Our day trip to Abu Simbel came at the tail end of our two-week Egypt tour, and despite the early morning wake-up call, three-hour bus ride and inevitable temple fatigue, the site still managed to thrill. Built between 1264 BCE and 1244 BCE by the master builder, Rameses II (aka Rameses The Great), Abu Simbel comprises two huge temples carved out of the mountainside.
The main temple is dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, alongside Rameses himself. Humility was not one of Rameses’s strengths, and the entrance is guarded by four, 65-foot-tall statues of the pharaoh. The statues, while all depicting Rameses, differ ever so slightly and the second from the left was damaged by an earthquake in antiquity—its head and torso remain at its feet (I love that ear!).
The 115-foot-wide facade is topped by a frieze originally made up of 22 baboons and smaller statues positioned at the base of the larger four depict Nefertari—Rameses's favorite wife—queen mother Mut-Tuy, Rameses’s first two sons and first six daughters. Immediately upon entering the main temple, you’re greeted by eight huge pillars, once again fashioned after Rameses himself (the guy was not shy).
The sanctuary is the holiest part of a temple and the one at Abu Simbel is undeniably the best one we saw on our trip. On a back wall sits four, rock cut sculptures—one of Rameses (of course) along with the gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra and Ptah. The Egyptians were so precise that they aligned this sanctuary in such a way that on two days during the year, October 22 and February 22, all of the statues except for Ptah—associated with the underworld—are illuminated by sunlight. We missed the October date by just a few weeks, but the chilling effect is recreated artificially for visitors year-round.
In 1959, with the construction of the Aswan High Dam imminent, a campaign was launched to save the monuments of Nubia that would be threatened by the rising waters of the Nile. Despite one well-received plan to build a dam around the submerged temples complete with underwater viewing chambers (can you imagine this??), beginning in 1964, the temples of Abu Simbel were cut into pieces and moved to a new location 200 feet higher and safely set back from the water.
The smaller temple is dedicated to Hathor and Rameses’s chief wife, Nefertari. This marks only the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a pharaoh dedicated a temple to his queen, but don’t give Ramses too much credit—he couldn’t resist carving himself into the facade alongside Nefertari. The interior of this temple is also lined with columns, but here they are topped with the face of the goddess Hathor.
By the 6th century BCE the statues of the main temple were covered up to their knees in sand. In 1817, my favorite circus-strongman-turned-archeologist, Belzoni, was able to enter the main temple, but it remained partially buried for several decades. This didn’t deter visitors from carving their name into the face of the temple to prove they had made it all the way to Nubia, and like most of the monuments we visited, Abu Simbel has its fair share of historic graffiti.
Nubia is a region of southern Egypt near the Sudan border, and Abu Simbel sits on the western bank of Lake Nasser. Words can’t describe what it’s like to turn the corner and catch your first glimpse of the four towering pharaohs, looking as if they could rise from the seats they’ve occupied for more than 3,000 years and walk right out of the mountainside.