Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae

The historic relocation of the temples of Abu Simbel (12 photos)

Extensive excavation work such as the construction of the dam has resulted in the disappearance of hundreds of towns and villages. However, the temples at Abu Simbel in Egypt had too much historical and cultural value to allow this to happen to them as well. So when the Aswan Dam and reservoir under construction threatened to flood the 33 century old temples, the international community rallied to undertake an emergency rescue operation.

The temples of Abu Simbel, carved out of solid rock, were originally located along the Nile. They were built by order of Ramses II, the third pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th dynasty, who is often considered the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. During his reign, Ramses II built many temples throughout Egypt and Nubia; especially in Nubia – to impress the Nubian people with the greatness of the Egyptians. The most famous of these are the temples carved into the rock near the present village of Abu Simbel.

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel Photo: LorettaLynn/Pixabay

Ramses II built two grand temples here: the larger one is called the Great Temple and is simply incredible. Four epic statues, seated on thrones in front of the temple entrance, are carved in the image of the pharaoh and depict the three gods and Ramses II himself. Each statue reaches 20 meters in height. The facade behind the seated statues is mostly empty, but at the top edge is a frieze depicting an army of baboons worshipping the rising sun. Between the statues runs the entrance, topped by a bas-relief of a king worshipping the falcon-headed god Ra-Horahti. The spacious floor-to-ceiling interior is decorated with a heliographic glorification of the military campaigns of Ramses II.

Another temple, the so-called Small Temple, Ramses II dedicated to his wife Nefertari and the goddess Hathor. This was only the second time in ancient Egyptian history that the temple was dedicated to a queen; the first time was to Nefertiti. As in the Big Temple, the entrance to the Small Temple is surrounded by statues of the pharaoh and his consort, and what is most remarkable – they were built with the same dimensions (usually queens were depicted no higher than the pharaoh’s knee). The interior of the Small Temple is decorated with scenes depicting the queen playing the sistrum and making offerings to the goddesses Hathor and Mut.

Small Temple of Abu Simbel photo: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Over thousands of years, the temples were covered in sand and forgotten. When they were rediscovered in the early 19th century, only the upper frieze of the main temple was visible above the sand. The temples were excavated, and for a time it seemed that the immortality of Ramses II was guaranteed, but in the late 1950s another disaster loomed over them.

About 230 km upstream from where the colossal statues of Ramses II stood, the government planned to build a new dam across the Nile. The new Aswan Dam, 4 km long and 110 meters high, was to be the largest earth-fill dam in the world. Egypt needed it because the earlier dam was incapable of controlling the annual flooding due to the Nile’s overflowing banks. The new dam was to allow Egypt to tame the river, and the reservoir created was to help support the region’s crops and residents during dry periods.

There was, however, one major drawback: the creation of the Nasser Reservoir of 5,250 square kilometers required the relocation of about 90,000 people and, if possible, the relocation of the magnificent temples of Abu Simbel.

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Temples during excavations, circa 1853-1854 Photo: John Beasly Greene

In 1959 the Egyptian government turned to UNESCO for help. Fortunately, the international community was familiar with the region of ancient Nubia and the countless archaeological sites it contained. Aware of the seriousness of the problem, UNESCO embarked on its first ever joint international rescue operation.

In 1960, an international fundraising project was launched. To support the campaign, Egypt organized a traveling exhibition consisting of several items from Tutankhamun’s tomb. The “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition was shown in North America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan. The money raised has helped fund not only the project to save the Abu Simbel temples, but also many other future UNESCO campaigns.

Many ideas were offered on how to save the temples. One was to build a giant aquarium around the temples with underwater viewing booths for visitors. That idea was rejected. Another suggested raising the temples with hydraulic jacks, but the cost of such an operation would have been immeasurable. In the end it was decided to cut the rock structures into transportable blocks weighing 20-30 tons, transport them to an elevated site and assemble them like a construction set.


The work began in November 1963. To begin with, an underwater caisson was erected around Abu Simbel to have extra time to work on the temples while water was collected in the Aswan Dam reservoir. Great care was required in cutting the stone. Motor saws could not be used because they made the cuts too wide – anything wider than 8mm would be visible when assembling the blocks. Instead hand saws and steel wire were used to cut the rock structures into blocks. Eventually the large temple was divided into 807 blocks and the small temple into 235 blocks. Each cut block was immediately wrapped to protect it from splintering and breaking during transport.

