The two massive rock temples built by Pharaoh Ramses in 1257 BCE on the west bank of the Nile in Nubia is today popularly known as Abu Simbel. The site was sacred to Hathor of Absek even long before the time of Ramses. Before Ramses built the temples the site had two grottoes dedicated to the cult of local divinities. The temples were a hidden mystery until 1813 because of their remote location near the Sudanese border in southern Egypt. The place was called Meha in ancient times. Ramses constructed the Abu Simbel in dedication to the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte. Legends also say that the structure was constructed by the Pharaoh as a token of appreciation for his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. It was Egyptologist Giovanni Belzoni who was the first to explore this place in 1817. Today Abu Simbel falls under the part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the ‘Nubian Monuments’.
Also known as ‘The Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun’ it is one among the seven rock temples built during the reign of Ramses in Nubia. The rock-cut façade of the temple represents the front of a pylon on which is etched four colossal figures of Ramses. Between the legs and on either side of the statues stand sculpted figures representing other members of the royal family. Beneath these giant sculptures are carved images of bound captives. A row of baboons called Watchers of the Dawn stand above the pylon. They are depicted with raised hands in adoration of the rising sun. The Egyptians believed baboons played an important role in helping the sun god defeat the darkness of night. The temples also have wall paintings depicting the military victories of Ramses. The temples were, however, relocated in 1968 on an artificial mountainside. This was done to prevent their being submerged by the Lake Nasser, an artificial lake created during the time.
The interior of the larger temple also known as the Sacred Cave is made out of living rock. A series of halls and rooms adorn the cave. The first hall is about 54 feet wide and has two 30 feet high Osirid statues of Ramses. The three doors at the end of the main hall lead into lateral chambers, the middle door opening into a room with four square pillars. A doorway from this room leads into the vestibule beyond which is seated on a small altar the shrines of Ptah, Amun-Ra, the defied Ramses 2 and Re-Horakhte. The smaller temple built to the north of the main temple is dedicated to the goddess of love and fertility Hathor, personified by Nefertari, the most beloved of Ramses’ wives. The temple has a single pillared hall with carved Hathor heads atop the pillars. This was the second time in the history of Egypt a temple was built in memory of a queen.
The temples were constructed to impress the southern neighbours of Egypt and also to lay stress on the importance of religion in Egypt. Historians also say Abu Simbel is an expression of the ego and pride of Pharaoh Ramses. The most remarkable feature of the temple is the solar phenomena. It so happens that the architects of the period had precisely oriented the temples in a way that on 22nd February and 22nd October every year, the first rays of the morning sun shine down the entire length of the Sacred Cave to illuminate the shrines at the back except Ptah, god of the Underworld. The two dates are supposed to be the king’s birthday and coronation day respectively, though there are no evidences to support the fact. The same technique was also used in the construction of the artificial cave of Newgrange in Ireland. Another notable feature is the fact that this is the only Egyptian art where the statues of the king and his consort have the same size.
Touring Abu Simbel gives one the ultimate Egyptian adventure. History majors, archaeologists and those others interested can learn a lot about the life led by Pharaohs by paying a visit to Abu Simbel. Though the temples were relocated ‘everything looks just as it did before’. The temples at Abu are the finest among the seven structures Ramses built. The representations of Ramses are the best sculpted figures in the temple. On seeing the images, someone has even said that it ‘was the most expressive, youthful countenance, approaching nearer to the Grecian model of beauty than that of any Egyptian figure I have seen.’ They also depict an almost similar image of ancient Egypt perhaps after the Giza pyramids.
The temples have also featured in a lot of Egyptian and science fiction movies. In the 2001 movie The Mummy Returns, the temple is shown as the way to the Oasis of Ahm-Shere. Thanks to UNESCO and the Egyptian government, today the temples at Abu Simbel are known to the entire world as a living evidence of the cultures and traditions followed by ancient Egyptians. In fact Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has even written a book titled ‘The Mysteries of Abu Simbel’. Abu Simbel is indeed an exploration of sacredness embodied through art and architecture.