Abu Simbel Temple – Abu Simbel is one of the biggest tourist attractions for Egypt, besides the pyramids. It was also one of the biggest restoration projects of an ancient monument. The restoration drew participation from countries of the world and resulted in Unesco creating the World Heritage List.
Abu Simbel is the name of the most monumental rock temples in southern Egypt. In fact, the name Abu Simbel is said to be derived from the young tour guide who brought the early archaeologists to view the monuments. The temple was constructed in approximately 1284BC by Pharaoh Ramesses II as a monument to himself and to his queen Nefertari, purportedly to commemorate his victory against the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh. His choice of location for the temple, at the southern gateway into Egypt serves as a billboard to intimidate his Nubian neighbours and to advertise his might.
There are two temples at Abu Simbel: the Greater Temple and the Lesser Temple. The Greater Temple was dedicated to the ancient Egyptian gods Amun Ra, Ra Harakhti and Ptah, and the deified Ramesses himself. It consists of four colossal statues in seated position each towering 20 metres in height. They all depict Ramesses II. The statues were carved out of the rock where they were located. Standing no higher than the Pharaoh’s knees are members of the royal family, including Nefertari, queen mother Mut-Tuy, sons Amun-her-khepeshef and Ramesses, and daughters Bintanath, Baketmut, Nefertari, Meritamen, Nebettawy and Isetnofret.
Going through the doorway between the colossal statues, one enters the hypostyle hall. That is an elongated chamber about 18 metres long and 16.7 metres wide. It is supported by pillars that depict the deified Ramesses linked to the god Osiris. At the end of the hypostyle hall is a second pillared chamber. From here is a vestibule that leads to the sanctuary. Seated within the sanctuary are four seated figures, namely Ra Harakhti, the deified Ramesses, Amun Ra and Ptah.
The Greater Temple of Abu Simbel was constructed in such a way that every year, on 20 October and 20 February, the ray of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate three of the four seated figures; Ptah, the god of the underworld, remains permanently in darkness. When the temple was reconstructed on higher ground, the restorers attempted to re-create the phenomenon. However, despite the best of modern calculations, they erred in their calculations, resulting in the phenomenon occurring on the day after.
One hundred metres away from the Greater Temple is the Lesser Temple, dedicated to Ramesses II’s chief queen Nefertiti and the goddess Hathor. The facade which is also carved from the rocks show two groups of 10-metre tall colossi. Here, the king and queen are shown of equal size, something very unusual because traditionally the queen is never shown any taller than the pharoah’s knees. The Lesser Temple is a rare example where both king and queen are depicted in equal size, and also the only example of a temple dedicated to the king’s consort.
In 1959, the Abu Simbel temple faced a modern threat in the form of the planned construction of the Aswan High Dam, which threatened to inundate it. This mobilised the international community to start a campaign to save these Nubian monuments. With the participation of Unesco, a project was spearheaded to move the temple. The salvage operation began in 1964. The temple was dismantled block by block, and moved to a location 64m higher and 200m away from the rising water. It was through this project that the idea to safeguard the world heritage was mooted, and through this, the Unesco World Heritage Site listing was born.