Symbolising ancient Egypt’s cultural richness the Abu Simbel temple complex is a breathtaking statement of political and religious power. Originally carved into living rock, Abu Simbel is typical of Ramses II prodigiously ambitious passion for erecting colossal monuments to himself and to his reign.
Set on a cliff face at the Nile River’s second cataract in southern Egypt, the Abu Simbel temple complex comprises two temples. Constructed during Ramses II’s (c. 1279 – c. 1213 BCE) reign, we have two competing dates either 1264 to 1244 BCE or 1244 to 1224 BCE. The different dates are a result of different interpretations of Ramses II’s life by contemporary Egyptologists.
Table of Contents
Facts About Abu Simbel
- Breathtaking statement of Ramses II political and religious power
- Temple complex is typical of Ramses II prodigiously appetite for erecting colossal monuments to himself celebrating his reign
- Abu Simbel comprises two temples, one devoted to Ramses II and one to his beloved Great Wife, Nefertari
- The Small Temple is only the second time in ancient Egypt a temple was dedicated to a royal wife
- Both temples were painstakingly cut into sections from 1964 to 1968 by a United Nations-led effort to save them from being permanently submerged by the Aswan High Dam by relocating them to a plateau higher in the cliffs
- The ornate carvings, statues and artwork inside both temples’ interior are so delicate, cameras are not allowed
- Abu Simbel is decorated with numerous depictions of Ramses II’s self-proclaimed accomplishments, led by his famed victory at the Battle of Kadesh
- On the Small Temple’s facade stand smaller statues of Ramses II’s children. Unusually, his princesses are shown taller than their brothers due to the temple being dedicated to Nefertari, and all the women in Ramses II’s household.
A Political Statement Of Power
One of the paradoxes of the site is its location. While the site was constructed Abu Simbel was located in a hotly contested part of Nubia, a territory that depending on its political, economic and military enjoyed independence from ancient Egypt at times in its turbulent history. Today it sits comfortably within the borders of modern Egypt.
As ancient Egypt’s strength waxed and waned, its fortunes are reflected in its relations with Nubia. When strong kings were on the throne and unified the two kingdoms, Egyptian influence extended far into Nubia. Conversely, when Egypt was weak, its southern border halted at Aswan.
Rameses The Great, Warrior, Builder
Rameses II also know as “The Great,” was a warrior king who looked to stabilize and secure Egypt’s borders while expanding its territory into the Levant. During his reign, Egypt contested military and political supremacy with the Hittite empire. He led Egypt’s army into battle against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in modern-day Syria and also launched military campaigns into Nubia.
Rameses II recorded his many achievements in stone, lavishly inscribing the monuments of Abu Simbel with battle scenes illustrating his triumph at the Battle of Kadesh. One image incised into Abu Simbel’s great temple portrays the king firing arrows from his war chariot as he wins the battle for his Egyptian forces. It was a triumphant take on a battle most modern-day historians agree was a draw. Later, Rameses II concluded the worlds’ first recorded peace treaty with the Hittite Kingdom and cemented it by marrying a Hittite princess. This remarkable ending is recorded on a stele at Abu Simbel.
Through his magnificent construction projects and mastery of ensuring history was recorded through his inscriptions, Rameses II emerged as one of the most famous pharaohs of Egypt. Domestically, he used his monuments and numerous temple complexes to consolidate his hold on both temporal and religious power in Egypt. In countless temples, Rameses II is depicted in the image of the different gods for his worshippers. Two of his finest temples were built at Abu Simbel.
Eternal Monument To Rameses The Great
Having analysed the enormous repository of artwork, which has survived within the walls of Abu Simbel’s Great Temple, Egyptologists have concluded these magnificent structures were constructed to celebrate Rameses’ victory at Kadesh over the Hittite Kingdom in 1274BCE.
Some Egyptologists, have extrapolated this to give a potential dating of around 1264 BCE for the first phase of its construction, given the victory would have still been top of mind amongst Egyptians. However, Rameses II’s commitment to construct his monumental temple complex at that locality, on a contended border with Egypt’s conquered territory in Nubia, indicates to other archaeologists a later date of 1244 BCE given construction would have needed to begin following Rameses II Nubian campaigns. Hence in their view Abu Simbel was built to demonstrate Egypt’s wealth and power.
Whichever date proves to be correct, surviving records indicate construction of the complex required over twenty years to complete. Following their completion, The Great Temple was consecrated to the gods Ra-Horakty and Ptah, together with a deified Rameses II. The Small Temple was dedicated in honour of the Egyptian goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, Rameses’ Great Royal Wife.
Buried By The Vast Desert Sand
Eventually Abu Simbel was abandoned, and slipped from popular memory to be buried by millennia of shifting desert sand. It sat forgotten, until being found early in the 19th-century by a Swiss geographer and explorer Johann Burckhardt who achieved international fame by discovering Petra in modern-day Jordan.
The massive task of removing millennia of encroaching sand proved beyond Burckhardt’s limited resources. In contrast to today, the site was buried by the shifting desert sand, which engulfed the magnificent colossi that watch over its entrance up to their necks. At some unspecified later date, Burckhardt recounted his discovery to fellow explorer and friend Giovanni Belzoni. Together the two attempted to excavate the monument, though their efforts proved unsuccessful. Later, Battista returned in 1817 and succeeded in uncovering and then excavating Abu Simbel site. He is also reputed to have looted the temple complex of its remaining portable valuables.
