The twin temples of Abu Simbel were carved out of a mountainside during the reign of Ramses II around 1240 BC. They are unique for several reasons and considered by many experts to be among the most colossal and beautiful of ancient Egyptian monuments. Most remarkably, the entire structure was salvaged in 1959 from the rising waters of the new Aswan Dam, which would otherwise have submerged it. More than $40 million was raised at the time to move the temples, which was accomplished over four years (1964-68) by cutting the structure into 20-30 ton blocks then transporting the sections to the new site for reassembly. The effort was funded by a number of nations.
The twin temples were commissioned by Ramses II as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari to celebrate his alleged military victories over Nubian neighbors. The scale of the monument is presumed to have intended to intimidate the Nubian tribes still resisting Pharoanic rule. Construction took 20 years. Because of its remote location in an area that was abandoned by subsequent dynasties, the temples became lost to history. By the 6th Century BC, they were mostly covered by sand. Rediscovered in 1813 by the Swiss explorer, J.K. Burckhardt, the site was more thoroughly excavated and looted by Italians led by the explorer, Giovanni Belzoni, in 1817.
The name “Abu Simbel” is thought to come from the boy guide who led Belzoni to the site.
The site is such an important tourist attraction that the Egyptian government maintains a modern airport that welcomes two flights of tourists daily. The axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that twice a year, on October 20 and February 20, the rays of the sun penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld who must always remain in the dark. These dates are allegedly the Pharoah’s birthday and coronation day respectively.
Traditionally, queen statues were built next to the Pharoah’s, but never larger than the Pharoah’s statue’s knees. At Abu Simbel the queen and Pharoah are of comparable size. This exception to such a long standing rule bears witness to the special importance attached to Queen Nefertari by Ramses, although whether it was for love or politics is unknown.