, were created for support. The two temples were cut into 1,050 segments each weighing up to 20-30 tons. The façades and temple interiors were then repositioned, segment by segment, in front of and beneath the concrete domes, respectively. Large quantities of sand and rocks were then brought in to cover the domes and replicate the appearance of the natural cliffs into which the temples had originally been carved. From a view of the Great Temple taken from the side, it is easy to appreciate that the complex is no longer carved into a mountain, but rather is a free-standing mound with its surroundings designed to resemble a mountain.
Significant skill was required to maintain the integrity of the sculptures and to minimize damage to the temples. The saw cuts were very fine, less than 1/4" wide, and are not even noticeable to visitors today. Even the orientation of the Great Temple was, precisely aligned such that its innermost sanctuary would, again, be illuminated by the rising sun on February 22nd and October 22nd, as during Pharaonic days. The temples, today, sit on dry land over 200 feet above their original position, while the cored-out mountainside that housed the temples in antiquity sits submerged deep beneath Lake Nasser.
Abu Simbel, as well as a few other temples around Lake Nasser, were moved and relocated to higher and drier land close to their original sites. Four temples were actually salvaged and gifted in gratitude by the Egyptians to the four countries that significantly aided in this heroic project, those being the United States, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. The temple gifted to the USA now sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, shown below. It is the Temple of Dendur, a Roman Egyptian temple commissioned by the emperor Augustus around 15 BC.
Many of the monuments and temples, however, did not fair so well. Sadly, they have been engulfed by Lake Nasser and lost forever.
Tips for Visiting Abu Simbel...
Look for a mirage during the long desert drive
Enjoy the Nubian hospitality of Abu Simbel
Spend a night in Abu Simbel to see the evening Light Show
Spend a night in Abu Simbel to see the radiant glow of the temples at sunrise
Spend a night in Abu Simbel to visit the temples without a ton of tourists