Abu Simbel (also spelled: ...Sinbil, ...Sembel; Arabic: ابو سمبل) in Upper Egypt was saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, growing behind the Aswan Dam, in a massive archaeological rescue plan sponsored by UNESCO in the 1960s. The complex of temples dedicated to the Pharaoh Ramsis II "the Great" remain an evocative and unforgettable destination.
- See also: Ancient Egypt
Abu Simbel is a village lying 280 km south of Aswan and 40 km north of the Sudanese border. It is a very small settlement with very little to attract visitors other than its great temples for which it is famous. Few tourists linger for more than a few hours, although there are 5 hotels to attract visitors to stay the night.
The temples at Abu Simbel used to be located further down the hillside, facing the Nile in the same relative positions, but due to the rising waters of Lake Nasser, the original locations are underwater. In the 1960s, each temple was carefully sawed into numbered stone cubes, moved uphill, and reassembled before the water rose.
The Great Temple of Ramses II was reassembled fronting a fake mountain, built like a domed basketball court, where the stone cubes occupy a section under the dome; from outside, the fake mountain looks like solid rock.
Archaeologists have concluded that the immense sizes of the statues in the Great Temple were intended to scare potential enemies approaching Egypt's southern region, as they travelled down the Nile from out of Africa.
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- See also: Egypt#Climate
Summers are extremely hot at days, while winters are warm at days and mild at nights. Rainfall is almost non-existent. The best time to visit is from November till February.
Abu Simbel is not accessible to foreigners travelling by their own car, because of police security concerns. Travellers are only able to access Abu Simbel by bus from Aswan. Or they can rent a car with driver via a local agency, which is the most comfortable way.
However, you might get around these concerns and travel with you own car or taxi by telling the police you are working in Egypt—mostly they will not be able to identify that from your passport due to the lack of knowledge of the Roman letters. You would still prefer to travel with the car convoy though, starting at 5AM.
Foreign travellers can get to Abu Simbel by coach or minibus (tour) from Aswan, travelling in convoys. There is at least one daily convoy each way, taking 3 hours. Seats can be arranged at your hotel or through the Aswan tourist office. The cost for a return trip is LE150-250, depending on the season. It seems there are not many companies offering this tour, so the only price difference will be due to varying hotel commission. Nevertheless, inquire at several hotels, like Kaylany, Marhaba and Tiba. The trip price does not include entrance fees, but may include travel to additional sights in Aswan such as the High Dam or unfinished obelisks, but only if agreed before. Also make sure you have at least two hours (by agreement with the booking office) in Abu Simbel and refer to this tour agreement in case the driver is not willing to stick to this. They will not leave without you, promised. Be prepared to be asked for a tip for the driver at the end, even though you just cashed LE200 for this simple bus ride and the drivers behaviour was not really accommodating nor did he deliver any additional service like a stop at the high dam.
Sit on the left hand side of the bus, and you will see the sunrise in the morning (if awake) and be in the shade on the way back.
There are also two public buses from Aswan (3 hours each way). One leaves at 4AM and the second one at 11AM. All convoy buses need to leave for their return journey to Aswan by 4PM latest.
It is possible to travel by cruise ship from Aswan through Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel.
The town of Abu Simbel is small enough to navigate on foot.
- Great Temple of Ramses II. 6AM–5PM. Carved out of a mountain between 1274 BC and 1244 BC, but lost to the world until it was rediscovered in 1813 by Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burkhart. Dedicated to Ramses II himself and gods Ra, Amun, and Ptah. Features 4 statues of Ramses, each higher than 20 m. Its axis was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that twice a year, on February and October 20, the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculpture on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remained in the dark. These dates are allegedly the king's birthday and coronation day respectively, but there is no evidence to support this, though it is quite logical to assume that these dates had some relation to a great event, such as the jubilee celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the pharaoh's rule. This image of the king was enhanced and revitalized by the energy of the solar star, and the deified Ramesses II could take his place next to Amun Ra and Ra-Horakhty. Due to the displacement of the temple, it is widely believed that this event now occurs one day later than it did originally. Also, look for a "Kilroy was here" on the lower legs of one of the 4 giant statues of Ramesses II, along with other graffiti, used to be considered fashionable.
- You can easily take pictures inside of this temple, even though not appreciated. Just when you act too suspicious and stand still too long, they will get suspicious and demand your camera and have you delete the pictures. Hence, be a good actor or have a second camera (or mobile) ready (with some outside pictures) that they can have checked without success.
- Be sure to follow the pathway inside the fake mountain dome, to see how the mountain was constructed. LE175: LE160 entrance, LE13 guide fee (but do not expect a guide anywhere), LE2 local tax.
- Nefertari's Temple of Hathor. This is the smaller temple to the right.
- Sound & Light Show. Each night at 7PM and 8PM in winter and 8PM and 9PM in summer. Headphones are provided to allow visitors to hear the commentary in various languages. Above LE100.
Read more about the temples before arriving: time at Abu Simbel will likely be limited, with little time to read about the stone carvings inside the temples. Beyond the temples themselves, the detailed description of sawing and moving the stone cubes is also an interesting story to read.
As with the pyramids at Giza, reading about them, before arriving, in no way diminishes the impact of seeing them firsthand. The reconstructed temples at Abu Simbel appear entirely real, not like a simulated building at some theme parks; however, do go inside the dome of the Great Temple to appreciate that it is a fake mountain.
Early morning boat tours of Lake Nasser or to see the sunrise on the monuments can be arranged through Eskaleh Nubian Lodge.
Visitors might need to bring their own snacks and beverages, due to the length of the journey and the limited time at Abu Simbel. There are many cafes along the main road. Prices are high due to the number of tourists.
- Toya, Tariq al Mabad, ☎ . Nice cafe with lovely garden. Stop for a sheesha if you have time. Breakfast LE8; Mains LE15.
- Wadi el-Nil (Along the main road).
- Nubian Oasis (Along the main road).
Many people do Abu Simbel as a day trip and fall asleep on the ride to/from Abu Simbel due to its early time. A reason to stay overnight is to see the Sound & Light show or see the temples away from the crowds. Expect to pay more in Abu Simbel due to its isolated location than equivalent hotels in Cairo.
- 1 Seti Abu Simbel. 5-star hotel. Chalet-style rooms overlooking Lake Nasser. Meals available. Single US$130; Double US$180.
- 2 Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge. Traditional mud-brick building with standard and superior rooms. Food available until 9PM. LE500-700.
- Nefartari Hotel. about LE600
- 3 Nobaleh Ramsis Hotel. about LE200.
- Abu Simbel Tourist Village/Hotel Abbas. about LE100.
In Abu Simbel, it feels at least 10 degrees colder than in Aswan due to lake Nasser and the wind coming from it. Thus, bring some warm cloths and scarf, and especially in Winter wear something that can deal with around 5-10 °C.