Abu Simbel temple of Ramses II

A site in Egypt where Ramses the  Great (Ramses II) (1304–1237 b.c.) carved a pair of  rock cut temples. Situated on the west bank of the  Nile at Egypt’s southern border,  lies 180  miles south of Aswan. The larger of the two temples,  the Great Temple, Hwt Ramesses Meryamun, called  the Temple of Ramses Beloved of Amun, is dedicated  to Egypt’s principal gods: Amun Re, Rehorakhty,  Ptah, and the deified Ramses. The walls of the  Great Temple are decorated with religious scenes,  including an array of gods and goddesses, and scenes  of Ramses’s most important battles the most well- known being the Battle of Kaddesh, which depicts  Ramses’s victory over the Hittites. The most impressive parts of the temple are four  67-foot-tall seated statues of Ramses that occupy the  open air court in front of the entrance to the temple. 

Each one was carved from the rock face of the mountain. (It has been suggested that Mount Rushmore in  South Dakota was based on these figures of Ramses.)  One of the statues (on the left as you face the temple)  was damaged by an earthquake in antiquity, and the  head lies on the ground. Carved on the sides of each  throne are Nile gods tying lotus and papyrus plants  around the hieroglyph “to unite,” symbolizing the  unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Statues of the royal family are carved between and  beside the legs of all four colossal statues of Ramses.  Prominently shown around the first southern statue  are: Queen Nefertari (the Great Wife), Muttuya  (king’s mother), and Prince Amen-hir-khep-shef  (the firstborn son). From the second southern statue  are: Princess Bint-Anat, Princess Nebet-awy-by, and  a female figure whose name has been lost, perhaps  Esenofre, a minor wife.

The family members shown with the two northern statues are: Queen Nefertari,  Princess Beket-mut, Prince Pi-Ramses, Princess  Merit-Amun, Queen Muttuya, and Princess Nofre- tari. Beneath the statues are figures of bound cap- tives, and above the entrance to the Great Temple is  a carving of the sun god Rehorakhty. To his right  is a jackal-head symbol meaning “power”; to the left  is Maat, the goddess of truth. Together the three  symbols form an ancient Egyptian pun: they spell  one of Ramses’s names, Usr-Maat-Re, “the Truth of  Re is Power.” In front of the Great Temple were two  stone basins where the priests purified themselves  with Nile water before entering the temple.

The Great Temple has four rooms: The first,  called the great hall, has eight square pillars each  with a statue of Ramses. The four on the right wear  the double crown, signifying the unification of  Upper and Lower Egypt, and those on the left wear  the white crown of Upper Egypt. In the second  hall, the four pillars are decorated with religious  scenes—the king in the company of the gods: Anubis,  Satis, Min, Mut, Wadjet, Amun-Re, Hathor,  Montu, and several manifestations of Horus. On the  entrance to the vestibule the king makes offerings of  wine, incense, bread, and flowers to the gods. The  vestibule leads to the sanctuary, where statues of  the gods are cut into the rock. From left to right are  Ptah, Amun-Re, Ramses II (as a god), and Re-Hora- khty. The image of Ramses is the same size as those  of the gods, suggesting he is the equal of the gods he  is honoring.

 The holy of holies at Abu Simbel is  oriented so that on February 21 (Ramses’s birthday)  and October 21 (Ramses’s coronation date), the rays  of the sun shine through the corridor into the sanctu- ary and illuminate Ramses and the gods. Just north of Ramses’s temple is the Small Temple,  built for Queen Nefertari, and dedicated to Hathor  as Abshek, an obscure Nubian goddess of love and  beauty. The front of Nefertari’s temple is shaped like  a pylon and faced with six colossal statues: four of  Ramses and two of Nefertari, each about 33 feet tall. An inscription over the door reads: Rameses II, he has made a temple, excavated in  the mountain, of eternal workmanship, for the  chief queen Nefertari, beloved of Mut, in Nubia,  forever and ever, Nefertari for whose sake the  very sun does shine. Inside, the great hall is supported by six Hathor- head columns that incorporate the shape of the sis- trum, the sacred rattle used in religious ceremonies.

 In the vestibule, or second room, are religious scenes with Nefertari in the company of goddesses. On the right of the main vestibule door, Hathor-Abshek  looks on as Isis places a crown upon Nefertari’s head. On the left side of the vestibule door, Nefertari stands with Ramses, who presents a bouquet of flowers to  Tauret, the goddess of pregnancy and childbirth.  The third room, the Holy of Holies, where the cult statues were kept, is decorated with various goddesses. One wall is carved to show Hathor as a cow goddess emerging from a mountain to protect the king, who stands in front of her. On the side walls, Ramses and Nefertari appear in the company of the gods with  Ramses offering incense and libations to himself and his queen, indicating that they are both deified.

The temples at Abu Simbel are unique because  they were carved from a mountain, not built of  stone blocks. When the Aswan High Dam was being constructed in the 1960s, both temples were saved  from the rising water that formed Lake Nasr behind the dam. UNESCO, the United Nations Educa- tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the Egyptian government dismantled the temples, cut  the facades into blocks, numbered them, and moved them to higher ground. The reassembled temples  were carefully placed so the sun still shines into the  holy of holies on February 21 and October 21, just as in ancient times.