What you need to know about Egypt’s Abu Simbel Temple

  • Megan Pearce
  • 16 Apr 24

The temples of Abu Simbel are among the most famous of all ancient Egyptian monuments. Read here to uncover its rich history, fascinating architecture and symbolism. Plus, learn about its relocation and preservation!

Bunnik Tours' team outside Abu Simbel, Egypt

Bunnik Tours' team outside Abu Simbel, Egypt

The temples of Abu Simbel are among the most famous of all ancient Egyptian monuments. The two temples, known as the Great Temple and the Small Temple, are carved directly into the rock near Egypt’s southern border and are best known for their imposing facades. Carved into the rock during the reign of Pharaoh Remeses II, in the 13th century BCE, The Great Temple of King Rameses II dominates the site with its four 20 metre tall seated colossal statues of the king.

The significance of Abu Simbel in ancient Egyptian history lies in its role as a symbol of Pharaoh Rameses II’s power and devotion. The temples were built to honour the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, as well as Rameses II himself and his beloved wife, Queens Nefertari. The site served as a religious centre and a testament to the pharaoh’s military victories, political stability, and architectural achievements.

The temples are also renowned for their astronomical alignment, with the inner sanctuary of the Great Temple illuminated by the sun twice a year during the Sun Festival.



  1. History and Origins
  2. Architectural Marvels
  3. Significance and Symbolism
  4. Relocation and Preservation


History and Origins

The significance of the construction of the Abu Simbel temples reflects several key aspects of ancient Egyptian history.

Pharaoh Rameses II ruled Egypt during one of the most prosperous and powerful eras in ancient Egyptian history. He reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE, and during his rule he undertook numerous building projects across Egypt.

Abu Simbel is located in ancient Nubia, a region that was of strategic importance due to its natural resources and trade routes. Rameses II’s decision to construct such grand temples in Nubia, reflects his desire to maintain control over it.

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Abu Simbel, Egypt

The walls of the main hall are decorated with scenes of Rameses II’s military campaigns. Most notable are the lively scenes of the Battle of Kadesh, which he fought against the Hittites.

The Great Temple was also dedicated primarily to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah. Amun, one of the principle gods of the Egyptian pantheon, represented the primeval force of creation and was associated with kingship and fertility. Ra-Horakhty, a combination of the sun gods Ra and Horus, symbolised the rising and setting sun, representing light, warmth, and life. Ptah was the creator god of Memphis and was associated with craftsmen and artisans.  These deities, or gods, were highly revered in ancient Egypt, and Abu Simbel served not only as a monument to Ramesses II but also as a place of worship and religious significance.

The dedication of the Small Temple to his beloved wife, Queen Nefertari, further reinforced the importance of his royal family. Queen Nefertari was highly esteemed by Ramesses II and the temples construction was a personal gesture of love and reverence, immortalising Nefertari as a divine figure worthy of worship and adoration.

Two people standing in front of the Small Temple, Abu Simbel, Egypt


Architectural Marvels

Carved into the sandstone cliffs of southern Egypt, these temples were constructed over 3,000 years ago and were a remarkable engineering feat of the ancient world.

Outside of Abu Simbel, Egypt

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel is renowned for its remarkable architecture, characterised by colossal statues and intricate carvings. At the entrance stand four colossal statues of Pharaoh Rameses II. Symbolising his divine authority and dominance, each statue stands approximately 20 meters tall.

Inside, the hall has massive pillars and the walls have intricate carvings and reliefs that depict the pharaoh’s military victories and religious rituals.

Inside Abu Simbel, Egypt

Inside Abu Simbel, Egypt

The Small Temple at Abu Simbel holds significance as a dedication to both the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, the beloved wife of Pharaoh Rameses II. Standing adjacent to the Great Temple, this temple highlights the pharaoh's personal devotion and his reverence for his queen. On the façade, her colossi are nearly the same size as those of her husband, a very rare honour that symbolises her status and his love for her.

The temples façade features six standing statues: four of Rameses II and two of Nefertari. This representation of the royal couple reflects the pharaoh’s affection and respect for his queen. The entrance is flanked by Hathor-headed columns.

