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Abu Simbel Temple


Page update - Sep 7, 2023

The statues of the Abu Simbel temple facade are one of the main symbols of ancient Egypt, just like the Egyptian pyramids or the mask of Tutankhamun in the Cairo Museum. Probably every reader at least once has seen a photo from Abu Simbel in the brochures of travel agencies, in glossy travel magazines or, at most, in school history books. See the photo below, click on the photo to enlarge.

Despite such popularity in magazines and on TV, the Abu Simbel site is visited by very few tourists. This is Egypt's southernmost landmark right on the border with neighboring Sudan. It is difficult to get there but well worth the trip.

It is not correct to say the phrase 'Abu Simbel Temple' as there is not one but two temples. The correct phrase is 'Abu Simbel Temples'. You can find many ancient religious buildings in Egypt, but the vast majority of them are structures made of stone blocks. The two temples at Abu Simbel are not like this, they are carved right into the rock.

The smaller temple is dedicated to Queen Nefertari, wife of Pharaoh Ramses II. This fact alone is extraordinary for Egypt as a temple is dedicated to a woman. Only a few such cases can be found in the history of Egypt. For example, the temple that Pharaoh Ehnaton dedicated to Queen Nefertiti.

The small temple facade is decorated with statues of Pharaoh Ramses II and Queen Nefertari, with the statues of the spouses being of the same height - unique in ancient Egypt. On all other monuments, the sculptures of queens are always no higher than the pharaoh's knee. Abu Simbel can be called the monument of love and the most romantic attraction in Egypt.

The love between Ramses II and Nefertari was probably insane. Ramses II not only dedicated a temple to her, but also built a magnificent tomb in the Valley of the Queens, which is generally recognized as the most beautiful of all the tombs of the rulers and their wives of the New Kingdom era. Nefertari's tomb can now be visited by every tourist and its index is QV66.

The name

Abu Simbel is the name of the village near where this temple complex was discovered. Naturally, the ancient Egyptians called it by another name: "The Temple of Ramses, the favorite of Amon".

How to get to Abu Simbel

It's not as easy compared with getting to Luxor or seeing the sights in Cairo. Abu Simbel is 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the nearest major city Aswan, 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) from Cairo. Usually, tour companies combine a tour to Aswan and Abu Simbel. Even from Aswan, the trip there and back takes almost an entire day.

Tourists are driven 300 km (186 mi) in buses as part of an organized guarded convoy. Egyptian deserts are dangerous places. The real Bedouins may loot passing cars and even kidnap people. You should not hope to get to Abu Simbel by taxi. You will have to buy a tour, and the only question is which one is the best?

The trip from Hurghada to Abu Simbel takes more than 10 hours, for this reason, one-day excursions are not arranged there.

From popular Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea, they organize two-day tours on the route Luxor - Aswan - Abu Simbel. These tours are very popular and can be purchased from many tour desks or hotel guides.

Another way to travel is by local jet, which can easily be taken in just one full day. The flight time from Hurghada or Sharm El Sheikh to Aswan is 5 hours (transfer via Cairo or Luxor). Theoretically, you can fly directly to Abu Simbel, as it has its own airport. But we have never seen such tours on sale. Look for it, maybe you will get lucky.

The best way to see Abu Simbel is on a Nile cruise, which starts with a tour of the pyramids at Giza, the Cairo Museum, the Cairo Citadel and the Mohammed Ali Mosque.

Tourists then take a riverboat cruise (pictured near, click to enlarge) to Luxor and see the Colossi of Memnon, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun's tomb. On the east bank at Luxor, they see the temples of Karnak and Luxor.

Afterwards travel up the Nile to Edfu, then Kom Ombo and the cruise ends with a tour of Aswan and Abu Simbel.

The cruise offers you the chance to see all the highlights in Egypt in one trip. Of the major tourist sites in Egypt, the only ones you will miss are Mount Moses and St Catherine's Monastery, as they are far from the Nile, on the Sinai Peninsula.

Ticket price

Information for those planning to travel on their own. The price of a ticket to the temples is 400 Egyptian pounds. For the current exchange rates of the pound, see the review "What is the money in Egypt";

The guided group tour from Aswan to Abu Simbel costs from 30 to 50 USD. The private tour costs from 40 to 120 USD.

Opening hours

From 6 AM to 5 PM (6-00 to 17-00).