According to a version of the story behind the discovery has Burckhardt sailing down the Nile in 1813 when he glimpsed the Great Temple’s uppermost features, which had been uncovered by shifting sand. A competing account of the rediscovery, recounts how a local Egyptian boy called Abu Simbel led Burckhardt to the buried temple complex.
The origins of the name Abu Simbel itself has been open to question. Initially it was thought Abu Simbel was an ancient Egyptian designation. However, this proved to be incorrect. Allegedly, Abu Simbel a local boy led Burckhardt to the site and Burckhardt subsequently named the site in his honour.
However, many historians believe the boy led Belzoni rather than Burckhardt to the site and it was Belzoni who subsequently named the site after the boy. The site’s original ancient Egyptian title has long been lost.
Abu Simbel’s Great And Small Temples
The Great Temple towers 30 metres (98 feet) high and 35 metres (115 feet) long. Four immense seated colossi flank the temple’s entrance, two on each side. The statues depict Rameses II seated on his throne. Each statue is 20 metres (65 feet) tall. Below these massive statues is a line of scaled-down yet still bigger than life-size statues. They portray Rameses’ conquered enemies, Hittites, Libyans and Nubians. Other statues depict members of Rameses’ family, protective divinities and Rameses’ official regalia.
Visitors pass between the magnificent colossi to access a main entrance, where they discover a temple interior decorated with engraved images depicting Rameses and his Great Wife Queen Nefertari honouring their gods. Rameses’ self-proclaimed triumph at Kadesh is also shown in detail sprawling across the Hypostyle Hall’s northern wall.
By contrast, The Small Temple standing nearby is 12 metres (40 feet) high and 28 metres (92 feet) long. More colossi figures decorate the temple’s front façade. Three are set on both sides of the doorway. Four 10 metre (32 feet) high statues depict Rameses while two of the statues portray Rameses Queen and Royal Great Wife Nefertari.
Such was Rameses affection and regard for his queen that Nefertari’s statues in The Small Temple at Abu Simbel are carved equal in size to those of Rameses. Typically a woman is depicted diminished in scale compared to the Pharaoh himself. This reinforced the prestige held by the queen. The walls of this temple are dedicated to images showing Rameses and Nefertari making offerings to their gods and to depictions of the cow goddess Hathor.
The Abu Simbel temples are also notable in that for only the second occurrence in the history of ancient Egypt, a ruler elected to consecrate a temple to his queen. Previously, the highly contentious King Akhenaton (1353-1336 BCE), had dedicated a magnificent temple to his queen Nefertiti.
A Sacred Site Devoted To The Goddess Hathor
The Abu Simbel site had been thought sacred to the worship of the goddess Hathor well before construction of the temples at that location. Egyptologists believe Rameses carefully selected the site for this reason. Both temples depict Rameses as divine taking his place amongst the gods. Hence, Rameses’ selection of an existing sacred setting reinforced this belief amongst his subjects.
As was the custom, the two temples were aligned facing the east, the direction of sunrise symbolising rebirth. Twice each year, on the 21st February and 21st October, sunlight illuminates The Great Temple’s inner sanctuary, illuminating statues celebrating divine Rameses and the god Amun. These precise two dates are believed to align with Rameses’ birthday and that of his coronation.
Aligning sacred complexes with sunrise or sunset or anticipating the sun’s position at the annual solstices was a standard practice in Egypt. However, The Great Temple’s sanctuary differs from other sites. The statue representing the Ptah of god of architects and craftsmen appears to have been carefully positioned so it is never lit up by the sun, despite it standing amongst the statues of the other gods. Given Ptah had associations with resurrection and Egypt’s underworld, it seems appropriate that his statue was shrouded in eternal gloom.
Relocating The Temple Complex
The Abu Simbel site is one of the Egypt’s most readily recognizable ancient archaeological sites. For 3,000 years, it has sat on the mighty Nile River’s west bank set between its first and second cataracts. During the 1960s Egypt’s Government decided to move forward with the construction of its Aswan High Dam project. When completed, the dam would have fully inundated the two temples together with the surrounding structures such as the Temple of Philae.
However, in a remarkable feat of international cooperation and monumental engineering, the entire temple complex was dismantled, relocated section by section and reassembled on higher ground. Between 1964 and 1968 a large multi-national team of archaeologists under the imprimatur of UNESCO carried out the work at a cost of over $40 million dollars. The two temples were disassembled and relocated 65 metres (213 feet) to a plateau above the original cliffs. There they were re-assembled 210 metres (690 feet) northwest of their former location.
Great deliberation went into ensuring both temples were oriented precisely the same way as previously and a faux mountain was assembled behind them to create an impression of temples carved into a natural cliff face.
All the smaller statues and stelae surrounding the original complex site were relocated and positioned in their matching locations on the temples new site. These stelae depicted Rameses vanquishing his enemies, together with numerous gods and goddesses. One stele portrayed the marriage of Rameses to his Hittite princess bride Naptera. These saved monuments also included the Stele of Asha-hebsed, a celebrated supervisor who oversaw the teams of workers who built the monumental temples. His stele also explains how Rameses elected to construct the Abu Simbel complex as an enduring testimony to his eternal fame and how he delegated this vast task to his foreman Asha-hebsed. Abu Simbel has become Egypt’s most popular ancient site with international tourists after Giza’s Great Pyramids.
Reflecting On The Past
This magnificent temple complex reminds us of the part public relations played in the reign of Rameses II in creating his legend in the minds of his subjects and how international cooperation can save ancient treasures for future geerations.
Header image courtesy: Than217 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons