“They came to a halt. The guide proceeded to instruct them on the subject of the temple built by the great Rameses. The four colossi of Rameses himself, one pair on each side of the entrance, hewn out of the living rock, looked down on the little straggling party of tourists.”Agatha Christie
Death On The Nile
Located just 25 miles north of Egypt’s Sudanese border and 178 miles south of Aswan, the temples located near the small village of Abu Simbel in this remote region of the country are some of the most well preserved and iconic temples in the entirety of the country.
The Temple of Ramesses-Meryamun
Perhaps second only to the great pyramids of Giza in its fame, the Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel is possibly one of the most recognizable monuments in all of the ancient Egyptian world.
Commissioned by Rameses II (who really just loved building temples in general… like so many temples…) in 1244 BC, the structure was quite literally carved out of the mountain and, while scholars still debate the main purpose of the temple’s location, most agree it was created to accomplish some combination of these various purposes:
- Commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh: I mean, this is basically all the dude ever wanted to talk about if we’re honest.
- Intimidate Egypt’s southern neighbors, the Nubians: If you want to make a good first impression, why not build a terrifyingly large and decadent temple right outside your neighbors front door?
- Honor Nefertari: Besides from going on and on about the Battle of Kadesh all the time, the only other thing Rameses II seems as obsessed with was his wife, specifically (because he had a lot of wives, and a full harem) his wife Nefertari, for whom he built a smaller temple next to his and dedicated to the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor.
- And to honor the gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun, Ptah, and well… himself: You might say that Rameses what not the most humble of guys….
The entrance to the temple is guarded by four colossal statues of Rameses that stand over 65 ft tall. At his feet are smaller statues of the pharaoh’s mother, Queen Tuya, his wife Nefertari, and some of his favorite children. (I guess parents do have favorites after all… “I thought dad loved me but I didn’t make the temple so now I don’t know….”) The statue located in the little niche above the doorway is Ra-Horakhty, the falcon-headed god of the sun.
While time, the elements, eager but ill-trained “archeologists” and tourists have all played their part in eroding and destroying parts of the temple, interestingly the damage to the broken seated statue of Rameses II located to the left of the temple entrance, occurred not in recent history, but was actually the result of a massive earthquake that struck Nubia less than seven years after the temple was completed. Attempts were made at the time to repair the temple, walls were shored up, pillars were rebuilt, but the head of Rameses was left lying were it fell, right where it still is today (sort of, more on that in a bit).
When the temple was originally built, it was aligned so that each 21st of February and 21st of October (Ramses birthday and coronation day) the rays of the rising sun would move across the hypostyle hall, through the vestibule and illuminate these statues of Ra-Horakhty (far right), Rameses II (center right), and Amun (center left). The fourth statue (that of the god Ptah on the far left) was supposed to remain in shadow.
The Temple Of Hathor
Located to the right of Ramses gigantic ego trip of a temple, is a much smaller more modest structure that he built to honor his wife Nefertari. Of course as you can see from the statues on the facade alone… it’s still basically another temple for him, with a nod here and there to Nefertari in the costume of the goddess Hathor.
Here’s What You Need To Know
The Entire Site Was Actually Moved Here Stone By Stone To Save It
Yep. When the plans were drawn up for the creation of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, Egypt quickly realized that one of its greatest historical monuments was about to end up at the bottom of lake Nasser if they didn’t act quickly. So with the help of UNESCO, they chopped up both temples into moveable pieces, built a new man made mountain on higher ground where the buildings would be safe from all the flooding, and reassembled it one piece at a time. You can watch the same video they play in the small museum on site about the process of moving the temples online HERE (its hella dated but still very informative).
One side of effect of moving the temple is that they weren’t able to position it quite right at the new site, and the phenomenon of lighting the interior statutes I described above, now takes place one day later on the 22nd of February and 22nd of October.