The new site was located about 200 meters further inland and 65 meters higher than the previous one. Before reassembling, 330,000 cubic meters of stone were used to create an artificial mound resembling the rocky hill on which the temples stood at their original location. The blocks were then assembled together with extreme precision, held together by reinforcing bars and joints filled with artificial material. Precautions were taken to maintain the original alignment of the temple in the main directions so that the sunlight would penetrate the sanctuary in the same way and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall at certain hours in spring and fall as before.


The successful relocation of the Abu Simbel temples provided the impetus for further rescue operations of this kind. In the Nuba Valley itself, UNESCO rescued as many as 22 different monuments from flooding, including the temples of Ramses II. One of the monuments, the Temple of Amada, had to be moved in its entirety because it could not be cut because it would have damaged the structure. Other historical monuments that have been successfully relocated include Wadi es-Sebua, another temple built by Ramses II, the Roman-era Calabsch Temple, and the Temple of Philae. Encouraged by these successes, UNESCO went to Venice to protect its lagoons, then to Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan to help excavate the ruins, and then to Indonesia to preserve the Borobudur temple.

“Carrying out such a huge and complex project helped UNESCO realize that we are capable of three main things,” explained Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center and Heritage Division. – First, to bring together the world’s best knowledge, skills and human experience. Secondly, to strengthen the international cooperation of all its members. And thirdly, to guarantee the responsibility of the international community in pooling funds and support that will help the world heritage as a whole. We understand that one country simply cannot do it alone.

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The success of the Nubian campaign was the immediate cause of the creation in 1965 of the World Heritage Trust and later of the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Galapagos Islands became the first World Heritage Site in 1978. Nubian architectural and historical monuments were included in this list in 1979.

Scale model at the Nubian Museum, Aswan, showing the previous location of the Abu Simbel temples (under glass depicting the surface of the reservoir) and the new, higher-lying sites of relocated and rescued temples. photo: Zureks/Wikimedia Commons







Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae

Egypt is a state in North Africa and the Sinai Peninsula of Asia, so it is a country of two continents.

It is bordered by Israel, Palestine, Sudan and Libya. The country is washed by the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea in the east. Both seas are connected by the artificially built Suez Canal.

One of the two longest rivers in the world – the Nile (6671 km) flows through Egypt from south to north.

It has a population of 80.5 million (estimated in July 2010, 16th largest in the world).

Early Christian monuments in Abu Mena

Abu Mena is a complex of early Christian monuments located 45 km from Alexandria. After the arrival of Muslims in the mid-12th century, the city and its architectural structures were destroyed and only the foundations of some buildings and descriptions in chronicles are extant.

Abu Mena is believed to have been built on the site of the burial of the Christian martyr Mina of Alexandria. It had been forgotten, but was accidentally discovered by a shepherd who began to heal the sick with dust from the burial site. Constantine the Great’s daughter, sent by him to the shepherd for healing, found Mina’s burial itself. By order of the emperor, a church was built on the site, which later became a major site of Christian pilgrimage.

The first excavations of the area were conducted in the early 20th century. At that time, a church, a basilica and Roman baths were found. As a result of lengthy excavations, at the end of 1998, archaeologists discovered a public dormitory with separate rooms for women, children and men. This bedroom was probably intended to house indigent pilgrims.

The Abu Menah complex was placed under UNESCO protection in 1979.

Islamic Cairo

Cairo is an important center of Muslim theology. There are more than 300 mosques in the city – distinctive representatives of Islamic art. A giant mosque with a domed roof and two slender minarets overlooking Cairo was built in the middle of the last century and bears the name of Mohammed Ali, the then ruler of the country. To enter this mosque, one must first enter the Citadel, one of the city’s main attractions.

The fortress, which dominates Cairo, began to be built at the end of the XII century by Egyptian ruler Salah ad-Din, better known in medieval history as Saladdin. Under his leadership the Arab armies defeated the Crusaders. Following the contours of the hill, the irregular polygon of the Citadel covered an area of 18 hectares. Inside it were built palaces, barracks, warehouses and, of course, mosques.

