African desert, desolate landscapes stretching for miles with the relentless sun shining down, unburdened by any plant or structure that could provide shade. What could possibly entice you to travel across this land? What would the destination need to hold in order to make it worth your while?
If you’ve never heard of the famous temples in Nubian lands that sit just North of the Sudan-Egypt border, then read on!
The Abu Simbel temple complex is a true modern marvel, considering they were constructed by ancient Egyptians around 1264 BC. By 1968 the entirety of the temples were elevated 65 meters above the original position, and 200 meters back to avoid further damage from the rising Nile river.
Block by block, the temples were meticulously cut into pieces as large as 30 tons and relocated by crane to a safer, higher position. It is amazing to see how humans can carve such grand structures into solid stone, and then thousands of years later different humans can carefully carve them up in order to preserve them!
This post is part of the Egypt Series. Other posts in this series:
- How to fly from NYC to Cairo in business for $12
- Cairo diaries: 3 day Cairo itinerary
- Unforgettable Nile river cruise
- Incredible temples of Abu Simbel – This post
We started our trip to Abu Simbel at the leisurely hour of 8:30am from Aswan. This is an easy 3-hour ride across the desert on a smooth, high-speed road. We lucked out because our return flight to Cairo was in the evening. The rest of our tour group had early afternoon flights and therefore had to depart in the regular 20 passenger mini-bus at 4:30am.
The tour group procession from Aswan to Abu Simbel used to be conducted with armored vehicles at the front and rear of the convoy. We were informed that the region has been perfectly secure for the last 2 years or so, making the armed convoy protecting precious foreign cargo unnecessary. We enjoyed the luxury of an air-conditioned sedan for our transit, able to snooze in the large back seat while admiring the occasional mirage on the desert horizon.
An easy 5-minute walk from the parking area to the temple gave us a grand view of Lake Nasser. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960’s the Nile River flooded to create the scenic reservoir, but also destroyed the original site of Abu Simbel and prompted the relocation!
King Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel
When you round the final corner and the temples come into view, you immediately begin questioning the size, the weight of each block, and what maniac even devised the scope of such a project.
The best part about our late arrival was avoiding the hordes of other tourists. We counted only 2 buses in the parking lot at 11:30am. During our lengthy 2-hour visit we estimated only 80-100 other visitors. We actually had the entirety of the Great Temple to ourselves for 15 minutes. Solitude in a massive structure like this, the absolute silence was just stunning.
When viewing the 4 colossal statues of Rameses II be sure to walk all around the front and take them in from various angles to absorb the massive 60+ foot height.
People gather at Abu Simbel on October 22 and February 22 each year as the rays of the sun penetrate the sanctuary at sunrise and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall (except for the statue of Ptah, a god connected with the Underworld who always remained in the dark).
The cavernous interior of the temples is a true delight. The soaring walls have every inch covered in detailed carvings. Many areas still have vivid paint colors still visible that really bring the images to life.
If a self-proclaimed glorious leader is going to document his achievements and ego for future generations to see, I find it much more palatable in hieroglyph form versus twitter.
Queen Nefertari’s temple at Abu Simbel
100 yards to the right of Ramses II’s great temple is the sanctuary dedicated to his favorite consort, queen Nefertari. This is one of very few instances in Egyptian art where the statues of the king and his consort have equal size. Traditionally, the statues of the queens stood next to those of the pharaoh but were never taller than his knees.
Considering the average high temps exceed 90°F from April – October, it would be best to visit Abu Simbel during the cooler months. There is zero shade around the entire complex, save for inside the sanctuaries themselves.
Fear not, as you will exit through the gift shop bazaar on the way to your transport. Many polite and persistent shop owners will be happy to offer cold beverages or headscarves to prevent further sunburn.
A relaxing drive back with a stop for lunch to Aswan for a flight to Cairo allows for some reflection on the historical and engineering marvel you’ve just seen. This is one destination where photographs truly cannot convey the grandeur and power of the subject.