A Guide to the Abu Simbel Sun Festival in Egypt

Updated: 20th February 2017

During the time of Ancient Egypt many festivals graced the calendar with grand processions made through the cities and on the sacred waters of the River Nile. Many of these festivals either marked important agricultural events in the solar year, worshipped influential gods or celebrated ruling kings and queens. Some of these festivals have withstood the test of time and continue to be celebrated today and perhaps none is as popular or as well-known as the Abu Simbel Sun Festival, the perfect marriage of human endeavour and natural phenomena.

Outside of the Abu Simbel Ramses Temple - Egypt - On The Go Tours
The impressive facade of the Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel

What is the Abu Simbel Sun Festival?

The Abu Simbel Sun Festival is a bi-annual event that takes place at the spectacular temple of Ramses II in the south of Egypt. On two days of the year the central chamber of the temple is illuminated by the sun. For a short period of time as the sun perfectly aligns with the usually shrouded interior, light is cast on the seated statues of Ramses II (pharaoh), Ra (sun god) and Amun (king of the gods). Only the statue of Ptah, the god of darkness, remains in the shadows. This event has been taking place for over 3,200 years.

Carving of Ramses II - Egypt - On The Go Tours
A well-preserved coloured hieroglyphic carving of the Pharoah Ramses II

Who built the temples of Abu Simbel?

Abu Simbel is home to two treasured rock-cut temples - one dedicated to Ramses II and the second dedicated to his wife, Queen Nefertari. Both temples were built by Ramses II between 1290 and 1224 BC in what can easily be considered a display of pure egotism by one of ancient Egypt's most powerful rulers. A 65-foot tall seated statue of Ramses II greets you at the entrance of the temple while inside an even grander 108-foot tall Ramses statue watches over visitors. Carved into sandstone cliffs, the temples are widely considered one of Egypt's top attractions and are an extraordinary example of architectural precision with the buildings constructed so that the inner chambers perfectly align with the sun on two days of the year.

Ramses II was the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of ancient Egypt and reigned some 50 years after King Tutankhamen. Often known as Ramses the Great, he built numerous cities, temples and monuments and also led many successful military expeditions that took back control of territories the kingdom once held. He reigned for 66 years from his early twenties until his death in 1213 BC. Originally buried in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, the mummy of Ramses II now resides in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo for all to see.

When does the Abu Simbel Sun Festival take place?

The event occurs twice a year - on the 22nd February and the 22nd October. When the temple of Ramses II was first built the Sun Festival was celebrated a day earlier, on the 21st of February - reportedly the anniversary of Ramses' ascension to the throne, and on the 21st October, his believed birthday. The temple was built so that the inner sanctums were perfectly aligned with the sun's rays on just these two dates of the year - at all other times that inner sanctuary sits in darkness.

In the 1960s the temples were relocated when the construction of the Aswan Dam threatened to submerge the ancient monument and others in the vicinity. In a bid to save the temples from irreparably water damage, this labour-intensive project was successfully carried out at a cost of millions of dollars. The temples now stand in a spot 200 metres back from the water line and since the move the Sun Festival has taken place a day later than what Ramses II originally intended.

Inner chamber of Abu Simbel Temple - Egypt - On The Go Tours
Twice a year the temple's inner chamber is illuminated by the sun's rays

What celebrations occur during the Sun Festival?

Crowds of locals, domestic tourists and international visitors gather together before sunrise to witness the illumination as the sun rises and cuts through the darkness of the temple's inner chamber. To get to the heart of the UNESCO-listed temple visitors must first walk through the impressive entrance with its imposing facade of colossal statues. You'll arrive into the grand hall bordered by two treasury rooms and through to the Hypostyle Hall with decorated pillars and bas-reliefs adorning the walls. A second pillared hall leads to the sanctuary where the four statues are seated and the crowd stands two-people deep from the outer walls to allow the sun to penetrate the interior.

After the morning's spectacle visitors head outside where traditional Nubian dance and live music is performed, and food stalls are erected offering fresh koshari - Egypt's national dish consisting of rice, pasta and lentils in a spiced tomato sauce. It's a festive atmosphere that people enjoy for the rest of the day.

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