Exploring Abu Simbel: A Visitor's Guide
The most magnificent of the monuments Ramses II built, Abu Simbel is both the perfect example of the ambition of this pharaoh's reign and also a model illustration for modern engineering. The entire temple was transplanted from its original location and lifted piece by piece to its current site by an international UNESCO team working against the clock to preserve it from being flooded by the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.
The colossal stone statues that grace the facade are Pharaoh Ramses II's attempt to achieve immortality. It has worked. Today, visitors here still crane their necks in disbelief at the behemoth temples just as the pharaoh's subjects would have done when the temples were first raised.
Abu Simbel is 280 kilometers south of Aswan. Most people visit on a day trip from Aswan, although it is possible to stay the night in Abu Simbel village.
Temple of Ramses II
Forecourt & Terrace: The Main Courtyard
Although today, the entire Forecourt in front of the temple is open, originally it would have been enclosed on the north and south by brick walls, while the east side of the court would have been open, looking on to the Nile. From the Forecourt, a flight of steps leads you up to the Terrace in front of the temple. If you look to the right and left, just before the ramp, you'll see two recesses, which probably contained basins for ritual ablutions. In the recesses are stelae depicting Ramses II making offerings.
Along the front of the Terrace is a decorative frieze portraying representatives of many different people making obeisance to the pharaoh. In front of the balustrade, which has a dedicatory inscription running along its entire length, are figures of falcons alternating with small statues of Ramses II. The figures at the south end of the balustrade were probably destroyed by the collapse of the upper part of the second of the colossi figures.
Colossi of Ramses II: The Guards of the Inner Temple
Four colossal figures hewn from solid rock guard the massive 33-meter-high facade of the temple. Seated on thrones, these 20-meter-high Colossi of finely carved features and stylized harmony represent a deified Ramses II. The two on the left depict the pharaoh as Heka-tawi and Re-en-hekaw. The two to the right of the doorway show Ramses II as Meri-Amun and Meri-Atum. The pharaoh's mild countenance and characteristic nose are best preserved in the first of the Colossi (at the far left). The second figure lost its head and shoulders in ancient times, perhaps as a result of a rock fall or an earthquake (or a combination of both), and these now lie on the ground in front of it.
The Ramses figures wear the double crown of Egypt and are represented with the formal spade-like beard. On his breast and upper arms and between his legs, you can see royal cartouches. To the right and left of each statue and between their legs are figures on a smaller scale but still larger-than-life size, representing members of the royal family.
Flanking the first colossus is the Princesses Nebt-tawi (left) and Bent-anat (right), with an unnamed Princess between the legs, and flanking the second colossus is the pharaoh's mother, Tue (left), and his wife Queen Nefertari (right), with Prince Amen-herkhopshef between the legs.
On the inner sides of the thrones of the two central Colossi, flanking the entrance to the temple, are figures of the two Nile gods wreathing the floral emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt, the papyrus and the lotus, around the hieroglyphic sign meaning "unite," while below are rows of Kushite and Syrian prisoners.
On the two southern Colossi, you can see Greek, Carian, and Phoenician inscriptions carved by mercenaries who had passed this way on various military expeditions.
Hypostyle Hall: The Inner Temple
The grand entrance leads you into the huge 17.7-meter-long Hypostyle Hall. It is divided into three aisles (the central one being twice the width of the other two) by two rows of four square pillars, and on the inner sides are ten-meter-high Osiris figures of the pharaoh holding the scourge and the crook. The figures on the right hand side 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 flying vultures; those of the lateral aisles are adorned with stars.
To the right and left of the Hypostyle Hall are eight small side chambers, some of which served as treasuries and store rooms. Their decoration is of varying quality, but in general is simpler than that of the main chambers of the temple. Some of the rooms have stone tables along the walls.
Don't Miss: Abu Simbel is most famous for the fabulous mural reliefs in the Hypostyle Hall depicting the pharaoh's campaign against the Hittites in 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 Hall's northern wall. In the lower register, at the left hand end, the Egyptian army is depicted on the march. The various activities in the camp are portrayed in a lively way - the horses being given their fodder, and the troops resting after their march. The third scene shows Ramses II holding a Council of War, while below, two enemy spies are being beaten. The last scene depicts the battle between Egyptian and Hittite charioteers.
The scenes in the upper register take us into the thick of the battle. To the left, the pharaoh is shown dashing against his enemies, who have surrounded him with their chariots. In the center is the enemy stronghold of Qadesh, encircled by the River Orontes, with the defenders looking down from the battlements. To the right, Ramses II in his chariot watches while his officers count the severed hands and limbs of the enemy and bring in prisoners.
In the right-hand half of the rear wall, the pharaoh is shown leading two files of Hittite prisoners into the presence of Re-Harakhty, his own deified effigy, and the lion-headed Wert-hekaw. In the left hand half, he presents Kushite prisoners to Amun, the deified Ramses and Mut.
