Constructed during the reign of Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, the Abu Simbel temples were initially carved into the mountainside at the Second Cataract of the River Nile, near the modern-day border with Sudan. When the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the subsequent creation of Lake Nasser threatened to submerge the temples, they were moved section-by-section to their current location on the lake’s western shores. Today, the temples are inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are amongst the most impressive and most visited of Egypt’s ancient sights.
A Brief History of the Temples
The Abu Simbel complex is made up of two temples: the Great Temple (dedicated to the gods Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun, and the deified Ramesses II) and the Small Temple (dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II’s most beloved queen, Nefertari). Both temples were constructed during the 19th dynasty reign of Ramesses II, either in 1264 BC or 1244 BC, depending on which scholarly interpretation you subscribe to. Either way, it is agreed that the temples took approximately 20 years to finish and were intended, at least in part, to commemorate Ramesses II’s victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC.
In time, the temples fell into disuse and were covered with desert sand until only the tops of the colossal statues that guard the entrances remained visible. They lay forgotten by the wider world until 1813 when Swiss geographer Jean-Louis Burckhardt stumbled upon them during his travels through southern Egypt. Burckhardt is most famous as the first European to discover the ruins of Petra in Jordan. He discussed his findings with fellow explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who traveled to the site but was unsuccessful in finding a way into the temples. It was Burckhardt who eventually excavated the temple’s entrances when he returned himself four years later.
In 1954, plans were announced for the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser. When it became clear that the lake’s waters would submerge several famous ancient monuments (including Abu Simbel and the Philae temple complex), UNESCO launched a campaign to save them. Donations flooded in from all over the world, and from 1964 to 1968, an international team of archaeologists and engineers cut the entire temple complex into movable blocks. These were then reassembled with painstaking precision on an artificial hill that put the temples safely above the rising floodwaters. The effort cost over $40 million ($300 million today).
Things to See
The Great Temple
The Great Temple is famous for its colossal statues, which flank the entrance and stand 66 feet high. All four sculptures are of Ramesses II, seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. At the king’s feet are a series of smaller statues, meant to represent his wife, mother, and eight of his favorite children. Look upwards to see Ramesses II in bas-relief form, worshipping a statue of Ra-Horakhty set into a niche above the door. The interior of the temple consists of a series of rooms and halls that lead to an inner sanctum. The most impressive of these is the hypostyle hall, which is flanked by eight colossal pillars carved in the shape of the deified pharaoh. Bas reliefs on the walls depict Ramesses II’s military victories, particularly those at Kadesh.
The inner sanctum of the temple is occupied by four sculptures of Ra-Horakhty, Amun, Ptah, and the deified Ramesses II. On two days of the year (Oct. 22 and Feb. 22), the sun’s rays line up with the entrance of the temple in such a way that they penetrate through to the inner sanctum and illuminate three of the gods’ faces. The only one left in darkness is Ptah, who was associated with the Egyptian underworld. Scholars believe that these two dates were of great significance for Ramesses II and hypothesize that they might represent his birthday and coronation. However, this has not been proven. When the temple was relocated, great care was taken to ensure that the solar alignment remained the same.
The Small Temple
The Small Temple is located approximately 330 feet northeast of the Great Temple and is essentially a simpler version of it. Six statues guard the entrance; two of Nefertari and four of Ramesses II, each standing 33 feet tall. The fact that Nefertari is depicted as being of equal size to her husband is scarce in Egyptian art and shows the high esteem in which he held her. Smaller statues of the couple’s children stand on either side of their parents’ legs. The hypostyle hall of this temple is supported by six pillars, each adorned with depictions of the queen and various gods and goddesses. Bas reliefs in the second hall and vestibule show the king and queen making religious offerings, while the niche in the inner sanctum holds a statue of Hathor in the form of a divine cow.
How to Visit
The Abu Simbel temples are situated a five-minute drive from the village of Abu Simbel. There are a few hotels and restaurants in the village, and if you want to stay there overnight, the Seti Abu Simbel Lake Resort is the top-rated option on TripAdvisor. However, most visitors choose to base themselves in the nearest city, Aswan. There are two reasons for this: firstly, most Nile cruises end in Aswan after traveling along the river from Luxor. Secondly, there is a much wider choice of accommodation in Aswan, and many companies offering day tours to Abu Simbel by bus or car. Most include hotel pick-up and drop-off, entrance fees, and the insight of an Egyptologist guide. Be prepared for a long day, as the drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel takes 3.5 hours one way.
To save yourself the long journey through the desert, consider flying from Aswan to Abu Simbel’s purpose-built airport. EgyptAir and Air Cairo both offer daily flights, which cut the journey time down to 45 minutes. Lake Nasser cruises also typically stop at Abu Simbel. The temples are open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. from October to April, and until 6 p.m. from May to September. The entry costs 160 Egyptian pounds ($10) per adult.
The Best Time to Visit
Every year on Oct. 22 and Feb, 22, the Abu Simbel Sun Festival attracts thousands of locals and visitors who gather to watch the spectacle of the sun lighting up the Great Temple’s inner sanctum. If you choose to attend, be prepared to pay premium prices for accommodation and make sure to book several months in advance. Weatherwise, the best time of year to visit is between October and April when daytime temperatures are slightly cooler. In the height of summer (June to August), temperatures at Abu Simbel often exceed 100 degrees F.