The Abu Simbel temples are two remarkable structures in Upper Egypt near the Sudanese border. In a country full of remarkable archaeological sites Abu Simbel is head and shoulders above the others, simply because it has been moved !
The temples were originally carved out of a hillside in the 13th century BC as a monument to the Pharaoh Ramesses II and his queen Nefertari.
After centuries buried in the shifting sands of the Egyptian desert the temples were rediscovered in 1813 by the Swiss arachnologist Jean Louis Burckhardt. Later, explorer Giovanni Belzoni travelled to the site but was initially unable to excavate it. Returning in 1817, Belzoni managed to uncover the complex. Then in 1828 Edward William Lane’s book was published containing drawings of the temple.
As Egypt modernised it was decided to build a dam at Aswan to supply power to the growing nation, unfortunately one consequence of the creation of Lake Nasser behind the dam was the expected flooding of these two stunning temples.
Several proposals were made on how to save the temples, one proposal was accepted, then in 1964 a team was assembled and coordinated by UNESCO to enact the moving of the temples. Over a four year period (between 1964 and 1968) the temples were literally cut into blocks weighing around the 20 tonne marker and mover to their new site.
Then at this new site some 200 meters (about 650ft) from the river and about 65m (210ft) higher in elevation, the blocks were reassembled to recreate the temples in all of their glory.
Costing approximately USD$40 Million at the time (something in the order of USD$300 Million at 2017 rates) this was a huge investment in Egypt’s past and future.
As an added bonus the team built an airport nearby, so now it is possible to fly in from Cairo then take a transfer bus to the monument, the pilots flying this route sometimes manage to fly past the temple, so make sure you get a window seat. Seeing these temples from the air before seeing them on the ground only adds to the excitement of the visit.
Entering the temple gives the visitor a massive inferiority complex, the statues surrounding the entrance tower 20m (about 65ft) above the ground dwarfing the visitors, it makes you realise just how big an operation it must have been to move this entire hillside.
The four statues guarding the entrance each represent Pharaoh Ramesses II seated on his throne and wearing the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. The left hand statue was damaged in an earthquake and the fallen pieces were moved as well, being placed back in the same position.
A closer look at the outside reveals the scars of the cutting process but in no way detracts from the grandeur of the site.
Entering the temple is not a trip for the claustrophobic, the chambers get progressively smaller as you head deeper into the chamber network and the towering statues stand guard as you progress.
It has been suggested that the alignment of the temple was chosen specifically to allow the rays of the sun to pass through the temple to illuminate the scriptures on the far end wall on the chamber. The dates (22nd October and 22nd February) when the sun penetrated deep into the temple are supposed to have been the king’s birthday and coronation day, although there is no evidence to support this.
What most guidebooks don’t tell you is that it used to be possible to see the inside of the mountain ! this may seem a little weird but the Abu Simbel site was built as a shell, the mountain is actually hollow. This does make some sense if you think about it, why cut hundreds or thousands of blocks and then move them if they serve no purpose !
Under some circumstances it is possible to get behind the temple inside the mountain and see how the hillside was reconstructed. After seeing the ancient splendor of the temple, to then walk around and enter the modern marvel that allowed the site to be saved from the rising waters behind the Aswan only makes the mystique of this place greater,