This article was published in Times Travel in September 2010.
Lisbon. 7th July 2007. While other worthy contending monuments (including the Taj Mahal) anxiously waited to know their fate in the worldwide voting for the nomination of new 7 wonders, one specific landmark — the Pyramids of Giza — was turning all the other contenders green with envy.
These pyramids had already been given an honorary nomination, even before the voting concluded!
Well, that was not so surprising since, for most people, Egypt stands for pyramids. In the face of this reality, I make a blasphemous statement, one that may invite severe criticism from Egypt lovers, and from those who claim to know their travel
“Anytime you plan a trip to Egypt, and have a choice to see only one monument there, that monument should be the temple of Abu Simbel and NOT the Pyramids of Giza”.
Now, now — before you react, read on to know why!
Ramesses II, ancient Egypt’s longest reigning pharaoh (his reign lasted 67 years!), commissioned Abu Simbel to impress his southern neighbours and to establish Egyptian religion in the region.
It is, therefore, strategically located approx. 290 km southwest of Aswan, near the Sudan border.
This mega-monument was carved out of a single cliff, and has 2 separate temples — that of Ramesses II (primarily dedicated to Amon-Ra, Re-Harakhte, and Ptah, while deifying Rameses II too), and that of his wife, Nefertari (dedicated to Hathor).
Each of the 4 statues guarding the temple of Rameses II is 20 metres tall and the 6 guarding the temple of Nefertari, 10 metres tall.
This mega structure was architecturally and astronomically so advanced that its sanctum sanctorum got a shaft of light from the rising sun only twice a year. This used to happen during the spring and fall equinoxes (22nd February and 22nd October).
It mystically illuminated 3 out of the 4 statues there, while the 4th one remained in darkness, as that’s the statue of the god of darkness (Ptah).
Impressive! Right? Well, this is just about why it is an ancient wonder!
I consider it a modern day wonder too. And let’s see why!
When Nasser (the erstwhile PM of Egypt), with Russia’s help, commissioned the Aswan High Dam, it threatened inundation of around 60 ancient Nubian temples. Egypt requested UNESCO’s help and UNESCO appealed to the member countries at large.
Around 50 countries came forward to help, and a full-fledged temple relocation industry got established. Though some of these temples did go underwater, most were relocated to safer locations, including to far away places like a US museum, and Amsterdam!
In 1960s, Abu Simbel was dismantled into large stone blocks and transported from its original location to a sandstone cliff 65 metres higher, and about 200 metres back from the river.
Originally, the backdrop of Abu Simbel was the cliff it was carved out of. Problem: The relocated temple would be on top of the cliff, which had no backdrop. Solution: Construct an artificial mountain behind the relocated temple’s facade.
This entire feat took over 4 years to pull off (from 1964 to 1968), and was almost a photo-finish in construction industry terms. Just before the Aswan High Dam led to a rise in the water level of River Nile in the area, the temple had been re-assembled at the safe height of the cliff.
There’s an exciting thriller that UNESCO has put together on DVD — titled ‘Abu Simbel, Philae…Saved’. It is a highly recommended must-watch for all heritage lovers.
Today, the re-assembly has happened, and the temple stands tall and proud atop a cliff, but one slight miscalculation happened during its re-assembly. As a result, the shaft of light from the rising sun does not penetrate the sanctum sanctorum on its originally planned dates of 22nd February and 22nd October but does so a day earlier (21st February and 21st October).
This entire roller coaster through the history makes me consider Abu Simbel the 9th wonder of the world, and I am sure, by now, most of you would agree.
Enough of delving into history. Now let’s see how we can actually make a visit to this exotic place happen. As I mentioned earlier, it is closest to Aswan, in terms of tourist itinerary.
The choice is to take one of the early morning convoy of buses that leave for Aswan and deposit you there any time between 5.30 and 8.00am. These buses give you an average two and a half hours at this gorgeous spot, and then ply back to Aswan to bring you back by evening.
Or, if you are flying into Aswan from Cairo in the morning to embark an afternoon Nile cruise, then you should ask your tour operator to book you on any of the 2-3 morning flights to Abu Simbel, which return the same afternoon (after the conventional two and a half hours in Abu Simbel) to bring you back in time for the departure of the Nile cruise. The total cost for such a trip (including both way airport transfers at both ends, the entry ticket to the temples and an English speaking guide) is about US$ 150.
The most exotic choice is the 3,4 or 7 night cruise on Lake Nasser, which takes you around to not just Abu Simbel, but also to other relocated temples around the area. Depending on the length of the cruise, as a part of your itinerary, you might also be visiting the Valley of Kings, the Valley of Queens (in Luxor), the temples of Hepshutset, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Kalabsha, El Sebuoa, Dakka, Amada, El Derr, Qasr Ibrim, and Philae. And each of these sites tell you multiple stories about the greatness of the civilisation that was.
Hopefully, by now you are a convert to what I consider the 9th wonder of the world!