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Abu Simbel, Amazing Nubian Monuments near Aswan, Egypt

I thought I'd seen the best of the best. What can top the Pyramids of Giza? The legendary Sphinx? Zoser's Step Pyramid? The pyramid texts inside Teti?

What single experience could approach the claustrophobic bliss of ascending the narrow passageways inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops and emerging into the vaulted Great Gallery, the enormous and empty King's Chamber?

facade of the Great Temple
The answer: Abu Simbel. Located in the extreme south of Egypt (50km [31m] north of the Sudanese border), Abu Simbel is the most spectacular ancient Egyptian monument that I've visited so far.

For the Love of Gods (Egotism Too)
Built around 1200 BC by Ramses II, the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is an enormous monument carved into the face of a mountain on the west bank of the Nile. Built in supposed honor of the gods Amun, Ptah, and Ra-Hurakhti, the temple is more a tribute to the pharaoh himself. Four colossal statues (22m [72ft] in height) of Ramses adorn the temple's façade, their serene, stoic faces greeting the rising sun each morning.

An earthquake in 27 BC cracked the head off one of the statues, and it lies in the sand in front of the monument. Towering over the shoulders of most visitors, this broken head provides a superb sense of the statues' scale.

giant Ramses pillars support the ceiling of the Great Temple
Pillared Halls, Storerooms, and a Sacred Sanctuary
Eight additional statues of Ramses form the giant pillars of the Great Hypostyle Hall, directly inside the main entrance. The walls in this hall are adorned with deeply-carved, larger-than-life bas-reliefs depicting a series of military victories. In one scene Ramses holds a great cluster of severed enemy heads.

The lighting in this room – and the whole temple – is superb: concealed bulbs on the floor throw soft, warm light up onto the bas-reliefs, accentuating their deep lines and fading colors.

superbly-lit storeroom
Six long, narrow, low-ceilinged storerooms stem off the Great Hypostyle Hall. The walls in these rooms are covered with smaller, gentler scenes depicting Ramses making sacrifices to the gods.

Occupying the innermost chamber of the temple are life-sized statues of Ramses and three gods – Amun, Ptah, and Ra-Hurakhti. Once encased in gold, the crumbled remains of these statues wait silently each year for February 22 and October 22 (Ramses' birthday and coronation day), when the sun's first rays penetrate the depths of the temple and illuminate all but Ptah, god of darkness.

Much Love for His Nubian Queen
Hathor Temple entrance
Next door to the Great Temple is the smaller but no less magnificent Hathor Temple, dedicated to Nefertari, Ramses' favorite wife. One of the few Egyptian temples dedicated to a woman, Hathor is also carved out of the solid rock face of a mountain. Six 10m (33ft) statues – four of Ramses and two of Nefertari – greet visitors at the temple's entrance.

The inner columns and walls of the temple feature beautifully cut and painted bas-reliefs of Nefertari standing before the gods, honoring her husband, and being attended to by servants. Not one to stay out of the limelight for long, Ramses also presides over military victories in a few scenes.

I Can Move, Move, Move Any Mountain
Aside from their beauty and grandeur, one of the most interesting things about the temples of Abu Simbel is that they're not supposed to be there in the first place.

To regulate the flow of the Nile, control flooding, increase the amount of cultivable land, and provide the country with tremendous amounts of hydroelectric power, Egypt (along with Soviet funding and designs) began construction of the monumental High Dam in 1960. This dam would create the biggest man-made lake in the world – Lake Nassir – and, in the process, rob Upper Egypt of many ancient monuments.

The dismantling and relocation of Abu Simbel was the crowning achievement of the multi-national, UNESCO-led effort to save Nubia's antiquities. Because they were hewn out of single pieces of stone, the temples had to be sawed into more than 3,000 10-40 ton blocks. The blocks were then moved away from the riverbank to higher ground where a specially-built artificial mountain had been constructed.

bas-relief of Ramses II making a sacrifice to the gods
In all, the operation took four years and $40 million to complete.

A sign at the entrance of the Great Temple commemorates the achievement. "Through this restoration of the past," it reads, "we have indeed helped to build the future of mankind."

One can only hope that the future of mankind can approach the beauty and complexity of this monument built on the banks of the Nile more than 3,200 years ago.

What do you think?

  • What's your favorite ancient site?
  • What structure/monument do you consider to be man's single greatest achievement?

Posted on June 01, 2003 03:06 PM


Comments (post your own below)

That moving story never ceases to amaze me. I mean, wow! What a job, and well done too.

Posted by: Caleb on June 2, 2003 12:44 AM

Love the Shamen reference!

