Abu Simbel: The Great Temple of Ramesses II was Almost Lost

The Abu Simbel Temple is an enormous rock temple complex located on Egypt’s border with Sudan. The two temples of this complex were built in the 13th century BC during the reign of the powerful Ramesses II . While this temple complex is known today as the Abu Simbel Temple, it was referred to in the past as the “Temple of Ramesses, Beloved by Amun.” During the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam reservoir was built, which resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser . This threatened the existence of the Abu Simbel Temple, and it was completely relocated in 1968.

The entrance into the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, with four statues of Ramesses II. ( auimeesri /Adobe Stock)

The Creation of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel

The Abu Simbel Temple consists of two huge temples (the Great Temple and the Small Temple) that were carved into the mountainside. The temple complex was commissioned by Ramesses II, one of ancient Egypt’s most renowned pharaohs.

According to some scholars, work on the Abu Simbel Temple began around 1264 BC. This is based on the fact that the artwork decorating the interior of the Great Temple indicates that the monument was created to celebrate, to a certain extent, the victory of Ramesses II over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. Alternatively, the year 1244 BC has also been suggested as the year when the construction of the Abu Simbel Temple commenced. According to this hypothesis, the temple is located on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, and thus was built following the military campaigns carried out by the pharaoh against the Nubians.

In any event, it has been agreed that the construction of the Abu Simbel Temple took 20 years to complete. At the entrance of the Great Temple, four colossal seated statues of Ramesses II (measuring 20 meters or 65 ft. in height) gaze upon all who approach it. As for the Small Temple, which may have been built for Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II, its entrance is guarded by two statues of the queen, and four of the pharaoh, each measuring 10 meters (33 ft.) in height.

Nefertari’s temple at Abu Simbel. ( matiplanas /Adobe Stock)

Sun Shines into the Holy Inner Sanctum

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Abu Simbel Temple is the inner sanctum of the Great Temple. In this sacred space, four statues can be found – Ra, Amun, Ptah, and Ramesses himself. The temple was built in such a way that twice a year, the 21st of February and the 22nd of October in present times, the Sun’s rays would find their way directly into the inner sanctum and illuminate three of the statues .

The statue of Ptah was kept in darkness, a possible reason being that he was a deity associated with the Underworld. The two dates are traditionally thought to correspond with the birthday and coronation of the pharaoh, though there is no evidence to support this. In any case, these two dates are accepted to be related to some major events in the Ramesses II’s life.

Abu Simbel temple, four statues of divinities in the Inner Sanctum

Abu Simbel temple, four statues of divinities in the Inner Sanctum. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Lost in the Sands

The Abu Simbel Temple was eventually abandoned, and was buried under millennia of desert sand . This monument was forgotten, and was only rediscovered during the early part of the 19th century. The re-discovery was allegedly made by the Swiss traveler and geographer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (most famous for his discovery of Petra, Jordan).

According to one version of the story, in 1813 Burckhardt was traveling down the Nile when he saw the top of the Great Temple, which had not been covered by the sand. In another version of the tale, the Swiss scholar was led to the site by an Egyptian boy named Abu Simbel, and later named the site after him. Burckhardt himself was unable to uncover the temple. He mentioned the site to his friend, Giovanni Battista , and the two tried to excavate the monument, to no avail. In 1817, Battista returned, succeeded in uncovering the temple, and took everything that was valuable and portable out of the temple.

Top: picture of a print from David Roberts’ Egypt & Nubia, issued between 1845 and 1849, showing the Great Hall of Abu Simbel buried in sand. ( Public Domain ) Bottom: Picture of a print from the same source, showing the Great Hall of Abu Simbel buried in sand. ( Public Domain )

Saved from Destruction

During the 1960s, the Abu Simbel Temple was threatened by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. It was decided that the monument should be saved, and proposals on how this should be done were accepted. In the end, it was decided that the temple be dismantled, and then reassembled at a new location.

This undertaking, which began in 1964, was completed in 1968, after eight years of international effort involving 1000 workers. Ashley Cowie explains how the re-location began, “the two Abu Simbel temples “were cut into 1,035 blocks each weighing between 20 and 30 tonnes” and the four colossal statues of a seated Ramses II, and six more of him standing up, were sawn into pieces.” They were then hoisted to the top of the cliff, “64 meters (210 feet) from their original location” and “reassembled to reconstitute the two temples exactly as they were.” Finally, Cowie writes that “artificial hills were built around the site as a protective barrier against the river.”

The dismantling and reassembly of the Abu Simbel task was a massive feat of engineering

The dismantling and reassembly of the Abu Simbel task was a massive feat of engineering. ( Public Domain )

That is considered by many to be one of the greatest feats of archaeological engineering . The temple is today part of a UNESCO Heritage Site known as the ‘Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae,’ and is a popular tourist site. According to one source, the Abu Simbel Temple is the most visited site in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza .

The Great Temple of Rameses II in Abu Simbel from above, Egypt. ( rayints /Adobe Stock)

Top Image: Great Pillared Hall, Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel, Egypt. Source: chemistkane /Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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