January 2, 2019
We disembarked our vessel, Aida, this morning and boarded a bus for a 2-hour + ride to the town of Abu Simbel, for which the temple was named. The landscape along this route is mostly desert.
The town of Abu Simbel is a good place to be introduced to Nubian culture. The Nubians who originally lived in this area were displaced in the 1960s by the building of the Aswan High Dam. Now this small town is growing again as people return to the area. I took these photos from the bus as we drove through the town.
Our destination was Abu Simbel Temple.
Ramses II (who reigned c. 1279-1213 BCE) had two massive temples built at Abu Simbel. The pharaoh was a bit of a narcissist and wanted to advertise to the Nubians that he was the god-king and ruler of this land. Nubia had been conquered by the Egyptians, which extended the Egyptian empire southward. Ramses II had his artisans carve the temples out of a rock cliff to display his might, which was an effective deterrent to Nubian rebellion.
Originally the two temples were at the bottom of the cliff into which they were carved. However, due to the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, which created Lake Nasser and flooded the surrounding area, they were moved 200 feet above the water level and 1/3 of a mile back from the lake shore. It is quite a walk, often uphill, from the parking lot to the site of the temples.
These two photos were taken from the pathway to the temples, the first a view of Lake Nasser, the second, two large rocks on which people had piled up small rocks. (I had seen these small stone piles before, on the trail from Machu Picchu, but here they were much more numerous and somewhat chaotic.)
In order to move the monuments higher up (because they would otherwise be completely submerged in the lake), a painstaking project funded by UNESCO was undertaken in which the temples were dismantled by cutting them into about 5,000 pieces, raised up using pulleys and reassembled 60 meters (about 200 feet) higher up. To do this, the upper cliff also had to be carved out in order for the temples to retain their original appearance and great effort was made to reconstruct the temples with the same orientation as the originals. All this was accomplished in the years 1964-1968, before the building of the High Dam was completed. (Other monuments that stood on islands in the Nile River were also disassembled and reassembled elsewhere, but Abu Simbel was by far the most enormous and ambitious undertaking.) Below are two photos of this massive project, taken from Google Images.
The first of the two temples, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ramses II as a god-king and to Ra-Harakhte, Amun-Ra and Ptah, major gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The second temple was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Nefertari, Ramses II’s wife and queen.
In front of the Great Temple are four seated colossi of Ramses II, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, which is most preserved in the far left statue. Around the legs of the statues are smaller figures of the pharaoh’s wives and children. Between the two pairs of statues, above the doorway, is a carved figure of Ra-Harakhte. Ra was portrayed as a falcon and shared characteristics with the sky god Horus. Sometimes these two gods were merged to form Ra-Harakhte: “Ra, who is the Horus of the Two Horizons.” Also, in the New Kingdom, the god Amun rose to prominence, so Ra and Amun were merged to form Amun-Ra.
The Great Temple is 98 feet (30 meters) high and 115 feet (35 meters) wide.
The doorway between the colossi leads to the first hall, which contains columns decorated with figures of Ramses II.
Inside this hall are carvings of events, particularly battle scenes, that happened during Ramses II’s reign. These photos are taken from the photo archive of Mohammed Fahey. (We were not allowed to take photos inside.)
The second hall contains four square columns and is decorated with more benign scenes – Ramses II and Queen Nefertari making offerings to the gods, including the deified Ramses himself.
The sanctuary contains four statues of the gods to whom the temple is dedicated: Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ramses II, Ra-Horakhte, in that order from left to right.
An amazing story about these sanctuary statues is that the sun would enter this inner chamber at certain times of day and certain days of the year. On the left, Ptah, is always in darkness, because he is the god of the underworld. The sunlight would penetrate 180 feet (55 meters) into the inner sanctuary to illuminate the statues of Amun-Ra and Ramses II (the two middle figures) for 45 minutes on two important days of the year: February 22, the king’s birthday and October 22, the date of his coronation. This was further emphasis on his elevated status as a god-king.
When the monument was moved up the cliff in the 1960s, the light illuminating the statues changed – but not by much. It now shines on Ramses II for 25 minutes on February 21 and October 21, only one day off from the original dates!
Ramses II apparently loved his wife, Nefertari, so much that he had the Temple of Queen Nefertari built to honor her and the goddess Hathor. This marks only the second time in ancient Egypt that a pharaoh built a temple for his wife (the first was Akhenaten for Queen Nefertiti). Furthermore, it is the only time where her statue is the same size as that of the pharaoh, each standing 32 feet (10 meters) tall.
Like the Great Temple, Nefertari’s temple faces east. It is about 92 feet (28 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) high.
Four of the six statues are of Ramses II and two are of Nefertari. Smaller statues at their feet represent their children.
The temple doorway leads to a hall which contains six pillars with heads of the goddess Hathor.
The hall is decorated with scenes of the royal couple making offerings to or worshipping the gods. Behind that is the main sanctuary, where there is a niche with a statue of Hathor as a cow, protecting Ramses II and Nefertari.
We returned to Abu Simbel in the late afternoon, as the sun was setting, to see the Sound and Light Show. It is worthwhile seeing at least one of these during a visit to the major Egyptian monuments – there are also Sound & Light Shows at Karnak, Luxor Temple, Kom Ombo and others.
We were each given an audio translator to watch the show. However, among the English translators that were handed out was one in Spanish, which one of the men in the group, discovered when he turned his on. By the time he found this out, the show had started so there was no way to exchange it. Instead, I traded with him, since I knew I could understand the narration in Spanish.
If you wondered what those little boxes were in front of the temples, they are used to project the sound and light show, which starts after sunset.The narration tells the story of how the monument was moved higher up the cliff when the dam was being built and also speculates about the life of the ancient Egyptians who built these temples.
Lights illuminate the statues in front of both temples.
With accompanying music, colorful images are projected onto the front of the temples.
The grand finale…
Sources used in this post:
“Abu Simbel: How the Temples Were Saved” in We, Digital Magazine
“Abu Simbel” by Joshua J. Mark in Ancient History Encyclopedia
“Abu Simbel” in Ancient Egypt Online
Fodor’s Egypt, 2009