The temple complex of Abu Simbel is believed to have been constructed loosely between 1264 and 1224 BCE, during the reign of Ramses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE). The temples, built into a cliffside in southern Egypt, celebrated the victory or stalemate against the Hittites that Ramses II achieved at the Battle of Kadesh (c. 1274 BCE). Yet, the site was also meant to strengthen the pharaoh’s claim to godhood.
The complex consists of two temples—the Great Temple and the Small Temple. Four colossal statues of Ramses II, reaching 20 meters in height, guard the entrance of the Great Temple. The carved structure of the Great Temple, itself, extends around 10 meters higher than the colossi of the pharaoh. Inside the Great Temple, around 56 horizontal meters of cliffside were excavated to make room for three magnificently decorated halls. A small distance to the north of the Great Temple lays the Small Temple, dedicated to Ramses’ queen, Nefertari. As a sign of respect and affection, the statues of Ramses II and Nefertari on this smaller temple were made to be equal in height, roughly 10 meters each.
As millennia passed by, the temple complex of Abu Simbel began to be covered by sand, with only the heads to the Great Temple’s colossal statues left visible by the early 19th century. In 1817 CE, however, an unlikely relic hunter named Giovanni Belzoni found and began excavating the Great and Small Temples.
Interestingly, if Giovanni Belzoni returned from the dead and journeyed back to the spot of his discovery, he would no longer be able to find Abu Simbel in the place where it was originally excavated. The whole temple complex has been moved!
This latest addition to the tale of Abu Simbel occurred in the 1960s, when the government of Egypt was beginning construction on the Aswan High Dam. When predictions came out that the rising water from the dam would flood and submerge the temple complex, UNESCO and the government of Egypt scrambled to save Abu Simbel. In a project that officially lasted from 1960-1980 archaeologists and historical preservationists moved the threatened relics and temples to higher and dryer ground.
From 1963-1968, the Great and Small Temples of Abu Simbel were cut into approximately 16,000 movable blocks, and these segments were transported around 210 meters to the northwest of its original position, where it was placed at a location about 65 meters higher in elevation. Once the pieces of the temples were at their new home, the blocks were seamlessly fixed back together with cement and sand, maintaining the original architectural orientation of the structures. With the temple rebuilt, the team then constructed an artificial cliff face around the temples, convincingly made of gravel, rock and cement. Along with the temples at Abu Simbel, the Sanctuary of Isis at Philae, as well as the surrounding stelae near these temples, were all successfully saved from the rising water. In 1979, all of the above ancient monuments were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.