One morning whilst cruising down the River Nile we got up at two am. We drove for three hours through the desert to arrive at Abu Simbel by five. For those, like myself, who hate waking up early you might question my sanity right about now. Believe me, I was questioning it. But I am so glad I listened to our tour guide. What awaited me made everything worth it. I firmly believe that nothing can ever surpass the image of the sunrise hitting Abu Simbel that morning.
Visit Early in the Morning
Early morning is the time to visit. There are fewer tourists, meaning that it is quiet and uncrowded. Additionally, the orange glow of the sunrise magnifies the magnificence of the temple beyond imagination. The sun is often associated with the divine or with kings equating themselves with the power of the cosmos. Knowing this, the sunrise over Abu Simbel was incredible. It also evoked the essence of King Ramses II’s (c.1279–c.1213 BCE) power. Added to the early morning silence, the four colossal statues of Ramses foregrounded his unequivocal importance.
I was very conscious when visiting that I was living one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. I stood transfixed, unable to fathom how the Egyptians could have constructed something so large and detailed. Without 21st century technologies, scientific discoveries and equipment, how has it lasted for over 3 thousand years? This also left me feeling sad, I realised that we’ve lost something more than just the Egyptian’s architectural magnificence. We have lost our devotion and respect for things larger than ourselves, for our rulers, religion and history.
The Carved Figures
The history of Ramses II and his incredible temple is fascinating. The seated figures of Ramses are 66 feet tall. These figures are set against the face of the sandstone cliff on the west bank of the Nile. There are two figures of Ramses on either side of the entrance. There are also smaller carved figures around Ramses feet. These represent his children, his queen Nefertari, and his mother, Muttuy. The other smaller, yet still larger than life-sized figures depict Ramses’ conquered enemies. These enemies include the Nubians, Libyans and Hittites and various protecting gods and symbols of power.
In the central entrance, you can see the Egyptians engravings of Ramses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods. The Egyptians dedicated the temple to the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte. It comprises of three consecutive halls, all extending 185 feet into the cliff. The Egyptians also decorated more of the temple with Osiride statues of the king. Osiris is an Egyptian god who was identified as the god of the afterlife and underworld. Historians have agreed that they created these structures to celebrate Ramses’ victory over the Hittites.
The Battle of Kadesh depicted at Abu Simbel
Inside, there are depictions of Ramses II’s victory at the Battle of Kadesh. This is a major battle in Egypt’s history between the Egyptians under Ramses II and the Hittites under Muwatallis in Syria. Fought by the Orontes River, historians consider this battle to be the world’s largest chariot battle with around 5,000 chariots charging into the fray. The battle resulted in the Pharaoh wanting to recapture the Hittite-held city of Kadesh.
Some historians challenge the notion that this was an Egyptian victory. Whilst others agree that there was no victor and that the battle led to the world’s first recorded peace treaty. The above painting of the battle shows that the probable date of the temple’s construction was around 1264 BCE. This is because the victory was still fresh in the painter, and safe to assume the people’s memory. It also highlights the power and strength Ramses II held; the immortalised victory becomes Ramses’ legacy!
Abu Simbel, a Temple for Queen Nefertari
To the north of the main temple is a smaller temple dedicated to Nefertari. They constructed the temple for the worship of Hathor, the goddess of the sky, of women, and fertility and love. They adorned this temple with 35 feet statues of the king Ramses and his queen Nefertari. I found it interesting that the Egyptians present the queen as being the same size as the king. Often the Egyptians represented their women as being much smaller than the Pharaoh. Yet at Abu Simbel, Nefertari is the same size. I believe that this shows Ramses’ admiration and love for his queen. Historical Records report that she was his favourite out of his six wives.
This site was already sacred to the god Hathor before they built the temple there. For Ramses to have chosen this site knowing this, I think it is a clever and careful use of propaganda in the form of architectural magnificence. He used it to strengthen the impression amongst the people that Ramses is a god amongst other gods.
Celebration time at Abu Simbel
The Egyptians aligned the temples with the east. As a result, twice a year (21 February and 21 October) the sun shines directly into the sanctuary of the temple and illuminates the statues of Ramses and Amun. These dates are supposedly in line with Ramses’ birthday and coronation.
This trip is undoubtedly my favourite from my time in Egypt, and I will always remember it. Abu Simbel will leave you yearning to understand more of the past and how the Egyptians used the sun to emphasise important figures. If that phenomenon doesn’t interest you, you will leave with an appreciation for their art and architecture.
If you enjoyed reading, check out my other post about Luxor and Karnak Temples, Valley of the Kings, or the Colossi of Memnon! And be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss out on another inspiring travel article!