Rameses 11 Temple at Abu Simbel
Located more than 240 klms south of Aswan, in the Nubian desert, this gigantic facade on the banks of the Nile would have been an awe-inspiring sight for an ancient mariner as he rounded the bend in the river and entered Egyptian waters for the first time. Rameses 11 built this temple as a symbolic show of strength, warning all-comers to be humbled by the mighty Pharaoh and power of Egypt.
16 statues of Rameses 11 line Abu Simbel's Hypostyle Hall
The original temple was orientated in such a way that twice a year, on the Summer and Winter equinoxes, the rising sun would send a shaft of light through the front door and down the 55 metre Hypostyle Hall, between the 16 giant pillar statues of the King, to illuminate the back altar.
Rameses 11 charging the enemy at the Battle of Kadesh
In the 1960's when the High Dam was being built it was soon realised that the newly created waters of Lake Nasser would submerge the temple causing one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time.
An international outcry to save Abu Simbel resulted in UNESCO raising $90 million in donations from concerned organisations and museums all over the world.
Rameses 11 smiting the Hittite enemy at Kadesh
Over the next two years, in a race against the rising waters, the original cliff-face statues and the temple behind them were cut into blocks and moved to higher ground, whilst a safer site was prepared and then the facade and temple re-constructed block by block.
Doorway to the inner Sanctuary at Abu Simbel
The new location was carefully chosen to re-create and mirror the exact alignment to the horizon so each year on the equinoxes of 22nd February and the 22nd October the dawn sunlight would illuminate the King's eternal face. Once the new temple was finished, on the 22nd October 1968, there were a lot of anxious dignitaries assembled at dawn, to satisfy themselves that the dawn light would again strike its trajectory as it had for over 3,000 years.
The back altar at Abu Simbel is once again illuminated by the dawn equinox
Some years ago I travelled to Abu Simbel and camped out until dawn to see this phenomenon. It was remarkable if not somewhat overshadowed by the number of eccentric and bizarre characters in attendance. This bi-annual freak-show seemed to attract every kind would be mystic, star gazer and weirdo. They were all there, the Daughters of Osiris, the Disciples of Annubis and the Cult of Aten. Maybe all their brains were fried by the Sun God Amun-Ra.