Posted by: chuck on June 2, 2003 12:04 PM

I've never been to Egypt, but I have seen a lot of famous Egyptian antiquities in museums in London, Paris, and Berlin. Your report about the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was excellent. And your impressions of Abu Simbel were very interesting, but I don't think you mentioned how you got there. That would be nice to know. As for my favorite ancient site, I would like to recommend Malta, for its ancient temples and catacombs that are reputed to be among the oldest man-made structures in the world. It's a safe place to visit and the culture is fairly unique. Mike, you're doing a great job with this site. I enjoy following your progress.

Posted by: Roger on June 4, 2003 08:51 AM

I don't think I can pick my favorite ancient site. The pyramids and the Sphinx are just tremendous, but I loved the Greek temples and the Coliseum in Rome too. I haven't traveled in Asia but your site brings me that much closer. Thanks for sharing your travels with the rest of us.

Posted by: Nenita on June 4, 2003 12:16 PM

Favorite ancient site? Hmmm... there are so many, but it would be a tie between Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Pyramids at Giza. Whats your take on the food in Egypt? Happy travels! -L :)

Posted by: Lance on June 4, 2003 01:26 PM

People warned me about lackluster food here, but it's been pretty good so far. Some of my all-time favorites are staples here: falafel and babaganoush. And it's nice to have reliable chicken and beef after going all-veg for months in India/Nepal.

I'm on the Red Sea now, so it's calamari all the way...

Posted by: mike on June 5, 2003 11:53 AM

I have also been lucky enough to go to Giza and the Egyptian Museum (which reminds me of an old Univeristy's archaeology department with stacks of valuable treasures piled high on top of each other in some places!). I have yet to visit the sites out of Cairo/Giza - may do this next year....

However, Petra in Jordan has to top them all. Simply awe-inspiring, especially the donkey ride up to see the Treasury....

Some other notable Middle-East sites are Baalbeck and Beit Eddine in the Lebanon - the former often host classical music concerts ( which must also be amazing.

Posted by: Tim Collins on June 8, 2003 07:00 AM

Hey Pughie,

Love the new pics! So cool to see these magnificent objects through your camera. They are absolutely stunning. Hope all is well (seems so). btw, Cubs took 2 out of 3 from the Yankees!

Take care buddy,
Chad J.

Posted by: Chad on June 9, 2003 10:04 AM

haven't been here for awhile - still loving it :)

Posted by: andrea on June 11, 2003 12:17 PM

nice use of the shamen song. haven't heard it in quite a while (move any mountain)

Posted by: phil on June 16, 2003 12:32 AM

I was lucky enough to visit Abu Simbal in 2000, and I agree with Mike; Abu Simbal is just magnificent. It definitely was the most spectacular momument that I saw during my time in Egypt.

Posted by: Tariq on June 21, 2003 11:53 PM

* Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. Absolutely amazing though I haven't been to Tikal (which is supposed to be the best one) yet. Outside of La Ruta Maya, the only site I've been to was Stonehenge and found it pretty underwhelming.

*Not a politically correct answer, but the Panama Canal is again probably the best I've seen. Not only amazing for the feats of engineering, but also because the vaccine for yellow fever was discovered as a result of the project.

Posted by: Mary Taylor on June 26, 2003 03:17 PM

Stonework at Machu Picchu.

Posted by: Jim Hassett on July 2, 2003 09:55 AM

I was in Abu Simbel in 2000. I agree with your perception. Our entire office is enjoying following your travels. Thank you so very much for enlightening us! Take care and keep up the great work.

Posted by: gloria on July 7, 2003 01:21 PM

I'm going to Abu Simbel next week
and enjoyed the preview. My
favorite sites are Karnak Temples
in Luxor and Petra in Jordan.

Posted by: Tamarski on September 10, 2003 11:24 AM

Exceptional site. Very professional looking. Nice job.

I am taking my wife and our two grown sons to Egypt for the first time Dec. 2003 for our 25th wedding anniversary. I surprised my wife and she's ecstatic because she's always dreamed of going, but never thought she'd get the chance. I remember seeing the pictures of Egypt in my grade school books and daydreaming about some day actually going there. I'm just afraid that when confronted by the Sphinx for the first time I might start blubbering like an idiot. Oh well, I'm willing to take that chance.

We will be doing the grand tour with Cairo/Memphis/Saqqara, a 4-day Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor, Alexandria, and a side trip from Aswan to Abu Simbel. Maybe after we return I can give a more informed opinion, but I expect this to be the trip of a lifetime. We can't wait ....

Posted by: Kevin on September 26, 2003 11:47 AM

Comments closed.


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