“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 meant to serve a variety of 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, Nefertari, for whom he built the small 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.
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 you trip or not.