For many travelers, a trip to Abu Simbel is the highlight of their Egyptian escapades. This awe-inspiring temple complex is praised both for the breathtaking ambition of Ramesses II’s reign, but also for the marvel of the engineering effort that UNESCO has put into preserving it for modern times. If the colossal stone carvings adorning the façade and interior reliefs depict the king’s propaganda, it is the pharaoh’s attempt to achieve immortality, it has worked. Today, visitors still marvel in disbelief at the sheer majesty of the temples, just as they must have done when the Abu Simbel Temples were first built.
Abu Simbel is located 280 kilometers south of Aswan. Most people visit on a day trip from Aswan, although it is possible to spend the night in Abu Simbel village.
Temple of Ramses II
Forecourt and terrace: the main courtyard
Although today, the entire Forecourt in front of the Temple is open, originally it would have been enclosed by brick walls on the north and south, while the eastern side of the court would have been open, facing the Nile. From the Forecourt, a staircase leads you to the Terrace in front of the Temple. If you look to the right and left, just before the ramp, you will see two recesses, which probably contain basins for ritual ablutions. The recesses depict steles in which Ramses offers sacrifices.
Along the front of the Terrace is a decorative frieze depicting representatives of many different people paying homage to the King. At the front of the balustrade, which has a dedicatory inscription along its entire length, statues of falcons alternate with small statues of the king. The figures on the south side of the balustrade were probably destroyed by the collapse of the upper part of the second of the colossal figures.
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Colossi van Ramses II: The Guards of the Inner Temple
Four colossal figures carved from solid rock guard the massive 33-meter-high facade of the temple. Seated on thrones, this 20m high Colossi of finely carved features and stylized harmony represent a deified Ramesses II. The two on the left depict the king as Heka-tawi and Re-en-poortaw. The two to the right of the doorway show Ramses as Meri-Amun and Meri-Atum. The king’s mild appearance and characteristic nose are best preserved in the first of the Colossi (far left). The second figure lost its head and shoulders in ancient times, perhaps due to a rock fall or an earthquake (or a combination of the two), and these now lie on the ground in front of it.
The Ramesses figures wear the double crown of Egypt and are represented with the formal spade-like beard. On his chest and upper arms and between his legs, you see royal cartouches. To the right and left of each statue and between their legs are reduced-scale but still larger-than-life-sized figures representing members of the royal family. Flanking the first colossus are the princesses Nebt-tawi (left) and Bent-anat (right), with an unnamed princess between their legs, and the flanking second colossus is the king’s mother, Tue (left), and his wife, Queen Nefertari (right), with Prince Amen-herkhopshef between her legs.
Inside the thrones of the two central Colossi, next to the entrance to the temple, are figures of the two Nile gods encasing the floral emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt, the papyrus and the lotus, surrounding the hieroglyphic sign that “unites” means, while below are rows of Kushite and Syrian captives.
On the two southern Colossi you can see Greek, Carian and Phoenician inscriptions sculpted by mercenaries who had gone through various military expeditions in this way.
Hypostyle Hall: The Inner Temple
The grand entrance way leads you to the huge 17.7 meter long Hypostyle Hall . It is divided into three aisles (the central one is twice the width of the other two) by two rows of four square pillars, and on the inner sides are ten meters high Osiris figures of the King holding the scourge and the swindler. The figures on the right wear the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, while those on the left wear the crown of Upper Egypt. The stylized symmetry of these massive figures is striking. The ceiling of the central aisle has paintings of vultures in flight; those of the aisles are decorated with stars.
To the right and left of the Hypostyle Hall are eight small side chambers , some of which served as treasuries and storerooms. Their decoration is of varying quality, but is generally simpler than that of the temple’s main chambers. Some rooms have stone tables along the walls.
Don’t Miss: Abu Simbel is most famous for the fantastic wall reliefs in the Hypostyle Hall depicting the King’s campaign against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh (reliefs of the battle can also be seen in Luxor’s Ramesseum and in the temples of Abydos).
The Battle of Kadesh scenes take over the hypostyle halls north wall . In the lower register at the left end, the Egyptian army is depicted on the march. The various activities in the camp are portrayed in a vivid way: the horses are fed and the troops rest after their march. The third scene shows the King and Princes holding a Council of War, while two enemy spies are beaten below. The last scene shows the battle between Egyptian and Hittite charioteers.
The scenes in the upper register take us into battle. On the left, the king is shown charging into his enemies, who have surrounded him with their chariots. In the center is the enemy stronghold of Qadesh, surrounded by the River Orontes, with the defenders looking down from the battlements. To the right, Ramesses watches in his chariot as his officers count the enemy’s severed hands and limbs and bring in prisoners.
In the right hand half of the back wall, Ramesses is shown leading two files of Hittite captives to the presence of Re-Harakhty, his own deified effigy, and the lion-headed Wert-poortaw. In the left half, he presents Kushite captives to Amun, the deified Ramses, and Mut.
Past the Hypostyle Hall, you come to the Vestibule , which is divided into three aisles by four square pillars. On the sides of the pillars, representations of the King are received in the company of the gods.
Don’t Miss: Look up the south wall to see Amun-Re’s barque. The bows are carried in procession preceded by the king and his wife Nefertari offering offerings of food and incense.
From the vestibule, three doorways lead into a long and narrow Transversal Chamber . On the walls of this chamber, the king is shown making offerings to Min, Horus and Khnum (left hand end) and to Atum, Thoth and Ptah (right hand end) who were also worshiped here, almost with the status of guest deities.
The Sanctuary: House of the Gods
From the Transversal Chamber, three doors lead to three small chambers at the far end of the temple. In the center is the rectangular Sanctuary , which could only be entered by the king.
Don’t Miss: The right and left hand walls depict Ramesses burning incense. On the back wall are larger-than-life figures of Ptah, Amon-Re, the king himself, and Re-Harachty (left to right), again expressing the king’s complete equality with the gods. In front of the figures is the square base , hewn from the rock, of the sacred barque, which was kept here.
History of Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Great Piece of Propaganda
Archaeologists can only speculate why Ramses II decided to build such magnificent temples on this particular site. There were probably cave sanctuaries here at a very early period, as such sanctuaries were numerous in Nubia. With the erection of a temple dedicated to himself, Ramesses became the first pharaoh to take the final decisive step towards equating king and god, and at the same time the construction of the temples symbolized his royal and divine claim to the gold and copper to rule rich region of Nubia.
Over the millennia, many armies, merchants, caravans, and other travelers passed this road, often leaving behind inscriptions and graffiti that shed light on the conditions of the period. Traces of soot in the temples show that they were sometimes used as residences. Later, both temples were buried under the desert sands and sunk into obscurity, which lasted until the early years of the 19th century.
On March 22, 1813, Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) discovered the heads of the colossal figures of Ramses emerging from the sand drifts, but was unable to determine what they were or to penetrate the temple . The systematic excavation of the temples began in 1817 by Burckhardt’s friend and fellow explorer, the Italian Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823). From that time on, the temples became the most famous treasure of Upper Egypt.
New dangers threatened the Abu Simbel temples when construction of the Aswan High Dam began on January 9, 1960, as the temple grounds would be swallowed by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. At the joint request of Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO assembled a massive rescue operation, which saved the temple complex for posterity.
There was much discussion about possible ways to save the temples. Among the projects considered were plans to float both temples on pontoons, which as the lake rose, would raise them to a new location on higher ground and proposals for enclosing the entire site in a spherical shell or glass aquarium into which visitors would descend. lifts under the waters of Lake Nasser to visit. Most of the submitted plans were rejected for technical or aesthetic reasons and the only proposal that seemed acceptable was a French one. This involved cutting both temples in their entirety out of the solid rock, placing them on huge slabs of concrete and then moving them to a new location using hydraulic jacks. To raise the greater temple, weighing 265,000 tons, would have required 440 levers; the smaller temple, weighing 55,000 tons, required 94 levers. But this project – similar in its boldness to the original construction of the temples – had to be abandoned because of the enormous cost.
Finally, as the lake level continued to rise and time grew shorter, it was decided to adopt a proposal from the Egyptian sculptor Ahmad Osman to cut the temples into manageable blocks and re-erect them on the higher ground near their original sites.
When work began in the spring of 1964, the water level of Lake Nasser was already so high that the temples had to be protected by a cofferdam. They were then cut into blocks with a maximum weight of 20 tons (807 blocks for the larger temple , 235 for the smaller ones), with the cutting lines arranged so that the joints would be as unobtrusive as possible when the temples were re-erected.
The blocks were then stored until the new location (65 meters higher and 180 meters further northwest) was ready to receive them. The inner walls and ceilings of the temples were suspended from a reinforced concrete supporting framework, which provided greater stability. The loss of stone due to the sawing process was remedied by a mortar of cement and desert sand. The re-erected temples were roofed by massive reinforced concrete domes with spans of 50 meters and 24 meters and internal heights of 19 meters and 7 meters respectively, which supported the mass of rubble and rock that covered the entire structure.
In the summer of 1968, the work was completed and a cultural monument of exceptional importance was preserved for future generations.
Around the Great Temple of Ramses II
Temple of Hathor
North of the Great Temple of Ramses II is the Temple of Hathor (also known as the Lesser Temple of Abu Simbel). It originally stood on a rocky promontory reaching down to the Nile and was separated from the Great Temple by a sand-filled valley. The temple was dedicated to Hathor, goddess of love, and to the deified Nefertari, wife of Ramses. During the flooding of the Nile, it could be reached directly from the river via a wharf of which no trace survives.