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The tomb of Muhammad Ali himself is in the mosque of Sultan Nasir, which has long been the main mosque of the Citadel.

The Citadel has a wonderful view of the city. On the left side, about a kilometer from the observation deck, is the Ibn Tulun Mosque . It is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the city. It was built in the late 9th century – before Cairo was officially founded.

Just below the observation deck are two very similar mosques. The left mosque, Sultan Hassan, was built in the 14th century. Its minaret is the highest in Cairo (81 meters). The mosque, which looks like a church, contains a richly decorated mausoleum in which, however, it was not he who was buried, but his son and early heir Anouk. The Rifai Mosque, on the right, was not completed until the beginning of our century. In the Rifai Mosque rest the members of the Egyptian royal family, overthrown by the 1952 revolution. Also buried there is the grave of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who died in exile in Cairo after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

To the right of the observation deck, behind a string of low houses, another mosque can be seen, with a bifurcating and therefore also unique minaret. It is the Al-Azhar Mosque, built at the end of the 10th century – one of the most famous mosques in Cairo. Near it the Islamic University was founded many centuries ago, whose theologians are most respected among Muslims throughout the world.


Memphis is an ancient Egyptian city located at the boundary of Upper and Lower Egypt, on the west bank of the Nile. It existed from the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC to the second half of the 1st millennium AD. Due to its exceptional geographical position, it was an important stronghold of the various pharaohs, and was also the first city of ancient Egypt, which had the character of a large cosmopolitan center, where many foreigners lived: Syrians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Jews. The city is known for its surrounding funerary and temple complexes – pyramids, necropolises and temples.

In 1979, Memphis’ necropolises – Saqqara, Abusir, Dahshur and Giza – were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Saqqara is a village in Egypt, about 30 km south of Cairo. It contains the oldest necropolis of Memphis, the capital of the Ancient Kingdom. Its name comes from the name of the god of the dead – Sokar.

The length of the Memphis necropolis from north to south is seven kilometers; its width is 1500-500 meters. There are eleven royal pyramids, most of them are pyramids of pharaohs of the 6th dynasty, among them there are tombs of pharaohs Teti, Pepi I and Pepi II. The central structure is the step pyramid of Djoser, the pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty.

Abusir – the modern Arab village, whose name is given to the royal necropolis on the outskirts of ancient Memphis, a few kilometers north of the necropolis of Saqqara. At the time of Pliny the Elder the city of Busiris was famous for its catacombs.

The 14 step pyramids of the 5th dynasty survived in Abusiras, which are smaller and of lower quality than those of the pyramids of the preceding 4th dynasty. The pyramids of pharaohs Neferirkar, Sahur and especially Niusserre were better preserved than others. The pyramids are of course inferior in size to the pyramids on the Giza plateau, but at the same time they are higher above sea level, besides there is one more difference – the pyramids are surrounded by complexes of considerable size increasing their area by almost a quarter.

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Dahshur – the necropolis of the Egyptian pharaohs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, located in the desert 26 km south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. It is the southernmost “field of pyramids” in the vicinity of ancient Memphis; its area is 3 by 1.5 km. The best preserved monuments are the Broken Pyramid and the Pink Pyramid of Pharaoh Sneferu (26th century BC.) It is in these monuments by trial and error Egyptians managed to work out the shape of the “correct” pyramid.

The Giza pyramids complex is located on the Giza plateau in the suburbs of Cairo. This complex of ancient monuments is located about 8 km in the direction of the center of the desert from the old city of Giza on the Nile River, about 25 km south-west of downtown Cairo. Built around 2500 BC.

The Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) is the only remaining monument of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The most famous pyramids are the Pyramid of Khufu (known as the Great Pyramid of Cheops) and the slightly smaller pyramid of Khafra . The Great Sphinx is located on the east side of the complex facing east. Many scholars continue to believe that the Sphinx bears a portrait resemblance to Khafra. The monolith used in the Menkaur temple – estimated to weigh more than 200 tons – is the heaviest on the Giza plateau. The colossal statue of the seated king in the central chapel of the Menkaur temple is one of the largest in the Ancient Kingdom era.

