The Temples of Ramesses Uncovered
From Cairo, I catch the early morning flight to see for myself the temples built alongside the Nile at Abu Simbel. These are the ruins hewn into a mountainside to serve both as a tribute to Pharaoh Ramesses II, but also a warning to ancient armies advancing up the river that a powerful kingdom lie ahead. Although a bit of self-aggrandizing propaganda, the perception they give is valid – Ramesses’ reign was arguably the greatest of the Late Kingdom period.
Buried in sand by the 6th century BC and only uncovered by explorer’s shovels two thousand years later, these temples were once again slated to be buried – but this time by Lake Nasser. To save them from the advancing waters the United Nations and ten international contractors stepped in, cut the temples into pieces, and relocated them inland and 65 meters higher.
Arriving in Abu Simbel
After a quick bus ride from the Abu Simbel airport I pass through an entrance gate and climb a short flight of steps into the courtyard of the Great Temple. In front of me is a façade dominated by four huge statues of Ramesses, posed on each side of a large rectangular doorway. Entering into an enormous inner hall with larger-than-life-size statues of the pharaoh flanking the interior, huge painted vultures hang from the ceiling and watch over me – the Egyptian equivalent of gargoyles.
Exiting the Great Temple, a hundred meter walk to the left takes me to the monument Ramesses dedicated to wife. This shrine is smaller but also cut into a hillside, with large statues of Nefertari and Ramesses on either side of its entrance. Her images here are of the same quality and height as those of the pharaoh, elevating her to an equal stature with the king. Inside, this ceiling is also painted with vultures to guard the sacred cartouches lining its rear wall.
Along with most ancient sites in Egypt the astronomical alignments used in the construction are ultra-precise, so much so that twice a year statues of gods lining the back wall of the Great Temple are illuminated by sunlight entering the main portal – except for one. That statue is dedicated to the god of the underworld, and so it symbolically remains in perpetual darkness.
Rebuilding Abu Simbel
The reconstruction of these twin temples is so well done that they became a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1980. Over the intervening years UNESCO has honored 980 other locations, and as I leave I notice a plaque near the entrance that eloquently describes the reason for saving it:
‘Through this restoration of the past, we have indeed helped to build the future of mankind.’
When you go:
Although the village of Abu Simbel lies just next door, unless your plans include attending the nightly Light and Sound show you’ll likely want to stay in the providential capital of Aswan where you’ll find police and hospital facilities, a variety of lodgings and restaurants, and an inviting Souk for shopping.
If at all possible plan your trip to coincide with the special solar orientation days on the mornings of February 22nd or October 22nd. After this spectacle take time to join in celebrations involving music, dancing, food, and fun.
Planes arrive and depart daily from airports in Abu Simple, Aswan, and Cairo. Travel time for flights from Cairo to Abu Simbel is about 4 hours and from Aswan to Abu Simbel about 45 minutes.
Passenger train service runs along the Nile between Cairo and Aswan daily. Travel time from is around 13–14 hours. In addition there are sleeper trains departing nightly from Cairo’s Ramses station.
The Egyptian government restricts foreigners from driving or catching a cab from Aswan to Abu Simbel or vice versa. However, buses are OK and make this trip daily. Take a seat on the left in the morning to see the sunrise and again on the return to enjoy shade.
Photos by: The Brooklyn Museum, from Breasted Expeditions to Egypt in 1905, Wikipedia Commons, Steve Smith
Story by Steve Smith and Christine Johnson