The complex of temples dedicated to the Pharaoh Ramsis II “the Great”, Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt was saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, growing behind the Aswan Dam, in a massive archaeological rescue plan sponsored by UNESCO in the 1960s.
Abu Simbel is a village lying 280 km south of Aswan and only 40 km north of the Sudanese border. A very small settlement with very little to attract visitors other than its great temples for which it is famous. The temples at Abu Simbel were formerly located further down the hillside, facing the Nile in the same relative positions, but due to the rising waters of Lake Nasser, the original locations are underwater.
In the 1960s, each temple was carefully sawed into numbered stone cubes, moved uphill, and reassembled before the water rose. The Great Temple of Ramses II was reassembled fronting a fake mountain, built like a domed basketball court, where the stone cubes occupy a section under the dome; from outside, the fake mountain looks like solid rock. Archaeologists have concluded that the immense sizes of the statues in the Great Temple were intended to scare potential enemies approaching Egypt‘s southern region, as they travelled down the Nile from out of Africa.
Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples in Nubia. The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Nubian Monuments,” which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae (near Aswan High Dam reservoir). The relocation of the temples was necessary to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser, the massive artificial water reservoir formed after the building of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. Abu Simbel remains one of Egypt‘s top tourist attractions.
Today, thousands of tourists visit the temples daily. Guarded convoys of buses and cars depart twice a day from Aswan, the nearest city. Many visitors also arrive by plane, at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex. The complex consists of two temples. The larger one is dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun, Egypt‘s three state deities of the time, and features four large statues of Ramesses II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramesses’s most beloved of his many wives.
Get in by plane, EgyptAir offers daily flights to Abu Simbel from both Cairo and Aswan. Abu Simbel is currently inaccessible to foreigners travelling by car, on account of police security concerns. Travellers are only able to access Abu Simbel by bus from Aswan, travelling in police convoys. There is at least one daily convoy each way, taking 3 hours. Seats on the minibuses travelling in the convoy can be arranged at your hotel or through the Aswan tourist office.
Beyond the temples themselves, the detailed description of sawing and moving the stone cubes is also an interesting story. As with the pyramids at Giza, reading about them, before arriving, in no way diminishes the impact of seeing them firsthand. The reconstructed temples at Abu Simbel appear entirely real, however, do go inside the dome of the Great Temple to appreciate that it is a fake mountain.
EGYPT CLOSED – Chaos Across Egypt (Jan – Feb 2011)
Three hours into my flight the captain announces we are diverted to Athens. Later it is confirmed the flight landed due to a bomb scare as reported by the BBC. Rising unrest and the peoples call to bring down the government brings disruption to tourism in Egypt, and the UK Foreign Office advises not to travel.