A guide to Abu Simbel: The highlight of my Egyptian vacation

‘The Great Temple of Ramses II’

At the age of 22, Prince Ramses II was the commander of an army under his father’s reign and earned himself the title Ramses The Great. At 24, he became pharaoh making him the 3rd king to rule in the 19th dynasty. He holds the 2nd longest reign in Egyptian history, ruling for 66 years from 1279 to 1213 B.C and Egypt flourished beneath him. He is one of the most legendary pharaohs of all time. He died at the age of 90 and his 13th son, Merneptah, succeeded the throne when he was 60 years old.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the Swiss Explorer who rediscovered Petra in 1812 also rediscovered 2 temples in 1813 which had been completely buried under sand. It’s believed that a young boy, named Abu Simbel led the explorer to the location. The Great Temple of Ramses II was built here by Ramses himself during his reign to commemorate his triumphs and as a dedication to Ra-Horakhty, the god of the rising sun and Amun-Ra, chief of the Egyptian gods.

The temple is 30 metres high and 35 metres wide. There are 4 seated statues of Ramses II and above the temple’s entrance is a statue of Ra-Horakhty. Around Ramses II’s feet are smaller statues of his children, queen, mother and conquered enemies. The Great Temple took around 30 years to build and it was completed when Ramses was in his 35th year as pharaoh.

I highly recommend travelling with a tour guide to Abu Simbel. Our Intrepid Travel guide, Mohammed, frequently pointed out the names of the pharaohs and gods we saw depicted in the temples at Abu Simbel. Mohammed explained the relevant Egyptian mythology to help us see through the eyes of Ramses II. Yes, it’s a pretty incredible sight to see without a guide but when you connect the sculptures, scenes and hieroglyphics to their meanings it’s astounding.

Abu Simbel was carved in a specific location, on an east-facing cliff face. On two days of the year, the first sun rays of the morning will shine 56 metres into the innermost sanctuary of The Great Temple onto the 3 statues of Ramses II, Ra-Horakhty and Amun-Ra. The 4th statue of Ptah, god of the Egyptian underworld, is cleverly positioned so it doesn’t receive sunlight. This phenomenon occurs around February 22 & October 22 depending on the leap years.

‘The innermost sanctuary’

Just like Philae Temple, the Abu Simbel temples were relocated due to the rising waters of the Nile River and Lake Nasser. It took just under 5 years to complete the task. The number 1 priority of UNESCO’s relocation project was to replicate the exact angle of The Great Temple so the sun can shine through on these 2 days of the year. The relocation cost USD$40 million and UNESCO worked alongside the greatest archaeologists at the time.

Upon entering The Great Temple of Ramses II it extends into the cliff 56 metres. You will find 3 halls consisting of columns and statues covered with engravings. In the Hypostyle Hall, a story is shown through scenes and hieroglyphics of Ramses II’s battle at Kadesh. It was the world’s largest chariot battle and it ended in the world’s first peace treaty.

the temple of hathor and nefertari

Nefertari was married to Ramses II making her an Egyptian Queen and the first of The Great Royal Wives. They had 6 or 8 children together. She was Ramses’ favourite considering he had over 200 wives or concubines and over 100 children in his lifetime. She too was a great ruler alongside Ramses II.

The temple has 10-metre statues of Ramses and Nefertari either side of the entrance. Hathor and Nefertari’s temple is not as overwhelming as The Great Temple of Ramses II however it will still leave you in awe.

The walls inside this temple displays Ramses II and Nefertari making offerings to the gods, mostly to Hathor. Hathor was the original goddess from where all others were derived. She’s the goddess of the sky, women, fertility and love. She is often depicted with the ears of a cow, head of a cow or in a cow’s form.

Nefertari is regarded as a famous female ruler in Egyptian history, alongside Hatshepsut, Cleopatra and Nefertiti. Nefertari died at the age of 40 or 50 around 1250B.C. Ramses II built her a place to rest in the Valley of the Queens with beautiful paintings of herself among the gods in her tomb.

PHOTOGRAPHY PERMIT

You can’t take photos inside the temples unless you have a photography permit. Some of us chipped in for a permit for 300EGP (19 USD / 16GBP / 27CAD / 32AUD*). You can always share the photos amongst each other later. To take photos in Egyptian tombs and temples is a must, there’s so much to see and take in. I didn’t want to forget about those details. Keep the permit in your hand so you can easily show different guards throughout the temple that you have permission.

PLAN AHEAD

Driving 3.5 hours South from Aswan to Abu Simbel is an absolute must when in Egypt. It was my favourite part of the trip. I’m positive it will be a highlight for you too.

