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          Best Places to Visit in Egypt


Lake Nasser and Abu Simbel

Lake Nasser and Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel near the border with Sudan is one of the most stunning monuments in Egypt

The Setting

From Aswan south to Egypt's  border with Sudan, the country is desolate, extremely arid, and dominated by Lake Nasser. One of the largest man-made lakes in the world, Lake Nasser is approximately 310 miles (500 km) long  by 22 miles (35km) wide  covering the river course along which the Nile flowed at the time of the Pharaohs.


The lake extends beyond Egypt into Sudan, where it is called Lake Nubia.  The holding capacity of Lake Nasser is estimated at 162,000 million cubic meters of water.  The rock filling used to construct the dam is estimated at 43 million cubic meters.

The Nile had been dammed at Aswan previously by the British.  The “Low” Dam (although raised in height several times) did not successfully control the Nile when it was in flood stage.  In 1960 construction started on the Aswan High Dam, an embankment design that is classified as a rock-filled dam. 

When the Egyptian people voted to proceed with the construction of the dam for economic and flood control reasons, it was with the knowledge that its waters would entomb many important archaeological sites. In turn, the Egyptian government turned to UNESCO and the governments of many of the world’s leading countries to donate money and expertise in an attempt to save the sites that would eventually be flooded. The efforts were complex, but ultimately successful.

Lake Nasser is now host to many temples that were moved from their original settings to new locations along the lake's shores where they could be preserved for future generations. By the time the High Dam was completed, after a decade’s work, most but not all of the  temples from pharaonic times had been relocated to higher ground to preserve then from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.

The  temples along the banks of Lake Nasser have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status and are known collectively as the "Nubian Monuments'" These monuments were dismantled, or carved into pieces when necessary, and moved to sites safe from flooding.   We describe the masterful Abu Simbel on this page, and on  the page that follows we describe other outstanding Nubian Monuments on the shores of Lake Nasser, including:  The temples of Amada and Derr, the temples of Dakka and Wadi es Seboua.  We cover the temples  associated with Philae and the temples of Beit el Wali, Kalabsha and the Kiosk of Kertasi near the High Dam in our section on travel in Aswan.

A common way to visit this collection of temples is to fly from Aswan to Abu Simbel and then take a cruise across Lake Nasser back to Aswan, stopping at the leading temples along the way. The interested traveler should note that with the exception of Abu Simbel, Philae and Kalabsha, the temples are small, modest and surrounded by bleak countryside. Note that is possible to take the cruise from Aswan to Abu Simbel or in the reverse direction. Note also, that the temples of Philae and the temple complex at Kalabsha can be visited from Aswan without the need for a lake cruise.

Your  cruise boat will be your sole source of food, entertainment and transportation for the duration of the journey on Lake Nasser. However, if you are interested in the history of the pharaonic times in Egypt, it is a fascinating journey. One of the many satisfying advantages of this itinerary is that it is less popular than the cruises between Luxor and Aswan. As a consequence, the temples and the boats are usually less crowded. One of the reasons for the lack of crowds is that  touring Lake Nasser after exploring the monuments in Luxor, Aswan and along the Nile simply takes more time and expense than required for a Nile cruise.

All of the temples we describe in this section of our Egypt Travel Guide were disassembled and  moved from their original locations in order to avoid flooding.  Then, they were painstakingly rebuilt to match the original architecture, usually in a setting that matched the original as well as possible.

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel (Pharaonic) is one of the most interesting of the monuments of Ancient Egypt. Located approximately 25 miles (40kms) from the border with Sudan and 175 miles south of Aswan, it was constructed to honor Ramesses II (19th dynasty (1292- 1225 BC).  The temple is known for its four massive sculptures of the seated Ramesses II, as well as for the complicated effort required to transplant this amazing site from its original location to one slightly upslope from the original.

The present Abu Simbel site is located approximately 200 feet (60 meters) higher and 700 feet  back from its original site, which is now completely underwater. For all practical purposes, the current setting appears to look identical to the original from the front, but the hill which houses it is artificial, a fact which can be seen from the back. However, the skill and precision with which the original temple was cut into smaller pieces and reassembled is astounding.

Click the photo above for a gallery exploring Abu Simbel's main temple        

The temple at Abu Simbel marked the southern border of ancient Egypt and celebrated its conquest of the country once known as Nubia. Some speculate that the large size and seeming majesty of the statues of the seated pharaoh Ramesses II were, in part, designed to mark this territory as the land of the Egyptian Pharaoh and warn potential invaders away.

