Abu Simbel – A Magical Day Trip from Aswan
Abu Simbel, Abu Simbel, Abu Simbel – there is just something magical about those words, or at least there has been to me since I was a teenager and first learned of the herculean effort by UNESCO to save the most famous of Ramses II many Egyptian temples from inundation by the Aswan High Dam. The massive statues of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari (not Nefertiti) are the things of fantasy, more likely a product of H.P.Lovecraft’s wild imagination than reality, and yet they really do exist. And what’s better, you can visit them in relative ease and security after many years of being off limits to all but the most adventuresome and least risk averse tourists. Won’t you join me on a day trip from the lovely city of Aswan to Abu Simbel and back? For me it was one of the most memorable days of my life.
What is Abu Simbel?
Technically, Abu Simbel is just a village on the Nile, the last stop before entering the vastness and insecurity of northern Sudan. It’s a place where caravans of truckers assemble, sometimes by the hundreds, to decrease the chances of being attacked by highway robbers on the way to Khartoum and beyond. It’s people are Nubians, of a civilization and language that may predate that of Egypt itself and of whom less than half a million remain today, most of their original kingdom flooded by the Aswan High Dam. Anwar Sadat was a Nubian and that might explain his willingness to make peace with Israel with whom the Nubians would have no beef. It cost him his life.
But the Nubians were not the only ones displaced by the creation of what is, depending on your point of view, either one of world’s greatest feats of engineering or one of the world’s greatest man made ecological disasters (I favour the latter view).
Ramses II is considered by most Egyptologists to be the most important and influential of all the kings in ancient Egypt. He ruled for 66 years, had an ego bigger than Donald Trump’s, fathered over 160 children and fought many major battles, all of which, according to him, he won. He could not resist boasting of his achievements and went on a building spree perhaps unequaled in history to let the world know of his unrivalled prowess. There is little doubt that when the ordinary person has an image of an Egyptian king, it is Ramses II that will come to mind. His image is the face of ancient Egypt, from the mouth of the Nile to the borders of Nubia, which explains why he had to build a massive temple to himself and his favourite wife Nefertari at the very place that any traveler or potential enemy heading north on the Nile could not fail to miss. The temple of Abu Simbel was a symbol (no pun intended) of his power and a warning – you are entering the realm of Ramses II, tremble in fear!
The great romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed to get the last laugh at Ramses II expense in his 1818 sonnet Ozymandias which was another name for the king:
The Relocation of Abu Simbel
Gamal Abdel Nasser was the first Egyptian to actually rule Egypt in over 2,000 years – true. He had great aspirations for modernizing the country, particularly by the construction of a great dam at Aswan that would provide electricity and regulate the annual flooding of the Nile. He seems to have overlooked the fact that the annual flooding was the very thing that defined Egypt since the dawn of civilization. The Russians built the dam and this colossally ugly monument to themselves for doing it. In the course of creating the vast lake behind the dam which was named for, who else but Nasser, they flooded almost 60% of ancient Nubia and hundreds of ancient monuments.
The temple of Abu Simbel would have been submerged by the rising waters if not relocated. There was only one big catch. Unlike most temples which are constructed from the ground up out of stone or some other building material, Abu Simbel was actually a gigantic rock carving. The statues on the outside and the interior were literally carved into a huge cliff overlooking the Nile. This was not something you could take apart and reassemble somewhere else like a set of Lego blocks.
Under the auspices of UNESCO, dozens of countries and companies collaborated to figure out a way to do it. I am proud to say that Canada played a prominent role as indicated on this chart in the Nubian museum in Aswan..
You can watch this video to get a detailed explanation of how it was done.
For brevity’s sake let’s just call it the first case of cut and paste archaeology.
The relocated temple opened in 1968 after nine years of relocation work and has been a wonder of both the ancient and modern world ever since.
