Get yourself to Abu Simbel!
If you find your tour doesn’t go there, switch. If you’re doing Egypt on your own, get to Aswan and check at any of the hostels or hotels for tours there. You don’t really want any of the other extras (Aswan High Dam, The Unfinished Obelisk and others) since it’s a long trip already. Once you book you’ll find out it’s an early trip: you get picked up in a bus or mini-van at about 4:30 in the morning, drive to the outskirts of Aswan and wait until the convoy is ready.
Yes, I wrote convoy. Police escort included – we’re going through territory that has a few rough spots. You’ll be glad you left early when you’re there. Towards the end of the 2 hours or so they give you to wander around it starts to get pretty hot… it’s pretty darn close to the border with Sudan. I’ve been there twice, once in July when a fellow traveler’s thermometer on his watch read 48 degrees Centigrade, and once in January, when it still got pretty warm, even if in the rest of Egypt we needed light jackets – maybe 25-30 degrees.
About two hours after the convoy starts you arrive at the site and then have to deal with a ridiculously unprepared ticket selling system (I say ridiculous since the convoys go there everyday and they should have worked out a better way to do it, you’ll see what I mean), but then…
You walk around the corner of an artificial rock hill and, Wow! Abu Simbel, one of the most massive monuments ever built, carved into the rock about 3,300 years ago, during the reign of Ramses II. It faces towards the Nile, warning those from the south who dare to enter Egypt by boat, and reminding all of Egypt’s power at the time. It’s four colossal statues of a seated Ramses II carved into the rock, with smaller statues of his wives reaching up to his knees. Look out for the small statue of Horus in the front at the bottom. To the right there is a smaller set of carvings dedicated to Ramses II’s favorite wife, Nefertari – still a massive undertaking, and beautiful work.
Take your pictures, walk around, and that should be enough, but there’s two more even more fascinating things about Abu Simbel. First, is that the inside of the rock is carved out as well, and a pillared hall inside is dominated by reliefs that are lit up, showing Ramses making offerings to the gods, and an exquisite scene of Ramses on his war chariot, leading the charge before the town of Kadesh, Syria, where the Egyptian army fought a famous battle against the Hittites of Asia Minor for influence in Palestine-Syria. Ramses claims victory in the monument, but the battle is historically viewed as a draw. The reliefs are some of the most beautiful in all Egypt, and the store rooms along the side of the main pillored hall have gorgeous paintings, mostly having to do with Ramses worshiping the various gods of the New Kingdom. Nefertari’s smaller monument also has an inner hall with scenes of Ramses’ greatness, but also with pillars dipicting the god Hathor in her human form.
The second wonder of Abu Simbel is that it was moved 45 years ago. A monumental task almost as great as the original construction, the UN helped raise money and deployed the crews that cut, moved and re-assembled the entire complex to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, created in the early 1960s as a bi-product of the Aswan High Dam. There is a small museum near the entrance to the site that shows the entire process (well worth the look).
Go to Abu Simbel, no matter if you only have 7 days in Egypt, this is half of one of them for sure. And for for the love of all things precious, don’t scrap the reliefs with your day-pack as you walk past – these are ancient!