Getting There: By plane, Abu Simbel is about two hours and 40 minutes from Cairo and 45 minutes from Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. Egyptair offers daily morning flights from Cairo, starting at 5:30 a.m., and offers four daily flights from Aswan, starting at 7:30 a.m.
When to Go: Watching the sunrise over Abu Simbel is otherworldly, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is less populated and more manageable in the early morning hours.
Click here to read all about Egypt in the 2009 Pillars of Civilization guide
Until a few weeks ago, I couldn’t imagine agreeing to a 1 a.m. wake-up call. But I was in Egypt for the first time, trying to see every pyramid, temple and tomb. In just 12 days, I hiked around the pyramids of Giza, Luxor and Karnak, glided over the Valley of the Kings in a hot-air balloon, rode a camel in a Bedouin village and cruised the Nile. But I had to leave my cozy bed at the Conrad Cairo hotel long before dawn to experience my most powerful Egyptian moment.
Clients can still see temple inscriptions on the facade of the structure.
Despite feeling utterly discombobulated, I made it to the airport in time for my flight to Abu Simbel, located near the Sudan border. Dawn was just beginning to cast shadows on the bleak, brown desert when I finally reached the vainglorious monument to the endless powers of Pharaoh Ramesses II. The landscape was barren, save for the inevitable souvenir stalls and a gathering of men drinking strong Turkish coffee.
Following a long dusty trail around the side of a rock-strewn hill, I fretted about the lightening sky — after all, the entire point of my early rise was to see Abu Simbel at sunrise. All thoughts scattered the moment I rounded the path’s final curve and faced a mountainous monument carved in limestone. Four statues of a seated Ramesses II rose 60 feet above my eyes. My neck ached as I looked skyward as if peering to the top of the stands at a football stadium. The smooth facade rose even higher behind the perfectly sculpted faces blending into the golden brown mountain.
Ramesses is often called Egypt’s greatest leader. Although he was a commoner, he became a pharaoh at age 15 and lived to the almost unheard of age of 97. He claimed to have fathered 80 sons and 60 daughters but outlived many of his children. His mummified body sits in the Mummy Room of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
While still in the early years of his rule, Ramesses commissioned his tomb as a monument to his grandeur and a warning to Nubians attempting to breach Egypt’s southern borders. Beneath Ramesses’s thighs are statues of other princes and princesses, seemingly insignificant in comparison to their leader. Eight colossal statues of Ramesses line the aisle of the tomb’s great hall, its walls and ceilings filled with vividly colored murals of battles and ceremonies. Ramesses commissioned a second tomb beside his to honor Queen Nefertari, whose statue is equal in size to those of Ramesses — a testament to her importance to both the pharaoh and the country. Sitting side by side, the two temples are nearly overwhelming in size and detail. I couldn’t imagine how these amazing structures could have been created between 1269 and 1256 B.C.
The most astonishing feat of all, however, occurred far more recently. In the 1960s, the construction of Egypt’s vast Aswan High Dam across the Nile created the Lake Nasser reservoir. As the waters rose in the reservoir, they threatened to submerge the two tombs. UNESCO and the Egyptian government devised a plan to protect the site by literally cutting the structures into huge slabs and reconstructing them in the side of an artificial mountain 200 feet above the original site. It took years, but every detail was impeccably reproduced, right down to the head and upper torso lying at the feet of one of the Ramesses statues, which was destroyed in an ancient earthquake.
The sun was high as I walked around the back of Abu Simbel’s manmade mountain beside Lake Nasser. By noon, I was sitting aboard a boat, ready to cruise the Nile to continue my tour of remarkable pyramids and tombs. Still, I knew nothing could possibly compare to the glory of Abu Simbel.