In 1964, Egypt started what would become one of the world’s largest and most spectacular projects, requiring the dismantling and reassembling of ancient buildings. It was necessary to relocate the ancient temples in Abu Simbel to save them from being submerged by the waters of the Nile.
Abu Simbel is home to two temples sculpted into a mountain’s side and built more than 3,000 years ago. At the entrance to the bigger of the two temples are four enormous statues of the seated pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt between 1303 and 1213 B.C. Each statue is approximately 69 feet (21 meters) tall.
The entrance to the temple was designed so that on two days of the year, the 22nd of October and the 22nd of February, sunlight can shine into the temple’s inner sanctuary and light three statues seated on a bench. One of these statues depicts a pharaoh. Historians believe that these dates represent the times of his birth and his coronation.
In addition, the temple site of Abu Simbel is home to a second, more modest building that some belief was constructed for Queen Nefertari. Each of the pharaoh sculptures on its front is approximately 10 meters (33 feet) in height, and it also features two statues of the queen.
Each one is sandwiched between buttresses that have hieroglyphs carved into them. An Egyptian pharaoh constructed the site, which can be found in Egypt today; however, during ancient times, the region in it was situated was considered a portion of Nubia, a territory that was sometimes independent of ancient Egypt.
The new place was 200 meters more inland and 65 meters higher than the previous one.
After a while, the temples were no longer needed and eventually were buried under the sand due to their lack of use. As early as the 6th century B.C., the sand had already reached the knees of the statues in the main temple.
The temple was lost to history until 1813 when a Swiss orientalist named Jean-Louis Burckhardt discovered the upper frieze of the main temple. Before that time, the temple had been forgotten. Burckhardt shared his finding with the Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, who visited the location but could not locate a passage leading into the temple despite Burckhardt’s instructions. In the year 1817, Belzoni made his return, and this time he was successful in his attempt to access the complex.
The new Aswan Dam was constructed in the 1960s to control the Nile floods and generate electricity for Egypt’s expanding companies. The sites had to be relocated to save nearly two dozen archaeological sites from being submerged by the waters of the recently created Lake Nasser. One of these sites was the Temple of Philae, which is now a popular attraction in Aswan; however, the difficulties of the Abu Simbel site were even more epic.
After being put back together like a giant game of Tetris into a specifically constructed artificial cliff under the watch of UNESCO, the massive figures of Ramses II were carefully cut up into a series of 20-ton blocks and moved away from the lake in phases.
The entire process lasted four years and cost approximately $300 million in real value. However, the relocation was carried out with such exactitude that, twice a year, in the weeks of February and October, the rising sun could reach into the temple’s interior, illuminating the sun god’s inner temple in the same manner that it did when the temple was first constructed.
Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully dismantled, lifted, and reassembled in a new position. Some blocks carried as much as 30 tons, while others weighed an average of 20 tons.
The statues and the temples were carved into 20-ton blocks, and then those blocks were moved to the new location. The tools used to carve the blocks varied from handsaws to bulldozers.
When it came to the reassembly, extraordinary precision was required, as there was a very small tolerance of only plus or minus 5 millimeters.
As was the case with the first sanctuary, the reconstructed one was designed to face the sun to illuminate the interior at specific times of the year.
The temples had to be moved because they were in danger of being flooded during the construction of Lake Nasser, a massive artificial water reservoir created after the Aswan High Dam on the River Nile.
Forty technical missions from across five continents were responsible for the relocation of a total of 22 monuments and complexes.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Nubian Monuments” includes the entire compound as one of its elements.
A Polish archaeologist named Kazimierz Michaowski was in charge of supervising the relocation process.
In the 13th century BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II of the 19th dynasty, the twin temples were initially carved out of the mountainside. This took place during the 19th dynasty.
They memorialize the king’s success at the Battle of Kadesh and serve as a lasting monument to the monarch and his queen, Nefertari.
Moving the Temples of Abu Simbel.
The evolution of seated sculptures is portrayed in this work by David Roberts from the 19th century.
At the Nubian Museum in Aswan is a scale model that shows the temple’s original location in addition to its present location (concerning the water level).
(Photo credit: Terrence Spencer / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images / Wikipedia).
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