The largest Abu Simbel temple is dedicated to Ramses II.

Nile River flooding had often threatened towns along the river's banks, but in the mid-1960s, many of the ancient monuments of Egypt were subject to a new, man-made threat: The government's decision to build a new, higher dam upriver, the Aswan High Dam, which would cause a rise in the water levels at nearby Lake Nasser high enough to flood the monument-dotted plains permanently. In an unprecedented, international effort, the government moved the Abu Simbel temples to a new location on higher ground, not far from the original site. The temples, originally built at the direction of King Ramses II, draw more visitors each year than any site in Egypt, with the exception of the pyramids at Giza.

Historical Background

In approximately 1244 B.C., Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II directed the construction of two major sandstone temples in the southern part of Egypt, on the banks of the Nile River near the second cataract. Over the next 20 years, the temples were carved into an existing sandstone mountain. When completed, they stood approximately 100 feet tall. The largest temple is dedicated to the sun gods and to Ramses himself, and the smaller to his favorite wife, Queen Nefertari. The temples contained massive paintings and carved walls depicting Ramses II's exploits against Egypt's enemies. The large temple is guarded by giant statues of Ramses, while the smaller temple features large carved statues of Ramses and his queen.

Aswan High Dam

The regions along the Nile River were frequently ravaged by heavy flooding, despite periodic attempts to reroute or dam the river. In the mid-1950s, Egyptian authorities decided to build a new dam upriver, approximately four miles south of the existing one, which was no longer able to contain the river's flow. The new Aswan High Dam would cause the waters in Lake Nasser to rise, flooding the areas along the river and submerging the priceless ancient monuments located there. The government, with and upon the assistance of international experts and donors, developed a plan to relocate the Nubian Monuments, including the Abu Simbel temples, to higher ground.

Relocation Process

From 1964-1968, the temples were dismantled and moved to their current location, which is on ground 213 feet higher than the previous site. The temples were measured and cut into massive 20-ton blocks, each of which was numbered and moved to the new site. The stone segments were then reassembled to recreate the original temples, down to the drawings and carvings on the walls and the temples' orientation. They face the east so that twice a year, in February and October, sunlight streams into the interior of the temple and illuminates the statues of the sun gods, Re-Horakhty and Amon-Re, to whom the temple is dedicated, as well as a statue of king Ramses II.

New Site

The temples are thus now on a high plateau; the entire complex, known as the Nubian Monuments, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The temples sit 650 feet back from the river's new path. The original sandstone statues grace the outside of the temples and the interior rooms look as they did at their initial site. The temples are now on a solid platform of cement and steel, and surrounded by a hollow, manufactured stone mountain. Thousands of tourists visit each day, traveling on special flights or dedicated convoys from Aswan, the nearest city.