Geneva architect, Jean Jacquet, a Unesco expert, makes an architectural survey of the Great Temple of Rameses II ( 1290 - 1223 B.C.).
Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC. Known as the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved by
Amun" it was one of six rock temples erected in Nubia during the long reign of Ramesses II. Their purpose was to impress Egypt's southern neighbours, and also to reinforce the status of Egyptian religion in the region.
With the passage of time, the temples fell into disuse and eventually became covered by sand. By the 6th century BC, the sand already covered the statues of the main temple up to their knees. The temple was forgotten until 1813, when
Jean-Louis Burckhardt found the top
frieze of the main temple. Burckhardt talked about his discovery with
Giovanni Belzoni, who travelled to the site, but was unable to dig out an entry to the temple. Belzoni returned in 1817, this time succeeding in his attempt to enter the complex. A detailed early description of the temples, together with contemporaneous line drawings, can be found in
Edward William Lane's Description of Egypt (1825–1828).
Tour guides at the site relate the legend that 'Abu Simbel' was the name of a young local boy who guided these early re-discoverers to the site of the buried temple which he had seen from time to time in the shifting sands. Eventually, they named the complex after him.
The statue of
Ramses the Great
at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel is reassembled after having been moved in 1967 to save it from flooding.
A scale model showing the original and current location of the temple (with respect to the water level) at the
, in Aswan
The collapsed colossus of the Great Temple supposedly fell during an earthquake shortly after its construction. On moving the temple, it was decided to leave it as the face is missing.
In 1959, an international donations campaign to save the
Nubia began: the southernmost relics of this ancient human civilization were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile that were about to result from the construction of the
Aswan High Dam.
One scheme to save the temples was based on an idea by
William MacQuitty to build a clear fresh water dam around the temples, with the water inside kept at the same height as the Nile. There were to be underwater viewing chambers. In 1962 the idea was made into a proposal by architects
Jane Drew and
Maxwell Fry and civil engineer
 They considered that raising the temples ignored the effect of erosion of the sandstone by desert winds. However the proposal, though acknowledged to be extremely elegant, was rejected.
The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the
UNESCO banner; it cost some USD $40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars). Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.
 Some structures were even saved from under the waters of Lake Nasser. Today, a few hundred tourists visit the temples daily. Guarded convoys of buses and cars depart twice a day from Aswan, the nearest city. Many visitors also arrive by plane at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex.
The complex consists of two temples. The larger one is dedicated to
Amun, Egypt's three state deities of the time, and features four large statues of Ramesses II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess
Hathor, personified by
Nefertari, Ramesses's most beloved of his many wives.
 The temple is now open to the public.
View of the partially excavated Great Temple from the right, with a human figure for scale
Front view of the Great Temple before 1923
Interior of the Great Temple, before cleaning
Interior of the Great Temple, after cleaning
Human figures standing at the entrance to the Great Temple, sometime before 1923
The Great Temple at Abu Simbel, which took about twenty years to build, was completed around year 24 of the reign of Ramesses the Great (which corresponds to 1265 BC). It was dedicated to the gods
Ptah, as well as to the deified Rameses himself.
 It is generally considered the grandest and most beautiful of the temples commissioned during the reign of Rameses II, and one of the most beautiful in Egypt.
Four colossal 20 meter statues of the pharaoh with the double Atef crown of Upper and Lower Egypt decorate the facade of the temple, which is 35 meters wide and is topped by a frieze with 22 baboons, worshippers of the sun and flank the entrance.
 The colossal statues were sculptured directly from the rock in which the temple was located before it was moved. All statues represent Ramesses II, seated on a throne and wearing the
double crown of
Upper and Lower Egypt. The statue to the left of the entrance was damaged in an earthquake, leaving only the lower part of the statue still intact. The head and torso can still be seen at the statue's feet.
Next to the legs of the colossi, there are other statues no higher than the knees of the pharaoh.
 These depict
Nefertari, Ramesses's chief wife, and queen mother
Mut-Tuy, his first two sons
Ramesses, and his first six daughters
Bintanath, Baketmut, Nefertari,
Nebettawy and Isetnofret.
The entrance itself is crowned by a bas-relief representing two images of the king worshipping the
falcon-headed Ra Harakhti, whose statue stands in a large niche.
 This god is holding the hieroglyph "user" and a feather in his right hand, with
Ma'at, (the goddess of truth and justice) in his left; this is nothing less than a gigantic cryptogram for Ramesses II's
throne name, User-Maat-Re. The facade is topped by a row of 22
baboons, their arms raised in the air, supposedly worshipping the rising sun. Another notable feature of the facade is a
stele which records the marriage of Ramesses with a daughter of king
Hattusili III, which sealed the peace between Egypt and the
The inner part of the temple has the same triangular layout that most ancient Egyptian temples follow, with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary. The temple is complex in structure and quite unusual because of its many side chambers. The
hypostyle hall (sometimes also called a pronaos) is 18 meters long and 16.7 meters wide and is supported by eight huge Osirid pillars depicting the deified Ramses linked to the god
Osiris, the god of the Underworld, to indicate the everlasting nature of the pharaoh. The colossal statues along the left-hand wall bear the white crown of
Upper Egypt, while those on the opposite side are wearing the double crown of Upper and
Lower Egypt (pschent).