1. Cheops Pyramid

2. Chephren’s pyramid

3. Pyramid of Menkerin.

Monuments of Nubia from Abu Simbel to Philae

This architectural complex was in danger of being destroyed in the last century. The cause of the danger was the waters of the Nile, which had run out of control. In the 1960s UNESCO has made every effort to preserve the architectural complex of Nubia. A special commission was created, a series of measures were developed and implemented to preserve the complex of architectural structures of Nubia, which includes Qasr and Ibrim.

There are monuments of all the historical eras that Egypt has gone through, and in spite of the fact that all the monuments of architecture on the Nubian Peninsula have survived to this day in somewhat bloated condition, they are an excellent illustrative example, to study the history of Egypt from ancient times to the present.

The large temple of Abu Simbel was built in honor of King Ramses the Great, the small one in honor of his first wife, Queen Nefertari. Both structures are magnificently preserved. The first temple is crowned by an entrance with four colossi carved in the rock depicting the seated king. The height of each is about 20 meters. The second temple is decorated with six high relief statues of the king and queen.

Philae is an island on the Nile River, “sacred ground” in ancient times. According to legend, Osiris (the god of rebirth, the king of the afterlife in ancient Egyptian mythology) was buried here, and only priests could live on such land. Under Nektaneb I on the island was built a temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Under Justinian, who destroyed all the pagan monuments, this sanctuary was not touched. It was considered as a sanctuary built in honor of Isis, who in late antique times was approached as the Mother of God.

All these sites were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

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St. Catherine’s Monastery

This is a holy place marked by the Bible and visited by thousands of pilgrims. The monastery is situated at the foot of Mount Moses. According to the Bible, Moses received the famous 10 Commandments written on stone tablets here from God. The monastery received its name in honor of the holy martyr Catherine, who was executed for her refusal to renounce Christianity.

On the site of this monastery, built in the sixth century by Emperor Justian, grows the bush of the Neopalimaya Kupina, from which God spoke to Moses when he sent him to Egypt to save the Israelites from captivity. In 324 Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena ordered a chapel to be built on the site of the Neopalimaya Kupina. The roots of the biblical bush are believed to be under the altar, supported by marble columns.

The main monastery church houses the relics of St. Catherine. There are also wonderful works of art – Byzantine mosaics of the VI century and ancient icons. The collection of the monastery has more than two thousand icons. The monastery library is considered to be the second after the Vatican library in its collection of religious literature and manuscripts. There are a lot of Russian icons and ancient books. In 537 the monastery was turned into a fortress to protect against incessant attacks of nomadic tribes. After the Islamization of Egypt in the tenth century a mosque was erected on the territory of the monastery – this wise step allowed to avoid the destruction of the monastery.

Wadi al-Hitan

Paleontological sites located in the governorate of al-Fayoum about 150 km southwest of Cairo. In July 2005 they were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for their well-preserved, abundant fossils of ancient whales belonging to the extinct suborder Archaeoceti. These fossils illustrate part of the evolutionary process – the origin of whales from animals that lived on land. The specially protected landscape in which these specimens are housed is also accessible and suitable for study.

Wadi el-Hitan is also home to 15 species of desert plants, 15 species of mammals including the North African jackal, red fox, Egyptian mongoose, African wild cat and others. Also documented are the presence of 19 species of reptiles and 36 species of birds that are attracted to the lakes of Wadi al Rayan.

Valley of the Kings

Valley in Egypt, where over a period of about 500 years from the 16th century BC to the 11th century BC tombs were built to bury the pharaohs, kings of Ancient Egypt. The valley is located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the city of Thebes (modern Luxor). It consists of two valleys: the Eastern Valley, where most of the tombs are located, and the Western Valley.

This area has been the center of archaeological and Egyptological research since the late 18th century, and to this day its tombs and tombs continue to attract the attention of researchers. In our time the valley became famous for the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (after rumors of the “Curse of the Pharaohs”, which allegedly befalls anyone who touches the tombs of royalty and mummies of ancient Egypt. The curse is mainly associated with deaths that occurred in the next few years after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922). The valley is also one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. In 1979, together with the remains of the Necropolis of Thebes, the valley was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

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