Abu Simbel, site south of Aswan, on the western bank of the Nile River in what was Nubia (now near Egypt’s border with Sudan). It has two rock-cut temples from the nineteenth dynasty reign of Ramesses II. First noted in European literature by Johann Burckhardt in 1819, Abu Simbel has since become one of the most famous of monuments in the Nile Valley. Following the decision to build a new High Dam at Aswan in the early 1960s, the temples were dismantled and relocated in 1968 on the desert plateau 64 meters (about 200 feet) above and 180 meters (600 feet) west of their original site.
The ancient name for the region, Meha, was first documented in the late eighteenth dynasty, when the pharaohs Ay and Horemheb had rock-cut chapels hewn in the hills just to the south of Abu Simbel, at Gebel Shems and Abahuda. The original concept behind the Abu Simbel temples was also of eighteenth dynasty origin, the model being the temples of Amenhotpe III at Soleb and his Queen Tiye at Sedeinga. The Great Temple at Abu Simbel was the first of a series of four temples built during the reign of Ramesses II, which formed a unit, and each was dedicated to one of the four state gods: Amun-Re, Re-Horakhty, Ptah, and the divine manifestation of the pharaoh; the three other temples were built at Wadi-es-Sebua (the domain of Amun), Derr (the domain of Re-Horakhty), and Gerf Hussein (the domain of Ptah). The temples at Abu Simbel were begun in the early years of the reign and were completed by its twenty-fifth year.
No precinct wall, or dromos, now survives in front of the Great Temple; that such a precinct wall may originally have existed has been suggested by the brick wall to the northern side of the temple, with a pylon and gateway that lead toward the Small Temple and the mud-brick walls that enclose the entrance to the chapel on the south side. The ramp to the terrace is flanked by two large stelae. Along the terrace, statues of both the living and the mummified king alternate with images of falcon deities. An open solar chapel, with an altar (the baboons and obelisks are now in the Cairo Museum), stands at the northern end of the terrace; at its southern end is inscribed a version of the “Marriage Stela,” which recorded Ramesses II’s marriage with a Hittite princess, dated to Year 34 of the king’s reign.
The rock-cut façade, shaped like a pylon, is dominated by four colossal seated statues of the king, each 22 meters (67 feet) high; these are flanked by much smaller standing images of his mother and wife, with very small figures of sons or daughters standing between his feet. An earthquake in antiquity damaged the colossal figures flanking the doorway; the upper part of the southern colossus fell, but the northern figure suffered less damage and was restored in the reign of Sety II. Above the main entrance, a massive niche contains a personification of the king’s name. The left doorjamb has a lengthy cryptic inscription of the king’s titulary.
The temple was entirely cut in the rock cliff, which necessitated some adaptations of the classic temple plan. The entrance opens onto a hall lined by eight square pillars, with standing statues of the king; this indicates an equivalency to an open festival court, of the type found in analogous temples at Thebes (e.g., the Ramesseum) and in Nubia (e.g., es-Sebua). Reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh cover the northern wall, with other military scenes in relief on the southern wall. The Kadesh reliefs are unusual in that they were signed by the chief sculptor, Piaay, son of Khanefer. The scenes flanking the door into the hall depict the king, standing in front of Amun and Mut, on one side, with Re-Horakhty and Ius-aas on the other; in both scenes, the seated image of the deified king was added, between the two deities, and this alteration indicates that the deification of Ramesses II occurred during the construction of the temple (the image of the divine king being integral to the decoration of the inner rooms). Four suites of rooms, usually called treasuries, lie off this hall. Two falcon-headed sphinxes were in front of the doorway that led to the second hall, and they, along with a statue of the viceroy of Nubia, Paser II, were removed to the British Museum in London. A hall with four square columns has religious scenes. Beyond it lies the sanctuary, with four rock-cut statues of the presiding deities: Amun-Re and Ramesses are flanked by Ptah and Re-Horakhty. The axis of the temple is arranged so that, on two days of the year (21 February; 21 October), the rising sun illuminates the king’s image. The decoration of the main rooms is in sunken relief, with rich polychrome painting, but the side chambers are not so fine and the color scheme is limited.
Immediately to the south of the Great Temple is another single rock-cut chamber, with remains of a preceding brick court or hall; this is designated the birth-house in its inscriptions. The two main walls carry depictions of sacred barks; one is the bark of Thoth of Amun-hery-ib (Abahuda), and the other is the sacred bark of Ramesses II.
The Small Temple lies a short distance to the north. Its façade takes the form of a double pylon with six colossal standing statues 10 meters (33 feet) in height, carved from the rock; there are also two of Nefertari and four of Ramesses II, each flanked by small figures of their children. The hall has six square pillars, and the faces on the central aisle were carved with Hathor-headed sistra in high relief. A narrow vestibule carries a unique scene of the coronation of Nefertari by the goddesses Isis and Hathor. The statue in the sanctuary is of the goddess Hathor, in the form of a cow, emerging from the rock, with a small statue of the king in front of her. The reliefs on the sanctuary walls depict Ramesses II worshipping himself and Nefertari: in this temple, Nefertari appears as a manifestation of the goddess Hathor. Throughout the temple, the relief is of good quality, depicting rather slender, attenuated figures. The whole was colored in a scheme in which white and gold predominate. The cliff surrounding both temples carries numerous rock inscriptions made for viceroys and other high officials of the reign.