Whilst on our cruise down the River Nile we got up at 2 one morning and drove 3 hours through the desert to arrive at Abu Simbel by 5. For those, like myself, who hate waking up early you might be questioning my sanity right about now. Believe me, I was questioning it. But I am so glad I listened to our guide that day because what awaited me made everything worth it – the sunrise hitting Abu Simbel.
This would be the time to visit not only because there are very few tourists, meaning that it was quite and uncrowded but because the sun with its orange glow illuminated the magnificence of the temple beyond imagination. The sun often associated with the divine, with kings equating themselves with the might and unquestionable rule of the sun within the cosmos evoked an essence of awe and the power of the King Ramses II (c.1279 – c.1213 BCE). Added to the silence that came with the hour, the temple with its four colossal statues of Ramses magnified his unequivocal importance and the grandeur of Egyptian art.
Consequently, I was very conscious when visiting that I was living through a rare moment, as some would say an almost once in a life time experience. I stood transfixed, unable to fathom how without the technologies, scientific discoveries and equipment we now have in the twentieth century, the Egyptians could have constructed something so large and detailed that has lasted for over 3 thousand years. This also left me feeling sad because one couldn’t help but have a realisation that we have lost something more than just the architectural magnificence that the Egyptians created with this temple. We have lost our devotion and respect for things larger than ourselves, for our rulers, religion and history.
Our guide taught us about the history of Ramses and about the temple itself which I found so fascinating that I wanted to share it with you. The seated figures of Ramses are around 66 feet and are set against the face of the sandstone cliff on the west bank of the Nile. There are two figures of Ramses either side of the entrance to the main temple and the smaller carved figures around their feet represent Ramses’ children, his queen Nefertari, and his mother, Muttuy. Whilst other smaller, yet still larger than life-sized figures depict Ramses’ conquered enemies – the Nubians, Libyans and Hittites and various protecting gods and symbol of power.
As you pass through the central entrance, the interior of the temple is decorated with engravings showing Ramses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods. The temple itself is dedicated to the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte and consists of three consecutive halls all extending 185 feet into the cliff. They are decorated with more Osiride statues of the king (Osiris is an Egyptian god, identified as the god of the afterlife and underworld). Historians have agreed that the structures were created to celebrate Ramses’ victory over the Hittites.
Additionally, there are painted scenes of his victory at the Battle of Kadesh, a major battle between the Egyptians under Ramses II and the Hittites under Muwatallis in Syria. It was fought by the Orontes River and is said to have been the world’s largest chariot battles with around 5,000 chariots charging into the fray. The battle was the result of the Pharaoh wanting to recapture the Hittite-held city of Kadesh. Historians have argued whether this was an Egyptian victory but have come to the agreement that there was no outright victor and the battle led to the world’s first recorded peace treaty. This interior of the Great Temple indicates that the probable date of its construction was around 1264 BCE as the victory would have been fresh in the memory of the people.
To the north of the main temple is a smaller one dedicated to Nefertari. The temple was constructed for the worship of Hathor, the goddess of the sky, of women, and of fertility and love. This temple is adorned with 35 feet statues of the king Ramses and his queen Nefertari. I found it interesting that the queen is presented as being the same size as the king. Often women were represented as being much smaller than the Pharaoh, yet at Abu Simbel Nefertari is rendered the same size, suggesting Ramses’ admiration and love for his queen. It is reported that she was his favourite out of his 6 wives.
Furthermore, this site was apparently already sacred to the god Hathor before the temples were built there. For Ramses to have chosen this site knowing this, I think it is a clever and careful use of propaganda in the form of architectural magnificence used to strengthen the impression amongst the people that Ramses is considered as a god amongst other gods.
Lastly, the temples are aligned with the east and so twice a year (21 February and 21 October) the sun shines directly into the sanctuary of the temple to illuminate the statues of Ramses and Amun. These dates are supposedly in line with Ramses’ birthday and coronation.
This trip is undoubtedly my favourite from my time in Egypt and will forever be ingrained within my memory. It will leave you yearning to understand more of the past and how the Egyptians used the sun as a way to illuminated certain statues/important figures. If these don’t interest you, you will certainly leave with an appreciation of their art and architecture.
Thanks for reading 🙂