"We have come, O King, to add our labours to yours" -The relocation of the twin temples of Abu Simbel

22 September 1968, in Upper Egypt near the border of Sudan, the relocation of the twin temples of Abu Simbel was completed to save the gigantic monument from being flooded by the waters of the future Lake Nasser after the commissioning of the Assuan High Dam.

“’The King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ we read carved upon the stone, ‘has made the temple, hollowed out of the rock, labouring for eternity in the land of Nubia. We have come, O King, to add our labours to yours in order that your quest for eternity may be preserved’” (René Maheu, Director-General of the UNESCO)

A snapshot from 1967, showing the reassembly of the colossi

What urged Pharaoh Ramesses II around 1250 BCE to order the construction of the gigantic complex on the southern border of his empire is not exactly clear. His victory at Kadesh might have played a role, as well as grief over the death of the Great Royal Wife Nefertari Merytmut or maybe it was a grand gesture to impress his Nubian subjects and those beyond the southern borders of Kemet, the Black Land, Egypt. All of the above, probably and so the twin temples that later became known as Abu Simbel came into existence as one of the most eminent examples of rock cut architecture. Over a building period of more than 20 years, the great temple with his four colossal statues of Ramesses II came into being, with a height of 110’ a width of 127’ and the hall hollowed out for 210’ from the rock behind. On October 22nd and February 22nd, accordant to the helical rise of the star Sirius, the light of the sun would penetrate into the hall and illuminate the magnificent sculptures on the back wall except that of the god Ptah. The small temple dedicated to Nefertari, 300’ to the northeast, is quite as impressive and shows one of the rare, remarkable depictions of a Pharaoh and his wife portrayed equal in size.

The Temple of Abu Simbel and the colossal statues of Ramesses II

600 years after its construction, the complex was already forgotten in the sands of Nubia on the western shore of what was once the first and second cataract of the Nile. The Swiss explorer and archaeologist Jacob Burckhard discovered two heads of the Ramesses colossi in 1813, the Italian explorer Belzoni found the entry to the hall of the Great Temple and is probably responsible for naming the site of  the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved by Amun, after his Arab guide Abu Simbel, or so the legend goes. The whole complex was finally bared from sand in 1909, but already had become a tourist attraction during the second half of the 19th century. 50 years later, the site was planned to get flooded by what was to become Lake Nasser, the reservoir behind the Assuan High Dam, and the far-reaching consequences of its construction and commissioning.

David Roberts' imagination: "Colossal figures in front of the Great Temple of Aboo-Simbel" from 1838

In 1960, UNESCO asked for international help to salvage Abu Simbel among other relics and, while because of the political macro weather situation the high Dam rose with massive support from Soviet funds and engineers, a team of local as well as French, German, Italian and Swedish construction companies launched a project without hardly an equal in archaeological as well as construction history after the plan to dam the complex itself and add underwater viewing chambers was rejected: The whole complex was moved 200’ up and 500’ to the northwest over the next 5 years. While emphasising on the original alignment of the temples, the complex was cut up to more than 1,000 blocks weighing between 7 and 30 tons and moved along with parts of the original landscape and reassembled, using 33 tons of epoxy and steel cramps. The original cave temples had been substituted with reinforced concrete domes. And with all the pros and at least from an ecological point of view plentiful contras of the Assuan High Dam, the Abu Simbel project can well be compared with the achievements in architecture and construction of Ramessess II himself.

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