At sunrise on February 22, thousands of visitors lined up excitedly outside the Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. As the sun peeked over the horizon, shining from across the banks of Lake Nasser over the waters of the mighty Nile, the crowd collectively held their breaths and readied their cameras.
Suddenly, rays of sunlight pierced the darkness of the temple’s inner chamber to illuminate the stone figures inside. The crowd filed through quickly so everyone could catch a glimpse of the rare event, cameras snapping frantically to make the most of their few seconds inside the chamber. In just a few minutes, it was over.
This special phenomenon happens twice each year. It’s known as the Abu Simbel Sun Festival, and tourists and Egyptians come in droves to the small town on the southern edge of Egypt to experience just a glimpse of the sun lighting the figures inside the impressive temple.
If this sounds like something you’d like to experience, I’ll explain everything you need to know to see the Sun Festival at Abu Simbel. I’ll also share some top-secret extra information that’s harder to find (shhh, don’t tell): how to experience the special sun alignment without the crowds. And if you’re visiting Egypt outside of the festival period and want to know about visiting the temple of Abu Simbel on the other 355 days of the year, I’ll explain that too.
A Peaceful Experience
At sunrise on February 24, two days after the official festival, I witnessed the sunlight bathing the figures of the gods Ra and Amun and King Ramses II much like it had two days earlier. I stood deep inside the inner chamber, mere feet away from the stone figures, with only a few dozen people behind me. I was able to watch the entire event unfold with no lines, crowds, or shuffling for position. After the magic moment passed and the sun continued its climb, casting the inner chamber into darkness once again, I quietly wandered the temple grounds until I was ready for a peaceful walk back to my guesthouse.
The best part? I had arrived in Abu Simbel on this perfect date completely by accident! I was riding my bicycle through Egypt and down to Sudan. I had planned to stop in Abu Simbel and see the temple, but had no idea the Sun Festival even existed. The timing could not have been better. In this post I’ll tell you everything I learned about visiting this beautiful temple, and how – if you’re like me and hate crowds – you can enjoy the best of both worlds by seeing nearly the same solar alignment phenomenon on a less crowded day.
About the Abu Simbel Temples
The Temples at Abu Simbel lie on the shore of Lake Nasser in the far south of Egypt. Despite being relatively hard to reach, it is one of the premier tourist destinations in Egypt. Once you see it, it’s easy to understand why!
The entrance to the main temple features four imposing statues of King Ramses II, to whom the temple is dedicated. The smaller temple nearby, beautiful and imposing in its own right, is dedicated to his primary wife Nefertari. The small temple is unusual in its depiction of king and queen at equal height; usually the wife or consort (and all other figures) would be shown reaching only the king’s knee level. Both were built over a twenty year period more than 3000 years ago, and are the most impressive examples of rock-cut temple architecture in Egypt.
As if the original construction weren’t impressive enough, the entire temple complex was painstakingly moved over a period of five years from 1963-1968. If not for this impressive project, the temples would have been lost beneath the waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was constructed, as several other smaller temples in the region have been.
The impressive project, led by Unesco, involved cutting both temples into over 1000 stone blocks and transporting them 213 feet up and 690 feet northwest of their original location! The fake cliffs are surprisingly convincing, and the atmospheric setting on the shore of Lake Nasser retains its original mood. Travelers familiar with the Unesco World Heritage site list, which includes Abu Simbel, will be interested to know this list was originally inspired by the relocation of the Abu Simbel temples!
About the Sun Festival
The Great Temple is aligned such that twice each year the sun shines directly into the inner sanctuary, illuminating three of the four figures inside. The gods Ra and Amun, as well as the figure of Ramses II himself, are illuminated, while the god Ptah, ruler of the underworld, always remains in darkness. The sunlight travels an impressive 160 feet through the hallway and outer chambers of the temple to reach the seated stone figures in the innermost sanctuary of the temple.
This feat of engineering is doubly impressive: first, it was originally built over 3000 years ago! And secondly, the alignment was preserved during the relocation in the 1960’s, though it’s said that the date shifted from the 21st to the 22nd when the temple was moved. It is also said that the two original dates correspond to Ramses II’s coronation and birthday, though this could be more myth than historical record.
Twice each year, on the dates of the optimal solar alignment, travelers and Egyptians alike celebrate what’s known as the Sun Festival. The main attraction is the chance to catch a glimpse of the illuminated figures at just the right moment. Cultural performances and other festivities also surround the event.
Best Time to See the Sun Festival
The official sun festival happens twice each year, on February 22 and October 22. If you’d like to experience the official celebration, accompanying performances, and collective excitement of a big crowd, this is the best time to visit Abu Simbel.
