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.