Abu Simbel is an archaeological site comprising two massive rock temples in southern Egypt along the Nile about 290 km southwest of Aswan. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of "Nubian Monuments" which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae.
The Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel consists of four seated colossal statues of Ramses II carved into the mountain, forming one of the boldest temple facades in the world. It is aligned so the sun's rays travel through the mountain and illuminate Ramses' sanctuary twice a year -- on October 22 and February 22.
History of Abu Simbel
Ramses II was a 19th dynasty pharaoh of Egypt. He ruled for 67 years during the 13th century BC, the apogee of Ancient Egypt's power and glory. This extraordinarily long reign, the wealth available in the state coffers, and, undeniably, the pharaoh's personal vanity meant that Ramses, of all the ancient rulers, left what is perhaps the most indelible mark on the country. His legacy can be seen most clearly in the archaeological record – in the many buildings that Ramses modified, usurped, or constructed from the ground up.
Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1284 BC and lasted for about 20 years. Known as the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun", it was one of six rock temples erected in Nubia during the long reign of Ramesses. Their purpose was to impress Egypt's southern neighbors, and also to reinforce the status of Egyptian religion in the region.
With the passing of time, the temples were covered in sand. Already in the 6th century BC, the sand covered the statues of the main temple up to their knees. The temple was forgotten until 1813, when Swiss orientalist J.L. Burckhardt found the top frieze of the main temple. Burckhardt talked about his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who travelled to the site, unable to dig out an entry to the temple. Belzoni returned in 1817, this time succeeding in his attempt to enter the complex. He took everything valuable and portable with him.
In 1959 an international donations campaign to save the monuments of Nubia began: the southernmost relics of this ancient human civilization were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile that were about to result from the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964, and cost some USD $80 million. Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was cut into large blocks, dismantled and reassembled in a new location – 65 m higher and 200 m back from the river, in what many consider one of the greatest feats of archaeological engineering. A similar project was undertaken at the island of Philae downriver.
Today, thousands of tourists visit the temples daily. Guarded convoys of buses and cars depart twice a day from Aswan, the nearest city. Many visitors also arrive by plane, at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex.
What to See at Abu Simbel
There are two temples at Abu Simbel. The larger one, generally known as the Temple of Ramses II, is dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun, Egypt's three state deities of the time. It features four large statues of Ramses II in the facade. The smaller temple, referred to as the Temple of Nefertari, is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified Ramesses's most beloved wife Nefertari ( the pharaoh had some 200 wives and concubines total).
The Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel is generally considered the grandest and most beautiful of the temples commissioned during the reign of Ramses II, and one of the most beautiful in Egypt. The facade is 33 meters high, and 38 meters broad, and guarded by four statues, each of which is 20 meters high. They were sculptured directly from the rock in which the temple was located before it was moved.
All statues represent Ramses II, seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The statue to the left of the entrance was damaged in an earthquake, leaving only the lower part of the statue still intact. The head and torso can still be seen at the statue's feet.
Several smaller figures are situated at the feet of the four statues, depicting members of the pharaoh's family. They include his mother Tuya, Nefertari, and some of his sons and daughters. Above the entrance there is a statue of a falcon-headed Ra-Harakhte, with the pharaoh shown worshipping on both sides of him. Below the statue there is an ancient rebus, showing the prenomen or throne name of Ramesses: Waser-ma'at.
The facade is topped by a row of 22 baboons, their arms raised in the air, supposedly worshipping the rising sun. Another notable feature of the facade is a stele which records the marriage of Ramesses with a daughter of King Hattusili III, which sealed the peace between Egypt and the Hittites.
The interior of the temple has the same triangular layout that most ancient Egyptian temples follow, with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary. The first hall of the temple features eight statues of the deified Rameses II in the shape of Osiris, serving as pillars. The walls depict scenes of Egyptian victories in Libya, Syria and Nubia, including images from the Battle of Kadesh. The second hall depicts Ramesses and Nefertari with the sacred boats of Amun and Ra-Horakthy.
The sanctuary contains four seated statues of Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun and Ramesses. The temple was constructed in such a way that the sun shines directly on all four statues during two days of the year, February 20 and October 20. These dates are allegedly the king's birthday and coronation day respectively, but there is no evidence to support this. Due to the displacement of the temple, it is widely believed that this event now occurs one day later than it did originally.
The Temple of Nefetari is located north of the Great Temple of Ramses II. It was carved in the rock by Ramses II and dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of love and beauty, and also to his favorite wife, Nefertari, for "whose sake the very sun doeth shine." The façade is adorned by six statues, four of Ramses II and two of Nefertari. Most unusually, the six are the same height, which indicates the esteem in which Nefertari was held.
The entrance leads to a hall containing six pillars bearing the head of the goddess Hathor. The eastern wall bears inscriptions depicting Ramses II striking the enemy before Ra-Harakhte and Amun-Ra. Other wall scenes show Rameses II and Nefertari offering sacrifices to the gods.
Beyond this hall, there is another wall with similar scenes and paintings. In the farthest depths of the temple is the holy of holies, where a statue of the goddess Hathor stands. This is, indeed, a most awesome sight to the visitor; for here one finds the great artificial dome that bears the man-made mountain behind the Temples of Abu Simbel. It shows the great work of Ramses II.
Quick Facts on Abu Simbel
|Dedication:||Ramses II and Nefertari|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||22.337123° N, 31.625903° E|
|Address:||Aswan Governorate, Egypt|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Abu Simbel|
Map of Abu Simbel, Aswan Governorate
Below is a location map and aerial view of Abu Simbel. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.