However, if you’d like to see an almost-as-good sun alignment with far fewer people, I recommend the two days before and after each event. If you’re a photographer who wants space to line up your shot, or you just don’t like crowds, you’ll enjoy seeing almost the same effect in a much more peaceful environment. These dates are February 20-21 and 23-24, and October 20-21 and 23-24.
As you might expect, the 21st and 23rd offer the closest approximation of the true solar alignment, and therefore are busier, though still less busy than the 22nd. The 20th and 24th are the quietest but the alignment is not quite as good. I visited on the 24th and didn’t find it lacking at all, but perhaps I didn’t know what I was missing. The alignment was not perfect – only the middle two figures were in sunlight – but it certainly conveyed the flavor of the full phenomenon.
Which is better, February or October? One local told me October is best because there is less chance of clouds covering the sun. My visit in February was perfectly clear, however. Both months are good times to visit the country of Egypt as a whole due to the seasonally cooler temperatures.
Whatever time of year you go, try to visit Abu Simbel in the early morning. If you are visiting for the Sun Festival, you will obviously want to be at the temple for sunrise. However, sunrise is a special time to visit even on the other 355 days of the year. Since the morning sun shines from across the lake, you’ll have the best lighting for viewing and photography if you go early in the morning. In the afternoon the sun is above and behind the temple, and the impressive entrance is in the shade.
How to Visit the Abu Simbel Temples
Many people visit Abu Simbel as part of a guided tour, in which case transportation and logistics will be handled for you. It’s not too hard to visit independently though, and you’ll enjoy more freedom and flexibility.
Getting to Abu Simbel
You can reach the town of Abu Simbel by bus, car, airplane, or boat. Many travelers book a tour or hire a private car and guide from Aswan, which is a 3-4 hour drive away.
If you would like to find your own way to Abu Simbel, this post has some good information for budget travelers, and this guide explains the flight options. In the past it was only possible to travel the road from Aswan to Abu Simbel in a police convey, but in recent years this has changed as the security situation improved. There are public buses leaving from Aswan twice each day, and you can rent a car in Aswan and drive yourself. I was even allowed to bicycle the road, albeit with a police escort for most of the time. Still, this is Egypt and things change quickly, so check for the most up-to-date information you can find when planning your trip.
Visiting Abu Simbel Temple
The temple itself is way out on the tip of the little peninsula that most of Abu Simbel town sits on. It’s about 1.3 miles from Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge (my best recommendation for where to stay in Abu Simbel), and just 300 meters from Nefertari Hotel.
You can easily walk through town to the temple; I did so alone before sunrise and felt comfortable. Simply follow the main divided road, Ramsis Street on Google Maps, across the bridge and all the way to the end. Another option is to arrange a car and driver with your hotel the night before.
If you’re visiting Abu Simbel for the Sun Festival, I recommend arriving at least 30 minutes before sunrise to make sure you have plenty of time to buy your ticket and find your spot. In October the sun rises around 5:30am, and in February it’s around 6am. The temple complex opens right around 5am, though I don’t know if they open any earlier on the main day of the Sun Festival to accommodate crowds; ask your driver or hotel.
If you’re not visiting during the sun festival, I still recommend early morning as the best time to visit Abu Simbel, because the morning light is much better for viewing and photography. In the afternoon the temple’s beautiful front entrance is in the shade.
When you reach the temple, stay to the right and pass near the food and souvenir area to reach the ticket booth. Tickets for adults are 240 EGP plus additional “guide fees” and “local fees” for a total of 255 EGP. Student tickets are 133 EGP. If you would like to take pictures inside the temple with anything other than a cell phone (I didn’t realize this, and even my crummy little point-and-shoot camera was noticed by a guard), it’s an extra 300 EGP for a camera ticket.
After buying your ticket, you’ll walk toward the lake. The temple will be to your left and only comes into view once you’re close to the water. Veer left once you arrive, and you can’t miss the main entrance to the Grand Temple of Ramses II.
Personally, I found the Abu Simbel temple complex a bit more organized and calm than other attractions in Egypt, like Luxor for example. I wasn’t approached by any would-be guides or hawkers, and wasn’t hassled for tips. This might have been due to my early timing, which didn’t coincide with the typical tourist visiting hours when the buses and guided trips come through.
Visiting for the Sun Festival
The interior of the Great Temple is impressive even without the special solar alignment, and I recommend leaving plenty of time to explore the various chambers either before or after sunrise. If you’re visiting for the sun festival on a less crowded day, find your spot at the front near the innermost sanctuary, or claim a spot in line outside if you’re visiting on the big day with more crowds.
