UPDATED: SEPTEMBER 2020
The Abu Simbel temples have got to be among the most emblematic of ancient Egyptian monuments, second only to the Pyramids of Giza.
The remarkable feat of their rescue from being submerged beneath the waters of the High Aswan Dam add much to their appeal. You can read all about the fascinating details of the salvage and relocation here.
THE TWIN TEMPLES
Ramesses the Great is believed to have built several rock cut temples in Nubia: the region along the Nile between Aswan and Sudan.
Abu Simbel was the most magnificent and remained unknown to the rest of the world until J.J. Burckhardt ‘discovered’ the top part of the temple in 1813. It was Giovanni Battista Belzoni who uncovered the entrance from centuries worth of sand in 1817.
The temple was originally called Hwt Ramesses Meryamun meaning the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved of Amun,” and took over two decades to complete. While the main temple is dedicated to Amun Ra, its massive facade is dominated by the likeness of the pharaoh. Four 67 feet high seated figures of the king – two on either side of the entrance – are carved directly into the rock face of the cliff.
Between the legs of the pharaoh are the carved figures of his family members including his favourite wife Nefertari, mother Muttuya (wife of Seti I) and several princes and princesses.
The second statue was damaged in an earthquake and its toppled head lies exactly as it was found in its original location. Above the entrance, is a striking figure of the falcon-headed sun-god Ra. And at the top, a frieze of baboons adoring the rising sun.
The vestibule walls are covered with frescoes: Ramesses’s embellished history of the battle of Kadesh, beautifully portrayed in full colour. (No photos allowed inside sadly.)
Is the time and money involved in the detour to visit these two temples worth it? It was for me.
Photography is now allowed. (Tripods are still charged a small fee.)
In the innermost sanctuary are four seated statues representing Ramesses II and the gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun-Ra and Ptah.
The most remarkable thing about this temple is the precise solar alignment incorporated into its construction. Twice a year the first rays of the rising sun light up three of the four figures in the sanctuary, but never Ptah, the god of darkness!
The phenomenon originally marked the anniversaries of the coronation and birth of Ramesses II exactly 61 days before and after the winter solstice on 21 October and 21 February. A slight miscalculation during the relocation has set the date off by a day to 22 October and 20 February.
To its north is the relatively smaller temple dedicated to Hathor. Two colossal standing figures of Queen Neferteri depicted as the goddess and flanked by four of her husband grace the facade. It is considered most unusual for the queen to be portrayed as equal to the pharaoh. This is also the only memorial temple of a royal consort of the time. (Queen Hatshepsut was a pharaoh – one of only two confirmed female pharaohs in ancient Egypt – and commissioned her mortuary temple herself.).
Stylised Hathor figures adorn the columns within and all wall surfaces are covered with painted frescoes showing the couple participating in religious rituals.
GETTING TO ABU SIMBEL
There are three ways to get to Abu Simbel.
ABU SIMBEL BY ROAD
Convoys – private and shared – depart twice daily at 4am and 11am, taking a total of nine hours for the 265km journey including time on the site. This is supposedly a picturesque ride through the Nubian desert, but some accounts term it boring. Convoys need to be booked via travel agents online or on arrival in Cairo/Luxor/Aswan.
It is not mandatory anymore for vehicles to depart for Abu Simbel in a convoy. So leaving around 8ish in the morning should technically allow arrival around the time most large groups depart the temples making for a less crowded visit. Do not leave later than 11am. It takes around three hours each way and all roads in the area close between sunset to sunrise. Hotels or any reputed local travel agencies will be able to arrange private transport or group tours.
Approximate starting prices for private vehicle: US$100 | Guide: US$ 35
ABU SIMBEL BY FLIGHT
Egyptair flights from Aswan – 45 min. each way – wait at Abu Simbel airport and return after two and a half hours. Hand baggage cannot be left on the plane for the duration of the flight for security reasons.
Flights are of course more expensive, and also carry the risk of delays, rescheduling &/or cancellations.
In either case you get over two full hours to visit the temples unless you decide to stay overnight.
We opted for the flight for several reasons. We desperately needed a free day in Aswan having just arrived from several hectic days in Jordan. We are owls and avoid unearthly wake up calls if possible. We also did some math and decided it would be a lot easier to deal with a small plane load of people at the site, rather than a convoy of several hundred.
It is now possible – and much cheaper for some strange reason – to fly from Cairo to Abu Simbel. But the flight is routed through Aswan and follows the same procedure as above. So handling cabin baggage might be an issue. If you are fine with leaving your bags in the shuttle bus or are able to check everything in, then this might be a good option.
A free shuttle transferred us in batches from the airport to the temples. It helps to not get distracted by the pandemonium in the tiny airport and the touts outside and try and get on the first shuttle out.
Once there we bought our entrance tickets and raced inside without our guide (guide fee included in the ticket price) who was waiting to collect a good sized group at the entrance.
Make sure you are well hydrated and covered, because this is when you step out into the blazing Egyptian sun and walk a couple of hundred feet with nothing to duck under. And forget comfort stops at this point. Plenty of time for that later, unless, God forbid, you have been hit by the pharaoh’s revenge.
By the time the others caught up with us, we had the magnificent temple of Ramesses to ourselves for a good twenty minutes…a spellbound audience of two.
We strolled out to meet up with the guide in a while, lingered around for the history lesson and were off to the temple of Hathor next door before the others had even entered the first temple.
When we were done here, we located a bench facing the lake and had us a picnic lunch – just the two of us – with the temples behind us. It was hot as hell, even by our standards…don’t forget the sunblock, hats and dark glasses.
The tour groups returned to the little restaurant near the entrance to open their lunch boxes, while a few independent travellers made do with overpriced coke and pastries before the return flight.
There is a third, more interesting, way to get to Abu Simbel.
LAKE NASSER CRUISE TO ABU SIMBEL
A 4 day Lake Nasser cruise departs from Aswan halting at a couple of ancient Nubian temples on the way and anchors right beside the twin temples on the final evening. The itinerary for the return cruise departing from Abu Simbel involves three nights.
Approaching the temples from the water has got to be THE best way to see them.
The boat docks here overnight and dinner is served on deck with a view of the illuminated temples! You also get the opportunity to visit more than once at less crowded times and watch the sound and light show.
I regret not taking this route.
STAYING OVERNIGHT IN ABU SIMBEL
With the convoy system removed you’ll get to stay longer at site if you choose the road option. If you want a more immersive experience without crowds and the opportunity to see the temples at dawn or illuminated after dark or watch the Sound & Light show in the evenings you’ll have to stay over night. Take a late afternoon flight in and return the next afternoon.
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ABU SIMBEL FAST FACTS
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Winter months between mid October to mid March.
HOURS: 6.00 -17.00.
ENTRANCE FEES (2019-20) : EGP 240/ Student: EGP 120; February 22nd & October 22nd: Adult: EGP 500/ Student: EGP 250
WHERE TO EAT: There are a few pricey eateries on the way back to the entrance. If going by road both the Seti Hotel and the Eskaleh Nubian House accept visitors for lunch (with prior reservation.)
WHAT TO WEAR: Covering arms, shoulders and knees isn’t mandatory. I wore full sleeved shirts and felt way overdressed through out the journey. My advice is to wear whatever you are comfortable in, but carry a light shirt or stole to throw over your shoulders when entering the temples. I would avoid shorts everywhere. Khakis, loose cotton pants or skirts are ideal.
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