Abu Simbel

Ancient Egypt's greatest egotist and builder, Ramses II erected more temples and statues -- of himself, naturally -- than any other pharaoh. His self-glorification campaign worked well, because more than 3,200 years after his death, we still remember him as Ramses the Great.

His most impressive works are the two rock temples at Abu Simbel. Carved into a mountain on the west bank of the Nile, the Great Temple of Ramses II is guarded by four commanding statues of the pharaoh. Ramses wanted to impress the rebellious Nubians with his mighty power, so the statues tower 65 feet tall -- and that's sitting down. Each figure weighs some 1,200 tons. The statues surely induced awe in friend and foe alike.

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Four figures of the great Ramses II weigh 2.4 million pounds apiece.
Four figures of the great Ramses II weigh 2.4 million pounds apiece. In 27 B.C.E.
one statue lost its top half in an earthquake. See more pictures of famous landmarks.

Within the temple is a hypostyle hall, whose roof rests on eight columns fronted with figures of, not surprisingly, Ramses. Deeper inside, the sacred sanctuary is adorned with statues of four gods: Re-Horakhty, Amun, Ptah, and Ramses' deified self.

The pharaoh's engineers oriented the temple so perfectly that each year on February 22 and October 22 (not coincidentally Ramses' birthday and the anniversary of his coronation), the light of the rising sun streams through the temple entrance, travels 200 feet, and, like heavenly fire, sets the figure of Ramses aglow.

In the 1960s, Abu Simbel's temples were imperiled by the building of Aswan High Dam and the rising waters of Lake Nasser that resulted from it. In an incredible feat of modern engineering, the temples were cut from the rock cliff, carved up into hundreds of massive blocks (estimates range from 950 to 2,000), some weighing as much as 33 tons, and moved to a higher location nearby. Ramses' temple was carefully positioned on the new site so the rising sun still penetrates the sanctuary twice a year.

The pink sandstone Temple of Hathor, the cow-headed goddess of love, was built to honor Ramses' favorite wife, Queen Nefertari. Her temple is, of course, smaller than Ramses', and many of the huge statues adorning it represent the mighty, towering pharaoh. Ramses the Great made sure that his legacy would be larger than life.

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

Abu Simbel, EgyptEiffel Tower, FranceThe Leaning Tower of Pisa, ItalyRoman and Georgian Bath, England
The Alhambra, SpainEllora Caves, IndiaMachu Picchu, PeruSt. Mark’s Basilica, Italy
Angkor Wat, CambodiaThe Forbidden City, ChinaMont-St.-Michel, FranceSt. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Arc de Triomphe, FranceThe Golden Pavilion, JapanNeuschwanstein Castle, GermanySt. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, Italy
Borobudur, IndonesiaThe Great Buddha, JapanPalace of Versailles, FranceShwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Chartres Cathedral, FranceThe Great Wall of China, ChinaThe Pantheon, ItalyStonehenge, England
Christ the Redeemer Statue, BrazilGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThe Parthenon and the Acropolis, GreeceSydney Opera House, Australia
CN Tower, CanadaHagia Sophia, TurkeyPetra, JordanThe Taj Mahal, India
The Colosseum, ItalyHouses of Parliament, EnglandPompeii, ItalyThe Temple at Karnak, Egypt
The Dome of the Rock, IsraelThe Kaaba and Al-Haram Mosque, Saudi ArabiaPotala Palace, ChinaThe Terra-cotta Army, China
Easter Island Statues, ChileKrak des Chevaliers, SyriaThe Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt
Edinburgh Castle, ScotlandThe Kremlin and Red Square, RussiaPyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, Mexico

To learn more about other landmarks and vacation destinations, see:


Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.