Date: 1 June 2022
Location: Benben Hotel, Philae Island, Aswan
So. Abu Simbel is a bit of a fucking adventure.
The grand twin temples of Abu Simbel, built by Ramses II, are located on the shores of Lake Nasser, just north of the border with Sudan. Getting there feels a lot like an Amazing Race challenge.
It’s 290km away from Aswan.
The drive takes over three hours on baking hot roads. The road down opens at 5am. (Why? Reason unclear. I’ve heard the “bad” old British roads blamed, but also heard terrorism and kidnapping and sandstorms all cited. Given that all tourists used to have to pay for an armed police escort, I don’t think it’s the road’s fault.) You can also fly: EgyptAir offers two 45 minute round trip flights per day — but the flights tend to start in Cairo then stop, like a bus, in Aswan before heading down, so you’re unlikely to land before 9ish. And flights get cancelled. And they only give you 90 minutes on the ground to see the temples before you’re boarding to return again.
Or you could try heading down the the night before and staying in the handful of hotels in lonely Abu Simbel — but, for those on a tight time budget or without good kidnapping insurance, it’s not really a solution.
All relatively straight forward enough so far.
Now you just need to factor in the heat. It’s June, and the temperatures in upper Egypt cheerfully hit 30 degrees just after dawn and can peak around 47 degrees before lunch. There’s precious little shade at the temples. Sandstone glares at you from three directions, the glittering lake surface from another. It’s like the hottest beach you’ve even burned your toes on. So you really need to be done before 11am.
There are also those rumoured sandstorms. These can keep you trapped inside a hotel or restaurant for hours, even overnight. (Fun fact: these sandstorms send scorpions flying and lots of people get stung!)
We chose to drive. After a 4am wakeup and groggy pre-dawn boat ride over the Nile (remember that cool / pesky island hotel thing?), our adventure is probably about as smooth as you can get, my favourable perception greatly enhanced by the fact that I slept for a solid hour each way.
We arrive just before 9am and stepping out of the car (whose AC has valiantly tried to keep us from melting for the last three hundred kilometres) is like stepping into an oven. It’s then just a short walk down a sandy path to the banks of Lake Nasser and then, boom, on the left, four gigantic statues of Rameses II himself guarding his temple. It’s a striking moment and hits me like seeing Petra did. How? is all my mind can really mange at first. How is this so old? So huge? Why?
We explore with our guide and and marvel at the fact that the entire temples complex had had to be moved upon construction of the high damn for it’s original location, 60m away, is now entirely underwater. We also learn to start reading hieroglyphics and about the structure of an Egyptian temple. We learn about the daily rites and gawk at the way these are depicted in minute detail on the thousand year old walls. Most impressive of all is the innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies. Here, the pharaoh is depicted seated with three gods: Ptah, god of blacksmiths and of darkness, Amun, king of gods, and falcon-headed Ra, the sun god. Twice a year the sun shines directly through all of the chambers to illuminate this room and make three of these statues glow. Ptah always remains shrouded in darkness.
We move on to the second temple, that of Neftari, Rameses is “favourite” wife. (He allegedly had eighty…) The day grows warmer still and, with it, wanes our enthusiasm for playing adventurer. An hour later wel’re back in the car speeding away from Sudan and towards the green shores of Aswan.