A strict itinerary meant that we only had time to see Abu Simbel as a day trip from Aswan. Although it makes for a busy & long day, it is possible with kids.
Where, When & How Much: Visiting Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is the last settlement before reaching northern Sudan. It is remote but if you have time, it looks definitely like a place worth spending a few days.
How to Get There
There are three ways to reach Aswan
- Fly from Aswan to Abu Simbel via an EgyptAir flight. Flights are twice daily, take forty-five minutes & give you three hours on the ground. It’s a fast turn around and the price tag is pretty hefty too.
- A Lake Nasser cruise which takes roughly four days (three nights) and departs from Aswan, stops at various temples only accessible by boat. The cost is incredibly high.
- Hire a private car and driver. All tour companies and hotels can arrange this.
Our van and two drivers were approximately 2500 EGP (£118). The entrance fee for the temples was 215 EGP (£10) per adult and kids over 12 PLUS if you want to take photos you must pay 300 EGP (£7) for a photo pass. Keep your proof of ticket-pass on you at all times.
You’ll also need coins for using the toilets and some cash for food and drink. There is a cafe area at the temples but I’d recommend stopping off at the Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge for lunch. They can prepare your food in advance for your arrival time and they can cook vegan food too.
Ticket prices increase on these two dates: October 22 and February 22
It has been made almost impossible to self-drive in Egypt because of the amount of police stops everywhere. You are required to seek permission to visit different areas and you must acquire a permission slip. I have no idea where to get those from which is why we resorted to hiring a driver. We left Aswan at roughly 7am and were returned by 6pm. The drive is approximately three and a half hours in each direction from Aswan.
Route 75 is in good condition and looked like it had been newly tarmaced. The road isn’t bumpy but it is pretty long and boring. The only things to see are sand, a big wall (to keep people out?) and other cars. The big wall is a big strange bearing in mind the entire scenery is desert. When I asked why it was being built, I was told it had been built by the police but nobody knew why. I got the distinct feeling that in Egypt, you don’t ask questions.
To keep our kids entertained they each took an MP3 player, a camera and a picnic. It is a very long and boring drive but there are ways they can entertain themselves.
A Brief History Of The Temples & Site
There are two temples on the site; the great temple and the small temple. They were constructed in 1244 BC by being carved into the rocky, sandstone mountainside. The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Nubian Monuments”, which are ten monuments running from the Philae Temple down to Abu Simbel.
The greater temple is the larger of the two temples and contains four ginormous, towering statues of the seated pharaoh Ramesses II (1303-1213 B.C.). These sit at the entrance to the temple, each about 69 feet (21 meters) tall. The entrance to the temple was built so that on just two days of the year, October 22 and February 22, sunlight shines into the inner sanctuary and lights up three statues seated on a bench, including one of the pharaoh Ramesses II.
Although you may think this is pure fluke, the alignment of sacred structures with the rising or setting sun was common throughout the ancient world (best known at New Grange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland) however the Great Temple differs from these other sites in that the statue of the god Ptah, who stands among the others, is carefully positioned so that it is never illuminated at any time. As Ptah was associated with the Egyptian underworld, his image was kept in perpetual darkness. It is apparently such a spectacle to see, that in 2014, 3.4 thousand tourists flocked to the temples to watch the light.
In addition, Abu Simbel has a second, smaller, temple that is likely to have been built for queen Nefertari. Its front includes two statues of the queen and four of Ramesses II, each about 33 feet (10 metres) in height. Each is set between buttresses carved with hieroglyphs. Although it is less impressive in height, I felt it was more impressive in design and aura.
There is of course much more to the temple’s history but I wanted to keep this part brief!
Who Was Ramesses II
Ramesses II, is by far the most famous of all the pharaohs. He was a warrior king who wanted to expand Egypt’s territory. He fought another empire called the Hittites at the Battle of Qadesh (also spelled Kadesh) in Syria and also launched campaigns into Nubia. Nubia is the area that the temples sit upon and at one point, they were independent and not part of Egypt.
He embellished Abu Simbel with scenes from the Battle of Qadesh. One image carved in the great temple at Abu Simbel shows the king firing arrows from his war chariot and supposedly winning the battle for the Egyptians. It was a blustery display for a battle that modern-day historians agree ended in a draw. Later, Ramesses II would make a peace treaty with the Hittites and cement it by marrying a Hittite princess, an event marked in a stela at Abu Simbel.
Ramesses II built some launched a major constructions program and built some magnificent monuments where he is worshipped in the image of the different gods. Some say he was arrogant and full of hot air and this can be seen in much of his decision-making and the way he chooses to portray himself.
An Already Sacred Site
The location of the site was sacred to the goddess Hathor long before the temples were built there though. Hathor is the goddess of the sky, women, fertility and love and her worship originated in early dynastic times (roughly 3BC).
It is thought that the site for the temples was carefully chosen by Ramesses II for this reason. In both temples, Ramesses II is recognised (you might say self-purported) as a god among other gods and his choice of an already sacred spot would have strengthened this impression among the people of ancient Egypt and Nubia.
