Abu Simbel: A Mirage In The Desert

Our 2:30 a.m. wake up call seemed to shake our hotel room, rousing the four of us from a deep sleep. We dressed and went downstairs to the hotel lobby to join other half-awake guests searching through their complimentary box breakfasts to find something edible. We were herded into a minivan and drove through the Aswan streets picking up more tourists until we had a full minibus. Our driver then took us to a spot south of Aswan where a couple dozen minivans and several large buses lined up ready to start the convoy to the Abu Simbel temples. We sat in the chilly pre-dawn desert for a half hour until someone decided that we had enough minivans and buses to start our convoy.

The convoy is a legacy of the 1997 terrorist attack on tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. In an effort to reassure foreign tourists, the Egyptian government mandated that all foreigners travelling overland between the country’s main tourist centers to join armed convoys. This visible security was intended to dissuade attacks and reassure visitors, but some argue that the convoys have done nothing more than draw attention to potential targets and make it more difficult for the various tourist attractions to process large surges of people at one time.

If we thought that the logistical procedures necessary to get to the monuments were complicated, learning about how the monuments themselves had to be moved dwarfed it by comparison. The Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples in Nubia, southern Egypt on the western bank of Lake Nasser about 230 km southwest of Aswan. The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Nubian Monuments." The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his alleged victory at the Battle of Kadesh, and to intimidate his Nubian neighbors. The temples fell into disuse and were forgotten until 1813 when the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Niger (yes, Niger) River. (Read blog entry on Burckhardt here) The complex was relocated in its entirety in the 1960s, on a domed artificial hill, high above the Aswan High Dam reservoir. The relocation of the temples was necessary to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser. Starting in 1964, a multinational UNESCO team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators carefully cut up the site into a 3-D jigsaw puzzle of large stone blocks of up to 30 tons (averaging 20 tons), then lifted and reassembled them in a new location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.

We arrived after three and a half hours of convoy driving and piled out of our minivan ready for our allotted two hour tour of the site. The façade is of course impressive for its size, detailed carving and its situation overlooking Lake Nasser, the bloated reincarnation of the Nile in Southern Egypt. The interior was well preserved and the fresco of Ramses leading the charge on his chariot in the battle of Kadesh is stunning (photo). The battle of Kadesh featured 5,000-6,000 chariots and pitted the Egyptians against the Hittites in modern-day Syria but there is no scholarly consensus on who won the battle. We visited first the larger temple, dedicated to Ramses, and then the smaller one dedicated to Nefertari, then returned to sit in front of the famous façade, looking for lines where it was cut as well as small tell-tale numbers that allowed its reassembly.

The awe-inspiring sensation of antiquity of this UNESCO World Heritage site was, for me, equally offset by a sense of artificiality. The site is supposed to commemorate a great victory but no one really knows who won the battle of Kadesh, a conflict waged on another continent. The temple’s current location has been barren desert for thousands of years until a 20th century dam was built and the lake behind us, the world’s largest man-made body of water, was not there either. Legend indicates that even the name Abu Simbel is a misnomer. The name has nothing to do with Ramses or Egypt or Nubian history; tour guides regularly talk about a young boy named Abu Simbel who led 19th century explorers to the site and the temples and nearby town were eventually named after him. A tour guide in the desert is a good idea, especially if you are looking for a mirage.


  1. One day later, I wish I can be there! :)
    Jason Cheer!

  2. Lex,
    I'm sure you'll make it there one day. Thanks for commenting.