Our visit to Abu Simbel kicked off like this: staggering out of the van and staring at what appeared to be 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 a visit to Abu Simbel? For one thing, the Abu Simbel temples are somewhat tricky to get to. It’s a fairly easy day-drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel, but the limited opening hours require an early start. There are flights directly into Abu Simbel, but few options to eat or stay in the area. Because of the recent downswing in tourism, flights might cancel if underbooked—meaning that even fewer people choose to fly. The drive from Luxor to Abu Simbel is a long way, and eats up two days just for traveling. Unless you’re doing an expensive cruise, or have the freedom to arrange your own itinerary, you could miss 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 comprises two temples: one dedicated to Ramses II and one to his queen, Nefertari. But they were originally built 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 re-routed the Nile and would have submerged the temples at their original location. It took four years to completely and meticulously deconstruct, move, and reconstruct the temples. More importantly, it required paying strict attention to as much of the original considerations as possible.
What does original consideration mean? Architects designed the Temple of Ramses to align with the sun. This means that twice a year (on October 22 and February 22), the light from the sun tracks through the great hall in the temple and alights on the statues at the far end. The sunlight captures the statues of Ramses, Ra, and Amun. Only the statue of Ptah (a god associated with the underworld) remains in darkness. Due to the moving of the temples, the sun now strikes the statues a day earlier. The 21st of October and February are now the most popular dates to visit Abu Simbel.
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. My favorite was the Battle of Kadesh, depicting the Egyptians fighting the Hittites. The most-recognized symbols of Abu Simbel, however, are out front. Four colossal statues of Ramses himself—three intact, and one damaged in antiquity, 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. This queen had a surprisingly star turn in our trip. I knew before about the game-changing Queen Hatschepsut and the legendary beauty Nefertiti, but I hadn’t heard of Nefertari before. Unlike many queen consorts, Nefertari was treated with especially high regard from Pharoah Ramses. With such high regard, in fact, that the statues fronting the Small Temple depict Ramses and Nefertari at the same height.
This was 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 Nefertari was a key player; highly-educated, she was able to read and write hieroglyphs. They think she played a key role diplomatically, perhaps even coming on military excursions. Ramses’ love for her shows not just in his depiction of her within her temple, 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 painful though it was to wake at 4am to drive the five hours from Aswan to Abu Simbel, there was no way I was going to miss this site. Not just because of the beauty of the temple or the complexity of their move, 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!