The Amazing Rock-Cut Temples of Abu Simbel

Last Updated on: 11th February 2021, 09:39 am

During his 67-year reign, Ramesses II completed more construction projects than any other pharaoh in history. But the rock-cut Abu Simbel stands out from all the rest. One can’t help but feel tiny when standing in front of its massive facade, while the isolated location adds to its mystique.

It was certainly an ambitious project for the 13th century BC. But Abu Simbel’s story doesn’t end there. Though you wouldn’t guess it by visiting today, Abu Simbel’s current location isn’t the original.

It was first carved into the rock further down below, in the area now flooded by Lake Nasser. In the 1960s, an international team managed to cut up the temple and reassemble it on the plateau above – a remarkable engineering feat in its own right.

Abu Simbel is located near Egypt’s border with Sudan, around 240 km south of Aswan. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy and relatively cheap to get to. But given how crowded it gets at peak hours, timing is crucial. Learn more about logistics and planning your trip below.

Abu Simbel Great Temple
Lake Nasser as seen from Abu Simbel

The Great Temple of Ramesses II

Abu Simbel actually consists of two rock-cut temples. The Great Temple, known for its four seated colossi, was dedicated to Ramesses II. The nearby Small Temple, meanwhile, was carved for his favorite queen, Nefertari.

Shortly after getting your ticket and walking through the lane of souvenir stands, the magnificent facade of the Great Temple will soon come into view.

The Outer Facade

The outer facade of the Great Temple consists of four mammoth colossi, each 20 m high. Incredibly, they’re all even higher than the Colossi of Memnon! As evidenced by places like Memphis and Luxor Temple, Ramesses II was responsible for many of the largest and most refined colossal statues ever made.

Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple

But why did Ramesses II build such an imposing facade at this remote location? Abu Simbel was built near the border with the Nubian-ruled Kingdom of Kush. Kush was no stranger to Egyptian occupations, and rebellions against Egyptian control were frequent.

Perhaps Ramesses hoped that any would-be rebels coming from the south would have second thoughts upon passing Abu Simbel. Then again, the area may have been considered a holy spot. 

In fact, numerous Egyptian pharaohs had built temples much deeper within Nubia, a region revered as the birthplace of Amun.

Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple

Above the entrance, there’s a falcon depicting Re, the ancient solar deity. And the very top of the facade features additional solar symbolism in the form of baboons – an apt symbol given their tendency to howl at sunrise. 

Ramesses II’s daughters and queens are also represented by the pharaohs’ feet. Next to the colossal pharaoh, they appear like miniature figurines. But amazingly, they’re still larger than life-size!

Abu Simbel Great Temple

While Ramesses II had four colossi carved, only three remain intact. The second statue likely collapsed in an earthquake not long after it was built. In front of it you can see the remains of the gigantic head and crown.

The archaeologists who moved and restored the temple in 1968 decided to reassemble it just as they’d found it. And overall, they really did an excellent job with Abu Simbel. You have to look closely to notice the faint white lines indicating where the blocks were cut.

But why was such a difficult and risky endeavor even necessary? It all has to do with the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.

Saving Abu Simbel

The Aswan High Dam was implemented by Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser in an effort to increase agricultural productivity and generate hydropower. 

The dam would also put an end to the annual flooding of the Nile which the ancient Egyptians had relied on for thousands of years.

And the dam also resulted in the creation of a new large reservoir called Lake Nasser. The massive body of water now stretches from the city of Aswan down to the border with Sudan.

But this area was rich in archaeological heritage, and the reservoir was bound to completely flood numerous temples. And so UNESCO put together an international coalition to save Abu Simbel, Philae Temple and several others.

Abu Simbel had to be meticulously cut into thousands of different blocks, each of which was labeled and transported to the plateau some 200 ft above the original site.

Workers then created an artificial dome with concrete, covering it with sand and rocks to resemble a natural boulder.

This 1972 documentary on the project is well worth watching to get a sense of the planning and care that went into saving one of Egypt’s most spectacular temples.

Imprisoned Nubians outside the temple

Inside the Great Temple

The interior of the temple was originally carved deep into the boulder. But during the reconstruction, the art was dismantled piece by piece. It was then later reassembled within the artificial dome.

Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple

The main room of the Great Temple is its Hypostyle Hall. The hall consists of eight standing statues of the king as Osiris, the lord of the underworld with whom pharaohs identified in death. The wall reliefs around the room, meanwhile, depict various battles.

Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple

Among them is the Battle of Kadesh, which took place in Syria during Ramesses II’s confrontation against the Hittites. According to the legend, Ramesses was betrayed and left alone on the battlefield. But after summoning Amun, he managed to slay scores of enemy troops by his lonesome!

Traveling throughout Egypt, you’ll encounter portrayals of the Battle of Kadesh again and again. Other prominent examples include Luxor Temple, Karnak and the Ramesseum. While likely at least partly historically accurate, the scene was mostly symbolic in nature.

