Abu Simbel - The salvaging of the Temples, man and technology

The archaeological complex of Abu Simbel is composed of two large temples carved in the rock at the side of the mountain, erected under Pharaoh Ramses II around the thirteenth century BC, to intimidate its Nubian neighbors and commemorate the victory in the Battle of Kadesh. In 1979 the site was recognized as World Heritage of Humanity by U.N.E.S.C.O.

The Great Temple
Among the many monuments erected by Pharaoh Ramses II, the great temple of Abu Simbel is generally considered the most impressive and beautiful. On the facade, 33 meters high and 38 wide, are included the four statues of Ramses II, each of them is 20 meters high; in each one the Pharaoh wears the crowns of Lower Egypt, the headgear called "Nemes" that falls on his shoulders and the cobra on the forehead. On the sides of the great statues there are some other smaller, his mother and his wife Nefertari, and between their legs there are some statues of his children, recognizable by the curls at the side of their head.

Above the statues, in the front of the temple, there are 14 statues of baboons that, looking eastward, expect every day the birth of the sun to worship him; originally there were 22 statues of baboons, like the provinces of Egypt. One of the statues representing Ramses is beheaded, possibly because of an earthquake, and the head collapsed remaining at his feet; some of the statues located on the top of the temple, representing the Pharaoh and God Horus (falcon), were destroyed.

From here you enter in the main hall of the temple, called "of the nobles", with eight square pillars covered with reliefs depicting Pharaoh with some Gods. On the walls we find the Pharaoh offering perfumes and incense to the Amon’s Holy Boat, followed by his wife, Queen Nefertari. This hall leads to the Sancta Sanctorum, where there are four statues looking at the entry; Ra-Harakhte (the falcon with the solar disk), Ramses deificated, Amon-Ra (the sun god and father of the gods) and Ptah (god of Arts and Crafts). Here, thanks to the temple direction, twice a year, the first ray of sunshine lights the face of the Pharaoh: February 22, the day of his birth, and October 22, the day of his coronation. In the next two or three days the sun lights the other Gods, with exception of the God Ptah, the God of darkness.

The Small Temple
To the north of the big temple, about one hundred meters far, is located the small temple, also carved into the rock, dedicated to God Hathor and Nefertari, Ramses’s wife. The facade, 28 meters wide and 12 meters high, is decorated with six statues, 10 meters high, three at each side of the entry; four of them depict Ramses and the other two Nefertari. On the sides of the Pharaoh statues there are his children in smaller size, while on the sides of Nefertari are depicted their daughters.

In 1954, the Egyptian government decided to build a huge high dam to the south of the city of Aswan, so as to modernize the country’s economy. However, the project put dozens of buildings and archaeological sites at risk of being submerged by the enormous reservoir created, including the Temples of Abu Simbel and Philae. It was this very risk that, in 1959, prompted the Egyptian and Sudanese governments to ask for Unesco’s help. Help in the form of a material, technical and scientific project to salvage the monuments of ancient Nubia. Unesco’s reply took the form of a two-part appeal: the first made in March of 1960 was along general lines; the second, in November, 1968, was more specific and appealed for the salvaging of the Philae temples.

The campaign set the following objectives:
•  to make an Inventory and documentation of the Nubian monuments
•  the identification of the monuments at risk of flooding
•  the set up of salvaging operations for the monuments at risk, by their relocation at a higher level in areas that would not be menaced by the rising waters of the Nile.


Waters, that, as from 1964 had constantly and steadily risen to a projected maximum level of 60 meters over and above the previous one, creating the reservoir known as lake Nasser. The Abu Simbel Temples had to be salvaged if they were not to be submerged forever.

The Abu Simbel Temples had to be salvaged if they were not to be submerged forever. The U.A.R. government were assisted by two committees of international experts, one made up of engineers and the other architects. Works began in 1964 and finished in 1968. All the machinery employed in the operations – 630 tons of digging and excavation machinery, 135 tons of compressors, pneumatic drills, 350 tons of hauling and lifting machines and 610 tons of vehicles – all arrived, from Europe, by sea. May 1965, a year and a half after the signing of the contact, the cranes lifted their first block, witnessing the starting of the dismantling operations.