The day we drove to Abu Simbel, we left our hotel in Aswan at 3.30 am and arrived at 7 am. It was already bustling with visitors and tour groups. Abu Simbel is open from 5 am to 6 pm. I’ve heard from other travellers that once the early morning tour buses leave at around 11 am, you will have the temples all to yourself! I wish we did that. However it continues to get hotter as the day goes on so be prepared.

In between Aswan and Abu Simbel, there are no towns or sites to see. Same goes for when you are in the village of Abu Simbel. I don’t think it’s worth a night’s stay here due to the poor quality, high prices, lack of facilities and activities.

If you were to stay in accommodation in the village of Abu Simbel, a one night’s stay is all that’s needed. If you plan to visit Abu Simbel without a guide, I recommend attending the Sound & Light show on the first night to learn about the temples, check out the next morning, re-visit Abu Simbel after 11 am for 3 hours and then head back to Aswan.

‘Credit: Google Maps’

TRANSPORT

Our tour group, Intrepid Travel, had the choice of either flying or driving to Abu Simbel. For a private bus and entrance fee, it would cost us 1,612EGP / 102USD* per person or EgyptAir return flights and entrance fee it would be 5,159EGP / 327USD* per person. These options were discounted for our tour group.

EgyptAir flies from Aswan to Abu Simbel once a day a few times a week. The flight always arrives to Abu Simbel at 1 pm and the return flight will depart at 8.45 pm. These times are very awkward for visiting Abu Simbel and you will require transport to and from the airport (8-minute drive). Not to mention the price each way is 233USD / 191GBP / 330CAD / 387 AUD* for a 45-minute flight. It gets better! An EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Abu Simbel each way is 450USD.

Don’t fret. There are some great tours out there for an affordable price! See below.

ASWAN TO ABU SIMBEL TOURS

Viator – 140USD / 114GBP / 198CAD / 232AUD* per person – Pick up and drop off at hotel, private transport, private tour, Egyptologist guide, includes water, excludes entrance fees and food.
Emo Tours Egypt – 128USD / 105GBP / 181CAD / 212AUD* per person – Only 1 pick up and drop off point, private tour, Egyptologist guide, includes entrance fees, food, snacks and water. Recommended by Trip Advisor!
Egypt Knight Tours – 52USD / 43GBP / 74CAD / 87AUD* per person – Pick up and drop off at hotel, public tour, no guide, only given 2 hours at Abu Simbel, excludes entrance fees, food and water.

MUST DO

Abu Simbel Temples – 240EGP / 15USD / 12 GBP / 22 CAD / 25 AUD*.
Abu Simbel Sound & Light show – 20USD / 16 GBP / 28 CAD / 33 AUD* – If you had to choose a sound and light show to attend, Abu Simbel is the best one to see. It’s iconic, in a quiet location and your seats are 50 metres away from the two temples making it immersive. They run every night of the week at 6.30 and 7.30 pm accommodating all languages.
Abu Simbel for The Sun Festival 22 February & 22 October – 500EGP / 32USD / 26GBP / 45CAD / 53AUD* – 2 rows of people will be formed either side of the main hall in The Great Temples of Ramses II before sunrise. They will wait patiently for the first sun rays to travel 56 metres deep into the temple onto the 3 statues. Afterwards, everyone with be served Kushari, Egypt’s national dish. It’s a combination of rice, chickpeas, pasta, lentils, onion, tomato, garlic and tomato sauce. There will be traditional music and dance performances too.

MUST BRING

A folding fan was a lifesaver for me. Wandering deep inside hot temples packed with tourists isn’t fun but a fan makes it bearable!
A 2-litre water bottle and a small water bottle.
A packed lunch and snacks. There is no place to buy food or water at the Abu Simbel site and you will be here for around 3 hours.
The basics: hat, sunscreen, camera etc.

WHERE TO EAT

There are 2 café’s about a 10-minute walk into town. Judging by the reviews they’re incredibly overpriced for the quality. This also goes for the restaurants and cafes on the main road in the village of Abu Simbel. If you need to buy some food or water, the UNESCO Supermarket in the village is the only place to go as they don’t charge tourist prices.

TO STAY

Seti Abu Simbel Lake Resort (7.1 Rating – Booking.com) – Enjoy a stunning retreat here with 3 pools, restaurant, bar, massage parlour and views of Lake Nasser.
Star Abu Simbel (6.3 Rating – Booking.com) – The temples of Abu Simbel are at your doorstep, 400 metres away to be exact. They have a restaurant on-site and 24-hour front desk.

‘Views of Lake Nasser from Abu Simbel’

*Based on currency rates at the time of being published.