Beyond the Hypostyle Hall, you come to the Vestibule, which is divided into three aisles by four square pillars. On the sides of the pillars are representations of Ramses II being received into the company of the gods.
Don't Miss: Look up at the south wall to see the barque of Amun-Re. The barques are borne in procession, preceded by the pharaoh and his wife Nefertari making offerings of food and incense.
From the Vestibule, three doorways lead into a long and narrow Transverse Chamber. On the walls of this chamber, Ramses II 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 divinities.
The Sanctuary: House of the Gods
From the Transverse Chamber, three doors lead into three small rooms at the farthest end of the temple. In the center is the rectangular Sanctuary, which could be entered only by the king.
Don't Miss: On the right-hand and left-hand walls, Ramses II is depicted burning incense. On the rear wall are larger-than-life-size figures of Ptah, Amun-Re, the pharaoh himself, and Re-Harakhty (from left to right), again giving expression to Ramses II'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: Ramses II's Great Piece of Propaganda
Archaeologists can only speculate why Ramses II decided to construct such magnificent temples on this particular site. Probably there were already cave sanctuaries here from a very early period, since such sanctuaries were numerous in Nubia. With the creation of a temple dedicated to himself, Ramses II 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 rule the gold and copper rich region of Nubia.
In the course of millennia, many armies, merchants, caravans, and other travelers passed this way, often leaving inscriptions and graffiti, which throw light on the circumstances of the period. Traces of soot inside the temples show that they were sometimes used as dwellings. Later, both temples were buried under the desert sand and sank into an oblivion, which lasted until the early years of the 19th century.
On March 22, 1813, the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) discovered the heads of the colossal figures of Ramses II emerging from the drifts of sand, but was unable to establish what they were or to penetrate into the interior of the temple. The systematic excavation of the temples was begun by Burckhardt's friend and fellow explorer, the Italian Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), in 1817. From this time, the temples became Upper Egypt's most famous treasure.
New dangers threatened the Abu Simbel temples when work began on the construction of the Aswan High Dam on January 9, 1960, since the temple site would be swallowed up by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. At the joint request of Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO rallied together a massive rescue operation, which saved the temple complex for posterity.
There was much discussion of possible means of saving the temples. Among the projects considered were plans for floating both temples on pontoons, which as the lake rose would carry them up to a new site on higher ground, and proposals for enclosing the whole site within a spherical shell or glass aquarium into which visitors would descend in lifts below Lake Nasser's waters to visit.
Most of the plans put forward were rejected on either technical or aesthetic grounds, and the only proposal that seemed acceptable was a French one. This involved cutting both temples out of the solid rock in their entirety, setting them on huge slabs of concrete, and then raising them to a new site by the use of hydraulic jacks. To raise the larger temple, weighing 265,000 tons, 440 jacks would have been required; for the smaller temple, weighing 55,000 tons, 94 jacks were needed. But this project, too - comparable in its boldness with the original construction of the temples - had to be abandoned on account of the gigantic cost.
Finally, as the level of the lake continued to rise, and time grew ever shorter, the decision was taken to adopt a proposal put forward by the Egyptian sculptor Ahmad Osman for sawing the temples into manageable blocks and re-erecting them on 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 sawn up into blocks of a maximum weight of 20 tons (807 blocks for the larger temple, 235 for the smaller), the cutting lines being so arranged that the joins would be as inconspicuous as possible when the temples were re-erected.
The blocks were then stored until the new site (65 meters higher and 180 meters farther northwest) was ready to receive them. The interior walls and ceilings of the temples were suspended from a supporting framework of reinforced concrete, which provided increased stability. The loss of stone resulting from the sawing process was remedied by a mortar of cement and desert sand. The re-erected temples were roofed over by massive reinforced concrete domes with spans of 50 meters and 24 meters and internal heights of 19 meters and seven meters respectively, which provided support for the mass of rubble and rock covering the whole structure.
By the summer of 1968, the work was completed, and a cultural monument of outstanding importance had been preserved for future generations.
Around the Great Temple of Ramses II
Temple of Hathor
To the north of the Great Temple of Ramses II is the Temple of Hathor (also known as the Small Temple of Abu Simbel). It was originally situated on a rocky promontory reaching out towards the Nile and separated from the Great Temple by a sand-filled valley. The temple was dedicated to Hathor, goddess of love, and to the deified Nefertari, Ramses' wife. During the Nile inundation, it could be reached directly from the river by way of a quay of which no trace survives.
The 12-meter-high facade is hewn from 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 himself represented in the act of demonstrating his devotion to his royal and divine master.
