Rising from the western shore of the majestic Lake Nasser—a reservoir of the Nile River—the commanding rock-hewn temple of Abu Simbel stands as a self-made monument to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and is arguably the most famous site after the pyramids at Giza. Constructed in 13BC, the site is a complex of two temples, the Great Temple, and the adjacent Small Temple, dedicated to Ramses’ wife, Nefertari.
Rediscovered buried in the desert sands by Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt in 1813, Abu Simbel has undergone significant changes. In 1909, archaeologists freed the temples from their sandy tomb, but decades later in 1968, the temple would face a new threat—the encroaching floodwaters of the Nile River. As it happened, the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the tallest earthen dam in the world, would force the relocation of the temples at Abu Simbel to avoid being trapped forever in a watery grave.
The massive and complex five-year relocation project led by UNESCO involved painstakingly cutting the temples into sections that weighed between three to 20 tons and reassembling them perfectly at their new home—a desert plateau on Lake Nasser, about an eighth of a mile west of its original location.
Today, visitors do not have to look long before noticing the four massive, 70-foot-high seated statues of the famous pharaoh flanking the temple doorway, but in its day, they served as a symbol of his power and dominance.
Taking 20 years to build, the Great Temple is divided into a series of sacred rooms adorned with hieroglyphs and reliefs that honor Ramses himself and key members of the royal family.
A second temple, known as the Small Temple, was built to honor Ramses’ wife, Nefertari, and is also dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The temple’s façade features six colossi, or statues. Four are of Ramses II, and two are of Nefertari. The temple’s inner area is adorned with beautiful reliefs portraying scenes of Ramses’ reign as well as offerings to the goddess Hathor.
The central chamber in the Great Temple holds particular curiosity—a sanctuary that remains in total darkness every day except two days per year. This is not by accident, however. Because the Great Temple was designed to align with the sun, the dark recess of the sanctuary is visited by sunlight twice a year to illuminate statues of Ramses, Ra (the Egyptian God of the Sun), and Ammon (the King of the Gods). A fourth statue of Ptah (the God of Darkness) has not seen sunlight in over 3,200 years. The Abu Simbel Sun Festival, held on February 22 and October 22 each year, attracts thousands of visitors, and coincides with this unusual event.
Visit the timeless marvel of Abu Simbel, where you can explore the grandeur of Egypt’s ancient past!