The temples of Abu Simbel are among the most impressive testimonies to the rule of the pharaohs in Egypt. The complex is such a huge tourist attraction that it even has its own airport. It almost disappeared forever in the 1960s. Thanks to a rescue operation that is probably unique in world history, today’s world heritage could be preserved.

The two monumental temples of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt are one of the country’s most important cultural treasures and, after the Pyramids of Giza, its second largest tourist attraction. Once built by a powerful pharaoh, the temples have survived for several millennia as evidence of the incomparable heyday that the country on the Nile experienced at that time. But that it still exists today is more or less a miracle. Because actually they were literally doomed by a new mega-project of the modern age. What followed was probably one of the most spectacular rescue operations of all time.

The side “WorldHistoryAccording to them, the temples of Abu Simbel were built sometime between 1264 and 1224 BC. The exact period is disputed among historians, but it was undoubtedly commissioned by the godlike Pharaoh Ramses II. They are intended to symbolize his omnipotence and the strength of Egypt, which is becoming an empire during this period. The pharaoh had defeated enemies like the Hittites and the Nubians in numerous epic battles, such as the Battle of Kadesh in 1274. The two temples may have been commissioned to commemorate this victory.

20 years of construction

Temples of Abu Simbel
Impressive monument: The temples of Abu Simbel remind of the omnipotence of the pharaohsPhoto: Getty Images

It is also known that the construction of the temples of Abu Simbel took place over a period of 20 years. Above all, Ramses II gives himself a monument that still reminds of him several thousand years later. The larger temple at Abu Simbel, 30 meters high and 35 meters long, is adorned with four colossal 20-meter-tall stone figures depicting the pharaoh. Below are numerous smaller statues depicting both Ramses’ family and his vanquished enemies. The temple is dedicated to the deities Amun, Ptah and Ra-Horakty, as well as of course Ramses himself and his main wife Nefertari. Inside the temple, the two are depicted on numerous reliefs worshiping the gods. Other murals depict Ramses’ victory at the Battle of Kadesh.

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Next door is the smaller of the temples of Abu Simbel. Only 12 meters high and 28 meters long, it is guarded by six stone colossuses, each ten meters high. In addition to four figures representing Ramses, there are also two for his wife Nefertari. Her importance is shown by the fact that she is depicted in the same size as her divine husband. In addition, the temple is expressly dedicated to Nefertari. Only once before in the history of Egypt had this happened, women were usually considered more of a beautiful accompaniment to the radiant power of their husbands. In this temple, the pharaoh and his wife can be seen worshiping the goddess Hathor.

Plunder and near-destruction

Temples of Abu Simbel
The smaller of the temples at Abu Simbel is dedicated to the pharaoh’s wife Nefertari and the goddess HathorPhoto: Getty Images

However, as history progressed, the mighty empire of the pharaohs literally sank into the desert sands, and the temples of Abu Simbel fell into oblivion for several millennia. It was not until 1813 that the Swiss Johann Ludwig Burkhardt was the first to rediscover it. At this point, the temples are covered with sand up to the necks of the mighty statues, and so they are not visited again until four years later for the first time in living memory. The Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni plays a rather inglorious role, because instead of exploring the temples, he shamelessly plunders them. The origin of the name of the two temples probably also dates from this time. Accordingly, the local boy who led either Burkhardt or Belzoni to the place of worship was called Abu Simbel.

But the fact that millions of tourists are still able to enjoy this world heritage every year is actually a miracle. At the beginning of the 1960s, plans for another, modern mega-project began to take shape. The Egyptian government is planning to flood large areas for the construction of the Aswan High Dam – including the area on which the temples of Abu Simbel stand. What follows is one of the most daring mammoth projects of all time. Under the auspices of Unesco, more than 50 countries are (financially) involved in saving the monuments from the proverbial collapse.

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The monument with its own airport

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For this, the temples of Abu Simbel are actually dismantled and moved stone by stone. The new location is 65 meters higher than the old one, the “move” will take four years and cost about 40 million dollars. They even build a new mountain behind the temples so that they look as if they were carved in the stone, as originally. In addition, the alignment is exactly the same as the old position, which can still be observed twice a year in an impressive way. On February 21st and October 21st, the sun falls on the temple in such a way that its rays penetrate through the large portal and illuminate the statues of Ramses and the god Amun.

In 1979 the temples of Abu Simbel were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. Hundreds of tourists visit the monument every day today, and thousands on the specific days mentioned above. According to the site “Introducing EgyptThe temples are open daily from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. from October to April and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. from May to September. Accordingly, it is also popular with visitors to see the sunrise over the desert at Abu Simbel. According to the site, entry currently costs the equivalent of 4.90 euros for adults. However, this information varies greatly on other websites. Visitors can reach the world heritage site either by coach, boat or even by plane. The place of worship is so popular that it has its own airport. Which over 3000-year-old building can say that about itself?

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