It's important to know - who the temples of Abu Simbel are dedicated to

All the guides tell the following version: the Large Temple is dedicated to Pharaoh Ramses II and the Small Temple to Queen Nefertari. The version is mistaken, as it was not customary in ancient Egypt to dedicate a temple only to a ruler. Temples were dedicated to the pharaoh together with other gods.

The Large Temple is dedicated to: the gods Ptah, Amon, Ra-Horakhty (Horus) and Pharaoh Ramses II. The Small is to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari.

The second version is that the temple was constructed to commemorate the victory of the army of Ramses II at the battle of Kadesh. Such a hypothesis was not born by chance. Inside the Large Temple, there are several bas-reliefs telling about the battles of Ramses. Including the famous bas-relief of the battle of Kadesh.

This version is not at all probable. In ancient Egypt, temples were not dedicated to military victories. To commemorate military exploits, special steles, obelisks or bas-reliefs were created in temples.

A bit of history

Construction at Abu Simbel temples began in 1264 BC and lasted 20 years. Such a long period was not extraordinary for Pharaoh Ramses II. Let us remind you that he ruled for 64 years and went down in history as one of the most famous pharaohs.

A total of 6 such temples were built in the region (according to another version there were 7). They were to strengthen the position of Egypt and the Egyptian religion in Nubia. Unfortunately, the rest of the temples have not survived.

After the decline of the New Kingdom, Abu Simbel was abandoned. Fortunately, the buildings were carved into the rock, not built of blocks. Otherwise they would have been simply plundered for building materials as it happened with many ancient monuments in Egypt.

The temples were gradually covered with sand brought by the wind from the desert. By the time Europeans arrived, the structures were completely buried under a layer of sand.

In 1813, Jean-Louis Burkhardt of Switzerland discovered the facade of the Large Temple and told his friend Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian explorer, about his discovery. Then in 1813, they were unable to excavate the temple complex, not even finding the entrance.

Belzoni returned in 1817, dug up the temples and found the entrance. The first description of the Abu Simbel complex was made by the Englishman Edward William Lane in his book "Description of Egypt".

The relocation of the Abu Simbel temples

On December 27, 1958, Egypt and the USSR concluded a contract to build the Aswan Dam and hydroelectric power station. The project involved the formation of a huge lake behind the dam, later named 'Lake Nasser' after the Egyptian president.

According to the project, the Abu Simbel temples were to be sunken. And in 100-200 years, all the hieroglyphs on the walls would have been wiped out and the statues turned into remnants.

In 1959, the fundraising campaign to save the monument began. Several projects were proposed. There was even one very extravagant plan - to enclose Abu Simbel with a dam, creating a lake of clear water around the temples, as the clear water would not harm the statues and bas-reliefs. Had this plan by William McQueen been implemented, tourists would now be viewing the Abu Simbel temples through the glass of an underground tunnel.

But eventually a plan was adopted to move the complex to an artificial hill 65 meters (215 feet) higher and 200 meters (660 feet) further from the Nile River. In this location, the Abu Simbel temples were safe. From 1964 to 1968, the temples were sawed into pieces, transported to the new site and reassembled there.

It was a titanic effort by archaeologists and engineers from all over the world. The blocks weighed up to 30 tonnes and the project cost about USD 40 million, an astronomical sum at the time. Thanks to this unique archaeological operation, we can now see the temples of Abu Simbel with our own eyes.

What to see - the facade of the Large Temple

The main elements of the facade are four huge statues of Ramses II, about 20 meters (66 feet) high. On the head of the pharaoh is the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, which is called the 'Pschent'. The total width of the facade is 35 meters (115 feet).

There is another very interesting detail on the facade that most tourists just don't notice. There are 22 small statues of baboons praying to the sun at the very top. They are hard to see, you can try to make them out in the photo on the right, click on the photo to enlarge.

Now many readers will ask, "What do baboons have to do with anything? What's so special about them?"

These animals were respected in ancient Egypt. Baboons were seen as harbingers of dawn, dispelling darkness. One of the gods called Hapi was depicted with a baboon's head. This god was the guardian of Osiris' throne. The important thing is not to confuse him with another god, Hapi, patron of the Nile. These two gods have the same names.