Façade of Abu Simbel, Egypt

Inside the temple, the sanctuary contains statues of Hathor, Nefertari, and other deities. Hathor is depicted with cow ears, symbolic of her divine nurturing and protective aspects.

The ceiling of the innermost chamber features astronomical scenes and depictions of the vulture goddess Nekhbet spreading her wings protectively over Nefertari. These intricate decorations further emphasise the divine association of the queen with the gods and her eternal protection.

Interior of Abu Simbel, Egypt

Interior of Abu Simbel, Egypt


Significance and Symbolism

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel depicts Pharaoh Ramesses II in a manner that elevates him to the status of a god. Several visual cues and symbolic representations were added to the wall carvings to convey this.

The exterior and interior of the temple hold scenes and representations of gods and some of his family. Additions to the wall carvings depicted Pharaoh Ramesses II alongside the Egyptian gods, participating in religious rituals, or making offerings to the gods.

Hieroglyphics in Abu Simbel, Egypt

Hieroglyphics in Abu Simbel, Egypt

The monumental scale of the Great Temple also emphasises Rameses II’s divine authority and presence. The colossal statues at the entrance of the temple tower over visitors. This convey’s his dominance over the region and his status as a ruler chosen by the gods.

Interestingly, the alignment of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel was meticulously planned to coincide with the phenomenon known as the Sun Festival. The temple was built with such precision that for only two days of each year, the 22nd February and 22nd October, the sun’s rays travel through the entire length of the temple, illuminating the faces of Amun-Ra, Rameses II, and Ra-Horakhty that are seated along the back wall of the sanctuary. Except for Ptah, the god of darkness.

The Sun Festival was a time of religious significance and celebration for the ancient Egyptians. It marked the beginning of the agricultural season and people would gather at the temples to witness the spectacle and participate in rituals honouring the gods. The alignment of the temples during this event also showcased the pharaoh's connection to the gods and his role in maintaining order and prosperity for Egypt.


Relocation and Preservation

The relocation of the Abu Simbel temples in the 1960s was a remarkable engineering feat undertaken to preserve this cultural heritage site from rising waters due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

The operation to salvage the monuments in Nubia in the 1960s remains the largest campaign undertaken to save cultural heritage. The great feat of engineering was achieved through the solidarity of the international community, led by NATO, upon request of the Egyptian government. The monuments of Nubia, including the two temples of Abu Simbel, were threatened with being permanently submerged after the rising waters of Lake Nasser in 1960.

Work began on the Abu Simbel Salvage Operation in 1964, when the two temples were cut into approximately 1042 massive blocks and reassembled 200 metres to the north-west on ground approximately 65 metres higher than their original position.

The relocation of Abu Simbel, Egypt

The relocation of Abu Simbel, Egypt

Moving the stone structures required precise cutting and carving techniques. Specialised equipment was used to transport the enormous stone blocks to their new location. The intricate reliefs and statues had to be carefully documented and preserved throughout the relocation process, while skilled labourers worked to reassemble the temples.

Extreme heat and sandstorms were just some of the environmental factors workers had to contend with. These conditions posed logistical challenges and required careful planning and coordination to ensure the safety of workers and the preservation of the temple structures. At their new location, both temples have their own separate concrete dome that is covered with sand and rocks to provide the appearance of the natural cliffs into which the temples had originally been carved.

Finally, Egyptian workers completed their task in 1968, and the relocated temples of Abu Simbel were officially reopened on 22nd of September of that year. Due to their historical significance, the Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979.

Close up of Abu Simbel, Egypt


The Great Temple of Abu Simbel stand as a testament to ancient Egyptian craftsmanship, religious devotion, and the enduring legacy of Pharaoh Ramesses II. The Small Temple of Hathor and Nefertari is not only a testament to the architectural and artistic achievements of ancient Egypt but also a poignant expression of Pharaoh Ramesses II's love and reverence for his queen, as well as his dedication to honouring the goddess Hathor.

Attracting visitors from around the world, Abu Simbel remains one of the most iconic and well-preserved archaeological sites in Egypt. Visiting the site was something very special and an experience well worth the journey.

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