The temple was completely lost to time until around 1813
Buried under ions of sand and dust storms like many of Egypts monuments, the colossal temple at Abu Simbel had been all but lost completely to time until a Swiss explorer named Jean-Louis Burckhardt stumbled upon one of the giant heads popping up out of the sand in 1813. Imagine everyone’s surprise when they discovered the literal iceberg of a moment that was below their feet when enough sand was finally removed by 1817 to allow Giovanni Belzoni to enter the temple for the first time in centuries.
You’re Going To Want To Buy The Photo Pass
Up until late last year, no photos have ever been allowed inside the temple at Abu Simbel, however we were lucky enough to visit right after they began allowing visitors to purchase an additional photo pass (which when we visited was about an extra 300 LE fee). And while you might be able to sneak a quick pic without anyone noticing at some times, the temples at Abu Simbel are crawling with guards and if any of them see you pull out a camera or a cell phone they will ask to examine your photo pass. If you don’t have one they will force you to put your camera away. Also be aware that the pass only technically works for one person. So if you and your spouse are visiting together, you either each need a photo pass, or whoever is taking photos at the time needs to be holding onto the ticket. Note: Be aware that while the site is beautiful inside, it’s also very dark. So if you don’t have a camera that can handle low light situations, the photo pass may not be worth the investment as you are allowed to take photos outside the temples without one.
It will be very hot outside and inside the temples
We visited in early November (I can’t even imagine what this place is like in the summer time) and the weather at Abu Simbel was still up in the high 90s, it was sunny, there was no shade anywhere and the interiors of the temples were almost hotter than it was outside and had no moving air. (Seriously, though isn’t it supposed to be *cooler* underground!?) So make sure to BRING A HAT, bring water, wear cool breathable clothing and be prepared for the heat, because you will be warm. Visiting early in the morning will help.
There is a small cafe on site, but don’t expect to eat here
While there is a small cafe on site, it doesn’t serve much in the way of food, mainly just providing drinks and snack foods like chips and cookies. So be sure and come prepared with your own food.
Getting Here Can Be An Adventure
There is really no quick and easy way to get to Abu Simbel, and with it’s location at Egypt’s southern most border, it can be a bit out of the way for most tourists. You essentially have three options, travel there by renting a private car (which is approximately a 4hr ride each way), fly there (its just a short 30min flight), or lastly, you can take a Lake Nasser Cruise from Aswan (most of which last 3 or 4 nights and stop at a variety of sites you can’t otherwise access along the way).
Go as early as possible if you want to avoid the crowds
In the end, we personally opted to rent a private car with friends to make the journey down to Abu Simbel with a guide. We left from our hotel in Aswan around 7am and arrived at the site around 11am that morning. When we arrived there were already quite a few people on site, and by 12 the place was totally swarming with people. So if you have dreams of people free photos, and don’t like feeling like a sardine, plan on getting there as early as possible.
Guides are not allowed inside the temples
Unfortunately there are no guides allowed inside the temples at all. So most guides will talk to you in a group out front and then send you in to explore on your own. This is just something to be aware of when deciding if you want the extra expense of hiring a guide for your trip or not. It’s also makes it worth the extra effort to do some research on your own in advance and come prepared with some print outs or a guidebook that can give you a bit more insight into the various rooms and what you are looking at once you get inside.
You could probably do this one without a guide, if you can get there…
In general guides, are a necessary addition to most excursions in Egypt for a few reasons. The two biggest of which being the complete lack of any sort of reliable public transportation to most of the major sites around the country, and the complete lack of signage once you get to the sites to give you any information where to go, how to buy a ticket to get in, or what you are looking at once you finally make it in. (If you do happen to speak Arabic, some of these issues will be greatly eased, but even then many of them will still hold true)
That said, if you did a bit of research in advance, and if you can plan out a way to get to the site and back again on your own, I would say that Abu Simbel is totally doable without a guide. Most of the information provided by the guides can easily be looked up online in advance, and since they are unable to enter the temples with you, you are mostly on your own for the majority of your excursion anyway.