Aswan, Egypt; Day 3

We were back at full strength today with 5 Adventurers and headed out to see another amazing temple from Ancient Egypt.

Today we headed 140 miles south of Aswan near the southern border with Sudan. Once we left Aswan, the scenery was desert for the entire 3 hour trip south with the same view coming 3 hours back. We’d been told there was no food in the desert so eat a good breakfast and pack a lunch. So we did both. There was a roadside oasis selling coffee, soda and chips about 2/3 of the way there. They also had clean bathrooms which at 5 Egyptian Pounds (33 cents) per use were well worth it.

Road stand surrounded by desert

We stopped on the way there and on the way back we stopped longer to eat our box lunch provided by our hotel. Once again we got way more food than we could eat and an interesting variety. This one had: two fried chicken cutlets, rice, potato chips, a container of olives, two rolls, two oranges, a banana and a juice box. We had snacked a little bit from them in the morning, ate them for lunch and again for dinner. And we still have 9 oranges left for tomorrow.

Our destination was one of the most recognizable temples in Egypt – Abu Simbel. This massive rock cut site is actually two temples, the Great Temple of Rameses II and the Small Temple of Hothar and Nefertari.

The Great Temple of Rameses II
Rameses II at left and Nefertari at right

The temples were carved out of the side of the mountain in the 13th century BC. The facade is over 100 feet high and dominated by 4 identical statues of Rameses II about 65ft high. One was damaged in an earthquake but the other three are fairly intact. We were astounded by the scale and artistry and we’re not surprised this is one of the most recognizable of Egypt’s images.

But the facade was just the beginning. Once you go through the entry there are temple rooms carved another 130ft deep into the mountain with additional chambers shooting off the sides. They combine giant statues with walls covered in images and hieroglyphs telling the story of Rameses’ victory in the Battle of Kadesh.

In the very back chamber there are 4 seated statues – 3 Egyptian Gods and Rameses II who was positioning himself as a God. Twice per year in February and October the rising sun goes straight through the entry of the temple and illuminates the 3 of the 4 faces of these statues in the sanctuary chamber (the 4th is a god of darkness and receives no such illumination). The dates correspond with Rameses birth and coronation days.

Sanctuary chamber in The Great Temple

The second temple at the site is dedicated to Rameses favorite wife Nefertari and to the goddess Hathor. It also has statues carved into the facade – in this case three statues of the king and queen standing 33ft tall on each side of a large entryway. This temple was also carved from the rock meaning it’s all one piece – no statues or columns were made elsewhere and added.

This temple is similar to the Great Temple in that the first chamber after the entryway features large columns with statues depicting the Queen as well as inscriptions on the walls depicting important scenes from the lives of the Pharaoh the Queen and the Goddess.

Being in the temples and seeing the craftsmanship was mesmerizing. Some of the wall art retained color even after 3000 years which was amazing. The wall carvings in some places was worn away but in others was crisp and clean as if it was new.

These temples are incredible. It is also not in its original position. Like the Philae temples these icons of Ancient Egyptian skill were also going to be submerged by water – this one in the 60’s with the building of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser. Prior to the dam, the water during floods came right to the level of the temples.

Original temple location – historic places photo

After the creation of the lake, they would have been under more than 100 feet of water.

The temples were moved as part of the UNESCO Nubian Salvage Campaign in the 60’s. As part of planning the dam, Egypt asked the UN for help to save a number of monuments. Many countries around the world helped raise money and contributed expertise to the project. Ultimately the single sandstone structures were cut into around 2000 pieces and moved 100 feet up the hill to a specially constructed mountain. Rather than get submerged and lost, the effort will help deliver on Rameses II desire for the temple to exist for eternity.

1969 National Geographic cover depicting a statue from The Great Temple façade

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