The Temples of Abu Simbel are almost as famous and familiar as the pyramids of Giza, and visited by an enormous number of travelers every year. Most know the story of rescue that spared the Temples of Abu Simbel from disappearing beneath the waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam created it. However, it is not this epic feat of engineering that brings so many to see them each year.
The sheer scale of the Temples of Abu Simbel is hard to conceive of, and it is worth the time and effort it takes to make the journey to the southern border of Egypt and Nubia to experience them in person. They are part of a large UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be included in a day trip to nearby Philae and even the Aswan High Dam, however, it is also possible to pay a visit to the Temples of Abu Simbel later in the day and make a longer visit.
In fact, as the busiest hours are from 7AM to 11AM, it is best to wait until the late afternoon when temperatures dip and the sun casts a golden glow over the entire scene. Staying the night in Abu Simbel Village is possible and can allow you to encounter the site at dawn, too.
PAYING A VISIT TO THE TEMPLES OF ABU SIMBEL
Arriving at the Temples of Abu Simbel can be done by private taxi from Aswan, via one of the many bus tours, by plane or via a Lake Nasser Cruise Boat. There are also public buses that require you to book a seat in advance and stay over in the village. The village itself is more than 170 miles south of Aswan and only 25 miles north of the Sudanese border, and this is why you should decide in advance if it is to be a daytrip comprising a few hours or you intend to remain overnight. Note that there is an entry fee to the Temples of Abu Simbel, and if you wish to visit two days in a row, you must pay both times.
As we usually suggest when paying a visit to any of the major sites of Egypt, consider hiring a guide or becoming part of a professionally guided tour. There is so much to see within the Temples of Abu Simbel, and nearby, that you risk missing out if you are unsure about the different areas open to tourists. Additionally, the history of the site is so fascinating, most visitors have many questions about it, and a guide is a sure way to get accurate information that enhances the experience. The guides and tours might also enable you to avoid crowds by visiting at those off hours mentioned.
WHAT YOU SEE DURING A VISIT TO THE TEMPLES OF ABU SIMBEL
One of the first things most visitors look for upon arrival at the Temples of Abu Simbel are the four iconic statues of Rameses II seated in front of the entrance. At five stories each, they are otherworldly and prove that the power of the pharaohs was mighty. They also prove that the skills of their artisans were impressive as they are the largest sculptures of the Pharaonic period to remain intact. These statues are at the main entrance, and their size and gravity were said to have been made in order to convey the power of Egypt and its rulers to those who entered from the south.
You’ll see them as you approach the Main Courtyard. This is where the forecourt is found directly in front of the temple. Before the site was relocated, it was enclosed by brick walls on the southern and northern edges and the eastern side faced the Nile. As you cross this space steps lead to the terrace directly in front of the temple.
The terrace is decorated with stelae (usually marking boundaries of the country) featuring Ramses. There are also images of foreigners paying tribute to the pharaoh. After that, you face those four amazing “colossi”. With their beautifully carved features, they are truly impressive. The two on the left side of the entry show the pharaoh as Heka-tawi and Re-en-hekaw and the two on the right depict him as Meri-Amun and Meri-Atum. Sadly, not all four kept their features intact over the centuries, and even though the site was carefully relocated in the 1960s (the entire structure was carefully carved into large blocks and moved inland and away from the water), they did not re-attach any collapsed pieces. The second figure in the line lost its head during ancient times, and they were moved as found long ago – lying on the ground at the feet of the statue.
Note that each wears the double crown of Egypt and is carved with the royal seal or cartouche of the pharaoh. Between their feet and to both sides of each colossi are life-sized statues meant to represent other nobles and royals. There are several princesses and the pharaoh’s mother as well as his queen and their son. Flanking the doorway into the temple are Nile gods symbolizing Upper and Lower Egypt. You pass through the entry and enter the immense Hypostyle Hall.
The hall is split into three sections or aisles created by rows of square pillars. However, on the inner facing sides of the pillars are figures of Osiris as the pharaoh, and the ceiling above features breathtaking murals of birds and other figures. The hall is also home to the famous Battle of Kadesh reliefs that show the pharaoh’s campaigns against the Hittites. There are eight side chambers off of the hall, and beyond it is the Vestibule with its amazing pillars and carvings, including the barque of Amun-Re along the south wall. There is the Transverse Chamber with its beautifully preserved carvings and then the Sanctuary which only the pharaoh would enter. Here you see wonderful carved figures of the gods and the pharaoh.
There is also a temple dedicated to Nefertari, the pharaoh’s wife and it is important as it is unique to find a separate temple dedicated to her.
There is so much to take in during a visit to Abu Simbel, and you won’t want to rush the experience. Consider a flight into the area and a stay in town in order to savor an afternoon and then early morning visit to this remarkable site, and always work with an expert guide to help get the most out of your experience.