When Abu Simbel was first seen by the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burkhardt in 1812, the heads of the pharaoh Rameses II were barely visible above the sand.
The sand was excavated five years later by Giovanni Belzoni, who was the first European to enter the temple and see the statues and reliefs inside. There are famous sketches by David Roberts of the site, drawn in 1838, that show the ever-encroaching sand.
The monuments now known as Abu Simbel were built around 1250 BCE by Rameses II as a tribute to himself, and in honor of a triad of gods: Amon-Ra, Ra-Harakhty and Ptah.
The temples were hewn into the cliffs, situated and designed so that the rays of the sun would enter deep into the sanctuary twice a year on the equinoxes to light the statues on an altar inside.
The temples have been highlights of tourism in Egypt since Victorian times. And they’re featured in the Agatha Christie novel Death on the Nile. Chances are you’ve seen images or footage of these colossal monuments at some point.
When Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser pushed forward plans to create the Aswan High Dam as a symbol of Egypt’s newfound independence in the 1950s, it didn’t take long for engineers and archeologists to become alarmed that many sites – including Abu Simbel – would be inundated by the rising waters of the reservoir.
It’s how the Temple of Dendur made its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
In 1959, a campaign was begun to raise money to move the temples of Abu Simbel to higher ground. An artificial mound was created above the site and the temples were disassembled, cut into moveable chunks, and hauled uphill. The temples, inside and out, were reassembled just as they were before. Quite an undertaking.
So you can understand why I was looking forward to seeing one of the most impressive monuments in the world.
There wasn’t enough time to see it when my mom, sister and I went to Luxor and Aswan in December. So when my dad came to visit, I decided I would join him on part of his trip to Upper Egypt so we could see the famous ruins. I splurged on plane tickets to avoid long bus rides and police caravans from Aswan.
I was nervous about time. If we flew to Abu Simbel and had to catch a return flight only two and a half hours later (as Egypt Air schedules it), would we be able to see these amazing temples – with their towering images of Rameses II and his beloved Nefertari – at my dad’s walking pace?
Was two hours enough?
I was reassured when people – friends and a travel agent – told me the temples were only five minutes from the airport, and that it wouldn’t take long to go through them.
So I booked the flights. 6:15 am from Cairo, stopping in Luxor, connecting in Aswan and on to Abu Simbel. We’d arrive at 10 and have to re-board the plane around 1.
But when we got to the gate in Aswan to board the connecting flight (after some huffy-puffy stair-climbing and comical and tense moments with state security forces who didn’t know that Egypt Air was now using e-tickets, and baggage handlers who didn’t know if they could stow our bags in Aswan or not), the agent, Mohamed, asked us to sit back down. The plane was broken. They’d need a half an hour to fix it.
By all means, I thought. Fix the plane.
But the half hour turned into hours. We ate a breakfast of Sbarro pizza and waited some more.
After four hours, the airline took us to a buffet lunch at a hotel in town. We befriended a mother and daughter from Washington who were also exasperated by the lack of information from the airline. At lunch, I peppered the agent with questions: If the flight doesn’t leave soon, it’ll be dark when we get there, and the site closes at 5. Will we get to see anything? Or are we just going to see the sound and light show (a semi-hokey music and drama soundtrack with lights and moving projections showing on the two temple faces – kind of reminds me of the laser show at Stone Mountain, Georgie, without the “Dixie” tune and Confederate generals riding off into he sunset)?
No, he assured me, it is a special day. The park is open until 8 pm.
I knew he was lying.
And it turns out my hunch was right about when we’d get there. The flight – which they said would leave at 4 – left after 5 (8 eight hours late). The sun set as we flew. We arrived and were whisked to the temples. Dad and I walked as fast as he could, be we saw only half the sound and light show. We had maybe 15 minutes to take pictures of the outside of the temples, but couldn’t go inside.
Then they shut off the lights we had to rush back to the airport.
As we were leaving, I was able to snap one eerie shot of the façade of the temple in the nearly-full moonlight (it’s a little blurry because I was using a rock as a tripod). We made it back to Aswan and spent the night at the New Cataract hotel, the soviet-style block of cement standing next to the historic and charming “Old Cataract” hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote part of Death on the Nile.
We took Friday as a father/son day, and sat and watched the Nile for a couple of hours. We made our way to the cruise boat dad would take to Luxor. After we checked him in, we took a felucca out on the river. There was little wind, so it became a row-boat, and we got stuck on sandbars more than once. Still, the air was clean, and the afternoon was lovely.
I left dad to his cruise and flew back to Cairo. Maybe I’ll see Abu Simbel properly when the next visitor arrives in March.