Elsewhere around the hall, we see the king fighting against Libyans, Syrians and Nubians. Thus, all the scenes together represent the pharaoh subduing the forces of darkness in all four directions.

Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple
Abu Simbel Great Temple

Branching off from the Hypostyle Hall, meanwhile, are several chambers. There are four hallways on the right side of the temple and two on the left.

These rooms likely served as treasuries, and they’re entirely adorned in carved reliefs. The reliefs in this section are almost entirely ceremonial, showing Ramesses presenting offerings to a variety of gods from the Egyptian pantheon. 

In comparison with the immaculate precision of the rock-cut sculptures outside, the rough artwork here appears crude and almost childlike. While Ramesses II never gave wall reliefs as much attention as his father, the appearance of Abu Simbel’s carvings likely had to do with the poor quality of the natural rock.

One of the most remarkable things about Abu Simbel’s Great Temple was its orientation. Twice a year, the rising sun would shine directly through the hall and right onto the statues at the back.

The phenomenon occurred on February 22, the date of Ramesses II’s coronation, and on October 22, his birthday!

The team of archaeologists who moved the temple took special care to maintain this orientation, and the statues still receive the light of the sun on the same two days. 

The four statues are Ptah, Amun, Re-Horakhty and Ramesses II himself. Fortunately, in normal times, the statues are artificially lit up so that you can see them regardless of when you visit.

Abu Simbel Great Temple

Major annual festivals still take place on February 22 and October 22 for those who want to witness the unique phenomenon. But to make it in time, you’d have to get to Abu Simbel the night before. And expect no less than 5,000 people to be there with you!

While I happened to be traveling in Egypt during the event, I intentionally avoided it. Being surrounded by thousands of people holding up their phones is hardly a scenario Ramesses II could’ve ever imagined.

The Temple of Nefertari

Nearby the Great Temple, Ramesses II had another temple carved for his favorite queen, Nefertari. In this temple, Nefertari is identified with the Cosmic Mother, Hathor, one of Egypt’s most important female deities.

In ancient Egypt, it was quite rare for queens to have entire elaborate temples dedicated to them. But Nefertari, the beloved queen of one of the most dominant ever pharaohs, was a special case. She’s also the owner of one of Egypt’s most beautiful tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Queens.

Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari

The facade here is highly impressive, though, as the name suggests, is considerably smaller than the entrance of the Great Temple. This one is roughly 12 meters high. 

In total, it features six colossal figures. Again, there are four depictions of the king, but this time in a striding position. Nefertari, meanwhile, appears twice. Looking closely, you can also see the royal children standing alongside their parents’ feet.

Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari

Elsewhere outside are various rock-cut stela that had to be moved from below with the rest of the facade. They were inscribed by one of the king’s chief scribes who was likely in charge of Abu Simbel’s construction.

Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari
Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari

The temple’s inner layout roughly resembles the interior of the Great Temple. But instead of Osiris statues, we see columns with Hathor capitals. 

Notably, Hathor was the only Egyptian deity with her own capital, the possible reasoning behind which you can read more about here.

Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari
Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari
Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari

Again, the reliefs inside are largely ceremonial. Around the main hall, we see the queen presenting the gods with various offerings. And there are also a couple images of the king smiting his enemies for good measure!

Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari
Abu Simbel Temple of Nefertari

Visiting the temples of Abu Simbel today, one can’t help but imagine the sense of amazement visitors would’ve felt cruising past here 3,000 years ago. And the isolated location would’ve only added to its power. 

While the presence of large crowds and souvenir stands partly diminish Abu Simbel’s mystique, this one-of-a-kind temple remains a must-visit. All in all, it’s absolutely worth the long day trip from Aswan.

As mentioned, Abu Simbel tends to get quite crowded in the morning. But getting the temple complex mostly to yourself isn’t too difficult with the right planning. Learn more below.

Abu Simbel Aswan
Abu Simbel Crowds
Abu Simbel Aswan
The Great Temple at 1pm

Additional Info

GETTING THERE: When planning a visit to Abu Simbel, you want to try to be there at a time when there are no crowds. Most tour buses and Nile River cruise groups get there in the early morning and the crowds don’t start dying down until around noon.

It wasn’t until around 13:00 that I could finally get the shots of the temple facades with no people in them.

While there are a few different ways to get to Abu Simbel, I’d recommend the public bus. While this isn’t the way I got there (more below), from my understanding they depart at around 7:00 and leave from Aswan’s main bus terminal.

Be sure to confirm the details with your hotel. Unfortunately, however, some hotels falsely tell their guests that no such bus exists. (That’s another reason why I recommend David Hostel, as David gives his guests the full rundown on transport in the region.)

The bus is cheap, costing around 60 or 70 EGP. But the main reason to take it is the timing. It takes 4 or 4.5 hours to reach Abu Simbel from Aswan. So with a 7:00 departure, you’ll get there just around the time when the crowds start to wind down. And you’ll still have plenty of time to make it back to Aswan in the afternoon.