This is a map of southern Egypt. As you can see Abu Simbel is remote by any standards. The nearest city is Aswan which is 288 kms. (180 miles) away by road. There are three ways to get there. Jet setters can fly right in and out from Aswan or even Cairo. I don’t think that applies to most of my readers. You can take a leisurely 4 or 5 day boat cruise on Lake Nasser. This used to be a very popular option, but with the drastic decline in Egyptian tourism there are now only a few operators offering these cruises. If you’re interested, here’s a link to companies still offering Lake Nasser sailings.
By far the most popular option is driving to Abu Simbel from Aswan and returning on the same day. Here are the downsides – you spend a shitload of time on a bus and you have to get up in the middle of the night. Here are the upsides – you get to see the sun rise over the Sahara desert and you get to see Abu Simbel. For me this was a no brainer.
Don’t even think of going to Abu Simbel on your own. There is literally nothing for hundreds of kilometres and if something goes wrong you are probably screwed. If you are not already on a tour then take a day trip with a local tour company from Aswan. My group traveled with the excellent Canadian company Adventures Abroad which always has top notch guides and local contacts. Our Egyptian host was Ahmed Mohsin Hashem who has a Masters of Egyptology and studied with the great Dr. Zahi Hawass. He is fluent not only in English, but can read hieroglyphics as well. Here he is in Memphis explaining to us how to interpret ancient cartouches.
OK, after a far too long introduction we are off.
Highway 75 has numerous army checkpoints and little else. It is paved all the way and in good shape. Almost all the traffic is buses like ours making their way to Abu Simbel. About an hour or so into the journey the sun makes its appearance in the east and it really is an awesome sight rising over the tractless sands. You fall into a kind of trance just staring out at the nothingness until suddenly, snapping out of it, we’re there. We pass through the village of Abu Simbel and a seemingly endless lineup of trucks getting ready to convoy into Sudan and then we pull into the parking lot. Only a few buses have beaten us here.
It’s about a five minute walk to the temple site through the inevitable gauntlet of hawkers, which is not bad as Egyptian tourist spots go. Abu Simbel faces away from the way you enter so you don’t come upon it gradually, but almost by surprise as you round a corner in the pathway. There are no words to describe the effect the first look at the colossal statues has on you. No matter what your expectations, you will be struck with awe. Now I’m just going to let the pictures of the exterior tell most of the story.
BTW, in case you are wondering, the second statue on the left just didn’t fall down, that’s the way it was prior to relocation. The one on the far left is the most complete showing Ramses II wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. While it took modern technology nine years to complete the relocation, the original Grand Temple was finished by manual labour alone in twenty years.
The small figures between Ramses feet are representations of some of his favourite children.
This is the Lesser Temple dedicated to Ramses favourite wife Nefertari. It’s the only instance in Egyptian temples where the wife was depicted as the same size as the king. This shot makes it look quite busy, but if you look at the size of the entire complex you can see that this is not the case.
On both sides of the entrance to the Great Temple are these two sets of prisoners.
The first are Hittites from modern day Turkey whom Ramses claimed to have bested at the Battle of Kadesh which took place in Syria. Most historians call it a draw.
The second group is clearly that of African prisoners and seems to put paid to the oft made argument that the ancient Egyptians were blacks. These men look nothing like the statues of Ramses or his ilk.
You cannot take pictures inside the temples, although that does not stop the Chinese tourists. Here is where Ahmed really comes into his own, interpreting the meaning of the carvings and hieroglyphs that cover the interior walls. With hieroglyphs it is literally true that every picture tells a story.
Here are some interior scenes taken from among the thousands of photos on the CD Impressions of Egypt by Egyptologist and friend of Ahmed’s, Mohammed Fathy.
Incredibly after over 3,000 years the paint is still quite visible.
Well that concludes my post on Abu Simbel and I’ll sign off with some proof that I was actually there and didn’t just make all of this up on a Sunday morning in St. Margaret’s Bay.
And if you’d like to contact Ahmed to retain his valuable guiding skills you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomorrow we embark on a traditional Nile River cruise from Aswan to Luxor. Please join us.
Here is a link to the Egypt photo gallery with pics from the entire trip.