As the wake up call comes through at the unfriendly time of 3:30am, I excuse the ungodly time and excitedly get out of bed knowing I will soon be visiting one of Egypt’s best preserved sites – Abu Simbel. Given this incredible site is visited by thousands of tourists each year, it’s not exactly a secret but for most who believe the incredible Pyramids of Giza will be their Egyptian highlight, Abu Simbel will easily challenge that.
Built by King Ramses II as a monument to himself and his favourite wife Queen Nefertari, this 13th century sun temple is located 280kms south of Aswan, on the banks of the Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt. Originally located elsewhere but painstakingly moved block by block and rebuilt by archaeologists in 1972 to ensure its longevity above the soon-to-be flooded plains, Abu Simbel still stands proudly in the sun for all to marvel at today.
To reach Abu Simbel before the heat of the day takes over, with scorching daily highs all year round in this southern region of Egypt, we make an early departure from our riverside hotel in Aswan for the three and a half hour journey. For decades, visitors have been transported in guarded bus convoys across the flat plains of the desert between Aswan and Abu Simbel. In October last year, the Egyptian government deemed this practice no longer necessary – an encouraging sign of the growing stability in Egypt.
On arrival at Abu Simbel, the sheer size and significance of the two massive rock temples awe us into a revered silence which was quite the opposite reaction of the excited chatter that ensued on our arrival at the Pyramids only days before. Not as familiar yet even more impressive, Abu Simbel excites the inner archaeologist in all of us, hopeful that other such ancient treasures will be found under the sands as Abu Simbel was rediscovered as recently as 1813. As we all see our first glimpses of the four colossal statues of Egypt’s greatest pharaoh, carved from the rock wall, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the grandeur and significance of this incredible structure that is often regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful ancient sites.
The Abu Simbel complex consists of two large rock temples – the larger one is dedicated to several ancient Egyptian Gods and features four 20 metre statues of Ramesses II that guard the entrance to the inner sanctuary. Upon entering the hall, incredible examples of ancient Egyptian reliefs tell stories of the past along the walls. The smaller temple is dedicated to the ancient Egyptian Goddess of joy, love and motherhood Hathor and was built to honour Queen Nefertari – the first wife of the King’s total 50 wives.
Abu Simbel earnt its sun temple reputation due to the temple’s carefully aligned position which allows the sun’s rays to naturally light up the inner sanctuary of the temple each year on 21 October and 21 February. Believed to represent King Ramses II’s birthday and his coronation day, this incredible phenomenon provides a spectacular sight, which has been come to be known as Sun Festival of King Ramses II. On each of these days, crowds assemble in the temple before sunrise and watch the shafts of light slowly creep through the inner hall and through to the sanctuary.
Abu Simbel is not to be missed on any visit to Egypt as it is a truly unique site that is well worth the early start and deserving of its UNESCO heritage listing – make sure to include it on your next itinerary to Egypt to avoid the disappointment of not experiencing one of Egypt’s most impressive sites for yourself.
If Lisa’s account of her day spent exploring Abu Simbel has gotten you itchy to walk past the statues of Ramses and into the inner sanctuary, have a look at our King Tutankhamun group tour. Or, if you have already travelled to Egypt and Abu Simbel, share your stories in the comment section below.