Abu Simbel is about as far south as you can get in Egypt, lying about 20 miles from the Sudanese border. It’s a remote place, most accessible by plane or by boat from Aswan. Abu Simbel rewards those who seek it out with two of the most spectacular temples of Dynastic Egypt, on a scale which can surprise even those who have acclimatized to the vast structures of Aswan and Luxor.
They were rediscovered almost 200 years ago by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, though they were then in a different position. They once stood where Lake Nasser is now, and were saved from the rising waters when the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s.
Even if you don’t know the names of Ramses II’s Sun Temple or the smaller Hathor Temple, you will most certainly have seen images of their distinctive facades. Each features towering upright statues recessed into a sloping face, a daunting expression of the power and self-confidence of the ancient pharaohs. The four figures which flank the entrance to the Sun Temple all bore Ramses’ features (one is partially destroyed). Once through the comparatively small portal, the now-artificially lit chambers would once have been forbiddingly dark.
Except for twice a year.
With an ingenuity which reflects both the astrological knowledge and engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians, the Sun Temple is aligned to accept the rays of the sun twice a year, light which reaches into the furthest corners. In this bone-dry region, few things are as certain as an unclouded day, so visitors to the site on February 22 can be sure of an impressive solar display, accompanied by a festival in front of the complex. And if you miss that you can always catch the rays again on October 22, when it happens all over again.