Abu Simbel - giving new meaning to moving mountains

Many go to Egypt to see the pyramids, or the Valley of the Kings. Don't get me wrong, they're definitely worthwhile, but for me the most impressive thing I saw in Egypt was Abu Simbel, a spectacular temple by itself, but even more amazing when you hear the story of the massive feat of relocating the entire temple complex while precisely maintaining its orientation.

I still remember the first time I saw a whole house being moved by a truck not long after coming to Australia. I think I spent 5 minutes staring in awe - well traffic did stand still for 5 minutes while the truck passed with its oversized cargo. But moving Abu Simbel, is just another league above. And yes, you heard correctly, they moved the ENTIRE temple complex, mountain and all!

Abu Simbel main temple with 4 colossal statues of Ramses II at the front

This twin temple complex was originally carved out of a solid mountain to celebrate King Ramses II's battle victory around 1264 BC. The main temple features 4 colossal statues of Ramses II himself about 20 metres in height, but unfortunately one was damaged in an earthquake. The temple was apparently named after a local boy who guided early explorers to the discovery of the buried structure in the 1800s.

In the 1960s, in order to minimise the impact of the fluctuating water level of the Nile on flooding downstream, a decision was made to build the Aswan High Dam. Unfortunately the construction of the dam would cause water level to rise in Lake Nasser (the reservoir) hence submerging the temple complex. To prevent the temple from being lost forever, a plan was forged to move the entire temple complex 64 metres up from its original site.

Aswan High Dam and hydroelectric plant
Lake Nasser

The entire temple was cut into thousands of blocks up to 20 tons each and moved to its new site. It was rebuilt painstakingly with precision, with steel rods helping to fix the face to the statues. The cuts were disguised by mortar. A concrete dome was built on top of the temple and then a mountain re-created by rocks. Importantly, the orientation of the temple was maintained precisely. The whole relocation process was sponsored by UNESCO and took 4 1/2 years to complete. Even looking closely at it I could find no evidence that it had been dismantled and then rebuilt again.

I found this feat absolutely amazing! But then, the temple itself was pretty spectacular. While standing inside, I had to constantly remind myself that the whole temple was carved out of a mountain. It would have taken amazing vision, and countless hours of sweat and labour.  

Close up at the statues, note the smaller statues at their feet depicting Ramses' family members

On the back wall of the inner sanctum of the temple seats 4 statues - the sun gods Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakhty, Ramses II as a god, and Ptah, the god of darkness. The temple is positioned such that the inner sanctum is illuminated by sunlight only on two days of the year, February 22 and October 22, important for being Ramses II's birthday and coronation. All the gods are illuminated except Ptah, the god of underworld, who always remains in darkness. During the relocation of the temple, the authorities had maintained this orientation of the temple with great care. Nowadays many visit the temple on these two days to witness this phenomenon.

Next to the main temple is a smaller temple dedicated to Queen Nefertari, Ramses' chief consort. 6 statues stand at the front of the temple, with statues of the Pharaoh wearing the crowns of Egypt next to the entrance, adjacent are statues of the queen and the Pharaoh. Our guide told us that it is very rare to see statues of the queen the same size as the king - usually they will be less than knee height, as seen at the front of the main temple (see above for a close up photo of the statues of the main temple for an example). Perhaps Ramses II was the first champion of gender equality!

Smaller temple dedicated to Nefertari

Abu Simbel is a fascinating place that every traveller to Egypt should see. At the time the only way to get to Abu Simbel by road (you can also catch a flight) was to join a tour as the buses travelled in a police convoy for security reasons at only specific times of the day. 

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