In March we invited world traveller Jonathan Look, Jr. to try our Abu Simbel Sun Festival Tour from the perspective of a “mature traveller”. Jonathan took early retirement in 2011 to explore the world, take pictures and write about it on his blog LifePart2.com. Given his vast experience, we were interested in what he thought of Egypt and the festival. And here he shares his experience.
It was a long, nighttime drive through the Sahara Desert to get to the Abu Simbel Temple in time for the Sun Festival. After arrival, the constant jostling for position in the crowd was both exhilarating and exhausting. It may seem a bit daft to stand for two hours in pre-dawn, cold desert air, just to see the sun rise and shine upon a few old statues, but it was glorious, and I loved every minute of it!
What is Abu Simbel?
Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, is the site of two massive temples, built by King Ramses II in the 13th Century BC to celebrate – well, to celebrate himself firstly – then to celebrate his favourite wife, Nefertari and then celebrate their children. The iconic twin temples were carved from a hill of solid sandstone on the banks of the Nile River near ancient Nubia (modern Sudan) and served to impress Egypt’s neighbours of its might.
The entrance of the main temple is flanked by four – yes, four! – 20-metre-high statues of King Ramses II seated beneath a frieze of 22 baboons. There are various depictions of the different characters within the orbit of the great man himself, including the queen mother, his first eight of his ninety-odd children, and an assortment of other characters, but none of these even rise to the height of the king’s knees.
In the 1960s the entire temple was moved, by a team of archaeologists working under the auspices of UNESCO, to a new site about 200 metres from the original location and meticulously reconstructed on higher ground to protect it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. No small feat in itself.
Getting to Abu Simbel
Our trip to see the Abu Simbel Sun Festival began at a five-star hotel on February 18, in Aswan at 11:30 PM. We had gathered in the lobby, a bit dazed from lack of sleep and the enormous Nubian dinner we finished only a few hours before, but we were excited to see this historic event in the remote Egyptian desert. Our guide Alam, cheery as always, counted heads, 20 in this case, and said, in a familiar melody just loud enough for everyone to hear, “On The Go, let’s go!”
Our coach was large enough for each of us to have our own seat to stretch out and sleep. This was great! What wasn’t so great was, before we could begin the three-hour journey, we had to gather with 100 other vehicles in town to meet with our military escort. The plan was to drive on the highway through the Sahara Desert, orderly and in single file, (we were number one) with armed Calvary front and rear until we reached the temple to catch the rising sun. At least that was the theory.
Arriving at the Temple
As we approached the first of many military checkpoints, our big bus slowed and private cars, mini-vans, and pickup trucks laden with people took advantage of our lumbering pace and passed us on the left and the right. Once we were inspected and were back on the open road, our driver began passing the other vehicles and soon reasserted our lead position behind the military escort vehicle. We played this game of cat and mouse through the night at every checkpoint. But in the end, due to our driver’s skill, we were among the first to arrive at the temple. It was still dark, and the desert air was so clear and dark, it felt as if you could reach into the sky and stir the stars with your hand.
We all rushed from the bus and as quickly as possible hurried toward the entrance of the temple. Alam had arranged in advance to have our tickets, and we all took them and rushed through security as quickly as we could. We didn’t want to give up our position near the front. After security we gathered, Alam again counted heads, and we followed him through a shortcut to the temple entrance. We weren’t first in line, but Alam assured us that we were in good position to view the sun on the statues inside the temple. The scene was astounding.
What is the Abu Simbel Sun Festival?
The Abu Simbel Sun Festival is an opportunity to witness the alignment of the heavens with the entrance of the Abu Simbel Temple. King Ramses II thought it would be a grand idea to have the sun shine into his inner chamber twice a year, on his birthday and on his coronation day, and he ordered his architects to make it so. On these special days – February 22 and October 22 – the sun penetrates the temple and shines on three of four figures seated inside; Ramses II himself and two sun gods; the fourth figure, Ptah, the Goddess of darkness, remains beside them but out of the light.
What Was it Like to Attend the Abu Simbel Sun Festival?
There are some that will say it is just the sun shining into an old building. But the thought of how this ancient technology is still functioning today is astounding. Yes, it was crowded, the hordes of people were pushy and the hours were early, but witnessing this accomplishment of ancient Egyptian architects and astronomers was moving. The Abu Simbel Sun Festival is something not many people get to experience, but it is something I will never forget.
Want to experience the Abu Simbel Sun Festival for yourself? Check out our range of Sun Festival tours.