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 ancient Egyptians built the two temples in the 13th Century BC under the reign of king Ramesses II (aka Ramses II). Many scholars believe that the temples commemorated the king’s 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. Four huge statues of Ramesses II flank the entrance to the main temple. 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. Amon Re was the king of the gods and creator of all things, and 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 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

Ramesses II devoted the smaller temple to his wife, Nefertari. It’s dedicated to the goddess Hathor, the sky goddess.

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. It seems rather self-serving of Ramesses to put so many figures of himself on a temple he supposedly built for his wife! However, the temple is significant for a few reasons.

Ancient Egyptian art and sculpture usually depicted wives on a smaller scale than their husbands. But 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 is only the second example of a temple dedicated to a pharoah’s 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

Eventually the ancient Egyptians abandoned the site, and the Egyptian sands blew in around it. Around 1813 a Swiss researcher named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered Abu Simbel. (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. 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 project also threatened the future of Abu Simbel. UNESCO, with support from the Egyptian government, stepped in to save the structure from destruction.

Between 1963 and 1968, an international team of 2000 engineers and craftsmen worked at the site.  The workers used bulldozers, pneumatic breakers, compressors and drills to dismantle the temples.

They cut the walls, roof and facade into blocks, using handsaws. (Power saws caused too much damage to the porous sandstone.) Some of the stone blocks weighed up to 30 tons! Then they disassembled the blocks and lifted them to their new location.

The workers then reassembled the blocks on higher ground 200 meters back from the river. At the time, the project cost around $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 definitely one of the most spectacular ancient sites in Egypt. But it’s particularly interesting if you’re into learning about engineering projects of such a large scale.

Getting There:

Address: Aswan Governorate, Egypt

Hours of Operation: Open daily from 9am to 5pm

(It gets incredibly hot here during the day, so I would highly recommend getting here as early as possible!)

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