Why Were the Temples of Abu Simbel Moved?
In 1959, an international donations campaign to save the monuments of Nubia began: the southernmost relics of this ancient human civilization were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile that were about to result from the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
When construction began on the High Dam at Aswan, in southern Egypt, it was realized that the temples of Abu Simbel would be completely submerged as the waters of the Nile rose behind the dam to create a much needed reservoir.
In 1959 Egypt and its southern neighbor Sudan appealed for help to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The first archaeological surveys began in 1960 and UNESCO’s response grew into what was to become the biggest archaeological rescue operation in history.
Abu Simbel consists of two temples of Ramses II built more than 3,000 years ago. The most important and impressive temple included four gigantic seated statues of the king, each 65 feet high. By 1968 these four enormous monuments to Ramses had been cut out of the rock and reconstructed, exactly as they were, high up on a cliff.
Six more great statues of Ramses and his queen (about 30 feet high) were also excavated and moved to a dry sanctuary above the old river bed, along with everything else that could be salvaged.
Out of the two temples, the larger one is dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun, Egypt’s three state deities of the time, and features four large statues of Ramesses II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramesses’s most beloved of his many wives. The temple is now open to the public.
One scheme to save the temples was based on an idea by William MacQuitty to build a clear fresh water dam around the temples, with the water inside kept at the same height as the Nile. There were to be underwater viewing chambers. In 1962 the idea was made into a proposal by architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry and civil engineer Ove Arup. They considered that raising the temples ignored the effect of erosion of the sandstone by desert winds. However the proposal, though acknowledged to be extremely elegant, was rejected.
The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archaeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner; it cost some USD $40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars).
Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.
Some structures were even saved from under the waters of Lake Nasser. Today, a few hundred tourists visit the temples daily. Guarded convoys of buses and cars depart twice a day from Aswan, the nearest city. Many visitors also arrive by plane at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex.