The great Sun Temple of ABU SIMBEL (“Father of the Ear of Corn”) epitomizes the monumentalism of the New Kingdom during its imperial heyday, when Ramses II (c.1279–13 BC) waged colonial wars from the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon to the Fourth Cataract. To impress his power and majesty on the Nubians, Ramses had four gigantic statues of himself hewn from the mountainside, whence his unblinking stare confronted travellers as they entered Egypt from Africa.

The temple was precisely oriented so that the sun’s rays reached deep into the mountain to illuminate its sanctuary on his birthday and the anniversary of his coronation. The deified pharaoh physically overshadows the sun-god Re-Herakhte, to whom the temple is nominally dedicated, just as his queen, Nefertari, sidelines Hathor in a neighbouring edifice, also hewn into the mountain.

The first European to see Abu Simbel since antiquity was the Swiss explorer Burckhardt, who found the temples almost completely buried by sand drifts in 1813. Although Belzoni later managed to clear an entrance, lack of treasure discouraged further efforts and the site was soon reburied in sand – a process repeated throughout the nineteenth century. Finally cleared, the temple became the scenic highlight of Thomas Cook’s Nile cruises.

It was the prospect of losing Abu Simbel to Lake Nasser that impelled UNESCO to organize the salvage of Nubian monuments in the 1960s. Behind the temporary protection of a coffer dam, Abu Simbel’s brittle sandstone was stabilized by injections of synthetic resin and then hand-sawn into 1041 blocks weighing up to thirty tons apiece. Two years after the first block was cut, Abu Simbel was reassembled 210m behind (and 61m above) its original site, a false mountain being constructed to match the former setting. The whole operation (1964–68) cost $40 million.

The modern town of Abu Simbel looks desolate as you roll in past the airport, but once beyond the main intersection it becomes quite picturesque, straggling around rocky headlands replete with beehive-domed houses and crimson oleander bushes. The temples are at the far end of Sharia Ramses, 1km from the town centre.

The Sun Temple

Visitors walk around a man-made mountain to be confronted by the great Sun Temple, seemingly hewn from the cliffs overlooking Lake Nasser. Its impact is perhaps a little diminished by familiarity (the temple has been depicted on everything from T-shirts to banknotes) and the technicolour contrast between red rockscape and aquamarine water is more startling than the clean-swept facade, which looks less dramatic than the sand-choked Abu Simbel of nineteenth-century engravings. For all the meticulous reconstruction and landscaping, too, it’s hard not to sense its artificiality, but gradually the temple’s presence asserts itself, and your mind boggles at its audacious conception, the logistics of constructing and moving it, and the unabashed megalomania of its founder.

The colossi and facade
Although Re-Herakhte, Amun-Re and Ptah are also carved on the facade as patron deities, they’re clearly secondary to Ramses II, who ruled for 67 years, dying at the age of 96, having sired scores of sons, most of whom predeceased him. The temple facade is dominated by four enthroned Colossi of Ramses II, whose twenty-metre height surpasses the Colossi of Memnon at Thebes (though one lost its upper half following an earthquake in 27 BC). Their feet and legs are crudely executed but the torsos and heads are finely carved, and the face of the left-hand figure quite beautiful. Between them stand figures of the royal family, dwarfed by Ramses’ knees. To the left of the headless colossus is the pharaoh’s mother, Muttuy; Queen Nefertari stands on the right of the colossus, Prince Amunhirkhepshef between its legs. On its right calf, an inscription records that Greek mercenaries participated in the Nubian campaign of the Saïte king Psammetichus II (c.590 BC).

The facade is otherwise embellished with a niche-bound statue of Re-Herakhte, holding a sceptre and a figure of Maat. This composition is a pictorial play of words on Ramses’ prenomen, User-Maat-Re, so the flanking sunk-reliefs of the king presenting the god with images of Maat actually signify Ramses honouring his deified self. Crowning the facade is a corvetto cornice surmounted by baboons worshipping the rising sun. On the sides of the colossal thrones flanking the temple entrance, twin Nile-gods entwine the heraldic papyrus and sedge around the hieroglyph “to unite”, with the rows of captives beneath them divided between north and south, Asiatics on the right-hand throne and Nubians on its left-hand counterpart.

