A temple like no other

The next couple of days were devoted to temples…and lots of driving. First, I made the long trip south to Abu Simbel, near the border with Sudan to see the Great Temple of Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most famous monuments. Getting their required a three-hour drive. After a couple of hours being driven through featureless, dull desert, the side of the road suddenly became green with crops grown using the water from Lake Nasser – but soon that too became rather boring. Fortunately, the temple was worth the effort of getting there. It was located on a pretty site, next to the bright blue waters of Lake Nasser.

The spectacular site of the Great Temple of Ramses and the Temple of Hathor

The temple has a long and interesting history. It was built in the 13th century BC in the reign of Ramses II and orientated such that the rising sun would shine right through the temple to its inner sanctuary on exactly two days each year – Ramses’ birthday and the anniversary of his coronation.  After the fall of the pharaohs, it was forgotten and was almost completely covered by sand. A Swiss archaeologist stumbled across the top of the head of one of the four giant statues of Ramses that guard the temple’s entrance and started excavating to uncover the Temple of Ramses and the nearby Temple of Hathor. The temple was nearly lost again when the Aswan dam was constructed. Like the Temple of Isis at Philae, it was one of several important archaeological sites that were moved to higher ground by an international group of archaeologists to save them from being submerged. The Great Temple of Ramses II was possibly the most challenging such project. It involved cutting the temple into hundreds of blocks, averaging 20 tonnes each, creating an artificial hill to provide the temple’s backdrop, and rebuilding the temple in the newly created cliff. The engineers also tried to mirror the orientation of the old site as closely as possible but could not get an exact match – the rising sun now illuminates the sanctuary one day later than it did the original temple. I had timed my trip well – my guest house owner had advised to leave early, and many people leave at six in a convoy of vehicles from Aswan with a police escort, a relic from the time that the road was considered a target for terrorists. Instead, I left at a leisurely half past eight and arrived at half past eleven, missing all of the tour groups.

The temple of Hathor with the Great Temple in the backgound

First, I visited the Temple of Hathor, the goddess of love. The entrance had three large statues of Ramses and his favourite queen, Nefertari; unusually she was represented on the same large scale as her husband (usually wives and children were carved much smaller).

The temple of Hathor
Inside the Temple of Hathor

Next, I visited the main attraction, the Great Temple of Ramses II. It is dedicated to the gods Ra, Amun and Ptah………but is mostly a tribute to Ramses II himself. The four huge statues of him at the temple’s entrance are one of Egypt’s most widely recognised sights, and in real life are just as impressive as they are in photos.

The Great Temple – Ramses II’s ego trip

The interior of the temple has scenes from the life of Ramses II. He probably became pharaoh at the age of 21 (though some sources say even earlier) and may have died aged 90 – a reign of around 70 years. Egyptians say he was a “busy” man. He fought many battles – including a key victory over the Hittites that secured the independence of Egypt- constructed cities, temples and monuments and had over 100 children from fourteen wives. His favourite wife was Nefertari, and he built a magnificent tomb for her in the Valley of the Queens in Thebes (now Luxor).

Ramses slaughtering the Hittites

Several passages led into the rock away from the main temple – probably they were storage areas
Yet more Ramses statues inside

The Great Temple is an amazing sight and a monument to the things humans capable of when they work together. Construction of such a large and beautiful temple, 2500 years ago, at the very edge of the area controlled by Ramses’ Egypt was an astonishing achievement. But so too was the international project to save the temple from flooding by moving it piece by piece to a new location. If only today’s humans could rediscover this spirit of cooperation.

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