Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples in Abu Simbel, a small village in Nubia, southern Egypt, near the border with Sudan. The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Nubian Monuments,” which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae.
The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his alleged victory at the Battle of Kadesh.
The temple was forgotten until 1813, when Swiss orientalist Jean-Louis Burckhardt found the top frieze of the main temple. Burckhardt talked about his discovery with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who travelled to the site, but was unable to dig out an entry to the temple.
Belzoni returned in 1817, this time succeeding in his attempt to enter the complex. The inner part of the temple has the same triangular layout that most ancient Egyptian temples follow, with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary.
The temple is complex in structure and quite unusual because of its many side chambers. The hypostyle hall (sometimes also called a pronaos) is 18 meters long and 16.7 meters wide and is supported by eight huge Osirid pillars depicting the deified Ramses linked to the god Osiris, the god of the Underworld, to indicate the everlasting nature of the pharaoh.
In the mid-20th century, when the reservoir that was created by the construction of the nearby Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge Abu Simbel, UNESCO and the Egyptian government sponsored a project to save the site.
An informational and fund-raising campaign was initiated by UNESCO in 1959. Between 1963 and 1968 a workforce and an international team of engineers and scientists, supported by funds from more than 50 countries, dug away the top of the cliff and completely disassembled both temples, reconstructing them on high ground more than 200 feet (60 metres) above their previous site.
The Great Temple stands 98 feet (30 metres) high and 115 feet (35 metres) long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramesses II on his throne; each one 65 feet (20 metres) tall.
Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life-sized) depicting Ramesses’ conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members and various protecting gods and symbols of power.
The temples are also aligned with the east so that, twice a year, on the 21st of February and the 21st of October, the sun shines directly into the sanctuary of The Great Temple to illuminate the statues of Ramesses and Amun.
The dates are thought to correspond to Ramesses’ birthday and coronation. The alignment of sacred structures with the rising or setting sun, or with the position of the sun at the solstices, was common throughout the ancient world (best known at New Grange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland) but the sanctuary of The Great Temple differs from these other sites in that the statue of the god Ptah, who stands among the others, is carefully positioned so that it is never illuminated at any time.
Today, thousands of tourists visit the temples daily. Guarded convoys of buses and cars depart twice a day from Aswan, the nearest city. Many visitors also arrive by plane, at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex.