Ramses II was without a doubt one of the most powerful New Kingdom pharaohs and the man was not afraid to flaunt his position and achievements. The pharaoh built many magnificent monuments throughout Egypt (see Abydos and Luxor), but no other defines the king’s power complex more than the temple that he had constructed at Abu Simbel.
Built into the side of a mountain the Temple, with its four colossal statues of Ramses, stood boldly along the edges of the Nile river near the Sudanese border. The temple here had a purpose other than being religious. It was a declaration of the Pharaoh’s power all sailing down the Nile into ancient Egypt.
Same Same, but Different
Today, the temple still stands in incredible condition but is actually located in a completely different location than where it was built in 1244 BCE. When Egypt had plans to construct a dam on the Nile back in 1960s the government, along with the rest of the world, carried out an intensive effort to save the ancient monuments that were along the southern section of the Nile that would be lost due to flooding caused by the dam. Abu Simbel was one of the 14 temples rescued from the rising waters of the Nile.
It was quite the archeological feat as workers moved the temple stone by stone, carefully putting it all back together on higher ground. They ensured everything was kept in its original state. Rather than repair the fallen half of one of Ramses’ statues, they kept it lying on the ground in the same position it had been in for hundreds of years. Artificial mountains were even constructed in order to mimic the rock the temple was once cut into. The project took over four years and forty million dollars to complete.
Today the temple sits prominently along the edges of Lake Nasser, the result of the Aswan Dam located 280 kilometers up north. The lake is beautiful with the blue water creating a stark contrast with the desert coastline that surrounds it.
The Great Temple of Ramses II
Built between 1274 and 1244 BCE, no other temple in Egypt makes a grander entrance than Ramses II’s temple along the banks of Lake Nasser. Clearly a power play, the four colossal statues of the Pharaoh himself have guarded the temple for thousands of years. All who ventured up into Egypt via the Nile would not be mistaken about who was in charge after coming across this temple. In case you didn’t take the hint of Ramses’ power with the four giant statues out front, the interior is filled with reminders of the Pharaoh’s glory as he unmercifully destroys his enemies in relief after relief.
Even a mighty temple such as this was eventually lost for a period of history. After the decline on Ancient Egypt, the temple was all but forgotten, the sands of the desert that surrounded the area consumed the temple, burying it from view. It wasn’t rediscovered by the modern world until 1817 by explorer Giovanni Belzoni.
The most impressive and photogenic site of the complex is the first thing you will see when entering. After making your way around the false mountain, the four colossal statues of Ramses stand tall, staring out over Lake Nasser. Each stands over 20 meters tall with the exception of one which broke in half over a thousand years ago. You will also notice smaller figures in the facade which are depictions of Queen Nefertari, Ramses II’s children, and his mother Queen Tuya. As was tradition in Egypt, they stand no taller than the Pharaoh’s knees. Above the doorway is a depiction of Ra-Horakhty, a version of the sun god. Along the sides of the main facade are lines of prisoners being brought back to Egypt as slaves.
The first room, The Great Hypostyle Hall, is lined with eight statues depicting Ramses II as Osiris, the God of the Dead. This is the most impressive room which has some fantastic reliefs which differ greatly from many of the other temples you see while in Egypt.
The room is mostly dedicated to commemorating the military prowess and success of the pharaoh. On the eastern walls next to the entrance, you can see Ramses holding those he conquered by their hair as he is ready to deal them the final blow. The other walls contain scenes of major battles that were led by Ramses, including the Battle of Kadesh, which is depicted on the northern wall. The battle took place in modern day Syria where Ramses II defeated the Hittites. In the scene you can make out the fortified city of the Hittites along with Ramses II riding his chariot as he shoots arrows at fleeing enemies. Looking up at the ceiling should remind you of the one you saw in Dendera, with its series of beautifully carved vultures representing the protective goddess Nekhbet.
The connecting rooms to the north and south have more typical reliefs of Ramses II offering various gifts to the many gods of Ancient Egypt. They are worth a quick exploration, but be sure to dedicate most of your time to the fantastic reliefs in the Hypostyle Hall.
Going deeper into the temple brings visitors to the Vestibule Hall, with its depictions of Ramses with his wife Nefertari making offerings to the Egyptian Gods. These scenes are all in preparation for the most sacred room of the temple, the inner sanctuary, where the statues of Ramses and Egyptian Gods were kept.
The temple was aligned in such a way that on the 21st of February and 21st of October, the first rays of light of the temple would shine directly on the statue of Ramses II. These days marked the Pharaohs coronation day and birthday respectively. After the temple was moved, this now occurs one day later each year. If you are visiting during these times, it is best to stay overnight in Abu Simbel and catch the phenomena for yourself at sunrise.
The Temple of Hathor
The much more humble looking temple of Hathor stands not too far from the mighty Ramses II temple. One of the unusual features of this temple is the fact that the statues of Nefertari on the outer facade stand at the same height as those of Ramses II. While no one knows for certain why Ramses made this exception, it was perhaps due to his intense love for his favorite wife. Need more proof? Check out the tomb he built for her in the Valley of Queens in Luxor. Also on the front of the facade are depictions of Ramses II’s and Nefertari’s children standing up to their parent’s knees.
Inside the Hypostyle Hall are six columns headed with carvings of the goddess Hathor. The walls that surround the columns are filled with reliefs of Ramses and Nefertarti offering gifts and receiving blessings from the Gods.
The other surrounding rooms have colorful depictions of Nefertari and of Hathor mostly in her cow form. The sanctuary contains a statue of Hathor as a cow but has not stood the test of time well.
Costs and How to Get There
It is possible to stay in the village of Abu Simbel but most people visit the temple as part of a day trip from Aswan. As we were running out of time on our already expired visas (Egypt has a 15 day grace period on their tourist visas), we decided to do the day trip option.
Most hotels can arrange the trip for you where a van will pick you up at around 4:30 am for the three hour ride through the desert to Abu Simbel. Breakfast on the go is usually included but be sure to bring your own additional snacks and water. Most tours give you two hours to explore the temple complex which is enough time to see everything. Expect to pay around 200EGP ($11.20) a person for transport. You will be back in Aswan by early afternoon.
Tour prices do not include entrance tickets to the site. A ticket into Abu Simbel costs 160EGP ($8.96) while a photography ticket will cost you an additional 160EGP. There is also a tax added on to each ticket of 60EGP ($3.36) making it an expensive temple to visit. Note that you can take all the photos you want from outside of the temples. You only need a photography ticket in order to snap away inside the temples.
Where to Stay and Eat
In Aswan we stayed at Yasseen Hotel which cost 120EGP ($6.60) for one of their basic air conditioned rooms. Rooms were in better condition than those at Oasis Hotel in Luxor and included a private bathroom. Wifi was spotty but you can’t really complain considering the price you pay.
Food options in town are not very promising but there are several good BBQ Chicken and fish restaurants that line the pedestrianized street Al-Suq. If you’re in the mood for some good Koshary, there is a wonderful joint not far from the northern entrance of Al-Suq called Koshary Alsafoa.
Abu Simbel: A Temple to the Power of Ramses II
Ramses II’s power is well documented from being a character in the Jewish exodus story to the many temples he left scattered throughout Egypt. Abu Simbel was an accumulation of this pharaoh’s power and no other temple in Egypt portrays the seat of the pharaoh better. This makes it well worth the effort to make your way down to the southern edges of Egypt to experience it for yourself.