Dan Slater is blown away by the history and majesty of the Temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, which lie in the midst of southern Egypt’s Nubian Desert
What struck me when I first saw the temples was both the epic stature of the masonry and the sheer engineering genius required to take the structures to pieces, move them 65m uphill and reassemble them.
We had risen at 4am and driven for about three hours through the emptiness of southern Egypt’s Nubian Desert, almost to the Sudanese border, and I could scarcely believe that one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites was situated here, on a flat plain in the middle of nowhere. But interestingly, it didn’t used to be.
In 1958, Egypt announced plans to build the Aswan High Dam, a massive hydroelectric project that would block the upper Nile and create a lake 550km long. While the strategy would provide irrigation and electricity benefits for the whole country, it would mean the relocation of 100,000 people and would inundate hundreds of ancient monuments. Upon learning of these plans, the archaeological community, backed by UNESCO, came up with a challenging scheme to relocate them.
The main temple of Abu Simbel was commissioned in c1265 BC by the pharaoh Ramses II as a shrine to himself and the gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah.
It was carved into the side of a rock face on the west bank of the Nile as an imposing ‘welcome’ to travellers entering his lands from the south. And imposing it most certainly would have been: four colossal statues of Ramses himself, each 20m high, flank the temple entrance, surrounded by hieroglyphics and representations of his conquered enemies. Inside is a giant hypostyle hall with statues galore and walls of engravings detailing his victories and praising the pantheon of gods. It is quite a sight!
Between 1964 and 1968, the team of engineers sliced it, and the adjacent smaller Temple of Hathor dedicated to the pharoah’s wife Nefertari, into 20,000kg blocks. Both structures were relocated, piece by piece, to a spot 200m back from the clifftop out of which they were originally hewn. The spectacular facades have been cut out of artificial stone mounds to replicate their previous setting.
And that is where I find them today. Thanks to UNESCO, I can stand in the middle of the Nubian Desert and gaze, awestruck, into the steely-eyed glare of the most powerful pharaoh that ever lived: Ramses the Great.
The writer It took Dan Slater a couple of attempts, six years apart, to see all of Egypt. On his first trip, he focused on the north, from Cairo to Alexandria and west to the Siwa Oasis, while on the second, he went up the Nile and into Sudan. He covered the Sinai Peninsula both times.