Possessing an abundance of mineral resources, the ancient lands of Nubia were a fertile source of economic prosperity for the Egyptians throughout pharaonic history. The mines were well renowned for having filled pharaohs’ treasuries with gold “as plentiful as the sand of the desert.” With control of such economic riches at stake, it was therefore imperative that the Egyptian state maintain a strong physical presence in the Nubian region south of her southern border at Aswan. Ramesses II drove the expansion effort, devoting much of his energies in this barren, hostile terrain to an extensive building programme.
Through mighty works in stone – the supreme tools of royal propaganda – Ramesses hoped to ensure that word of his supreme authority would extend throughout the Nubian lands, striking fear into the disparate, lawless tribes that inhabited these desert territories. In all, he would construct seven rock-cut temples in Nubia, the most impressive of which were the twin temples at Abu Simbel.
These magnificent monuments were rescued from the rising waters of Egypt‘s Lake Nasser in the 1960s as part of a salvage operation led by UNESCO. In what proved to be a truly astonishing feat of engineering perhaps no less a challenge than that faced by the ancient workmen who toiled here some 3,000 years ago, both structures were painstakingly dismantled and reassembled on safe dry land some 65 metres from their ancient location.
The Main Temple of Ramesses II
Cut entirely from a pink sandstone mountain, the king’s main temple follows a highly innovative plan, one quite unlike anything seen in the provinces before or since. By cutting a sloping facade into the rock face, Ramesses’ architects succeeded in replicating the traditional ‘pylon’ gateway of an Egyptian temple. Typically, freestanding monolithic statues of the king would have fronted the pylon. Here, however, the stonemasons had to make best use of the terrain and materials at their disposal.
The resulting composition is centred on four colossal seated images of Ramesses II chiselled from the rock face. At almost 20 metres in height, they are a match even for the mighty fallen statue of Ozymandias at the Ramesseum in ancient Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Lying at the feet of one of the southern pair of statues is its own shattered torso, toppled into the temple courtyard by a catastrophic earthquake that hit this region shortly after the temple was completed.
Ordinarily, the pharaoh used the exterior walls of his temples and pylon gateways as a billboard to promote his military successes and heroic deeds. Here, this was impractical, so Ramesses II used the interior of the temple for a series of reliefs that commemorate the Battle of Kadesh. In fact, the resulting tableau contains the most detailed and informative series of carved reliefs of this important military encounter between Egypt and the Hittites, the two superpowers of the ancient Near East at that time.
Progressing through the temple one reaches the inner sanctuary, where the divine images of Amenre, Re-Horakht and Ptah, accompanied by that of Ramesses II himself, are each year suffused by the first rays of sunlight on the 20th of February and the 20th of October.
The Temple of Nefertari
The scale and magnificence of this temple combine into a demonstrable act of devotion by Ramesses II toward his favourite queen, Nefertari. Its construction is an echo of the dedication by the 18th dynasty pharaoh, Amenophis III, of a Nubian temple at Sedeinga in honour of his own principal wife, queen Tiye. These were not funerary (or ‘memorial’) temples, prepared for the cults of these queens, but monuments to celebrate them whilst still alive. Nefertari’s preeminence in Ramesses’ royal harem is beyond question – the opulence of her tomb in the Valley of the Queens alone is testament to that. In fact, throughout both Abu Simbel temples, she is without fail the one queen depicted officiating alongside her husband in ritual ceremony.
Temple Facade and Interior
Like the Ramesses II edifice, the facade of Nefertari’s temple was carved to imitate the sloping face of a traditional temple pylon. Appearing as if stepping from the pylon recesses are six 10-metre-high statues – four of Ramesses II and two of Nefertari – all of comparable proportions.
The interior design of the Nefertari temple is less sophisticated than that of her husband’s. It consists of a main pillared hall and a vestibule leading to an inner shrine. Ritually inspired scenes predominate throughout the temple, with iconography that is far less fussy than that seen in Ramesses’ own temple. The elongated and elegantly proportioned feminine figures that grace the walls, dressed in their diaphanous flowing robes, lend the interior an unusually seductive aura, thus making this a truly memorable place to visit.