Ramesses II was known for his military campaigns and love of architecture. His many temples across Egypt are examples of the latter, but he also waged numerous battles throughout what is now the Middle East.  The great majority of his temples, or his additions to temples that were already in existence, were designed to celebrate and popularize his military prowess.

The monument at Abu Simbel is comprised of two sections.  The main focus  is on the Grand Temple of Ramesses II, which the Pharaoh dedicated to himself and the god Ra-Horakhty.   A second temple, often referred to as the “Little Temple”, a short distance  to the right was built in honor of  his "favorite" wife Nefertari and dedicated to the goddess Hathor.  This second temple was faced with several statues of  a standing Ramesses II and a smaller number of statues of Nefertari.

The Grand Temple is faced with four, massive, statues of a seated Ramesses II, wearing the double crown of the ruler of Lower and Upper Egypt. Nestled around his legs and to the sides are his children and Nefertari. During ancient times one of the statues lost a  portion of  its head, which fell at the foot of the statue, as the result of an earthquake. When the site was relocated, it was decided to leave the head unattached and positioned where it had fallen relative to the statue of the seated Ramesses.

If you look closely at these Colossi, you will note historical graffiti carved into the legs of the statues. Most of the carving dates from the 19th century when the monument and antiquities were not yet protected in Egypt.

Above the statues at the top of the presentation you will see a row of baboons.  The symbolism here is that baboons are notoriously noisy at sunrise and the ancient Egyptians began to associate them with the sun god Amun Ra who battle the dark powers nightly and rose victorious each morning from his journey through the Underworld.  

Between the pairs of statues representing the seated Ramesses II is the god Ra-Horakhty, to whom the temple was dedicated. Ra Horakhty is thought to have been a combination of the gods Ra and Horus and  was known as the god of the morning sun. The god Ra Horakhty was symbolized with an orb crown (representing the sun)  above a falcon-headed body.

Between the pairs of seated statues of Ramesses II is the entrance to the Grand Temple. which is  small but interesting, although less impressive than  the imposing exterior statues. The reliefs in this temple are quite striking and well-preserved. Note that photography is not allowed inside the compact interior temple. Be prepared to be asked to turn on your camera and show the attendants the most recent photo you have taken, as they are very firm about photography not being allowed within the temple.

The hypostyle hall leading to the inner sanctuary is lined with columns with attached statues of Ramesses II, while on the walls further back you will find many examples of him smiting one enemy or another.  Eventually you will reach the portion of the temple regarded as the holiest by the ancient Egyptians and known as the sanctuary.  The temple's major axis is aligned  so that  twice a year (at the equinoxes) the sun  shines into  the temple  illuminating the  statues of four gods (Ptah, Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty, and Ramesses II) located at the very rear of the inner sanctuary.

A short walk to the northeast, along the cliff face, will bring you to the Little Temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor, who had several identities.  To some, she was known as the “Cow” Goddess, who was the greeter of the dead when they entered the underworld.   Hathor was, also, known as the goddess of love, joy and beauty (see our section on Dendera Temple, which was dedicated to Hathor). 


Click the photo above for a gallery detailing the Little Temple at Abu Simbel

The statues on the exterior columns of the Little Temple are of  Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari (although there are more statues of him than her  that represent yet another tribute to his ego). The most remarkable feature of the sanctuary in this temple are the reliefs on the central pillars that celebrate Hathor on one face and a broad collection of gods on the remaining sides, including Ramesses and Nefertari, who themselves were deified and considered gods by the ancient Egyptians.


Click the photo above for a gallery detailing the Sound and Light Show at Abu Simbel

If you are over-nighting in Abu Simbel (usually related to the start or end of a Lake Nasser cruise)  you should arrange tickets for the evening sound and light show, which is worth seeing. The laser-driven recreation of the some of the military campaigns of Ramesses II is, colorful and quite dramatic. Apparently, the show is also quite popular with the local population of dogs (looking-like, but just this side of feral) as they howled throughout the most exciting sections (noisiest) of the presentation. See the official website for details on attending, including the contents of the show, language availability and other information that may be of interest.

Your Lake Nasser cruise will depart shortly after breakfast. It is worth getting up a little early to see the sun rise over Nasser and Abu Simbel.


Click the photo above for a gallery detailing sailing Lake Nasser and the sights you will encounter


See our section describing other temples along the shores of Lake Nasser.

Click one of the other destinations we cover in Egypt in the Index to Egypt near the top right of this page.

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Best Places To Visit in Egypt

Nile - Luxor to Aswan
Aswan Area
Abu Simbel
Lake Nasser Temples

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