Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel, 280 km south of Aswan and only 40 km north of the Sudanese border is the site of the magnificent
Sun Temple of Ramses II
and the smaller
Temple of Queen Nefertari
. With the exception of the temples, hotels and the homes of tourist industry employees, there is almost nothing else here. That is part of its charm, as is the immediate warmth of the locals that's so refreshing after the cut-and-thrust of Aswan. The village is centred around a couple of little eateries-cum-ahwas where the bus drops people off, with a modern
souk
to one side and the cheapest hotels within walking distance. The temples are about a 20-minute walk away, past the banks and post office. It is an attractive sultry little place, utterly sleepy except when the tours are passing through, where swathes of turban are de rigeur for men and you see women wearing traditional Nubian black net dresses decorated with weaving. The setting on the banks of Lake Nasser is beautiful, with heart-shattering rocks meeting the sapphire water, enhanced by the many green gardens dotted around and the single-storey white-washed dwellings. It's true there are no beds at rock-bottom prices (though if you want to spoil yourself, the Eskaleh could be the place to do it) but you have to accept that you are going be shelling out to see the temples anyway. Altogether, the African atmosphere, dearth of independent travellers, and chance of seeing the temples in total isolation makes Abu Simbel an excellent overnight stop.

Ins and outs

Getting there

EgyptAir
runs daily flights during the winter high season from Cairo via Luxor to Abu Simbel. Direct from Aswan during the summer when the season slumps there are still at least two flights per day and three during the high season. Book a ticket as early as possible, especially in the peak season. Most tickets are sold on the assumption that you will return the same day but it is possible to include overnight stopovers. Seats on the left-hand side of the aircraft usually offer the best views as it circles the temples before landing at Abu Simbel. There are free buses from Abu Simbel airport to the site of the temples.

It is possible to visit Abu Simbel by road (unaccompanied by a convoy) on the public bus, which can only hold four foreigners as the unwritten rule goes, although this is not strictly enforced on independent travellers. Public buses depart from the main Aswan bus station; you can't buy tickets in advance. Don't take the later buses unless you intend to stay the night.

The Temples of Abu Simbel

The two temples, which were rediscovered in 1813 completely buried by sand, were built by the most egotistical pharaoh of them all, Ramses II (1304-1237 BC) during the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. Although he built a smaller temple for his queen, Nefertari, it is the four gigantic statues of himself carved out of the mountainside that dominate Abu Simbel. It was intended that his magnificent and unblinking stare would be the first thing that travellers, visitors and enemies alike, saw as they entered Egypt from the south. Behind the statues is Ramses II's Temple of the Sun, which was originally built to venerate Amun and Re-Harakhte but really is dominated by, and dedicated to, the pharaoh-god Ramses II himself.

Although it had become the highlight of the trip for the relatively few intrepid travellers who ventured so far south, it was not until the monuments were threatened by the rising waters of Lake Nasser that international attention focused on Abu Simbel. UNESCO financed and organized the ambitious, costly (US$40 million) and ultimately successful 1964-1968 operation, to reassemble the monuments 61 m above and 210 m behind their original site. Despite its magnificence and beauty, for many visitors to Abu Simbel there is a slight tinge of disappointment because of the combined sense of familiarity and artificiality. Yet the sheer audacity of Ramses' egoism and the scale of the feat of saving the temple from the rising waters of the lake make the trip worthwhile.

Ramses II's Temple of the Sun

The entrance steps lead up to a terrace, with alternate statuettes of the king and a falcon to mark the edge, where the imposing façade of the main temple (35 m wide by 30 m high) is dominated by the four-seated
Colossi of Ramses II
wearing the double crown. Each figure was originally 21 m high but the second from the left lost its top during an earthquake in 27 BC. There are smaller statues of the members of the royal family standing at Ramses' rather crudely sculptured feet, which contrast with his ornately chiselled and beautiful faces above. Graffiti, written by Greek mercenaries about their expeditions into Nubia, can be seen on the left leg of the damaged statue but it seems everyone who visited in the 1800s left their mark in the tablets of signatures - even his knee-caps haven't escaped.

The sides of the huge thrones at the entrance to the temple are decorated with the Nile gods entwining lotus and papyrus, the plants representing Upper and Lower Egypt around the hieroglyph 'to unite'. Below are reliefs showing Egypt's vanquished foes, the
Nine Bows of Bound Nubians
on the south side
 
and
Bound Asiatics
to the north side
. The colour and clarity of these larger-than-life fettered prisoners is quite confronting, their differing hairstyles and earrings denote their origins. Lining the façade, above the heads of Ramses, is a row of 22 baboons smiling at the sunrise. A
marriage stela
 commemorates the union of Ramses II with Ma'at-Her-Neferure, daughter of the Hittite king.

