Pharaoh Ramses II (roughly from 1290 - 1224 BC) left Egypt littered with statues of himself. At the farthest southern reaches of his kingdom, on what is now the Egypt/Sudan border, he constructed two mammoth temples - this is Abu Simbel. The Great Temple has four 22m high seated statues of himself, while the lesser temple was dedicated to his favourite wife Nefertari.
The temples were carved deep into the solid cliff face and once stood at a sweeping bend in the Nile, as if to say 'you are now entering my kingdom'. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the late 1960s the artificial lake (Lake Nasser) which grew behind the dam would have engulfed these two magnificent temples forever.
Luckily UNESCO1 came to the rescue and literally cut them out of the cliff and rebuilt them on an artificial hillside 200m higher and about 250m inland. This site has to be one of the most amazing places to visit in Egypt. If you arrive by air you walk up behind the artificial hill, around its edge until suddenly the colossal statues of Ramses are there. You can also sail up to them on Lake Nasser - the waters of which are now only about 20m away.
Part of the relocation exercise conducted by UNESCO was the construction of an artificial mountainside into which the temples were inserted. You can visit the interiors of both temples. In the large temple, Ramses's victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh is depicted in an heroic outline. Gradually, as the visitor progresses through the temple, Ramses slowly appears mingling with the pantheon of the great Egyptian Gods, until ultimately, at the innermost sanctum of the temple, Ramses appears seated among three gods: Ptah, Amon Ra and Harmakhis.
Ramses's builders had the temple aligned so that twice a year (once on Ramses's birthday, and again on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne) the rays of the rising Sun pierce the full depth of the temple to illuminate the four seated statues, except for Ptah, the god of darkness. Twice a year, on 22 February and 22 October, the 'Abu Simbel Festival' takes place in celebration of this event.
The modern day builders could not quite emulate the ancient craftsmen - the Sun still illuminates the seated deities, but a day later.
After the visit to the temples, the tourist will note a small door to the right of the four massive statues of Ramses. Passing through this doorway takes the visitor inside the artificial mountain built to house the temple2. This quiet, echoing air-conditioned chamber is perhaps the oddest sight at Abu Simbel - a site justifiably on the United Nations World Heritage Site list.
The only way to reach Abu Simbel from the touristy part of Egypt is by air. Flights are regularly scheduled from Aswan and are generally on a reasonably sized plane (like a Boeing 737). The flight is very short, taking about 15 minutes.