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Egypt's Abu Simbel & The Mortuary Temples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ramses II was one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs, and he dedicated his reign to building impressive monuments. In this lesson we'll explore two of Ramses' temples and see how he wanted to preserve his legacy.

Monuments to Future Gods

Everybody dies, and while we may not spend a lot of time thinking about this subject, the ancient Egyptians did - a lot. This is especially true of the pharaohs, the leaders of ancient Egypt who, according to their beliefs, would become gods in the afterlife.

Hence, the pharaohs had a lot of preparations to make. They had to make sure there was a proper place to store the sacred and mummified body, they had to build temples where people could worship them, and they had to build monuments recording their deeds so they would not be forgotten. In fact, most Egyptian pharaohs spent their entire reigns preparing for their deaths, and the results could be pretty spectacular.

Ramses II

This is nowhere more evident than with the pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled Egypt from roughly 1279-1213 BCE. Under Ramses II, Egypt expanded its borders into the neighboring kingdoms of Canaan, Nubia, and Syria, and the empire thrived.

Ramses II had one of the longest reigns in Egyptian history, which gave him lots of time for building monuments…to himself. But if Ramses II's goal was to never be forgotten, then he was certainly successful, and it just takes a glance at his monuments to understand why.

Ramses II
Ramses II

Abu Simbel

Ramses II built many monuments across Egypt, but perhaps the most famous is the temple complex of Abu Simbel. It was built over 20 years, from roughly 1264-1244 in Southern Egypt near modern Sudan. This region had recently been conquered in wars against the Nubian people, and it was built to face Nubia as a show of Egyptian power. It is dedicated to the sun gods Amon-Ra and Re-Horhkte; the god of craftsmen, Ptah; and of course the deified persona of Ramses himself.

Now, this was no subtle temple. Carved straight into a solid cliff, the entrance is guarded by four 66-foot tall statues of Ramses II directly facing Nubia. These colossal figures are surrounded by statues of the pharaoh's wife, children and mother. Inside the entrance are three halls, again carved into the solid cliff. They are supported by columns carved into statues of Ramses, and decorated with other statues of Ramses wearing the double crown of both Upper and Lower Egypt.

The entrance of the Abu Simbel temple
Abu Simbel

The inside is covered in paintings of the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses' war with the Hittites, which historians consider to be a fight to the draw but which Ramses clearly wanted to be seen as a decisive victory. But perhaps the most impressive feature of this temple is the fact that on February 22 and October 22 of every year, the first rays of the morning sun directly align with the temple, illuminating the statues of Ramses and the sun gods on the very back wall of the sanctuary. Despite being carved into a mountain, the entire inside is lit up by sunlight on these two mornings.

The main temple at Abu Simbel is clearly a monument to Ramses II as an emperor and god, but it isn't the only temple there. Next to it is a second, smaller temple dedicated to the goddess Hathar and to Ramses' favorite wife, Nefertari. This temple features 35-foot tall statues of Ramses II and his queen and is also undeniably impressive.

Ramesseum

Ramses II also built a major mortuary temple complex called the Ramesseum. Now, just to be clear, this was not a place for the pharaoh to be buried. Ramses II was buried in the Valley of the Kings along with most of the previous pharaohs. The Ramesseum was a temple where Ramses was to be worshipped as a god after his death. It was built near Thebes, the former capital of Egypt before Ramses and a place where many pharaohs built the official temples to themselves.

The Ramusseum
The Ramusseum

Construction began on the Ramesseum only about two years after Ramses ascended the throne, which shows how much of a priority this was to the pharaoh. It was built over the course of 20 years and was formally dedicated to the god Amun-Ra as well as, again, the future deity of Ramses II.

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