Visiting Abu Simbel in Egypt

One of Egypt’s most striking temples is in the south on the bank of Lake Nasser. Built over 3,000 years, Abu Simbel has withstood the test of time. Visiting Abu Simbel is usually not on a traveler’s list when compared to the Pyramids of Giza. To be completely honest, I never heard of it until we were going over the itinerary. The temple of Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples.  

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The temples, located in southern Egypt near Sudan, were built in the 13th Century as a lasting monument to the king Pharaoh Ramesses II and his queen Nefertari. The temples also commemorate his victory at the battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE.  Ramesses chose the site near the Sudanese border because it was already sacred to Hathor, goddess of motherhood, joy, and love.  This act only strengthened his divinity in the eyes of his people.

Fun Fact: Ramses II ruled for 66 years, fathered over 160 children, and fought many major battles.

Construction of the temple was completed around 1244 BC, but over time, the temples fell into disuse. Sand, ever-present in Egypt, began to cover the temple and by the 6th century BC the statues were covered to their knees. It wasn’t until 1813 when Jean-Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist, found the top of the temple. Legend has it, he was guided to it by a boy named Abu Simbel, and so named it after him. Burckhardt discussed his findings with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni who was able to finally enter the complex in 1817.  It has been admired by anthropologists, historians, and tourists alike since. 

How to get to Abu Simbel

To get to Abu Simbel, you can either fly or travel by bus from Aswan. Since you need to be a licensed operator to get through security checkpoints, you can’t simply rent a car and do the drive yourself.  Our bus left bright and early at 3:30am and was a three-hour drive to the temple. It’s a boring ride with deserts all around, be sure to bring a pillow for the bus!  However, if it’s going to be a particularly hot day, you may get lucky and see a mirage. Visiting Abu Simbel by plane would be a bit quicker than a bus through the desert.

Despite the early wake up time, Abu Simbel is one of the best places in Egypt to visit with kids. The unique landscape and lake nearby make it an unforgettable experience.

A mirage caught on camera on my way to Abu Simbel in the early morning.

Food for thought: The definition of a mirage is an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions or something that appears real or possible but is not in fact so. If a mirage is a trick of the eye, how did I catch it on camera? 😉 

Upon arrival at Abu Simbel, you’ll see the back of the temple first and the water of the Nile ahead of you. Once you round the bend, you can’t miss the four colossal statues, towering at over 65 feet (20m), representing Ramesses II, at different ages, seated on a throne.The statues are not the same but depict Ramesses II throughout his life. The one on the immediate left of the entrance was damaged in an earthquake and rather than restoring them during the relocation, they were placed at the feet in the positions originally found. Beneath these massive figures are smaller statues (still larger than life-sized) depicting Ramesses’ enemies – the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites.

Monumental statues of Nefertari line the second temple at Abu Simbel.

Travel Tip: Guides are not allowed in the temple.  This helps prevent tours from clogging up the entranceway.   Guides will give you the history outside of the temple and tell you to keep an eye out for some things inside.  

HIeroglyphics at the Abu Simbel temples
A close up look to hieroglyphics depicting breastfeeding

While the temple survived through ancient times and the trials of mother nature, it was threatened by modern progress in the 1960’s.   When the decision to create the Aswan High Dam was made in the early 1960’s, researchers realized the temples would be flooded.  The entire complex was relocated in 1968 to prevent the temple from being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser.   Lake Nasser is the massive water reservoir that was formed after building the Aswan High Dam on the Nile.   The temples were dismantled and relocated about 200 feet (64m) above and 600 feet (180m) west of their original site.  You can still see where the temple was made into blocks to be moved if you look closely. 

Moving the complex has gone down as one of history’s greatest archeological engineering challenges.  You have to look very closely at the rocks to see how they were taken apart and reassembled – it’s nearly perfect.  

If you look closely, you can see the lines of the blocks of when the temples were taken apart and put back together.

Everywhere you look at Abu Simbel, there is something grandiose. It can be difficult to wrap your head around the ability to create these temples with such detail without the technology that we have today.  

Me standing in front of Abu Simbel temple and Ramses II statue.
Standing in front of one of the statues of Ramses II

Fortunately, they have recently (as of 2019) started to allow people to take photos within the temple.  You have to pay 300 Egyptian pounds for a ticket to do so. The ticket can be split within a couple you just have to take photos one at a time, otherwise, the guards will yell at you. 

Once you pass through the entrance, there are engravings showing Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods.  On the north wall is a detailed story of the victory at Kadesh.

The smaller temple nearby has six colossi in the front facade – four which are the king, two are Queen Nefertari. This is a unique ode to the queen, typically women are represented on a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh. Nerfertari’s tomb is not in Abu Simbel, but rather in the Valley of the Queens.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Abu Simbel

Today, Abu Simbel is the most visited ancient site Egypt after the Great Pyramids of Giza, and for good reason.  I was truly impressed with not only the size, but the engineering that went into the temple – both when it was built and when it was moved – as well.  Stepping into the temple is like stepping back in time. This is probably the top reason why I will always recommend visiting Abu Simbel. While you’re there, put the camera down, lift your head up, and embrace ancient Egypt and all its glory.

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Visiting Abu Simbel in Egypt
Visiting Abu Simbel in Egypt
Visiting Abu Simbel in Egypt

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