It looked like a giant pile of dirt. Maybe it was because of the harsh morning sun. Or the fact that we’d been traveling since 4am, coasting on 3 hours of sleep from the night before. It wasn’t until we’d followed the neatly tiled path down a sweeping curve that the famous temple—one that’s often left off the standard Egypt trip itinerary—started to reveal itself.
Why don’t Egypt tour packages include Abu Simbel? Well, for one thing, the Abu Simbel temples are somewhat tricky to get to. While it’s a fairly easy day-drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel, the opening hours are limited, and require an early start to get there. You can opt to fly directly into Abu Simbel, but there’s little infrastructure and are few options to do, eat, or stay in the area. Because of the downswing in tourism lately, flights have slowed to a trickle and can be known to cancel if under booked—meaning that even fewer people choose to fly. Driving from Luxor to Abu Simbel is a long way, and would eat up two days just traveling. So unless you’re doing a pricey cruise, or have the freedom to arrange your own itinerary, you might wind up missing one of the most beautiful sites in Egypt.
Why You Have to Visit Abu Simbel
Although the temple dates back to 13th-century B.C., Abu Simbel wasn’t always here. In fact, the big pile of dirt is testament to that fact. Abu Simbel, which is made up of two temples dedicated to Ramses II and his queen, Nefertari, were originally carved some 200-meters away from the place where they now stand. What prompted the big move (one that’s known as one of the largest archaeological and architectural marvels in modern history)? The building of the Aswan High Dam, which would have re-routed the Nile to submerge the temples at their original location. It took four years to completely and meticulously deconstruct, move, and reconstruct the temples, paying strict attention to as much of the original considerations as possible.
What does original consideration mean? The Temple of Ramses was built to align with the sun—so that twice every year (on October 22 and February 22), the light from the sun would track through the great hall in the temple and alight on the statues at the far end. The statues of Ramses, Ra, and Amun are captured in the sun’s glow but the statue of Ptah (a god associated with the underworld) is left in darkness. Due to the moving of the temples, the sun now strikes the statues a day earlier—on the 21st of October and February—which are the most popular dates to visit.
Ramses designed his temple to include not just this special, sun-soaked sanctuary, but a larger hypostyle hall and plenty of side chambers. The hall features eight statues of Ramses under a black sky (linking Ramses to the underworld god Osiris, signifying the everlasting power of the Pharaoh). Huge reliefs carved into the wall illustrate significant military accomplishments, like the Battle of Kadesh, where the Egyptians battled the Hittites. Out front are the most-recognized symbols of Abu Simbel: four colossal statues of Ramses himself—three intact, and one damaged in antiquity (so, long before the big move).
Besides the Temple of Ramses, known as the Great Temple, the site also includes a temple dedicated to Queen Nefertari, who had a surprisingly star turn in our trip. I’d known before of course, about the game-changing Queen Hatschepsut and the legendary beauty Nefertiti, but I hadn’t really heard of Nefertari before. Unlike many queen consorts, Nefertari was treated with especially high regard from Pharoah Ramses—such high regard that the statues fronting the Small Temple depict Ramses and Nefertari at the same height, something unheard-of for the time.
I like to think of them as kind of Khal Drogo/Danaerys relationship—just look at Ramses’ dedication to her temple: “for the Great Royal Wife Nefertari Meryetmut, for whose sake the sun does shine”.
Scholars believe she was highly educated, able to read and write hieroglyphs, and that she assisted diplomatically, perhaps even coming on military excursions with Ramses. Obviously she was a key player, and Ramses’ love for her shows not just in his depiction of her within the Abu Simbel temple site, but in the tomb and writings dedicated to her after her death as well.
Many tourists don’t manage to get down to Abu Simbel because of its physical distance from the other main sites at Aswan and Luxor. But though it was painful to wake at 4am to drive the 5 hours from Aswan to Abu Simbel, I couldn’t have missed this site. Not just because of the beauty of the temple or the complexity of moving the temples, but because of the depth of context they brought to the rest of our trip—most notably, visiting Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens. I argue that it’s a must-see for your trip to Egypt, so make sure to budget at least a day to make the trip!