Abu Simbel is a temple complex, originally cut into a solid rock cliff, in southern Egypt and located at the second cataract of the Nile River. The two temples which comprise the site (The Great Temple and The Small Temple) were created during the reign of Ramses II (c. 1279 – c. 1213 BCE) either between 1264 – 1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE. The discrepancy in the dates is due to differing interpretations of the life of Ramses II by modern day scholars. It is certain, based upon the extensive art work throughout the interior of the Great Temple, that the structures were created, at least in part, to celebrate Ramses’ victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE. To some scholars, this indicates a probable date of 1264 BCE for the initial construction as the victory would have been fresh in the memory of the people. However, the decision to build the grand monument at that precise location, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests to other scholars the later date of 1244 BCE in that it would have had to have been begun after the Nubian Campaigns Ramses II undertook with his sons and was built as a symbol of Egypt’s power.
Whichever date construction began, it is agreed that it took twenty years to create the complex and that the temples are dedicated to the gods Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, and the deified Ramses II (The Great Temple) and the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, Ramses’ favorite wife (The Small Temple). While it is assumed that the name, `Abu Simbel’, was the designation for the complex in antiquity, this is not so. Allegedly, the Swiss explorer Burckhardt was led to the site by a boy named Abu Simbel in 1813 CE and the site was then named after him. Burckhardt, however, was unable to uncover the site, which was buried in sand up to the necks of the grand colossi and later mentioned this experience to his friend and fellow explorer Giovanni Belzoni. It was Belzoni who uncovered and first excavated (or looted) Abu Simbel in 1817 CE and it is considered likely that it was he, not Burckhardt, who was led to the site by the young boy and who named the complex after him. As with other aspects regarding Abu Simbel (such as the date it was begun), the truth of either version of the story is open to interpretation and all that is known is that the original name for the complex, if it had a specific designation, has been lost.
The Great Temple stands 98 feet (30 meters) high and 115 feet (35 meters) long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramses II on his throne; each one 65 feet (20 meters) tall. Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life-sized) depicting Ramses’ conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members and various protecting gods and symbols of power. Passing between the colossi, through the central entrance, the interior of the temple is decorated with engravings showing Ramses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods. Ramses’ great victory at Kadesh (considered by modern scholars to be more of a draw than an Egyptian triumph) is also depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. According to the scholars Oakes and Gahlin, these engravings of the events surrounding the battle,
Present a lively account in both reliefs and text. Preparations for battle are being made in the Egyptian camp. Horses are harnessed or given their fodder while one solder has his wounds dressed. The king’s tent is also depicted while another scene shows a council of war between Ramses and his officers. Two Hittite spies are captured and beaten until they reveal the true whereabouts of Muwatalli, the Hittite king. Finally, the two sides engage in battle, the Egyptians charging in neat formation while the Hittites are in confusion, chariots crashing, horses bolting and soldiers falling into the River Orontes. In the text, Ramses takes on the whole of the Hittite army single-handed, apart from support rendered by [the god] Amun who defends him in battle and finally hands him the victory. (208).
The Small Temple stands nearby at a height of 40 feet (12 meters) and 92 feet (28 meters) long. This temple is also adorned by colossi across the front facade, three on either side of the doorway, depicting Ramses and his queen Nefertari (four statues of the king and two of the queen) at a height of 32 feet (10 meters). The prestige of the queen is apparent in that, usually, a female is represented on a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh while, at Abu Simbel, Nefertari is rendered the same size as Ramses. The Small Temple is also notable in that it is the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a ruler dedicated a temple to his wife (the first time being the Pharaoh Akhenaton, 1353-1336 BCE, who dedicated a temple to his queen Nefertiti). The walls of this temple are dedicated to images of Ramses and Nefertari making offerings to the gods and to depictions of the goddess Hathor.
A SACRED SITE
The location of the site was sacred to Hathor long before the temples were built there and, it is thought, was carefully chosen by Ramses for this very reason. In both temples, Ramses is recognized as a god among other gods and his choice of an already sacred locale would have strengthened this impression among the people. The temples are also aligned with the east so that, twice a year, on 21 February and 21 October, the sun shines directly into the sanctuary of The Great Temple to illuminate the statues of Ramses and Amun. The dates are thought to correspond to Ramses’ birthday and coronation. The alignment of sacred structures with the rising or setting sun, or with the position of the sun at the solstices, was common throughout the ancient world (best known at New Grange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland) but the sanctuary of 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.