The Engineering Marvel of Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel is the site of two ancient temples located in Aswan, Egypt. At least, this is where they’re located now. But how they got here was no easy feat.

First, a bit of history:

The two temples were constructed in the 13th Century BC under the reign of king Ramesses II (aka Ramses II). Many scholars believe that they were built to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh; a battle against the Hittite Empire in 1274 BC.

The two temples were originally carved out of a sandstone cliff on the west bank of the Nile River. The main temple is characterized  four larger-than-life statues of Ramesses II himself. This is the entrance to the Great Temple:

abu simbel

The figures are approximately 22 meters high! (Modesty was not a strong suit of the Egyptian pharaohs).

ramesses II at abu simbel

The temple was dedicated to three gods: Amon Re, Re Horakhte and Ptah. Amon Re and Re Horakhte were both sun gods. While Amon Re was considered to be the king of the gods and creator of all things, Re Horakhte was associated with the rising and setting sun. The third god, Ptah, was the god of craftsmen as well as the Underworld and rebirth.

additional figures at abu simbel

Two days out of the year, around February 22 and October 22, (dates vary with the reference, some say it’s on the 21st) the morning sun shines through the entrance of the temple into the inner sanctuary. February 22 was celebrated as Ramesses II’s birthday, while October 22 was celebrated as the date of his coronation. Every year, thousands of tourists still come out to watch the sun pierce the inner sanctuary. The sunlight illuminates the seated figures of Ramesses II, Amon Re and Re Horakhte inside. By design, the figure inside of Ptah remains in darkness all year round.

Here is another photo of the statues on the Great Temple for the sake of scale. You can also see smaller figures carved around the large statues. These represented Ramesses II’s children, his favourite wife, Nefertari, and his mother, Queen Ti:

abu simbel ramesses II

The smaller temple was devoted to Ramesses II’s wife Nefertari. It’s dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Hathor wore many hats, as it were. But she was primarily considered to be the sky goddess, and was associated with the Milky Way.

The statues on the Small Temple stand about 10 meters high. That sounds practically diminutive by comparison!

abu simbel small temple

There are six figures on the front of the Small Temple – four representing Ramesses II and two representing Nefertari. While it would seem that Ramesses was being pretty arrogant to put so many figures of himself on a temple he supposedly had built for his wife, the temple is significant for a few reasons. Most often at this time in history, wives were depicted at a smaller scale than their husbands. At Abu Simbel, Nefertari’s statues are on the same scale as Ramesses, thereby indicating her importance and status.

abu simbel nefertari temple

Also, the Small Temple appears to be only the second example of a temple that a pharaoh dedicated to his wife. (Akhenaton previously dedicated a temple to his wife, Nefertiti during his reign in the 14th Century BC).

abu simbel nefertari flanked by Ramesses II figures

The site was eventually lost and forgotten under the Egyptian sands. Around 1813 they were rediscovered by a Swiss researcher named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. (Incidentally, he had also rediscovered the site of Petra in Jordan!) Burckhardt had no luck in uncovering the temple entrance, though. But he did tell his friend, Giovanni Belzoni about his discovery. Belzoni later went to the site in 1817 and excavated the temples.

abu simbel from the side

As time passed, Egypt’s population grew. Eventually the need for electricity prompted the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The project, while deemed necessary, was controversial. The dam created Lake Nasser, and the subsequent rise in the waters flooded several archaeological sites, as well as displaced thousands of people.

Lake Nasser

Lake Nasser, the man-made lake created by the High Aswan Dam project

The site of Abu Simbel was also threatened. UNESCO, with support from the Egyptian government, was instrumental in what happened next.

Between 1963 and 1968, an international team of 2000 engineers and craftsmen were brought into the site. (The Egyptian god Ptah would have been pleased by their presence!) Bulldozers, pneumatic breakers, compressors and drills were used to dismantle the temples. The walls, roof and facade were cut into blocks using handsaws. (Power saws caused too much damage to the porous sandstone.) Some of the stone blocks weighed up to 30 tons. The blocks were then disassembled, lifted to their new location and reassembled on higher ground 200 meters back from the river. The cost at the time was estimated to have been about $40 million! UNESCO referred to the project as “the most daring engineering project of modern times.”

If you look closely, you can see the lines in between the blocks:

Ramessess II abu simbel

Abu Simbel is a spectacular site, and one that’s particularly interesting if you’re into engineering projects of such a large scale.


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