Where can you find an ancient Egyptian architectural marvel that’s not pyramid-shaped? Make your way down to Abu Simbel, almost to the Egyptian-Sudanese border! While it may not be on your radar when you start planning your Egypt adventure, it will probably make its way onto your list while you do your research. Need some added intrigue? They are not currently at their original location. Trust me when I say it’s worth the effort to see them in person.
Why Go to Abu Simbel?
The 3000+ year old temples that make up Abu Simbel were built by Ramses II for himself (naturally) and his favorite wife, Queen Nefertari. They were carved right into the side of a mountain, and they were intended to impress those traveling into Egypt from the south (Nubia and present-day Sudan). These massive monuments are truly a sight to behold, but the real marvel is the fact that they were moved 200 meters farther in and 65 meters up!
For the ancient Egyptians, the Nile would reliably flood every year, and that is how basically all of Egypt survived agriculturally. But sometimes it would flood too much, which wasn’t good. Sometimes it wouldn’t flood at all, which was also not good. So, in order to regulate that, the Egyptian government decided to build a dam way down south, in Aswan. That was 1902. By the 1960s, it was clear another, larger dam was necessary.
However, that larger dam was going to create the largest manmade lake in the world: Lake Nasser. The problem? There were several temples, communities, and other monuments already occupying the land where the lake would form. So, in the 1960s, UNESCO and several countries from around the world came together to help Egypt save the most significant of the temples. The relocation campaign moved these temples to other locations, including Spain, the United States, Germany, and more.
Keep reading: The Ultimate Egypt and the Nile Bucket List
How Abu Simbel Got to Where It Is
One culturally significant temple complex that stayed behind in Egypt was the largest of them all: Abu Simbel. The two temples in the complex (the Great Temple and the Temple of Hathor) were cut, moved, reassembled, and masterfully restored. When you visit them today, they look like they’ve always belonged exactly where they are. Click here for a You Tube Video about how they were moved in the 1960s!
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How to Get There
Where to Start: Aswan
There are three ways to get to Abu Simbel, but there is only one starting point: Aswan. You could take a “direct” (which, contrary to popular belief, is not the same as “non-stop”) flight from Cairo to Aswan, then fly from Aswan to Abu Simbel. For the most part, though, it’s recommended to spend at least two nights in Aswan: One night before your trip to Abu Simbel, and the night after you get back from Abu Simbel.
Stay a little longer! The Best Things to Do in Aswan, Egypt
It is possible to hire a driver (not possible to drive yourself) from Aswan to Abu Simbel. Keep in mind, though, that this is a rough, four hour journey–one way–which makes it a very long, full-day trip. The morning start time is usually in the 4:00 hour. When you add that eight hours of drive time to the hour and a half you have exploring the Abu Simbel temples, you’re looking at a 9.5-10 hour excursion.
It is less expensive to do it this way, but you should also weigh the value of your time in Egypt, especially since there are several other worthwhile things to do in Aswan. Prices vary by tour company, but in general, the cost will be around $500-$600 per vehicle for one person or up to six people. The cost will be divided by how many people can go in the vehicle, so the more people, the lower the individual cost.
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The easier, less stressful way to travel from Aswan to Abu Simbel is to fly. Egypt Air has the only service to Abu Simbel, and the flight is just 45 minutes each way. This makes for a more enjoyable time at the temples (unless you really love road trips), and you’ll still have time to see something else or simply relax at your accommodation in Aswan instead of spending all day in the car.
Flights are around $130-$200 per person, round-trip, plus the cost of a ride to the airport in Aswan and back, as well as the cost of a ride from the Abu Simbel airport to the temples and back. For two people, the cost is fairly even with the cost of driving, but for a large group or family, the driving cost may be a better deal.
Also helpful: The Ultimate List of Things You Can’t Do in Egypt
It is possible to do a cruise from Aswan to Abu Simbel, so if you have the time and the desire to do so, just know it will take up about four to five days of your trip. The large cruise ships can’t navigate the shallower waters on Lake Nasser, so you’ll be on a smaller boat, which will also give you a more authentic experience. You can click here to find out more.
The opposite direction: Cruising to Luxor on a Traditional Dahabiya Boat
Ramses II’s Great Temple
This is what you’re here for! The “Great Temple” to Ramses, built for himself, is one of the most famous sites in Egypt, both for its size as well as its “moving” story. Ramses II chose to build this temple here for two reasons. One, for the love of his wife. Nefertari was Ramses II’s first and favorite wife, and a Nubian. Abu Simbel is deep in Nubian country, which Ramses II took for himself. This is also called the Land of Kush in the Bible.
The other reason is less romantic and more political: Gold! Nubia was rich in gold, which the ancient Egyptians used in everything from jewelry to coffins to everyday objects. Looming over Nubia with a Great Temple to himself let everyone know he was in charge of the land, which also put him in possession of the gold. Just like the politics of today, “follow the money.”
Keep reading: 7 Reasons Every Traveler Needs to Visit Egypt
Nefertari’s Temple of Hathor
Back to the romance. Ramses II built this temple to honor Nefertari. It’s a little smaller than the Great Temple, but the real symbolism here is the size of the Nefertari statues compared to the Ramses II statues flanking the entrance to this temple. They’re the same height, where traditionally the statue of a queen would never be higher than her husband’s knees. This shows that he considered her “even” with him, not lower or less. This also tells us that he really did love her.
Essential info: Why Egypt is a Safe Place to Visit (even for a woman!)
Need more? Check out my dedicated Egypt Page!
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