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Abu Simbel Temple
Abu Simbel Temple is one of the most famous ancient Egyptian monuments in the world. Today a major tourist attraction, although located a distance from Cairo, Abu Simbel attracted world attention in the 1960's, when the construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge it.

In order to save Abu Simbel Temple, Unesco embarked on a rescue mission. The archaeological project to relocate Abu Simbel to higher ground became a colossal project involving experts from many countries. Eventually Abu Simbel was relocated to an artificial mountain that is empty on the inside, but looks like a real mountain from outside.

The name Abu Simbel is believed to be that of an early guide who brought the first archaeologists to the place. The temple was constructed in approximately 1284BC by Pharoah Ramesses II as a monument to himself and to his queen Nefertari, purportedly to commemorate his victory against the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh. There are therefore two temples, one for Ramesses II and another to Nefertari, located next to each other. The location chosen by Ramesses for his temple is at the southern gateway into Egypt and serves as a billboard to intimidate his Nubian neighbours and to advertise his might. What better way to frighten your foes than to erect such monumental statues of yourself.

The two temples at Abu Simbel are called the Greater Temple and the Lesser Temple. The Greater Temple was dedicated to the ancient Egyptian gods Amun Ra, Ra Harakhti and Ptah, and the deified Ramesses himself. It consists of four colossal statues in seated position each towering 20 metres in height. All of them depict Pharoah Ramesses II. The statues were carved out of the rock where they were located. Members of the royal family are also sculptured below Ramesses. Standing no higher than the Pharoah's knees include Nefertari, queen mother Mut-Tuy, sons Amun-her-khepeshef and Ramesses, and daughters Bintanath, Baketmut, Nefertari, Meritamen, Nebettawy and Isetnofret.

Going through the doorway between the colossal statues, one enters the hypostyle hall, an elongated chamber 18 metres long and 16.7 metres wide. This hall is supported by pillars that depict the deified Ramesses linked to the god Osiris. At the end of the hypostyle hall is a second pillared chamber. From here a vestibule leads to the sanctuary. Seated within the sanctuary are four seated figures, namely Ra Harakhti, the deified Ramesses, Amun Ra and Ptah.

The Greater Temple is constructed in such a way that every year, on 20 October and 20 February, the ray of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate three of the four seated figures; Ptah, the god of the underworld, remains permanently in darkness. The two dates are believed to commemorate the pharoah's birthday and coronation, or perhaps some other great even, such as the thirtieth jubilee of his reign. When archaeologists moved the temple, they tried to re-create the event. However, their calculations must have been out by a bit, for the rays now enters the sanctuary a day later.

One hundred meters away from the Greater Temple is the Lesser Temple, dedicated to Ramesses II's chief queen Nefertiti and the goddess Hathor. The facade, also carved from the rocks, show two groups of 10-meter tall colossi. Here, the king and queen are shown of equal size. This is very unusual, because traditionally the queen is never shown any taller than the pharoah's knees. The Lesser Temple is a rare example where both king and queen are depicted in equal size, and is also the only example of a temple dedicated to the king's consort.

In 1959, the Abu Simbel temple faced a modern threat in the form of the planned construction of the Aswan High Dam, which threatened to inundate it. This propelled the international community to start a campaign to it. With the participation of Unesco, a project was formed to move the temple. The salvage operation began in 1964. The temple was carefully dismantled block by block. Each block was numbered and then moved to a location 64m higher and 200m away from the rising water. It was through this project that the idea to safeguard the world heritage was mooted, and through this, the Unesco World Heritage Site listing was born.

Abu Simbel can be reached by flight from Cairo. At time of writing (Dec 2007), Egyptian Air flies four times a day. Another possible way to reach Abu Simbel is by boat through Lake Nasser. Due to security concerns, Abu Simbel is presently not accessible by car to foreigners. Anyone wishing to visit Abu Simbel by road must join a tour convoy. These convoys are escorted by police. Check with the Egyptian tourist office before making plans. There are usually at least one convoy per day. The trip takes 3 hours each way. Bring sunblock and water, as the journey is very hot. It is also advisable to travel on air-conditioned buses.
About the Author
Timothy Tye explores and documents the tourist attractions of the world in EarthDocumentary. Go to EarthDocumentary to learn about the tourist attractions of London.
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