Six colossal ten-meter-high statues dominate the entrance facade depicting Ramses II and Queen Nefertari. Unusually, the queen is the same size as the pharaoh. Flanking the statues are smaller figures of the royal children, the princesses (depicted with their left foot advanced in front of them) being larger than the Princes.
Beside the figure of Nefertari are the Princesses Merit-Amun (right) and Hent-tawi (left). Beside the figures of Ramses II at each end of the facade are the Princes Meri-Atum (right) and Meri-Re (left), and beside the central figures of the pharaoh are Amen-her-khopshef (right) and Re-her-unemef (left). Between the figures are projecting sections of rock-like buttresses, so that the statues appear to be set in niches. In view of the extreme friability of the stone, the whole area of the facade was plastered and painted. All the buttresses are covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Figures in the Hypostyle Hall
The entrance leads into an almost square Hypostyle Hall, divided into three aisles by six pillars, on the fronts of which are sistra with the head of the cow-eared goddess Hathor. On the other sides of the pillars are figures of the royal couple and various deities.
Don't Miss: The mural 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 pharaoh, accompanied by the queen, smiting a Libyan in the presence of Re-Harakhty and a Kushite in the presence of Amun-Re.
From the Hypostyle Hall, three doorways lead into a narrow Transverse 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 marsh, worshiped respectively by the pharaoh and queen.
Beyond the Transverse Chamber is the Sanctuary with a recess in its rear wall in the form of a chapel, its roof supported by sistra. In this recess is a figure in high relief of the goddess Hathor as a cow; under her head (and thus under her protection) is Ramses II. On the left-hand wall the queen offers incense to Mut and Hathor; on the right-hand wall the pharaoh offers incense and pours a libation in front of his own image and that of the queen.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Abu Simbel
- Private Tours: Don't have much time? Opt to take the Abu Simbel flight and tour from Aswan. This four-hour private tour includes pickup and drop-off from your hotel, return flights from Aswan to Abu Simbel, site entrance fees, and a tour of both the temples with an Egyptologist. A cheaper option is an Abu Simbel tour by minibus, which also includes site entrance and a tour of the temples with an Egyptologist.
- Best Time to Visit: The bus tours from Aswan fill up the site from around 7am to 11am. If you want to wander around Abu Simbel devoid of crowds, visit in the late afternoon when the sinking sun brushes the exterior stonework 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 to stay the night. Abu Simbel village (beside the temples) has two small hotels, where travelers who don't want to rush their temple-viewing time can bed down for the night.
- Sound & Light Show: Abu Simbel's nightly sound and light show is an opportunity to see the temples under a dazzling array of lights.
- Abu Simbel Sun Festival: Every year on February 21 and October 21 the rays of the rising sun penetrate into the Great Temple's Sanctuary, illuminating the faces of the divine figures. This phenomenon originally occurred one day earlier and is thought to have celebrated Ramses II's birthday and coronation day, which were undoubtedly an occasion for ritual ceremony during the ancient Egyptian age. When the temples were moved to their present site a slight displacement of the principal axis was discovered, which means the phenomenon occurs one day later. Today, visitors still flock to Abu Simbel to see this impressive spectacle.
- By Tour Bus: Abu Simbel day trips are easily arranged in Aswan and are one of the easiest options if you're short on time. Unfortunately, it's usually a hideously early start in the morning (a lay-over from the days when buses all had to travel by convoy between Aswan and Abu Simbel). The starting out time is usually between 4am and 5am. Many tours also include stops at Philae Temple and the Aswan High Dam, so it's a good way to cram plenty of sightseeing into one day.
- By Private Taxi: Trips to Abu Simbel by private taxi are easily arranged in Aswan. They're best booked through your hotel or a local travel agent, as only taxi drivers with a permit to travel to Abu Simbel are allowed to take you. Traveling this way means you can set off at your own designated time to see the temples and miss some of the crowds.
- By Plane: EgyptAir run an Aswan-Abu Simbel service, which is the quickest way to get here. Services can be irregular (and are sometimes canceled for months at a time) though, due to tourist demand. The flight, when running, only takes 20 minutes. There are also flights direct from Cairo.
- By Public Bus: Despite what nearly every travel agent and hotel in Aswan will tell you, there is a public bus to Abu Simbel. Buses leave once daily from Aswan bus station, and the journey takes four hours. This is a good option if you're on a budget and want to stay the night in Abu Simbel.
- By Lake Nasser Cruise Boat: A couple of specialized companies run cruises on Lake Nasser that not only visit Abu Simbel, but the many other temples along the lake's banks.
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The Aswan Area: Abu Simbel may be the key sight but there's plenty else to do if you're in Aswan for a few days. Check out our articles on Aswan, the magnificent Philae Temple, and Edfu's Temple of Horus for some ideas. If you're taking the train north after your Aswan trip, have a look at our articles on Kom Ombo, Luxor, Cairo, and Alexandria for inspiration.