colossal temple complex located in the northern Sudan about 200 km (186 mi.) up the Nile from Aswan (22°21′ N, 31°38′ E). Built in Nubia by the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE), the complex consists of two rock-cut temples, a large structure for the pharaoh and a small one for him and his queen, Nefertari. Begun after 1274, both temples were officially opened for cult purposes In 1255; the officials responsible for the work were two successive viceroys of Kush (Nubia), Iuny and Hekanakht, and a royal cupbearer, Ashahebsed. In 1238 Abu Simbel experienced a severe earthquake. Viceroy Paser carried out extensive repairs, but the upper part of one of four great colossi of Rameses II that fronted the Great Temple had to be left where it had fallen. The colossi, and the Great Temple itself, were already partly buried under encroaching sand In 593, when Greek, Carian, and Phoenician mercenaries serving in an invading army of Psammetik II (595–589) left graffiti relatively high up on the legs of the colossi. Eventually both temples were largely buried under sand; the Great Temple was rediscovered by the Swiss traveler Johann Burckhardt In 1813 and first entered by the early Egyptologist Giovanni Belzoni In 1817.

The two temples of Abu Simbel are the best-preserved examples of the grandiose art and architecture typical of the reign of Rameses II. Each was cut into separate, high sandstone bluffs. Nefertari's structure lay northeast of the Great Temple. The Great Temple's facade is cut directly into the cliff face (over 26 m [85 ft.] high and recalling a temple pylon in form). Four colossal figures (over 19.8 m [65 ft.] high) of an enthroned Rameses stand in front, and over the entrance a statue of Re-Harakhti, a solar god, set in a recess, receives offerings from figures of Rameses cut in relief on either side. A frieze of baboons along the top of the facade represents those creatures of the “eastern horizon” who adore the rising sun. The Great Temple's maximum depth is 62.85 m (206.2 ft.); on each side, also rock cut, are long chambers, which housed temple utensils and furniture.

Within is a large columned hall lined with eight colossal figures of Rameses standing in both royal regalia and Osiride pose. The reliefs covering the walls focus mostly on royal victories; in particular, the north wall is occupied by the best-preserved depiction of the famous battle of Rameses II against the Hittites at Qadesh (1274). More conventional scenes involving Syrians, Libyans, and Nubians are found on the south wall. Beyond, a smaller columned hall is embellished with cult scenes, and further in (after a small vestibule) is the sanctuary, which contains an altar or barque stand (at festival times, images of gods were carried outside the temple in a boat-shaped palanquin) and, along the rear wall, four seated statues representing Ptah and Amun on the south side and the deified Rameses and Re-Harakhti on the north side. In the New Kingdom (eighteenth to twentieth dynasties, 1550–1069) a pharaoh could be understood as being both a mortal earthly ruler and simultaneously a divine being capable of receiving cult like a god.

Nefertari's temple is markedly smaller; its facade is only 12 m (39 ft.) high, and its total depth about 20 m (66 ft.). Six colossal standing figures (all 9.9 m [32.4 ft.] high) front the temple. On each side, Nefertari is depicted as the goddess Hathor and is flanked by figures of Rameses. A columned hall with six Hathoric columns within is decorated mainly with cult scenes, and a small chamber before the sanctuary celebrates in its reliefs deities associated with femininity and birth. Hathor in cow form emerges from the marshes, and Taweret, protector of women in childbirth, appears. In the sanctuary is a statue of Hathor as a cow protecting the king. Implicitly he is her maturing son, although he is shown as an adult.

The temples of Abu Simbel are of manifold significance; they are best understood as a conceptual, as much as an architectural, whole. On one level, the temples link Rameses with the gods of Nubia and Egypt, specifically the Nubian gods Horus of Meh and Hathor of Ibshek, and the four Egyptian deities Ptah, Amun, Re-Harakhti, and the deified Rameses himself. They also provide the context for a cult of the divine Rameses. However, the mythic dimensions of kingship are also involved. The Nefertari temple is conceptually a secluded arena for conception, gestation, birth, and creation, and Nefertari and four individualized hypostases (essential natures) of Rameses (the six colossi) literally stride out from it. These same four hypostases take their place as the four colossi of the Great Temple, which celebrates Rameses as virtual embodiment of the sun god on earth and ruler of Egypt and the world. The Nefertari temple was aligned so that its' most direct solar illumination would occur at about the winter solstice. Sunlight penetrated the Great Temple most deeply about a month and a half before or after the solstice. These schedules suggest that Nefertari's temple was ritually most significant during the period of growth and emergence, and the Great Temple was most prominent at the time of increasing heat and at the inundation.

As a result of the flooding of Nubia by the Lake Nasser reservoir, both temples were cut into segments and rebuilt at a higher location between 1964 and 1968, a spectacularly successful example of salvage archaeology.

[See also Nubia.]


  • Desroches-Noblecourt, Christiane, and Charles Kuentz. Le petit temple d'Abou Simbel. 2 vols. Centre de Documentation et d'Étude sur l'Ancienne Égypte, Mémoires, vols. 1–2. Cairo, 1968. Find it in your Library
  • Desroches-Noblecourt, Christiane, and Georg Gerster. The World Saves Abu Simbel. Vienna, 1968. Find it in your Library
  • Héry, François-Xavier, and Thierry Enel. Abou Simbel & les temples de Nubie. Aix-en-Provence, 1994. Find it in your Library
  • Save-Soderbergh, Torgny, ed. Temples and Tombs of Ancient Nubia: The International Rescue Campaign at Abou Simbel, Philae, and Other Sites. London, 1987. Find it in your Library

David O'Connor