Abu Simbel was the site I was the most eager to see in Egypt, and one of the reasons I opted to travel independently to the country rather than with a tour group. Most circuits do not include it in their itinerary as it is located completely to the south of the country, 40 kilometers from the Sudanese border, but in my opinion it is the most breathtaking temple in all of Egypt and shouldn’t be missed.
Abu Simbel is actually comprised of two temples: the Great Temple of Ramses II and the temple of queen Nefertari. Ramses II is perhaps the best known of Egyptian pharaohs, having reigned for 67 years during the 13th century B.C. He was responsible for unifying Egypt’s Northern and Southern kingdoms; his legacy is vast and rich, having been responsible for many of the great ancient monuments still standing today. He was greatly respected and feared, to the point where some say folly may have inspired his grandeur.
His temple at Abu Simbel shows his great power and influence, starting with its façade and its four 20-meter tall colossi representing himself, without a doubt one of Egypt’s most notorious and picturesque scenes. Even more amazing is the fact that the stones used to build the temple, weighing in at several tonnes each, were brought by boat from several hundreds of kilometers north down the Nile, near Aswan.
As you walk into the temple, the height of the ceiling, the eight Osiris colonnades and the well preserved state of most of the hieroglyphs are breathtaking. Thousands of years of history unfold as many myths and legends of the Egyptian Gods are set on the walls of a dozen rooms and three central chambers. At the very back of the temple, four statues are seated, an alter representing a deified Ramses II, the Sun-God Ra-Horakhty, the God of gods Amun Ra, as well as Ptah, a God linked to the Underworld.
A particularity of this alter, as well as a show of the immense talent of the great Egyptian architects is that, as commanded by Ramses II, on the 21st of February -the day of his coronation- and the 21st of October -his birthday- the rays of the sun enter the temple all the way through the three main chambers and light up the statues, while leaving Ptah in the shadows.
One hundred meters from the temple of Ramses II stands the temple of queen Nefertari, the Pharaoh’s favorite wife. This temple was also built to honor Hathor, the God of fertility. Not as grand as Ramses’ temple, it was still unusual for a Pharaoh to build such a great homage to his queen, especially since it is the only instance in Egyptian art that the queen is of the same size as the king.
As if the temples weren’t interesting enough, more recent events have sealed Abu Simbel’s place in History. Between 1964 and 1968, when the construction of the High Dam on the Nile near Aswan threatened to completely flood the temple, UNESCO embarked on a relocation project of daunting proportions and the whole site was moved 60 meters up the bank of the Nile, stone by stone, to its current position. Such care was taken that despite the change in location, the light of the sun still lights up three of the four statues at the very back of the temple, albeit one day later than originally…
How to get there
To get to Abu Simbel is half the fun, as you have to travel by police convoy. Is it as cool as it sounds? Absolutely. We had booked our tour with Egypt Tailor Made, in which we had total confidence, having traveled with them previously. At 3:30AM, our guide and driver came to pick us up at our hotel and we drove in the quiet Aswan streets to the meeting point, where police officers, soldiers, tourists and their guides gather to await the 4AM departure. We drove in the pitch black night through the desert, only seeing glimpses of the pick-up carrying the soldiers and their guns through our half-awake eyes. We crossed a few checkpoints and as the sun was rising over the desert, passed by the road to the Sudanese border. So close! We arrived early at Abu Simbel, before anyone else, and had the site to ourselves. It was a memorable experience.
I cannot recommend Egypt Tailor Made enough. The organization of the tour was flawless, and with the police convoy situation being very delicate, things were handled with great care and we felt perfectly safe the whole time. Our driver Mohammed was an expert at navigating pitch-black roads and checkpoints, and our guide Mohammed was knowledgeable and very kind. Our Abu Simbel experience was even more satisfying because of them and we thank Egypt Tailor Made for taking such good care of us. Shukran!
- Entry to the temples is 115 Egyptian pounds per person.
- Two police convoys go to Abu Simbel every day from Aswan (a 300km trip): one at 4AM and one at 10AM. The 4AM convoy arrives at the site at around 7:30 and leaves at 10, giving you plenty of time to explore the site, visit both temples and even shop in the kiosks surrounding the visitors’ center. I’d recommend the 4AM departure so you get to sleep in the car, but mostloy because you get great morning light at the temples. Avoid the 10AM departure during the hot summer months.
- The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- The Great temple was used in James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me as the fictional MI6 field headquarters.
- Pictures are not allowed inside the temples.
- To book a tour with driver and guide, contact Walid at Egypt Tailor Made. Mention The Go Fever to get a 15% discount!
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