South of Aswan and next to the Sudanese border hides one of the most impressive temples of ancient Egypt: Abu Simbel, a Nubian monument carved out of the mountainside over 3,200 years ago. Almost destroyed in the 60s after the construction of the High Dam, these temples were moved stone by stone to an artificial hill made above the dam to protect them from the floods.
In the fourth day of my Essential Egypt tour, I visited these fascinating temples along with two of the big highlights of the city of Aswan: the High Dam and Philae Temple, dedicated to the goddess Isis.
How to visit
I visited Abu Simbel, the High Dam and Philae Temple as part of my Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours, which lasted for a total of 9 days and covered the main highlights of Egypt from north to south. You can find the entire itinerary in my post Essential Egypt in 9 days - Part I: Arrival and first impressions of Cairo.
The visit to Abu Simbel wasn’t included in my trip, but it could be purchased separately. The cost was €75, which I found extremely expensive considering that we were a big group, but visiting Abu Simbel is a must that cannot be missed.
The temples, located about 3 hours south of Aswan and only about 150km away from the Sudanese border, cannot be easily reached as an independent traveller. Up until recently, it was only possible to visit as part of a guided tour. Police would open the roads very early in the morning (before 5 am) and escort the groups of tourists to the temples and back.
Apparently, it is now possible to visit with your own car as well, but you may need to ask permission to the police and they may not let you in on your own unless you’re escorted. Visiting with a tour is a much safer option.
On the other hand, reaching the High Dam and Philae Temple is a much simpler task. They are located 16km and 7km respectively south of Aswan, so they can be easily reached by taxi. Visiting the High Dam is free of charge, while Philae Temple costs 50 Egyptian pounds (approx. €2.50). To access the temple, you will need to hire a boat, which shouldn’t cost more than 4 to 10 Egyptian pounds (approx. €0.20 to €0.50), depending on how good you are at haggling.
Awake and ready to leave by 4 am, I could only hope that the temples of Abu Simbel would be worth the early start.
The temples are one of the most recognisable sights of Egypt alongside the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, so I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t disappoint. Everyone had told me that I couldn’t miss this visit, and even though it wasn’t included in my tour, I decided to pay extra and join pretty much everybody else on the group that decided to join that morning.
The drive takes a good 3 to 4 hours, so I could sleep pretty much all the way to the temples, waking up only for a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful sunrise.
The temples of Abu Simbel were built during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II. It is believed that the temples were constructed to celebrate the victory of the Pharaoh over the Hittites at the battle of Kadesh in present-day Syria.
The location wasn’t coincidental: the temples were raised on the border of the recently conquered lands of Nubia, symbolising the power of a newly united Egypt.
Accessing the complex and looking at the immense constructions really left me speechless, it’s hard to believe that such an incredible place was built over three thousand years ago and later moved stone by stone, leaving it just as it was found.
Abu Simbel is composed of two different temples: the Great Temple and the Small Temple.
The Great Temple, with a height of 30m, depicts four seated colossi at the entrance of 20 metres each, representing Ramses II on his throne. Beneath the statues, there are other smaller statues, representing Ramses’s conquered enemies (Nubians, Libyans and Hittites). The other statues represent his family and various gods.
In between the colossi, a small doorway gives entrance to the interior of the temple, decorated with pillars depicting Ramses deified as god Osiris, god of the Underground, indicating the everlasting essence of the pharaoh. On the left-hand side, the statues wear the white crown of Upper Egypt, while on the opposite side the statues wear the double crown representing Upper and Lower Egypt.
At the very back of the temple, a sanctuary can be found with rock cut-sculptures of four seated features, depicting Ra-Horakhty, a deified Ramses, and the gods Amun Ra and Ptah.
A few meters to the right'-hand side stands another impressive construction: the Small Temple. With a height of 12 meters, the entrance is also decorated with six colossi, three on each side of the doorway. The statues depict Ramses and his queen Nefertari: four statues represent the king, and the other two statues represent the queen.
The Small Temple is one of the few constructions in Egypt that represents the statues of the king and the queen in equal size. Usually, the statues of the queen were never taller than the Pharaoh’s knees.
Like in the Great Temple, the interior is supported by six pillars bus this time decorated with scenes of the queen escorted by the gods. The sanctuary offers some incredible reliefs with scenes of offerings to various gods by the pharaoh or the queen.