 The bas-reliefs on the walls of the pronaos depict battle scenes in the military campaigns the ruler waged. Much of the sculpture is given to the
Battle of Kadesh, on the Orontes river in present-day
Syria, in which the Egyptian king fought against the
 The most famous relief shows the king on his chariot shooting arrows against his fleeing enemies, who are being taken prisoner.
 Other scenes show Egyptian victories in
Libya and Nubia.
From the hypostyle hall, one enters the second pillared hall, which has four pillars decorated with beautiful scenes of offerings to the gods. There are depictions of Ramesses and Nefertari with the sacred boats of Amun and Ra-Harakhti. This hall gives access to a transverse vestibule in the middle of which is the entrance to the sanctuary. Here, on a black wall, are rock cut sculptures of four seated figures:
Ra-Horakhty, the deified king Ramesses, and the gods
Amun Ra and
Amun Ra and
Ptah were the main divinities in that period and their cult centers were at
It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that on October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of
Ptah, a god connected with the
Underworld, who always remained in the dark. People gather at Abu Simbel to witness this remarkable sight, on October 21 and February 21.
These dates are allegedly the king's birthday and coronation day, respectively. There is no direct evidence to support this. It is logical to assume, however, that these dates had some relation to a great event, such as the jubilee celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the
pharaoh's rule. In fact, according to calculations made on the basis of the
heliacal rising of the star
Sirius (Sothis) and inscriptions found by archaeologists, this date must have been October 22. This image of the king was enhanced and revitalized by the energy of the solar star, and the deified Ramesses the Great could take his place next to
Amun Ra and Ra-Horakhty.
Due to the displacement of the temple and/or the accumulated drift of the
Tropic of Cancer during the past 3,280 years, it is widely believed that each of these two events has moved one day closer to the Solstice, so they would be occurring on October 22 and February 20 (60 days before and 60 days after the Solstice, respectively).
The Small Temple from below and left, before 1923
The Small Temple after relocation
Nefertari, also known as the Small Temple, was built about one hundred meters northeast of the temple of
pharaoh Ramesses II and was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II's chief consort, Nefertari. This was in fact the second time in ancient
Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen. The first time, Akhenaten dedicated a temple to his great royal wife, Nefertiti.
 The rock-cut facade is decorated with two groups of colossi that are separated by the large gateway. The statues, slightly more than ten meters high, are of the king and his queen. On either side of the portal are two statues of the king, wearing the
white crown of
Upper Egypt (south colossus) and the
double crown (north colossus); these are flanked by statues of the queen.
(right) blessing Ramesses in the small temple at Abu Simbel
Remarkably, this is one of very few instances in
Egyptian art where the statues of the king and his consort have equal size.
 Traditionally, the statues of the queens stood next to those of the pharaoh, but were never taller than his knees. Ramesses went to Abu Simbel with his wife in the 24th year of his reign. As the Great Temple of the king, there are small statues of princes and princesses next to their parents. In this case they are positioned symmetrically: on the south side (at left as one faces the gateway) are, from left to right, princes
Meryatum and Meryre, princesses
Meritamen and Henuttawy, and princes Rahirwenemef and
Amun-her-khepeshef, while on the north side the same figures are in reverse order. The plan of the Small Temple is a simplified version of that of the Great Temple.
to seated goddess
, frieze inside the Small Temple
As the larger temple dedicated to the king, the hypostyle hall or
pronaos is supported by six pillars; in this case, however, they are not Osiris pillars depicting the king, but are decorated with scenes with the queen playing the
sistrum (an instrument sacred to the goddess Hathor), together with the
Thoth, and the
Mut of Asher,
Taweret; in one scene Ramesses is presenting flowers or burning
 The capitals of the pillars bear the face of the goddess Hathor; this type of column is known as Hathoric. The bas-reliefs in the pillared hall illustrate the deification of the king, the destruction of his enemies in the north and south (in this scenes the king is accompanied by his wife), and the queen making offerings to the goddess Hathor and Mut.
 The hypostyle hall is followed by a vestibule, access to which is given by three large doors. On the south and the north walls of this chamber there are two graceful and poetic bas-reliefs of the king and his consort presenting
papyrus plants to Hathor, who is depicted as a cow on a boat sailing in a thicket of papyri. On the west wall, Ramesses II and Nefertari are depicted making offerings to god Horus and the divinities of the Cataracts —
Anubis and Khnum.
The rock cut
sanctuary and the two side chambers are connected to the transverse vestibule and are aligned with the axis of the temple. The bas-reliefs on the side walls of the small sanctuary represent scenes of
offerings to various gods made either by the pharaoh or the
 On the back wall, which lies to the west along the axis of the temple, there is a niche in which Hathor, as a divine cow, seems to be coming out of the mountain: the goddess is depicted as the Mistress of the temple dedicated to her and to queen Nefertari, who is intimately linked to the goddess.
Each temple had its own priest that represents the king in daily religious ceremonies. In theory, the Pharaoh would have been the only celebrant in daily religious ceremonies performed in different temples throughout Egypt. In reality, the high priest also played that role. To reach that position, an extensive education in art and science was necessary, like the one pharaoh had. Reading, writing, engineering, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, space measurement, time calculations, were all part of this learning. The priests of Heliopolis, for example, became guardians of sacred knowledge and earned the reputation of wise men.