The 12 meter high facade is carved out of the rock in imitation of a pylon with a cavetto cornice (now missing). In the rock face, the Royal Steward and Scribe Iuni of Heracleopolis, who was probably in charge of the construction of the Abu Simbel temples, had shown himself devotion to his royal and divine master.
Six colossal statues ten meters high dominate the entrance facade with images of Ramses and Queen Nefertari. Unusually, the queen is the same size as the king. On the side of the statues are smaller figures of the royal children, the princesses (shown with their left foot extended) taller than the princes.
Next to the figure of Nefertari are the princesses Merit-Amun (right) and Hent-tawi (left), next to the figures of Ramses at each end of the facade are the Princes Meri-Atum (right) and Meri-Re (left), and next to the king’s central figures are Amen-haar-khopshef (right) and Re-her-unemef (left). Parts of rocky buttresses protrude between the figures, so that the statues appear to be placed in niches. Given the extreme brittleness of the stone, the entire area of the facade was plastered and painted. All buttresses are covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
The entrance way leads to an almost square Hypostyle Hall , divided into three aisles by six pillars, the fronts of which are sistra with the head of the cow-clad goddess Hathor. On the other sides of the pillars are figures of the royal couple and various deities.
Don’t Miss: The reliefs are simpler and less colorful than those in the Great Temple, but are also of great artistic and historical value. Look up at the entrance wall to see the king, accompanied by the queen, beating a Libyan in the presence of Re-Harakhty and a Kushite in the presence of Amun-Re.
Three doorways lead from the Hypostyle Hall to a narrow Transversal Chamber . To the left and right are two unfinished side chambers and over their doors are fine reliefs of the Hathor cow in a papyrus swamp, worshiped by the king and queen respectively.
Beyond the Transversal Chamber is the Sanctuary with a recess in the back wall in the form of a chapel, the roof supported by sistra. In this recess is a high relief figure of the goddess Hathor as a cow; under her head (and thus under her protection) is the king. On the left wall the queen offers incense to Mut and Hathor; on the right wall the king offers incense and pours a libation for his own image and that of the queen.
Tips and tactics: Make the most of your visit to Abu Simbel
- Timing: The bus tours from Aswan fill the site from 7am to 11am. If you want to visit Abu Simbel without crowds, visit in the late afternoon when the sinking sun sprinkles the exterior stones in golden hues.
- Staying the Night: The best option if you want to make the most of your time at this popular tourist attraction is staying the night. The village of Abu Simbel (next to the temples) has two small hotels where travelers who don’t want to rush the temple waiting time can sleep.
- Sound & Light Show: Abu Simbel’s nightly sound and light show is an opportunity to see the temples under a dizzying array of lights.
- Abu Simbel Sun Festival: Every year on February 21 and October 21, the rays of the rising sun penetrate the The Shrine of the Great Temple , illuminating the faces of the divine figures. This phenomenon originally occurred a day earlier and is believed to have celebrated Ramses birthday and coronation day, which were undoubtedly occasions for ritual ceremony during the ancient Egyptian era. When the temples were moved to their current location, a small major axis displacement was detected, meaning the phenomenon occurs a day later. Today, visitors still flock to Abu Simbel to see this impressive spectacle.
- By Tour Bus: Abu Simbel day trips are easy to arrange in Aswan and are one of the easiest options if you are short on time. Unfortunately it’s a terribly early start in the morning as the tour buses all go to Abu Simbel at 4am in a convoy. Many tours also include stops at Philae Temple and Aswan High Dam, so it’s a good way to pack plenty of sightseeing into one day.
- By Private Taxi: Trips to Abu Simbel by private taxi can be easily arranged in Aswan. They are best booked through your hotel or a local travel agent, as only taxi drivers licensed to travel to Abu Simbel are allowed to take you. Traveling this way means you can leave at your own designated time to see the temples and miss some of the crowds.
- By Air: EgyptAir operates an Aswan-Abu Simbel service which is the fastest way to get here. Services can be irregular (sometimes canceled for months at a time) due to tourist demand. The flight takes only 20 minutes when running. There are also direct flights from Cairo.
- By Public Bus: Despite what almost every travel agent and hotel in Aswan will tell you, there is a public bus to Abu Simbel. Buses depart from Aswan bus station twice a day and the journey takes four hours. You must book your ticket a day in advance, as the Abu Simbel bus is only allowed to take four foreigners. This is a good option if you are on a budget and want to spend the night in Abu Simbel.
- At Lake Nasser Cruise Boat: A few specialty companies run cruises on Lake Nasser that visit not only Abu Simbel, but also the many other temples along the lake’s shores.