Enjoy the anticipation as you wait for the sun to rise. Once the light finally strikes the figures inside, there will be a lot of picture taking and jostling for position. If you’re visiting on a less crowded day like 20th or 24th, there may just be two lines on either side of the hallway. The people in the back will need to lean into the middle and the people in front should lean back as much as possible to help everyone get a good view. The phenomenon lasts for only a few minutes, but once you’ve had your fill, it might be nice to step back and let someone else step in for a better view.
Once the special moment has passed, take time to explore the rest of the temple in the early morning light, which is great for pictures of the outside as well.
After the Great Temple, continue to the smaller but also very nicely preserved Temple of Nefertari, Ramses II’s “favorite wife,” dedicated to the goddess Hathor.
Once you’ve explored both temples, find the exit on the far side of the Nefertari Temple. As you leave the temple complex, you might stop at the Visitor Center for a video about the impressive process of moving the temple to accommodate the Aswan High Dam. There’s also a food court and the usual souvenir shop gauntlet on the way out.
Where to Stay in Abu Simbel
Many people visit Abu Simbel on day trips, but if you want to be there for the sunrise you’ll need to arrive the day before and spend a night. I recommend spending a night anyway, as Abu Simbel is a nice little town.
Sometimes I struggle to recommend the best places to stay for other travelers, because I personally tend to choose rather budget accommodations. But I’m excited to say that in Abu Simbel, there is one place you should absolutely stay no matter what your budget is: Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge.
The lakeside setting at Eskaleh is gorgeous, and the people there are kind. One of the owners speak English and is happy to answer questions, and can arrange whatever you need in Abu Simbel. They have nice rooms for around $100, give or take, but are also willing to host tent campers on their peaceful grounds for $5 or $10 (depending on negotiations and shower access, as far as I could tell). There is also a houseboat docked in the back with a few budget-friendly and very unique rooms.
After several days of bicycling through the desert, I discovered Eskaleh by accident and thought I’d found heaven. I even delayed my entry into Sudan by a day, just so I could stay and rest there a bit longer.
If you’d like to stay closer to the temple or just prefer a different option, the Neferati Hotel is less than half a kilometer from the temple entrance.
Other Things to Do in Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is a small town with few obvious attractions aside from the temples. However, if you enjoy getting to know places instead of being herded from attraction to attraction, it’s a nice town to spend a day in. You can easily explore the whole town on foot, enjoy some falafel sandwiches from the street vendors, and chat with the tea vendors as you watch the ferries come and go from Sudan.
Here are some other things to do in Abu Simbel aside from seeing the temples:
Eskaleh Ecolodge and Nubian cultural center: Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in Nubian history. (And you should be! Nubian history is fascinating. Did you know the Nubian language is one of the oldest actively spoken languages in the world, developed around the time of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and still used today?). They have a small library, a number of cultural artifacts, and connections with local scholars and cultural leaders. Sometimes they host talks and performances for guests in the evening, and can likely connect you with other learning opportunities in town.
Sound and Light Show: After sunset, you can indulge in a blend of ancient history and modern entertainment with the Abu Simbel Sound and Light Show. The show lasts about 30 minutes and is available with translations in many different languages. You can buy tickets at the temple complex or through your tour operator or some hotels.
Ferries to Wadi Halfa: Unless you have your visa to Sudan already, you shouldn’t take these ferries, but it can be fun to visit the terminals and simply soak up the atmosphere of people and goods heading to and from Sudan. The military ferry, which accommodates a surprising number of large trucks, leaves from a terminal just south of the temples. The public ferry is smaller and leaves from a terminal on the southwest side of the bridge. There are some friendly tea shop owners here who speak a bit of English and are mainly used to meeting overland travelers, as the folks on package tours don’t come down this way. If you are actually traveling onward to Sudan, you can take either ferry, depending on which is leaving next.
If you happen to be visiting Egypt in either February or October, it’s worth thinking about timing your visit to coincide with the sun festival. It’s a unique example of an ancient ritual still celebrated today, albeit with different meaning, and it breathes life into the stone artifacts in a way that’s hard to describe. To experience it in person is to feel a stronger connection to the ancient world that created these stunning monuments.
I personally recommend the less crowded days before and after the main event, when you can still see the unique solar alignment without all the crowds, but that’s just me. If you like big events and a festive atmosphere, you’ll likely prefer the main event.
If February or October don’t work for you, the temples of Abu Simbel are absolutely still worth visiting. Just standing before them and exploring their chambers will give you a visceral sense for the blend of science, engineering, wealth, spirituality, and sheer effort that combine to make the temples at Abu Simbel so impressive.
If you’ll be passing through Luxor during your visit to Egypt, as most travelers do, you might also like this guide for how to explore Luxor’s West Bank on a bicycle. I promise, it’s easier than you think, and it’s really rewarding! And if you’re intrigued by ancient Nubian and Egyptian history and like to get off the beaten track, you might consider visiting Sudan while you’re in the neighborhood.
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