The Hypostyle Hall
This schematic division reappears in the lofty rock-cut Hypostyle Hall, flanked on either side by four pillars fronted by ten-metre-high statues of Ramses in the Osiris position, carrying the crook and flail (the best is the end figure on the right). Beneath a ceiling painted with flying vultures, the walls crawl with scenes from his campaigns, from Syria to Nubia. On the entrance walls, Ramses slaughters Hittite and Nubian captives before Amun-Re and Re-Herakhte, accompanied by eight of his many sons or nine daughters, and his ka. But the most dramatic reliefs are found on the side walls.

The right-hand wall (all directions assume you’re facing the back of the temple) depicts the Battle of Qadesh on the River Orontes (1300 BC), starting from the back of the hall. Here you see Ramses’ army marching on Qadesh, followed by their encampment, ringed by shields. Acting on disinformation tortured out of enemy spies, Ramses prepares to attack the city and summons his reserve divisions down from the heights. The waiting Hittites ford the river, charge one division and scatter another to surround the king, who single-handedly cuts his way out of the trap. The final scene claims an unqualified Egyptian triumph, even though Ramses failed to take the city. Notwithstanding this, the opposite wall portrays him storming a Syrian fortress in his chariot (note the double arm, which some regard as an attempt at animation), lancing a Libyan and returning with fettered Nubians. Along the rear wall, he presents them to Amun, Mut and himself, and the captured Hittites to Re-Herakhte, lion-headed Wert-Hekew and his own deified personage.

The eight lateral chambers off the hall were probably used to store cult objects and tribute from Nubia, and are decorated with offering scenes. Reliefs in the smaller pillared hall show Ramses and Nefertari offering incense before the shrine and barque of Amun-Re and Re-Herakhte.

The Sanctuary
Walk through one of the doors at the back, cross the transverse vestibule and head for the central Sanctuary. Originally encased in gold, its four (now mutilated) cult statues wait to be touched by the sun’s rays at dawn on February 22 and October 22. February 21 was Ramses’ birthday and October 21 his coronation date, but the relocation of Abu Simbel has changed the timing of these solar events by one day. Perhaps significantly, the figure of Ptah “the Hidden One” (on the far left) is situated so that it alone remains in darkness when the sun illuminates Amun-Re, Re-Herakhte and Ramses the god. Before them is a stone block where the sacred barque once rested.

The Hathor Temple of Queen Nefertari

A little further north of the Sun Temple stands the smaller rock-hewn Temple of Queen Nefertari, identified here with the goddess Hathor, who was wife to the sun-god during his day’s passage and mother to his rebirth at dawn. As with Ramses’ temple, the rock-hewn facade imitates a receding pylon (whose corvetto cornice has fallen), its plane accentuated by a series of rising buttresses separating six colossal statues of Ramses and Nefertari (over 9m tall), which seem to emerge from the rock. Each is accompanied by two smaller figures of their children, who stand knee-high in the shadows. A frieze of cobras protects the door into the temple, which is simpler in plan than Ramses’, having but one columned hall and vestibule, and only two lateral chambers; it runs 24m into the hillside.

The best reliefs are in the hall with square, Hathor-headed pillars whose sides show the royal couple mingling with deities. On the entrance wall Nefertari watches Ramses slay Egypt’s enemies; on the side walls she participates in rituals as his equal, appearing before Anuket and Hathor. In the transverse vestibule beyond, the portal of the sanctuary is flanked by scenes of the royal couple offering wine and flowers to Amun-Re and Horus, Re-Herakhte, Khnum, Satet and Anuket.

The Sanctuary niche contains a ruined cow-statue of Hathor, above which vultures guard Nefertari’s cartouches. On the side walls, she offers incense to Mut and Hathor, while Ramses worships his own image and that of Nefertari.