The Abu Simbel temples were rediscovered only in 1813, hidden and covered by sand since the 6th century BC.
Their fame came after 1959 when the temples were under immense threat of being covered by the raising water of the Nile after the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Thanks to an international donations campaign, a group of archaeologists and engineers supervised by the Unesco, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks, which were moved and reassembled in a new location, 65 higher than before and safe from the rising waters. The relocation of Abu Simbel was one of the greatest archaeological and engineering challenges in history, making the temples a must-see when travelling to Egypt
High Dam of Aswan
A visit to Abu Simbel cannot be fully understood without visiting Aswan High Dam.
Built between 1960 and 1970, its purpose was to generate hydroelectricity to cover the needs of a more and more industrialised Egypt.
However, the rising levels of Lake Nasser also put in danger an outstanding amount of 22 monuments and architectural sites, one of them being Abu Simbel. Most of the monuments were moved to a new location and could be saved from the flood.
Another of the temples that was moved stone by stone after Aswan High Dam was constructed was Philae Temple. Originally built in Philae Island, it was moved to Agilika Island in 1960, 12 km south of Aswan
The temple was originally built in in the third century BC as a place of cult of Isis but was later venerated through the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods, with the rules of each time making their own modifications to the original construction.
The temple is located in the middle of an island surrounded by water, so it can only be accessed by boat. The ride was included in my visit with Travel Talk Tours, but you hire one of the multiple motorboats available to access the island if you’re visiting on your own. Just make sure that you agree on a price in advance to avoid any hassle.
As you step on the island, the main temple is entered through the First Pylon, formed by two towers with a central doorway decorated with reliefs. This gateway was built by Nectanebo, who appears depicted with the gods. In front of the First Pylon used to stand two granite obelisks and two granite lions.
The towers depict the enemies of Egypt being hold by the hair by Ptolemy XII. He’s escorted by the gods Isis, Horus of Edfu and Hathor. The two smaller scenes above depict the pharaoh offering the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt to Horus of Edfu, while on the other side you can see him offering incense to Isis and Horus de child.
The decorations were badly damaged after the early Coptic Christians defaced them.
Passing through the central doorway will give you access to the main courtyard. Inscriptions in French on the walls commemorate Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.
The courtyard is surrounded by colonnades with very different purposes: the building on the right'-hand side contained rooms for the priests, while on the left-hand side stands the Birth House, dedicated to Hathor-Isis in honour of the birth of Horus, her son. The reliefs on the walls depict scenes from the childhood of Horus.
On the other side of the main courtyard stands the Second Pylon, a 32 meter high doorway that gives access to the inner temple.
The lower part of the doorway depicts Dionysos dedicating the slaughtered animals to Horus and Hathor. On the upper part, the king is depicted presenting a garland to Nephthys and Horus, while on the left-hand side, he is offering incense to Osiris, Isis and Horus.
The interior of the temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis. The inner sanctuary is reached after passing through a number of dark chambers. There, her image used to be placed on a sacred barque, a pedestal that is still conserved inside the temple.
The statue of the goddess was carried out in processions on the ceremonial barque from the temple to the island of Bigeh, where she would visit the tomb of Osiris, her husband.
Going back outside through some beautifully decorated columns, the last point of interest in the temple was Trajan’s Kiosk. It constitutes one of the largest standing buildings from Ancient Egypt, attributed to the Roman emperor Trajan. Just like the rest of the temples, it was originally built in Philae island and moved to the current location after the construction of the High Dam.
It is believed that the kiosk was used as a shelter for the bark of Isis. The building has a rectangular shape with a total of fourteen columns decorated with floral capitals that supported the wooden roof, which is no longer preserved. In the walls can still be appreciated images of Trajan burning incense to honour the gods Isis and Osiris.
After a very busy and packed day, we returned to the Helnan Hotel in Aswan for some rest. This was the moment when our group split out: while myself and some other people on the group would spend a free day in Aswan the next day, the big part of the group would sleep in a felucca for the next couple of nights, spending the next day navigating on the Nile.
During my free day in Aswan, I took a felucca ride in the Nile to see the Elephantine Island and spent the rest of the day wandering around Aswan and visiting the Nubian Museum and the Unfinished Obelisk.
Travel Talk Tours were kind enough to sponsor part of my trip, but as usual, all opinions are my own.
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