Hewn out of a solid cliff in the 13th century BC, the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and the smaller Temple of Hathor are a breathtaking sight. Although dedicated to the patron deities of Egypt’s great cities — Amun of Thebes, Ptah of Memphis, and Ra-Harakhty of Heliopolis — the Great Temple was built to honor Ramses II. Its 108-ft (33m) high facade, with four colossal enthroned statues of Ramses II wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, was intended to impress and frighten, while the interior revealed the union of gods and king.
A NEW LOCATION
When the Aswan Dam proved too small to control the floodwaters of the Nile River, the Egyptian government built the High Dam and created Lake Nasser as a reservoir But the rising waters of the lake threatened to submerge Abu Simbel. Concern that the temples might be lost led UNESCO to back an international relief program, and in 1964 an ambitious four-year operation began, to move the two monuments to safety The temples, complete with their artifacts, were cut into 950 blocks and transferred to a higher site against the backdrop of an artificial mountain (relocated temples).
THE GREAT STATUES
Three of the four 65-ft (20m) high statues — the Ramses II Colossi — gaze southward to deter even the most determined of the pharaoh’s enemies. Their enormous size is thought to represent Ramses’ divinity as a supreme god. The gods and Ramses’ family feature prominently among the other statues. At the feet of the colossi stand figures of the pharaoh’s mother, his wife, Queen Nefertari, and the royal children. Above the entrance to the Great Temple is the falcon-headed statue of the Sun god Ra-Harakhty Hapi, the god of the Nile flood, who is associated with fertility, is featured holding lotus and papyrus, symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively.
WRITING ON THE WALL
Graphic wall paintings and reliefs found in the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Hathor glorify Ramses II as a divine ruler. They tell of his victories and show him fighting his enemies. In the Temple of Hathor, Nefertari’s consecration as divine queen is illustrated. Surrounding the paintings and reliefs are detailed rows of hieroglyphs. This pictorial script, thought to have developed around 3200 BC, is the world’s oldest known form of writing. The word “hieroglyph” means “sacred carved letter” and a complex system of 6,000 symbols was used by the ancient Egyptians to write their names and express their religious beliefs. Stories of the lives of Ramses and Nefertari have been engraved in this way on the wall s of Abu Simbel.
Great Temple Facade
Buried in sand for centuries, this facade was discovered in 1813 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
The second statue on the left lost its head in an earthquake in 27 BC.
Ramses II Colossi
Accompanied by carved images of captives from the north and south, the four colossi on the facade boast of a unified Egypt Ramses’ name adorns the thrones in cartouche form.
The facade is topped by a frieze of 22 baboons, their arms raised, supposedly worshiping the rising Sun.
Scenes showing Ramses and Nefertari making offerings to Amun and Ra-Harakhty adorn this area.
Relocated Temples at Abu Simbel
In the 1960s, as Lake Nasser threatened to engulf the temples, UNESCO cut them from the mountain and moved them to an artificial cliff 688ft (210m) back from and 213 ft (65 m) above their original position
Ramses II sits with the gods Ra-Harakhty, Amun-Ra, and Ptah in the Inner Sanctuary of the Great Temple, which is shrouded in darkness for most of the time. On two days of the year, however, the Sun’s rays reach three of these once gold-covered statues.
Battle of Qadesh
Reliefs inside the hypostyle hall show Ramses II defeating Egypt’s enemies, including, on the right-hand wall, the defeat of the Hittites in the Battle of Qadesh c. 1275 BC.
The roof of this hall is supported by pillars with colossi in Osiride form – carrying crook and flail. Those on the southern pillars wear the Upper Egypt crown, while the northern ones wear the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
These held offerings to the gods and ritual items.
TEMPLE OF HATHOR
Dedicated to the goddess Hathor, deity of love, pleasure, and beauty, the smaller temple at Abu Simbel was built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. The temple’s hypostyle hall has Hathor-headed pillars and is decorated with scenes or Ramses slaying Egypt’s enemies, with Nefertari looking on. The vestibule shows the royal couple making offerings to the gods.
DAYS OF LIGHT
In ancient Egypt, the Sun was considered to be the source of all life and the temple was positioned to allow a shaft of sunlight into the Inner Sanctuary twice a year – possibly at the time of Ramses’ birthday in February and his coronation day in October. The rays lit all but the statue of Ptah, god of darkness.
1257 BC: Ramses II carves out the Great Temple and Temple of Hathor.
1817: The Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni ventures inside the temples.
1822: Jean-Francois Champollion cracks the code to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
1968: The work to reposition Abu Simbel is completed.
1979: Abu Simbel is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.