Abu Simbel refers to an enormous ancient temple complex, comprising of two temples in Southern Egypt, constructed at the second cataract of the River Nile, during the reign of Ramesses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC. However, some scholars think that the decision to build the grand monument at that precise location, on the border with the conquered lands of Nubia, suggests that, the construction of the complex begun around 1244 BC, after the Nubian Campaigns of Ramesses II, along with his sons and the complex was built as a symbol of Egypt's power. Nevertheless, it is agreed that it took long twenty years to create the massive complex, containing the Great Temple and the Small Temple.
The enormous and beautiful structures of the twin temple were not actually constructed, but were cut into solid rock in side of a cliff and serve as a lasting monument to the king and his queen Nefertari.
However, with the passage of time, the temples became covered by sand and was forgotten until 1813, Swiss researcher Johann Ludwig Burckhardt accidentally found the top frieze of the main temple. However, as he was not in a position to uncover the site buried deep in sand, he mentioned the matter to his friend, Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who first excavated and uncovered Abu Simbel in 1817 AD. It is said that, a local boy named Abu Simbel led either him or Burckhardt to the site and hence the entire complex was named after him.
Out of the two temples housed in Abu Simbel complex, the Great Temple, dedicated to the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhty, stands 98 feet (30 m) high and 115 feet (35 m) long, with four 65 feet (20m) tall seated colossal figures of Ramesses II set on either side of the entrance, two on each side.
Carved around their feet are small, but larger than life-sized figures, depicting the children of Ramesses II, his queen, Nefertari, and his mother, Muttuy. However, according to another version, the smaller figures represent his conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites.
The Great temple consists of three consecutive halls extending 185 feet (56 m) into the cliff, the walls of which are decorated with engravings depicting Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods. Scenes of Ramesses' great victory at the Battle of Kadesh are also depicted in detail across the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall. As the temple is aligned with the east, twice a year, on 22 February 22 October, the first rays of the morning sun penetrate the whole length of the temple and illuminate the shrine in its innermost sanctuary.
Just to the north of the main temple stands the Small temple at a height of 40 feet (12 m) and 92 feet (28 m) long, dedicated to Queen Nefertari for the worship of the goddess Hathor and adorned with 35 feet (10.5 m) statues of the king and the queen. Usually, in ancient Egypt, a queen is represented on a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh. However, at Abu Simbel, Nefertari is rendered the same size as Ramesses. In fact, this is the second time, when an Egyptian ruler dedicated a temple to his wife, the first time being the Pharaoh Akhenaton (1353-1336 BC), who dedicated a temple to his queen Nefertiti. Apart from the depictions of the goddess Hathor, the walls of the temple are engraved with the images of Ramesses and Nefertari making offerings to the gods.
During 1960's, the Egyptian government planned to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile, which threatened to submerge Abu Simbel, along with many other surrounding structures, like the Temple of Philae. During that time, UNESCO and the Egyptian Government, initiated a project to save the site. Between 1963 and 1968 a workforce and an international team of engineers and scientists, supported by funds from more than 50 countries, dismantled both the temples and reconstructed them on a high plateau, more than 200 feet (60 m) above their previous site. UNESCO took the leadership of the fantastic project, along with a multi-national team of archaeologists, at a cost of over 40 million US dollars.
Abu Simbel, along with Philae and other nearby monuments were collectively enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Today, Abu Simbel is the most visited site of Egypt, after the Pyramids of Giza and is equipped with its own airport to support its visitors.