The Temples at Abu Simbel

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The Temples at Abu Simbel


The great temples of the pharaoh Ramses II at Abu Simbel had been unknown to the West until 1813, when they were visited by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817). In 1817 Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823) began the process of digging away the sand that had hidden most of the site. Copies of its hieroglyphic inscriptions were used by Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) as he completed deciphering the Egyptian script a few years later. In the 1960s the temples at Abu Simbel were moved to prevent their submersion as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam.


The famous temples at Abu Simbel, in the southern Egyptian region of Nubia, were built by the pharaoh Ramses II in about 1260 B.C. to celebrate the thirtieth year of his reign. Building ornate tombs and temples to their own memory was always a priority for pharaohs, who were regarded as "god-kings." To the Egyptians, these statues represented extensions of their being. But Ramses II may have built more monuments to himself during his 67-year reign than any other ruler in antiquity. Abu Simbel was among his most ambitious undertakings. "His Majesty commanded the making of a mansion in Nubia by cutting in the mountain," reads an inscription. "Never was the like done before..."

A horde of artisans was required to carve these massive monuments in stone into the rose-colored sandstone cliffs beside the Nile. Its presence would help to remind the pharaoh's distant Nubian subjects of his might. The remoteness of the site also kept it out of the way of the priestly hierarchy, which might have taken issue with the degree of self-aggrandizement Ramses intended.

Abu Simbel was already holy ground, with shrines dedicated to the local gods Horus of Meha, and Hathor of Ibshek. When Ramses appropriated it, he took precautions against incurring the wrath of these deities by including images of them in his newer, larger monuments. While other Egyptian gods were honored in the temples as well, none loomed larger than Ramses himself.

The complex at Abu Simbel consisted of two temples. Their basic designs were similar to those built in the open. At the entrance to the Great Temple were four huge seated statues of Ramses. Each was 67 feet (20 m) high, and weighed 1,200 tons. The adjacent Small Temple was dedicated to his favorite consort, Nefertari, "for whose sake the very sun does shine." On its façade were six giant statues, four of the pharaoh and two of his queen, and smaller images of their children. Like most ancient Egyptian monuments, the statues were painted with red ochre and other pigments that wore off over the long centuries. Just inside the entrance to the larger temple, in the Great Hall, were eight 30-foot-high standing statues of Ramses, four on each side. The halls and chambers of the temples continued 160 feet (49 m) into the cliff.

The ancient Egyptians' knowledge of astronomy was evident in the construction of the Great Temple. It was oriented so that twice each year, in February and October, the rising sun would stream all the way into the innermost sanctum and wash over two of the statues seated there, one of Ramses and one of Amun, the god of the southern Egyptian capital of Thebes. The first October date may have been chosen 3,200 years ago to correspond with the temple's opening ceremonies. The other seated statues in the inner sanctum were those of the gods Ptah and Re-Harakhti. The walls were covered with inscriptions and bas-reliefs.

The priests probably continued to maintain the temples at Abu Simbel for a few hundred years after Ramses's death. Eventually, though, Egypt's hold on Nubia began to loosen. In the sixth century B.C., Greek mercenary soldiers scratched a paragraph of graffiti into Ramses's shin, among the oldest Greek inscriptions known. After this, Abu Simbel appeared to be forgotten. It was not mentioned along with the pyramids in the Seven Wonders of the World known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. For centuries the temples sat unvisited, slowly being covered by drifting sands.


In 1813, the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was traveling up the Nile in an attempt to reach the interior of Africa. He turned back just before the Third Cataract, in what is now Sudan. On his return journey he decided to stop and look for the "temple of Ebsambal," of which he had heard rumors. These stories referred to the Small Temple, most of which was still exposed. Inhabitants of nearby villages sometimes hid there when nomadic Bedouin raided their homes.

As Burckhardt was leaving the Small Temple, he stumbled upon a line of colossal buried statues. Only one was exposed to the extent that he could see its face. "A most expressive youthful countenance," he wrote in Travels in Nubia, "approaching nearer to the Grecian model of beauty than of any ancient Egyptian figure I have seen." He guessed that the statues guarded the entrance to another temple, cut into the rock cliff and hidden under the sand.

Four years later, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian adventurer sent to collect antiquities for the British Museum, spent three weeks digging away enough sand to proceed past the entrance of the Great Temple. "Our astonishment broke all bounds," he wrote in Voyages in Egypt and Nubia, "when we saw the magnificent works of art of all kinds, paintings, sculptures, colossal figures, etc., which surrounded us."

Belzoni could not read the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls, because the ancient Egyptian writing would not be deciphered for another few years. In fact, copies of inscriptions from Abu Simbel, sent to Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822, provided some of the clues that, along with the famous Rosetta Stone, helped him decode the script.

Inside the Great Temple, Belzoni made sketches of what he saw, but it was so hot that perspiration made the paper wet and drawing difficult. Perhaps as a result, a number of errors were made in his finished artwork. For example, he depicted all the Great Hall statues of Ramses wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, when in fact the row of statues on the south side wore only the single crown of Upper Egypt.

The English were in competition with the French in searching for great finds in Egypt, and Belzoni's triumph scored one for England. This rankled the French, and Belzoni received poison pen mail and death threats. A rival claimant even shot at him, but fortunately missed.

In 1819, another expedition cleared away enough sand to reveal that the statues on the façade were seated. The exposure of the four huge statues coincided with an increase in Western interest in Egypt, and tourists began coming to Abu Simbel.

The sands continually threatened to encroach and blanket the temples all over again. In 1892 diversion walls were built to hold them at bay. These walls were reinforced in 1910, and the temples were no longer in danger of being swallowed up by the desert. Ironically, it would be water that would next endanger them, more than half a century later.

In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built to control the floodwaters of the Nile. It was180 miles (290 km) downstream from Abu Simbel, and what was to become Lake Nasser began to accumulate behind it. In a major international project initiated by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the threatened temples were cut from the cliffs and moved in 950 huge blocks to a safer spot 212 feet (65 m) up and 690 feet (210 m) back from the shore. Today, their original site, along with much of the ancient land of Nubia on the banks of the Nile, is underwater.


Further Reading

Beaucour, Fernand, Yves Laissus, and Chantal Orgogozo. The Discovery of Egypt: Artists, Travellers and Scientists. Paris: Flammarion, 1990.

Brown, Dale M., et al. Ramses II: Magnificence on the Nile. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993.

MacQuitty, William. Abu Simbel. New York: Putnam, 1965.