Most hotels arrange group tour buses that depart sometime around 4:00 in the morning. Apparently, this is the default departure time because it allows people enough time to make their onward flights or trains from Aswan later in the day.

But leaving at 4 am means you’re stuck with the large crowds during your entire visit, while you’ll also have to return the same way you came.

Some people from my hostel and I tried another option. We boarded a private bus scheduled for a 2 am departure. This bus takes passengers all the way into Sudan, but since Abu Simbel is on the way, we got dropped off there.

The plan was to arrive at 6:00 or so, giving us some time alone at sunrise before any of the crowds arrived. While this sounded like a good idea in theory, the bus didn’t actually pick us up until 3:30. The ride also took longer than it was supposed to, and we didn’t end up getting to Abu Simbel until around 8:00.

That means we arrived just as all the tour groups were arriving, and we had to wait around for hours to experience the temple without the crowds. The plus side was that we were free to take a public bus back at any time we liked.

Given the delayed departure, the private bus idea ended up being pointless. It also cost 200 EGP, so we could’ve saved time and a bit of money by just taking the public bus around 7am. But it wasn’t a big deal, as Abu Simbel was all any of us had planned for that day.

Note that Abu Simbel also has an airport. You can fly there from Aswan or even directly from Cairo or other Egyptian cities. But from what I checked, one-way flights to or from Abu Simbel seemed to go for around $100.

GETTING BACK TO ASWAN BY PUBLIC BUS: To get back to Aswan by public bus, you’ll first need to walk 15 or 20 minutes to a place called Gata Cafe. Walking west and making a right at the bridge, you should find it alongside the main Ramsis Rd. If you’re unsure, ask a local where the public buses depart.

Once at the cafe, the manager should be able to make sure you get a spot. There’s generally no scheduled departure time, but the bus (which is more like a minivan) departs upon filling up. The ride only costs 60 EGP.

When researching accommodation online, I was surprised to discover that hotels in Aswan are considerably more expensive than in other Egyptian cities.

While I cam across some reasonably priced and centrally located hotels, many of them seemed to have poor reviews. I went ahead and booked a midrange hotel on Elephantine Island, but the hosts never responded to any of my questions, leading me to cancel.

Eventually, I decided on a place called David Hostel located in the south of the city. While I’m not much of a hostel person, this turned out to be a good choice. Not only did I meet some nice people, but David the owner was incredibly helpful in regards to advice on sightseeing and transport. He was upfront and honest about all the different options and helps his guests get the local prices when possible.

While I thought it would be a bit out of the way, I found the location to be completely reasonable. It was close to places like Seheil Island, and most of the locations in central Aswan were still walkable. There were also plenty of decent and affordable restaurants nearby.

For those with more money to spend, there are lots more luxurious options around Aswan. The most famous of them is the Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie famously stayed when she wrote Death on the Nile.

Aswan isn’t that big. Aside from staying in the city center around the train station, Elephantine Island would be a good choice as well. It features plenty of hotels and guest houses while it’s just an easy ferry ride to the city center. It’s also home to a luxury resort called Movenpick.

Aswan can be accessed by plane, rail or car.

I got there from Luxor with a private driver. On the way I stopped at four locations (Esna, El Kab, Edfu and Kom Ombo). After Aswan I needed to return to Cairo, so I just hopped on an early morning train.

Strangely, when it comes to train travel in Egypt, it’s often impossible for a foreigner to buy the cheapest tickets in person at the station. However, it’s still perfectly legal for foreigners to ride any train. The trick is to just buy them online from the official Egyptian National Railways site and print them out before departure.

Here is an excellent resource for all train timetables in Egypt. It’s worth going for the nicest AC1 trains, which are still quite cheap. Snacks and coffee are sold onboard. But expect the entire cabin to reek of smoke, as people constantly use the space in between the train carriages as a smoking lounge.

If you’re not able to book online for some reason, here’s another solution: simply show up at the station, hop on the train and sit down. When the ticket inspector comes by, pay him. Strangely, while you can’t buy tickets from the ticket booth, this method is completely acceptable.

It’s from only recently that photography with a regular camera is allowed inside the Abu Simbel temples (it was always fine outside). But you’ll need to buy a photo pass that comes at the standard Egyptian price of 300 EGP.

If you’ve been traveling in Egypt for awhile, you’ll know that you can often get around these overpriced passes by slipping the guard some baksheesh. But given how crowded Abu Simbel is, it’s not easy to do so discreetly. Furthermore, there are two temples with different guards, meaning you’d have to pay twice.

I wasn’t happy about the fee but decided to just pay for the photo pass anyway. This turned out to be the right choice The guards were quick to ask me for it (multiple times) as soon as I took out my camera. And some other people I was with who chose not to get the pass were quicky caught.

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