The Relocation of Abu Simbel Temples

Jul 27, 2020 0 comments

Hundreds of towns and villages have perished due to massive earth-moving projects such as the construction of dams. But the temples at Abu Simbel, in Egypt, were historically and culturally far too important to let that happen. So when the newly built Aswan High Dam and reservoir threatened to swallow the 3,300-year-old temples, the international community banded together for an extraordinary salvage operation.

The Abu Simbel temples were originally located along the Nile river, carved out of the solid mountain rock. They were commissioned by Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, who is often regarded as the greatest and the most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. During his reign, Ramesses II built many temples throughout Egypt and Nubia, particularly Nubia, in order to impress upon the Nubian people the might of the Egyptians. The most famous of these are the rock-cut temples near the modern village of Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel Temples

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel. Photo: Anton_Ivanov/

Ramesses II built two colossal temples here—the bigger one, called the Great Temple, is incredible to behold. Four epic statues depicting the pharaoh himself seated on a throne face the entrance. Each statue is twenty meters tall. The façade behind the seated statues is largely blank, but on the upper edge is a frieze depicting an army of baboons worshipping the rising sun. Between the statues lie the entrance surmounted by a bas-relief of the king worshipping the falcon-headed god Ra Horakhty. Inside the great hall of the temple are eight columns, each carved in the resemblance of Ramesses. The spacious interior is decorated from floor to the ceiling with heliographic glorifying Ramesses’s military campaigns. In the middle of the complex is the sacred inner sanctuary, where Ramesses is shown sharing the throne with the three gods—Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra and Ptah.

Ramesses built another temple, the so-called “Small Temple”, dedicated to his wife Nefertari and goddess Hathor. This was only the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen, the first being Nefertiti. Like the Great Temple, the entrance to the Small Temple is flanked by statues of the pharaoh and his queen, most remarkably, built in equal size. Usually, queens are depicted no taller than the knee of the pharaoh. The interior of the Small Temple is decorated with scenes showing the queen playing the sistrum and making offerings to the goddesses Hathor and Mut.

Abu Simbel Temples

The Small Temple of Abu Simbel. Photo: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Over the millennia the temples became buried in sand and was forgotten. When they were rediscovered in the early 19th century, only the top frieze of the main temple was visible above the sand. The temple was dug out and for a while it appeared that Ramesses’s immortality was assured, but in the late 1950s, another disaster loomed.

The government was planning a new dam across the Nile, about 230 km upstream from where Ramesses’s colossal statues stood. At 4 km long and 110 meters tall, the new Aswan High Dam was to be the largest embankment dam in the world. Egypt needed it because the earlier dam was proving to be incapable of controlling the annual flooding of the Nile. The new dam would not only allow Egypt to tame the river, but the reservoir created would help sustain the farmlands and the people of the region during periods of drought.

There was, however, one major drawback. The 5,250-square-km reservoir named Lake Nasser would require the resettlement of some 90,000 people, and if possible, the magnificent temples of Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel Temples

The temples during excavation, circa 1853 – 1854. Photo: John Beasly Greene

In 1959, the Egyptian government approached UNESCO for help. Thankfully, the international community was familiar with the region of ancient Nubia and the countless archeological sites it contained. Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, UNESCO embarked on its first-ever collaborative international rescue effort. An international fund-raising project was launched in 1960. To drum up support for the campaign, Egypt organized a travelling exhibition of several objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun. The “Tutankhamun Treasures” exhibition was featured across North America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan. The money generated helped finance not only the Abu Simbel project but many future UNESCO campaigns.

Numerous ideas on how to save the temples were proposed. One involved creating a gigantic aquarium around the temples with elevator-accessible underwater viewing chambers for visitors. This idea was rejected. Another proposed raising the temples on hydraulic jacks, but the cost would have been immense. Eventually, it was decided to cut up the rocks into manageable chunks, transport them to higher ground and reassemble them like Lego blocks.

Abu Simbel Temples

Work began in November 1963. First, a cofferdam was erected around Abu Simbel in order to gain additional time in which to work on the temples while water was collecting in the Aswan dam’s reservoir. The greatest care was needed while cutting up the stones. Power saws could not be used because they made the cuts too wide—anything wider than 8 millimeters would have been visible when the blocks were put back together. Instead, hand saws and steel wires were used to slice up the rocks into blocks each 20 to 30 tons in weight. In the end, the larger temple yielded 807 blocks and the smaller one 235. Once cut, each block was coated to protect it against splitting and fracturing during transport.

The new site was located about 200 meters further inland and 65 meters higher up. Before reassembly could begin, an artificial hill was created using some 330,000 cubic meters of rock to resemble the natural stony hill against which the temples stood at the original site. Then the blocks were put back together with extreme precision, secured to one another with reinforcement bars and the joints filled with an artificial material. Care was taken to maintain the temple’s original alignment to the cardinal directions, so that the rays of the sun would continue to penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall during certain hours of the spring and autumn.

Abu Simbel Temples

The successful relocation of the Abu Simbel temples set the momentum for further rescue efforts. Within the Nubian valley itself, UNESCO rescued as many as 22 different monuments from inundation, including Ramesses’s temples. One monument, the Temple of Amada, had to be moved whole because it couldn’t be cut up as it would have damaged the structure. Other sites that were successfully transferred include Wadi es-Sebua, another temple built by Ramesses II, the Roman-era Temple of Kalabsha, and the Temple of Philae. Buoyed by these successes, UNESCO moved to Venice to protect its lagoons, then to Mohenjodaro in Pakistan to help excavate the ruins and then to Indonesia to preserve the Borobodur Temple.

“The completion of such an enormous and complex project helped UNESCO realise that we were capable of three main things,” explained Dr. Mechtild Rössler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Heritage Division. “First, bringing together the best expertise the world has to offer. Second, securing the international cooperation of its members. And third: assuring the responsibility of the international community to bring together funding and support that would help the world's heritage as a whole. We recognized that one country alone is just not capable.”

The success of the Nubian campaign was directly responsible for the creation of the “World Heritage Trust” in 1965, and subsequently, the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites List. The Galápagos Islands became the first World Heritage Site in 1978. The Nubian Monuments were added to the list in 1979.

Abu Simbel Temples

A scale model at the Nubian Museum, Aswan, showing the original location of the Abu Simbel temples (under the glass, depicting the surface of the reservoir) and the rescued and relocated temples' new higher sites. Photo: Zureks/Wikimedia Commons

Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel Temples

# A salvage operation that inspired the world: Abu Simbel and the World Heritage,
# Abu Simbel – Unparalleled relocation project,
# Esther Pons, Epic engineering rescued colossal ancient Egyptian temples from floodwaters,
# Laura Kiniry, Egypt’s exquisite temples that had to be moved,


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