One of the statues to the left of the entrance was badly damaged by the earthquake, its legs are still in place, but its upper body and head have collapsed. That torso and head are still lying by the entrance, you can look at them.

Next to the large statues of Ramses II, you can see small sculptures of his wives and children. According to tradition, their height is no higher than the knees of the pharaoh's statues. Shown there are: Queen Nefertari, Queen-Mother Mut-Tuya, the first two sons Amun-her-khepeshef and Ramses and six daughters: Bent-Anat, Baketmut, Nefertari, Meritamon, Nebettaoui and Isetnophret.

Of course, these are not all the children of Pharaoh Ramses II. Recall that he lived about 90 years, he had 6 lawful wives and more concubines. Scientists have not yet counted all his sons and daughters, but the number definitely exceeds 100. There would definitely not be enough space on the facade for all of them.

Just above the entrance is a statue of the god Ra-Harakti, the same falcon-headed god of Ghor, who was just "combined" with Ra, the main god of Heliopolis, during the New Kingdom era. To the right and left of the statue of Ra-Horakti, the bas-reliefs depict Pharaoh Ramses II praying to him.

Another interesting detail on the facade is the memorial stele telling of the marriage of Ramses II and Maathorneferure, the daughter of the king of the Hittite kingdom. This marriage was very important as it ended the war between Egypt and the Hittites. Recall that Ramses II concluded the first written international treaty in the history of our planet, and it was a treaty with the Hittites. This treaty can now be seen in the Istanbul Museum.

What to see - inside the Large Temple

It is forbidden to take photos inside the temples of Abu Simbel, although who has that ever stopped.

This is where the very famous bas-relief of Ramses II with a bow and a chariot at the Battle of Kadesh (pictured right, click to enlarge). It is a must-see, as it is one of Egypt's main attractions.

After entering, visitors enter a large hall 18 meters (59 feet) long and 16.7 meters (55 feet) wide. This hypostyle (meaning columned) hall contains eight large columns showing the connection between Ramses II and Osiris - the god of the afterlife. Many bas-reliefs can be seen on the walls of this hall, mainly with military themes.

Next is another hypostyle hall, but smaller in size. There are also beautiful bas-reliefs on the walls, showing the rituals of offerings to the gods. And beyond that is the sanctuary, where four statues depict Ramses II himself and the gods Ptah, Ra-Harapti and Amon-Ra.

Apart from these halls, there are many side rooms inside, each one interesting in its own way.

What to see - the facade of the Small Temple

The second (Small) Temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari.

To the left and right of the entrance to the Small Temple there are two groups of statues about 10 meters (33 feet) in height (pictured left, click to enlarge). These sculptures depict Ramses II and Nefertari, all statues of the same size - an unprecedented case. Usually statues of queens and children of a pharaoh do not exceed the height of the ruler's knee.

Similar small statues also exist on the facade, depicting the children of Ramses and Nefertari. They are princesses Meritamon, Hennutawi and princes Rahirwenemeth and Amen-her-Hepeshef.

Of course, compared to the Large Temple, the facade of the Small Temple looks modest. There are no baboons, but all the statues are intact.

What to see - inside the Small Temple

It is also forbidden to take photos there, although tourists are not stopped by this. You can find thousands of photos taken inside the temples of Abu Simbel on the internet.

In the first hall, you can see the columns depicting the goddess Hathor, they even got their name - Hathoric. In general, the layout of the rooms there is similar to that of the Large Temple, only all the rooms are smaller.

The bas-reliefs depict Ramses and Nefertari bringing gifts to the gods.

Compared to the Large Temple, where much is dedicated to the military victories of Ramses II, the Small Temple looks very peaceful. No wonder, as Hathor is the goddess of love, beauty and femininity. And at the same time she patronizes motherhood and fertility, song, dance and all the other joys of life. She is perhaps the most positive goddess in the pantheon of the ancient Egyptians.

Important tips

- Abu Simbel is very hot. Always remember to protect yourself from the sun: wear a hat at all times, cover your shoulders and preferably use sunscreen. For more information on protection, see our reviews "What not to do in Egypt" and "What to bring with you to Egypt";

- There is no public transportation in Abu Simbel. You can either get around on foot or by taxi. For official fares, see our in-depth review "Taxis in Egypt".

On that ringing note, we end our story about Abu Simbel. Read other interesting pages about Egypt on our website (find the pages list below).

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