Abu Simbel Travel Guide - Nubian Monuments
Abu Simbel is an archaeological site comprising two massive rock temples in southern Egypt on the western bank of Lake Nasser about 290 km southwest of Aswan. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Nubian Monuments", which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae (near Aswan).
The twin temples were carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his alleged victory at the Battle of Kadesh, and to intimidate his Nubian neighbors. The complex was relocated in its entirety in the 1960s to avoid being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser, the massive artificial water reservoir formed after the building of the Aswan dam on the river Nile. Abu Simbel remains one of Egypt's top tourist attractions.
HISTORY: Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1284 BC and lasted for circa 20 years, until 1264 BC. Known as the "Temple of Ramses, beloved of Amen", it was one of six rock temples erected in Nubia during the long reign of the king. Their purpose was to impress Egypt's southern neighbors, and also to reinforce the status of Egyptian religion in the region.
The complex consists of two temples. The larger one is dedicated to Re-Herakhty, Ptah and Amen, Egypt's three state deities of the time, and features four large statues of Ramses II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramses's most beloved wife (in total, the pharaoh had some 200 wives and concubines).
The Greater Temple 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.
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 finely carved statue of the falcon-headed Re-Herakhty, with the pharaoh shown worshiping on both sides of him. Below the statue there is an ancient rebus, showing the prenomen or throne name of Ramses: User Maat.
The facade is topped by a row of 22 baboons, their arms raised in the air, worshiping the rising sun. Another notable feature of the facade is a stele which records the marriage of Ramses with a daughter of king Hattusili III, which sealed the peace between Egypt and the Hittites.
The inner part 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 Ramses 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 Ramses and Nefertari with the sacred boats of Amen and Re-Herakhty.
The innermost chamber contains four seated statues depicting
Ramses II as equal to the gods between Re-Herakhty and Amen, with the
god Ptah to the right of Amen. The temple was constructed in such a
way that, on two days of the year, the rising sunlight penetrates the
central hallway and illuminates all the figures except that of Ptah.
These dates (February 20 and October 20) are allegedly the king's birthday
and his coronation day, respectively. Due to the displacement of the
temple, it is widely believed that this event now occurs one day later
than it did originally.
The Smaller Temple is located north of the Greater Temple. It was carved in the rock and dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of love and beauty, and also to Ramses favorite wife, Nefertari. The facade 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 Re-Herakhty and Amen-Re. Other wall scenes show Ramses 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. The temple, like the Tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens in Luxor, is a love poem carved in stone where the Great Royal Wife is Hathor herself.
Rediscovery - With the passing of time, the temples became covered by 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 JL Burckhardt found the top frieze of the main temple. Burckhardt talked about his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who traveled 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.
HOURS OF OPERATION:
Open daily. Summer: 5 AM – 6 PM
Winter: 5 AM – 5 PM
(Includes admission to the Great Temple and the Small Temple. Tickets for the Sound and Light show [link – popup Misr Sound and Light] must be purchased separately.)
Egyptian: 4 LE
Foreign: 70 LE
A 50% discount on admission is available to students with a valid student ID from an Egyptian University or a valid ISIC card.
280 km south of Aswan on the shores of Lake Nasser
BY AIR: EgyptAir flies between Aswan and Abu Simbel. The flight takes about an hour.
BY BOAT: Some cruise lines offer stops at Abu Simbel.
BY BUS OR TAXI: Abu Simbel can be reached by car or bus from Aswan. Arrange with the front desk of your hotel to be picked up between 3:00 and 3:30 AM by bus or taxi. All vehicles leave at 4:00 AM in a convoy. The trip takes about three hours each way. For public transportation, Upper Egypt Bus Co. and El Gouna both run regular buses up to Abu Simbel from the main bus station in Aswan. The return buses leave from the Wadi El Nile Restaurant in Abu Simbel.
There is a tourist bazaar and café near the entrance to the site.
NO PHOTOGRAPHY PERMITTED INSIDE THE TEMPLES
The site is wheelchair accessible.
A Relocation Project of Pharaonic Dimension
In 1964, archaeologists and engineers set up to the task of rescuing the Temples of Abu Simbel from the rapidly rising waters of the artificially created Lake Nasser (Lake Nubia for Sudan). Financed by UNESCO, an international team of experts from Egypt, Italy, Germany, Sweden and France devised plans that included options like the removal of the entire structures including the mountains in one piece, or cutting the temples into manageable blocks and reassembling them 210 (688 feet) meters back and 65 meters (213 feet) up. The latter plan was finally carried out.
The grandiosity of this project would have certainly pleased Ramses II. It took four years to cut the monuments into 1050 pieces and move each one of them at snail pace to its new location, where they would be put back together exactly in the same orientation and distances so they would look exactly as they had been for 3000 years. Think of it, the goal of this gigantic effort was to make it look as it nothing had happened at all.
Each cut of the rock had to be made with the utmost precision and the brittle sandstone reinforced with synthetic resin. To recreate the mountains, two concrete and steel domes were built and covered with debris to complete the illusion of the original rock cliffs. The dome above the Great Temple is the largest in the world, and yes, you go inside this manmade mountain from a carefully disguised entrance, to marvel in awe at the greatness of both Ancient and Modern Egypt builders.
By plane - EgyptAir offers daily flights to Abu Simbel from both Cairo (NB: early morning flight, about 5.30 am) and Aswan (up to four flights daily). Later afternoon flights allow you to witness the magnificent Sound and Light show.
By car - Abu Simbel is currently inaccessible to foreigners traveling by car, on account of police security concerns. The road from Aswan to Abu Simbel is open, however, to bus travel.
By bus - Foreign travelers can get to Abu Simbel by coach or minibus from Aswan, traveling in police convoys. There is at least one daily convoy each way - the number and frequency of these are often raised when demand increases. Visitors are advised to check at the Aswan tourist office before making firm plans.
(Update: as of December 2008, the Egyptian government eliminated the convoys on tours)
For most of the year, the bus convoys leave Aswan around 3:30am to avoid the searing desert heat for at least the outward journey. Trips can be booked at a day's notice from even the most budget of hotels' receptions, although the tourist information kiosk near Aswan central station is the safest option. All buses travel together in a military convoy, and the journey takes around 3 hours each way. It is advisable to travel on air conditioned buses, as the journey back to Aswan is very hot.
By boat - It is possible to travel by cruise ship from Aswan through Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel. While the sight from Lake Nasser is breathtaking, cruise schedules don't allow much time to spend at the monuments.