Constructed around 1255 BC under the orders of Ramses II, the site in Aswan consists of two temples that are impressive inside and out. Upon approaching the entrance, there are four massive seated statues of Ramses II attired in a kilt, a Nemes headdress, a double crown representing lower and upper Egypt, and a false beard.
Near the legs of the colossi are smaller statues representing the pharaoh’s relatives, and near the top of the facade are 22 squatting baboons, as the cry of a baboon was thought to welcome the rising sun. Inside, the complex consists of a Great Temple dedicated to Ramses and a smaller temple believed to honor Nefertari.
Abu Simbel’s Great Temple
The largest temple at Abu Simble was referred to in ancient times as ‘the temple of Ramses-Meryamun’ which translates to ‘Ramses, beloved by Amun.’ The first atrium opens to eight pillars depicting Ramses II in the form of Osiris, and there are images and hieroglyphs inside that describe the ruler’s purported victory at the Battle of Kadesh. The second atrium consists of four pillars decorated with Ramses II embracing various divinities, and in the back are seated statues of the ruler along with the gods, Ra-Harakhty, Amun and Ptah.
These four statues are part of a grand solar phenomenon that occurs at Abu Simbel Temple biannually around October 22 and February 22. During these dates, all of the statues are bathed in sunlight with the exception of Ptah, who is associated with darkness and the underworld. Both dates also reflect the date of Ramses II birth and his coronation.
Nefertari’s Temple at Abu Simbel
Outside the entrance of the smaller temple are four statues of Ramses and two of his favorite Great Royal wife, Nefertari. There are also smaller statues of what are likely his children, and interestingly the statues of the princesses are taller than the princes, likely to pay tribute to the strength of the women in Ramses II’s household. The interior contains six pillars with depiction of the goddess Hathor, and upon the back wall are striking reliefs showing Nefertari being crowned by Isis and Hathor.
The Relocation of Abu Simbel Temple
When the High Dam was to be constructed, experts realized that Abu Simbel Temple was in danger of being submerged by the waters of Lake Nasser. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government along with UNESCO support launched the tedious and challenging effort of relocating the temple—piece by piece—to its current location 60 meters above the cliff where it was initially located. This massive effort is a testament to the vast importance of this site to Egyptians and modern history.