Rescue Of Abu Simbel Temples

For many centuries the two rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel on the bank of the Nile were seen not only as a memorial to the power and deification of Ramses II but as the achievement of an architectural and technical challenge. The danger that the temples would be submerged by the waters of Lake Nasser drew global attention and the temples became symbolic of the campaign to save all the monuments of Nubia.

The rising water of Lake Nasser from Aswan High Dam threatened the ancient monuments in Lower Nubia (from Aswan to Abu Simbel). It threatened the two temples of Abu Simbel if the water continues to rise. These temples lived for thousands of years and they tell the story of great pharaohs, so it would therefore be a great pity if the temple disappeared.

In January 1960, Egypt started to build Aswan High Dam while by 1964 good progress had already been made.  Across the great river the huge wall of the dam was rising gradually, the higher the dam rose the higher the water rose, the more serious the situation at Abu Simbel became.

Egypt approaching UNESCO:

Egypt approached UNESCO, where it urged its members to help to save the temples. A number of nations were ready to help and actually offered assistance. There were a lot of plans suggested for the saving operation but they all had drawbacks. The best one which was approved was the cheapest and the most effective at the same time.

In June 1963 the Egyptian government gave its final approval to a project that involved the complete removal of the entire mass of rock by cutting the temples into blocks and subsequently rebuilding them in a higher location. The two temples of Abu Simbel would be cut into large pieces and these pieces would be put together again but in a higher position and farther from the river which would make them safe.

The operation started:

Work started at Abu Simbel in April 1964. For the first time, the Nile was flowing in its new bed, the main river had already been blocked by the dam and the water started to rise. It would soon rise to 132 meters above sea level. While the base of the small temple was 120 meters above sea level and the base of the great temple was 124 meters above sea level.


Therefore, to rescue the temples it was necessary to build a cofferdam which would protect the temples against the rising water until the work of cutting the temples was completed. But if the work at Abu Simbel temples had started earlier, the dam would not have been necessary.

In order to put up this dam sheets of steel were used and they were driven deep enough to reach the solid ground, about 11 meters deep, with heaps of rocks and sand supporting the sheets of steel on both sides.

In order to complete the dam on time, they had to race time and finally, the engineers managed to win the battle against the rising water. In spring 1965, the dam was completed stretching from south of the great temple up to the cliffs north of the small temple, where water was prevented from reaching the temples and this was a great success.

But there were still some small quantities of water passing through the dam, so narrow canals were dug to collect the water leaking from the dam, and to keep the place in front of the temple dry.

Now the main task is cutting the blocks into pieces had to start and the roofs of both temples had to be reached. To reach the roofs, the top of the mountains had to be taken away. It was not certainly an easy job especially that small pieces of stone might fall down from the mountain and damage the statues, these blocks might damage the sacred baboons as well.

The best solution they reached to is to build a wooden frame over the mountains and to cover the statues with sand using bulldozers which poured huge piles of sand. At the same time to build a metal tunnel to be used as a doorway between the sand piles in both the small and the great temples.

The four statues of the great temple together with the statues of the small temple were now safe but the roof is not yet secured, because the rock cutting which would be accomplished might make the roof even fall down.

Setting steel bars:

In order to solve this problem, they had to put up steel bars inside the temples in order to protect the walls and support the roof, and joining these bars had to be done by electric machines.

The temples now had to be cut into blocks but they had to be very careful because the temples were built out of sandstone which is a very delicate kind of stone and special treatment had to be taken.

In order to cut these stones, they had to use two kinds of saws. The motor saw would be used for the back parts of the temple (mountain). While cutting the blocks of the temple which have reliefs and inscriptions had to be done by a hand-saw. The cuts of the stone had to be very narrow, not wider than 6 millimeters, and even in the richly ornamented stones, they had to be narrower.

The next problem which had to be solved was how to lift these blocks from the original site to their storage places. While most of the blocks were 20 tons and there were even some of them over that weight. The best solution sorted was to dig deep holes in each block and steel bars were driven firmly into these holes with mechanical cranes used to lift them up.

The two temples were cut into 1037 blocks, with each block marked with a letter and a number in order to be easily put back again in their right positions.

This was the first part carried out successfully which was dismantling the temples into blocks without being affected. In March 1966, UNESCO sent them a telegram congratulating them for their achievements so far.

The dam which was temporarily had accomplished its job and it was no longer needed so it was removed and the water of the great river was allowed to cover the large cavities which had the two temples.

In January 1966, work had started again in rebuilding the temples. By the end of the year, the work was completed and they now laid beyond the water of the lake. This was not the end of the affair because they had to change the surroundings of the temple in order to look genuine dating back to ancient Egyptian times. So, an artificial mountain had to be put up with great quantities of rock that would be placed over the temples. Concrete had to be used to support the walls and the roofs of the temples. So, huge concrete domes were built over the temples and they would protect the temples from the heavyweight over them. They had to make sure that the domes would support such weights.

Thank you very much:

After one year and a half (mid of 1968) the domes and the artificial mountains had been built. The temples took together with all of its surroundings from May 1964 to the mid of 1968 in order to be completed. Workers and engineers were very proud of what they had achieved together with the whole world and the wonderful temples of Abu Simbel had been preserved.