In 1960, the Egyptian president Nasser, began the building work on the huge Aswan high dam. This project foresaw the creation of an enormous artificial lake of about 2,500 kilometres, built to irrigate an area that was, until then, infertile and non-productive. A project that although of great economic importance for the country, implied the complete cancellation of some of the most extraordinary testimonies of the ancient pharaohic civilisation. Amongst these were the rock temples of Abu Simbel, a human patrimony, under the protection of UNESCO. Indeed, it was UNESCO that first rose voices in alarm, a cry for help that was soon transformed into a huge salvage appeal involving no less than 113 countries, all ready to help Egypt with money and technology. At this time, also the Italian company, Italconsult, carried out preliminary studies and put foreword a proposal of a project for the salvaging of the temples. At first, the Italian solution was preferred over the French one, but, in the end, the less costly Egyptian solution was chosen. When, in the autumn of 1963, The United States of America, subscribed to finance one third of the total costs of the salvaging operations, it was then possible to sign a contract with an international consortium of contractors. Indeed, Egypt had already subscribed, undertaking to be responsible for the first third of the expenses, whilst the other member states of UNESCO subscribed for the residual part of the estimated expenses, any deficits were to be covered by private initiatives. The project foresaw the dismantling of the temples by cutting them into blocks and re-erecting them some 65 metres higher up and about 180 metres inland, above the level of the finished dam. The works took five years to complete, more than 2,000 men, tons of material and a technological effort the likes of which had never been witnessed before in the history of engineering.

The winning companies included: Grand Travaux, from Marseille, Paris; Hochtief, from Essen; Impregilo from Milan, Italy, Skanska and Sentab, both from Stockholm. When the 25 million dollar contract was signed, the Atlas Company, Cairo became the sixth member of the “Abu Simbel Joint Venture ”. The company, Hochtief, who had had useful previous experience in Nubia, directed the works throughout the salvaging operations.

The U.A.R. government were assisted by two committees of international experts, one made up of engineers and the other architects. Works began in 1964 and finished in 1968. All the machinery employed in the operations – 630 tons of digging and excavation machinery, 135 tons of compressors, pneumatic drills, 350 tons of hauling and lifting machines and 610 tons of vehicles – all arrived, from Europe, by sea. May 1965, a year and a half after the signing of the contact, the cranes lifted their first block, witnessing the starting of the dismantling operations.

Each and every block was marked with a code number in the form of a combination of letters and numbers that indicated which temple they belonged to, the position of the piece, the area, row and number of the block. After having been lifted by the crane, the blocks were lowered with care onto the low loader and transported slowly to the storage area.

The temple façades were covered by sandfills to protect them from any falling fragments during dismantling operations. Whilst the internal parts of the two temples were re-enforced with tailor-made steel scaffolding on air- cushions, to support the weight of the newly-cut blocks and prevent them from falling. A maximum tonnage for the blocks was specified: perimeter and ceiling blocks were not to exceed 20 tons and those from the façades 30.

The maximum extension of an external surface was also established for one side of any cut block and was not to be in excess of 15 square metres for façade blocks and 12 for the temple rooms. Once the blocks had been treated before cutting and during lifting, they were further prepared for their “new future” in the storage area, where strengthening injections of synthetic resin were used to prevent humidity from discolouring of the stone.

The dismantling operations began in 1965 with the removal of the overhanging rock as did the excavation works behind the façade that gave access to the temple roofs. Most of the excavation had to be done without the aid of explosives to avoid damage to the temples from vibration.

The only way the “rescuers” of Abu Simbel could take, was to approach the sanctuaries imprisoned in the rocks with caution, from above and from the side, without the use of anything but manually operated pneumatic drills. The cutting of the both the temples and the façades had to left to the use of tailor-made hand saws.


The restoration of the original landscape

This phase was more difficult and time consuming than had first been estimated. The restoration of the rock that enveloped the façades and the creation of the artificial hills, took almost a year and a half to complete. The temples that had by now been re-erected safely out of reach of the Nile’s waters, were never meant to withstand weight such as that created by the artificial hills that now enveloped them.

Supporting concrete protective arched domes were therefore designed with cylindrical and spherical sections (in quadrants). These domes had the specific tasks of transferring loads, created by the sandstone coverage, away from the temple walls and to leave open spacing at the tops of the walls and columns to allow for any displacement and create ventilation.

Never had these types of arches, sometimes spherical in shape, been made before. The construction of the hills that enveloped the temples and the creation of an adequate surrounding environment, took about six months to complete. No other construction project in history has ever involved such a variety of projects, or undergone so many stringent, lengthy and exhaustive tests, as did this challenging project.

Lake Nasser now offers a magnificent view of the two Abu Simbel temples on their new majestic site, about 65 metres above the original one. The varied cultural, scientific and technical aims set by this project were, however, not the only fundamental conditions. The available funds were also of utmost importance. Indeed, once the final decision was made to start the works on the temples, at a rather late stage, it was evident that the economical resources were extremely limited. This meant that the complete dismantling of the original sandstone temple façades could be done only in part, due to the high costs and long timing involved. It was, therefore, decided not to try to re-create the original hills with sandstone from other areas, or to try to make a poor imitation of the natural dessert with its sand-dunes and stony slopes, but rather to create aesthetically stylized hills, with their own architectonic style. Although it is not surprising that such a decision was viewed with more than a little scepticism by many, visiting the Temples of Abu Simbel today it can only be said that these hills offer a breathtaking setting for a magnificent project… and… if anything has changed… then they have further enhanced their monumental character and astounding beauty.