The Great Temple of Abu Simbel
The Great Temple, was known in ancient times as the temple of Ramesses-Meryamun which means “Ramesses, beloved by Amun” (Amun was an important deity at that time).
The four seated statues of the pharaoh, at the entrance, show the ruler wearing a short kilt, nemes headdress, double crown with a cobra and a false beard. Next to the legs of the four colossi are several smaller standing statues that represent the pharaoh’s relatives, including his wife Nefertari, his mother Mut-Tuy and his sons and daughters. At the top of the temple facade is a row of twenty-two squatting baboons. The baboon’s cry was believed to welcome the rising sun.
The statue flanking the left side of the entrance was damaged during an ancient earthquake – in the 31st year of the pharaoh’s reign. Restoration of the statue was never carried out even though the face was destroyed during the fall. Although only the lower part of the statue remains intact, the head and torso can still be seen resting at the feet of the enormous statue.
The interior of the temple stretches into the mountainside for about 210 feet (64 metres). The first room is an atrium made up of eight pillars, four on each side, which depict Ramesses II in the guise of the god Osiris. The atrium area includes images and hieroglyphs describing Ramesses II’s supposed victory at the Battle of Qadesh. The atrium also has now empty storerooms on its sides.
Moving deeper into the temple there is a second atrium with four decorated pillars showing the king embracing various divinities as a sign of his spiritual union and predilection and, at the very back, is a bench where a statue of Ramesses II is seated with three other gods, Ra-Harakhty, Amun and Ptah. On just two days of the year (October 22 and February 22) all these statues, except for Ptah (who is associated with the dark underworld), are bathed in sunlight.
The Small Temple Of Abu Simbel
Known as the Temple of Hathor and Nefertari, it is located 100 metres northeast of the Temple of Ramesses.
The smaller temple entrance showcases four statues of Ramesses II and two of Nefertari, his wife. Each statue is about 33 feet (10 metres) tall with a buttress in between. Most remarkable about this is that Ramesses II and Nefertari are presented in equal size – the only instance in Egyptian art. This is an indication of the esteem in which Ramesses II held Nefertari. The facade also contains smaller statues of the children. Some archeologists & historians have noted that the statues of the princesses are taller than those of the princes. This is possibly a sign that this temple pays tribute to Nefertari and the women of Ramesses II’s household.
While smaller in size, the temple is adorned with the same grandiose carvings and depictions of ancient Egypt. It contains six pillars that show drawings of the goddess Hathor. On the back wall of the room are reliefs showing Nefertari in the act of being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis. The queen wears a head covering that shows the solar disc with feathers between cow horns, the same head covering the goddesses are also wearing.
Later The Abandoned Temples
At some point during the 6th century BC, the temples were abandoned and covered with sand, disappearing into the desert. The temples were originally re-discovered by a Swiss research, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, in 1813 although he couldn’t gain entry to them. In 1817, an early Egyptologist named Giovanni Belzoni, managed to uncover the buried entrance and gain entry.
The name Abu Simbel means nothing more than the name of the boy who led Burckhardt to the temples location.
Moving The Temples
For 3,000 years, the temples happily sat on the west bank of the River Nile. However, in the 1960’s the temple complex was threatened by the new Aswan Dam and risked being flooded. If you drive from Aswan you will see the dam which is nearly 4km in length.
The temples were painstakingly dismantled by being cut into a thousand blocks, each weighing up to 30 tonnes. These were transported and rebuilt in 1968 on a desert plateau 64 meters (200 feet) above and 180 meters (600 feet) west of their original site. The area where they were originally located is now flooded.
Moving the temples was an enormous undertaking and one that involved cutting it into pieces between 3-20 tons in weight and re-assembling them precisely as they were. It took almost five years, involved about 3,000 workers and cost $42 million.
Visiting Abu Simbel With Kids
The site isn’t huge (in comparison to some others) and there isn’t a great deal of walking involved however it is hot and dry there. We visited in February and it was still close to 30*c with few clouds in the sky and only a little breeze occasionally.
Only part of the site is pushchair friendly, it would probably be easier to drag the pushchair backwards than attempt to push forwards. Once you’re inside the temples, pushchairs would be difficult due to the amount of people visiting. A pushchair parasol might be advisable if you have small children.
The only shade on site comes from the museum (which has a great film about moving the temples) and the covered cafe area. The cafe area sells bottles of water, cups of tea & coffee and cans of pop. It also sells limited food, mostly meat based although we did manage to get a small plate of hummus and some flat bread however I do recommend stopping off at the Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge for lunch.
I would also definitely recommend taking water and a picnic for the journey as well as stuff to do; music; games; books etc.
Watch This Video Before You Go
There is a video within the site’s museum (which is also dark & cool) that allows you to watch how the temple was cut into squares, transported and reconstructed but for now, this is a good and short video.
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