Ramses II built his temple at Abu Simbel so that the internal chamber would light up two times a year: once on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne (in February, around the 22nd), and once on his birthday (in October, around the 22nd).
Every year on the Sun Festival, crowds gather before sunrise to observe the stream of light gradually sneaking through the stone and enlightening the statuettes of Ramses, Ra and Amun in the central chamber. Only the statue of Ptah – the god of darkness – remains in the shade even on these two special days of the year!
Twice a year at the temple in Abu Simbel, just after sunrise, the rays of the sun illuminate the statues of Ramses, Ra and Amun in the central chamber just after sunrise. The likeness of Ptah, the god of darkness, remains in the shade. The occurrences take place on22 October, the birthday of Ramses, and 22 February, when he ascended to the throne. After the temple was moved to higher ground due to the expected flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam, the positioning was calculated precisely to ensure the Sun Festival could still take place.
The events attract people from all over the world and festivities around the temple are organised by the Ministry of Tourism and the people of Aswan. The event starts just before sunrise, when musicians and dancers gather to perform for visitors and tourists. The participating dancers are dressed in traditional costumes and Nubian music is performed. The festive atmosphere and the mystical nature of the event make for an unforgettable experience.
The bi-annual sun festival at Abu Simbel is definitely the highlight of the touristic season in Aswan. The temples were carved out of the mountain in 13th century BCE and the temples were discovered in the 1800s after they had been buried in the sand for about 2,000 years.
The monument serves as a memorial for Ramses II and his wife Queen Nefertari to commemorate his victory in the Battle of Kadesh. The battle is believed to have occurred in 1274 BCE between the Egyptians and the ancient Anatolians, who made up the Hittite empire, which included parts of modern day Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
In 1968, the temples had to be relocated for fear of flooding caused the Aswan High Dam. They were moved to an artificial hill to be high above the water’s reach. The relocation was overseen by UNESCO and it is estimated that it cost about $40m. The complex was divided into blocks, which were then moved to the new site where they were reassembled. The whole complex was divided into 10,000 blocks, with each piece weighing up to 30 tonnes. Due the composition of the rock, which is sandstone, the use of explosives was out of question. Instead, the engineers used a collection of drills and other tools to cut up the temples into blocks.
The relocation process took around four years to complete. The new location was 65 metres higher than the old one and the engineers were careful to place the temples in the same north-south orientation as the old complex, to produce the same effect when it comes to the sun’s penetration of the temples.
The two temples are dedicated to several deities, namely Ra, Ptah, Amun and Hathor. It is believed that the Great Temple took about 20 years to build.
The sun festival occurs at two distinct dates, on 22 October and 22 February. These dates are believed to signify the birthday of the Ramses II and the day he ascended to the throne. On each of these two days, when the sun enters the temple at dawn, the rays illuminate the statues at the back wall only, except for Ptah, the god of the underworld. It is quite a feat that this was achieved in ancient Egypt, considering the technology and knowledge of astronomy that was available