Dug into the rock in honour of Ramses II and his favourite wife, Nefertari, the temples of Abu Simbel, in the Nubian desert, are the high point of any tour in the land of the pharaohs.
But this amazing treasure was nearly lost due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the Sixties, a civil engineering project undertaken to tame the Nile and control its regular flooding. The dam created the vast artificial Lake Nasser and without the actions of UNESCO, working in conjunction with the Egyptian government, a huge quantity of pharaonic heritage would have disappeared under the waters of the reservoir.
Forty technical teams from all around the world worked together on a twenty-year project to dismantle these temples of ancient Nubia as well as other important monuments block by block, then relocated and reassembled them like a giant 3D jigsaw in a safe location, thereby preserving them for posterity.
The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, dedicated to Ramses II, was one such architectural marvel, and it was reconstructed set into an artificial mountainside close to the smaller temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, the Pharaoh's beloved chief wife.
Unsurprisingly, Ramses II, the most prolific and one of the most powerful pharaohs of all time, is the undoubted star of the main temple, which is accessed via a terrace dominated by four colossal representations of the ruler. The statues are over 20 metres high and show the ruler seated on a throne wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Alongside are many smaller sculptures of family members including Nefertari, and some of his children.
Inside the temple, carved into the mountain, there is a great hall of columns and a maze of passageways and chambers decorated with paintings, sculpted reliefs of war scenes recounting the victories of Ramses II, and more colossal figures of the Pharaoh and the gods. At the far end of the second pillared hall, you reach the inner sanctum of the temple, the dark home of yet another statue of the Pharaoh together with the three main gods of the Egyptian pantheon of the time, Horus, Amun-Ra and Ptah.
The temple is aligned east-west, and twice a year, on February 22nd and October 22nd, the first rays of sunlight penetrate the temple entrance and travel a distance of over sixty metres to illuminate these innermost statues for around 20 minutes. All, that is, except for Ptah, the creator, who remains in darkness.
Thanks to their great knowledge of astronomy, the original architects of the Great Temple contrived to make this spectacular solar phenomenon coincide with the birthday and the anniversary of the ascent to the throne of Ramses II.
When UNESCO mounted the great rescue operation, the temple was relocated some 200 metres farther back and 60 metres higher up than its original setting, and although the modern experts managed to recreate the effect, one small detail was changed: now, the event occurs two days later than it originally did.
Last year some 2,000 visitors gathered to witness the phenomenon, and many more enjoyed the festival of traditional music and celebrations that take place in the area each time. The unique experience inside the temple may not be for suitable for claustrophobes, but the folklore magic of the festivities is still worth the trip.
Tips and suggestions:
Not all agencies include the excursion to Abu Simbel in their itineraries, but it would be a pity to travel so far and miss the great treasure that waits downriver on the Nile. Abu Simbel can be quickly - though not cheaply - reached by plane from the more common tourist parts of Egypt. Alternatively, it's about four hours by car from Aswan. Despite the cost or inconvenience, the experience is well worth it.
To avoid the crowds and to make it easier to arrive in time for the sunrise ceremony, it's advisable to stay near Abu Simbel on the night before the temple visit. Travel from Aswan to the temples must be made in a convoy with a police escort which means that buses all arrive at the same time and the crowds and chaotic atmosphere detract from charm of these wonderful temples.
Egyptian Tourist Office