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Sun to Illuminate Inner Sanctuary of Pharaoh's Temple

For most of the year, the inner sanctum of the main temple at Abu Simbel is shrouded in darkness.

On two days, traditionally the anniversary of the birthday and coronation of pharaoh Ramses II, a shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom, illuminating statues of gods and the king in the temple's inner sanctum.

On February 22, a day celebrating the king's birthday and again on October 22, a day celebrating his coronation, sunlight illuminates seated statues of the sun gods Re-Horakhte and Amon-Re, as well as a statue of king Ramses II. The statues sit in the company of the Theban god of darkness, Ptah (who remains in the shadows all year).

Ramses II

Seated between Amen-Re to his left and Re-Harkhti to his right, the statue of Ramses II has greeted the rising sun twice a year for the past 3,200 years at Abu Simbel.

Photograph by Georg Gerster

The spectacle—which has endured more than 3,200 years of Egyptian history—draws thousands of tourists to Abu Simbel to watch this ancient tribute to a pharaoh whose name is still known up and down the Nile Valley for his military exploits and monumental building projects.

Temple of a God-King

Ramses, who ruled Egypt for 66 years from 1270 to 1213 BC (about 50 years after the death of Tutankhamen, better known as King Tut) made a name for himself by battling the Hittites and the Syrians, Egypt's enemies to the north.

To celebrate his victories, Ramses erected monuments up and down the Nile with records of his achievements. He completed the hypostyle hall at Karnak (Thebes), and completed the funerary temple of his father, Seti I, at Luxor on the West Bank of the Nile.

The main temple at Abu Simbel, which Ramses ordered built near the border of Nubia and Upper Egypt, was dedicated to two sun gods, Amen-Re and Re-Horakhte. Standing 100 feet (33 meters) tall, the temple was carved into an already-standing sandstone mountain on the banks of the Nile.

Four colossal statues of Ramses, each 66 feet (22 meters) high, guard the entrance to the temple. Rising to the pharaoh's knees are smaller statues of family members: his mother; favorite wife, Nefertari; and son, Prince Amonherkhepshef.

Inside the temple, three connected halls extend 185 feet (56 meters) into the mountain. Images of the king's life and many achievements adorn the walls. A second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefartari, who appears to have been Ramses' favorite wife.

"Abu Simbel was one of, if not the largest, rock-cut temples in Egypt," says Bruce Williams of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, "The rock was sacred because the Egyptians believed the deity was living inside the mountain."

Rock-cut temples may have been especially significant in ancient Egypt because the bulge in the otherwise flat land may have signified the location where the gods emerged from the Earth, says Williams.

Monumental Move

The Abu Simbel temples do not sit in their original location. Egypt's growing need for electricity prompted the controversial construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.The dam created Lake Nasser, and rising waters flooded a number of important archaeological sites along the banks of the Nile and displaced thousands of people who lived in the area.

The rising waters threatened the temples at Abu Simbel. Members of the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) orchestrated a massive construction project that moved the temple back 690 feet to its present site.

Piece by piece, craftsmen cut the temple, and the nearby temple of Nefertari into massive blocks of sandstone up to thirty tons. Both temples were carefully reassembled on a new steel and cement "mountain," safe from the water's edge.

The only result of the move is that the days of illumination have shifted by one—the illumination used to occur on February and October 21.

Festival of the Sun

That the days of illumination correspond to actual days in the life of Ramses is highly unlikely, says Leo Depuydt, an egyptologist at Brown University.

"The Egyptian calendar was based on 365 days and while it was precise, the solar calendar is minutely different from year to year," says Depuydt, who adds that it is also difficult to know the precise date of the birth or coronation of Ramses II.

"Regardless of the alignment, if the temple faces East, the sun is going to shine in it twice a year," says Depuydt, who adds that "excitement is the key here—people are going to come to see the sun in the temple. But science is a different matter."

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