Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  


Oct. 22 is a special day for many amateur and professional Egyptologists. On this date, sunlight shines on a specific portion of wall sculpture inside the inner sanctuary of the main temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt.

On most days, darkness shrouds the entire inner temple, as the sun rarely sits at the correct point near the horizon to cast rays all the way down the 185-foot hallway that separates the sanctuary from the outside world. Yet, on Oct. 22 and again on Feb. 22, the first rays of dawn illuminate statues depicting Ramses II, the sun god Re-Horakhte, and fellow solar deity Amon-Re.

This feature alone would make the Abu Simbel temple complex a compelling subject of study, but the monument has several additional intriguing aspects. Unlike other more well-known Egyptian monuments, a man-made pyramid doesn't house the Abu Simbel complex, but builders cut it directly into a sandstone cliff.

Despite the absence of a "host" monument, the Abu Simbel complex is photogenic in its own right, thanks to four colossal, seated statues of Ramses II that guard its entrance. Dozens of hieroglyphics and pictograms cover the temple's walls, documenting the events and accomplishments of Ramses II's reign. And perhaps adding a humanizing touch among the grandeur and aggrandizement, the complex also houses a temple devoted to the pharaoh's beloved wife Nefertari.

But it's the astronomical and architectural prowess of Abu Simbel's builders that, as evidenced by the biannual solar event, has earned Abu Simbel the most attention and acclaim among both tourists and scholars--except, perhaps, for the chain of events that altered the dates on which the twice-yearly solar spectacle occurs.



We asked what caused the biannual solar event at the Abu Simbel temple complex in Egypt to shift dates. In simplest terms, the dates moved because the temple complex moved.

From the 13th century B.C. to 1964 A.D., sunlight shown upon the statues of pharaoh Ramses II and the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte inside the temple's inner sanctuary every Feb. 21 and Oct. 21, believed to mark the anniversaries of the pharaoh's birth and coronation, respectively (though inconsistencies in the ancient Egyptian solar calendar make this a topic of scholarly debate).

In 1964, however, Egypt was in the midst of constructing the Aswan High Dam hydroelectric plant on the Nile River, thereby creating the artificial Lake Nasser, which would threaten the Abu Simbel complex. Without drastic measures, water would cover one of Egypt's national treasures, effectively drowning it in the desert.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Egyptian government undertook the daunting task of cutting the Abu Simbel temples out of their rock-cliff housings and reassembling the monuments 690 feet away in a new man-made mountain situated on higher ground. Engineers reinforced the rebuilt temples to ensure that the "new" Abu Simbel monument would not only be safer, but stronger than before.

The process took four years, and it required the construction of a massive concrete and steel dome, the outside of which engineers designed to simulate the appearance of the original rock cliff.

While the groups made every effort to preserve the necessary orientation to facilitate the temple complex's famous solar event, the ambitious relocation project caused the event dates to shift by one day--from Feb. 21 and Oct. 21 to Feb. 22 and Oct. 22. By most accounts, this was a small price to pay to preserve one of the great monuments of Ancient Egypt.