By Marie Parsons
Perhaps after the Giza pyramids, or coincident with them, the great temple of Abu Simbel presents the most familiar image of ancient Egypt to the modern traveler and reader. When the conservation efforts to preserve the temple from the soon-to be built High Aswan Dam and its rising waters were begun in the 1960s, images of the colossal statues filled newspapers and books. The temples were dismantled and relocated in 1968 on the desert plateau, 200 feet above and 600 feet west of their original location.
Abu Simbel lies south of Aswan on the western bank of the Nile, 180 miles south of the First Cataract in what was Nubia. The site was known as Meha in ancient times and was first documented in the 18th Dynasty, when Ay and Horemheb had rock-cut chapels hewn in the hills to the south.
Ramesses II, called "the Great," built seven rock-cut temples in Nubia. The rock-cut temple of Ramesses II on the west bank of the Nile at Abu Simbel is the greatest of these. This temple was not seen by Europeans until J.J. Burckhardt discovered them in 1813.
The temple, called Hwt Ramesses Meryamun, the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved of Amun," was begun fairly early in Ramesses long reign, commissioned some time after his fifth regnal year, but not completed until his 35th regnal year. The massive facade of the main temple is dominated by the four seated colossal statues of Ramesses. These familiar representations are of Ramesses II himself. Each statue, 67 feet high, is seated on a throne and wears the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Each is taller than the famed Memnon Colossus at Thebes, and all are sculpted directly from the rock face. The thrones are decorated on their sides with Nile gods symbolically uniting Egypt.
Burckhardt said of the first face on the left that it "was the most expressive, youthful countenance, approaching nearer to the Grecian model of beauty than that of any ancient Egyptian figure I have seen."
An ancient earthquake damaged the statues. One is demolished from the waist up.
Between the legs and on each of their sides stand smaller statues of members of the royal family. The smaller statues of relatives were probably, for the first southern colossus: Queen Nefretari by the left leg, the kings mother, the great wife of Seti I, Muttuya by his right leg, and Prince Amenhirkhopshef in front. For the second southern colossus, Princess Bentanta stood by the left leg, Princess Nebettawyby the left, and one unnamed female figure, probably that of a lesser royal wife named Esenofre.
The family statues at the first northern colossus were, Queen Nefretari, Princess Beketmut and Prince Riameses in front. For the second northern colossus, there were Princess Merytamun, Queen Muttuya and Princess Nofretari.
Beneath these giant sculptures are carved figures of bound captives.
The forecourt or terrace which fronted the temple contained two tanks for the ablutions of the priests. On the northern side of this terrace stood a small sun-chapel, and on the south, stood a chapel of the god Thoth. Above the entrance, a figure of the falcon-headed sun-god Ra is shown worshipped by flanking images of Ramesses. The rebus figure of Ra contains the prenomen of Ramesses II, or Usermaatre: the falcon headed god Ra has next to his right leg the glyph showing the head and neck of an animal, read User, and the goddess at his left leg is maat. At the top of the temple faade is a row of baboon statues in adoring attitudes, said to welcome the rising sun.
A stela at the southern end of the external terrace is called "the Marriage Stela," and is a copy of the record of one of Ramesses IIs diplomatic triumphs, his marriage to a daughter of the Hittite king Hattusilis III.
Within the temple a series of chambers becomes increasingly smaller as the floors of the rooms rise noticeably.
This is a basic convention of temple design, as one moves into the temple deeper to the sanctuary which would contain the primeval mound of creation, rising out of the waters of Nun.
The first hall within the temple contains eight large statues of the king as Osiris, four on each side, which also serve as pillars to support the roof. The walls are decorated in relief with scenes showing the king in battle, including the great battle of Kadesh on the north, and Syrian, Libyan and Nubian wars on the south wall, and also presenting prisoners to the gods.
Behind the first hall is a second smaller hall with ritual offering scenes. Here in one scene both Ramesses and Nefertari are depicted before the sacred barque of Amun, and in another, before the sacred barque of Ra-Horakhaty. Three doors lead from here into a vestibule, and then one reaches the sanctuary.
The sanctuary contains a small altar and in its rear niche are four statues. These cult images represent Ramesses II himself, and the three state gods of the New Kingdom, Ra-Horakhty of Heliopolis, Ptah of Memphis and Amun-Ra of Thebes. Before the statues rests a block upon which would have rested the sacred barque itself.
The axis of the temple is arranged so that on two days of the year, in February and October, the rising sun shoots its rays through the entrance and halls until it finally illuminates the sanctuary statues.
To the north of the main temple a smaller temple was built in honor of Ramesses great wife, Nefertari, and the goddess Hathor. This temple should not be confused with the beautiful Tomb to Nefertari in the Valley of Queens near Thebes.
As with Ramesses own temple, the cliff face was cut back to resemble sloping walls of a pylon. Six colossal standing figures 33 feet high four of Ramesses and two of Nefertari, were cut from the rock face, along with smaller figures of the royal family. An inscription over the entrance reads "Ramesses II, he has made a temple, excavated in the mountain, of eternal workmanship, for the chief queen Nefertari, beloved of Mu, in Nubia, forever and ever, Nefertari for whose sake the very sun does shine."
Inside, Nefertaris temple has a single pillared hall, with carved Hathor heads atop the pillars. On the sides facing the center of the hypostyle; Ramesses is shown smiting his enemies and offering before various gods, while Nefertari is shown, graceful and slender, with hands raised. Three doors lead to a vestibule with ancillary rooms at either end.
The sanctuary is complete, though two spaces were left on its side walls for doors to rooms, which were never cut. The inner chamber contains a number of images interrelating the royal couple and the gods. On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted in high relief as a cow emerging from the western mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown repeatedly participating in the divine rituals on an equal footing with the king. On the left wall, Nefertari is seen worshipping before Mut and Hathor, and on the right, Ramesses worships before images of his deified self and his wife.
When Greek mercenaries passed by in the 6th century BCE, sand already reached the knees of the statues. These ancient sight-see-ers left an inscription which reads "When King Psammetichus
Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011
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