At the entrance into the temple's rock
Hypostyle Hall
is a door bearing Ramses II's cartouche. Entered the temple you are met by eight striking statues of Ramses, 10 m high and clad in a short kilt typical of the Nubian Osiride form, carved into the eight enormous square pillars supporting the roof. The four statues on the right bear the double crown and those on the left the white crown of Upper Egypt, and the first couple of statues have had their beards inscribed with yet more 19th-century graffiti. On the pillars, Ramses presents
flowers to Min and incense to Isis
,
wine to Horus and flowers to Mut
,
flowers to Thoth and bread to Anubis
, while
Re-Harakhte receives wine
. The hall's ceiling is crowded with vultures in the central aisle and star spangled elsewhere. The reliefs on the walls are colourful and well preserved. The north wall is the most dramatic with four different scenes depicting the
Battle of Kadesh
against the Hittites in 1300 BC
 which, despite what these illustrations might imply, was not an unqualified Egyptian success. The depictions of chariots and camps are particularly revealing of ancient battle methods (it seems lions were involved) but, more interestingly, Ramses's double arm lancing a Libyan may have been an ancient attempt at animation. The slaughter of whole bundles of
prisoners
, generally small in size and with their faces shown in supplication, is a
common theme
. The side chambers, branching off from the hall, were probably originally used to store vases, temple linen, cult objects and Nubian gifts. Their walls are lined with reliefs of sacrifices and offerings being made by Ramses to the major gods, including Amun.

The
Inner Hall
has four columns depicting the Pharaoh participating in rituals before the deities. On the far left, Ramses can be seen before Amun
 while on the right he makes an offering of lettuces, considered an aphrodisiac
. In both these scenes a deified Ramses II has been inserted at a later date. Two sandstone sphinxes, which originally stood at the entrance to the hall, are now in London's British Museum.

Further in and in front of the inner sanctuary is the
Transverse Vestibule
where offerings of wine, fruits and flowers were made. The
Sanctuary
itself, which was originally cased in gold, has an altar to Ramses at its centre, behind which are now statues of Ptah, Amun-Re, Ramses II and Re-Harakhte, unfortunately mutilated. Ramses is deified with his patron gods. Before the temple's relocation the dawn sunrays would shine on all but Ptah (who was linked with death-cults), on 22 February and 22 October. Despite what your guide will say there is no scholastic evidence to connect these two dates with Ramses' birthday and coronation day. A sacred
barque
(boat) would have rested on the altar and the walls beside the door portray the barque of Amun and Ramses. The adjoining side chapels were not decorated.

Temple of Queen Nefertari

Although dedicated to the goddess Hathor of Abshek, like that of her husband, the queen's temple virtually deifies the human queen Nefertari. Unsurprisingly it is much smaller than that of Ramses II but is nevertheless both imposing and very, very beautiful. It is cut entirely from the rock and penetrates about 24 m from the rock face. The external façade is 12 m high and lined with three colossi 11.5 m high on either side of the entrance. Nefertari stands with her husband while their children cluster in pairs at their knees. To show the importance of Queen Nefertari her statues are of similar size to those of her husband. Just within the entrance are the cartouches of Ramses and Nefertari. The simple
Hall
has six square pillars, on the aisle side of each is depicted a Hathor head and sistrum sounding box while the other sides have figures of the king and queen making offerings to the gods. Some reliefs in the hall are rather gruesome - the walls backing the entrance show the pharaoh slaying his Nubian and Libyan enemies, who beg for mercy while Nefertari and the god Amun look on. Others show the royal couple engaging in rituals. Note her diaphanous skirts and their assortment of intricate crowns, which are exquisite.

Three corridors lead from the rear of the hall into the
Vestibule
, the central one passing directly into the
Sanctuary
. The back walls of the Vestibule portray reliefs of Ramses and Nefertari offering wine and flowers to Khnum and Re-Harakhte on the right and to Horus and Amun on the left. Vultures protect the Queen's cartouche on the door above the sanctuary, which is dominated by the figure of Hathor in the form of a cow watching over Ramses. On the left wall, Nefertari can be seen offering incense to Mut and Hathor while on the opposite side Ramses worships the deified images of himself and Nefertari.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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