Sun Festival at Abu Simbel

Sunlight shines into the inner sanctum at Abu Simbel

Seated between Amen-Re to his left and Re-Harkhti to his right, the statue of Ramses II has greeted the rising sun twice a year for the past 3,200 years at Abu Simbel. Photograph by Georg Gerster

The governor of Aswan has decided to go ahead with the annual celebration to commemorate the biannual solar phenomenon at the Great Temple of Abu Simbel despite Egypt’s current security concerns and mourning over the deaths at Port Said Stadium earlier this month.

A smaller, symbolic celebration will be held inside the Great Temple, located south of Aswan, to send a positive message to potential tourists.

The celebration, which will be held on Tuesday, will include artistic shows and a sound-and-light show telling the story of how the Great and Small temples were saved from drowning, said Aswan Governor Mostafa al-Sayed.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will also screen a film about the efforts to rescue the Abu Simbel temples.

The sunlight phenomenon takes place every 22 February and 22 October. During the 20 minutes that it takes place, rays of the sun light up all the sculptures on the temple’s back wall, aside from that of Ptah, the ancient god of the underworld.

I am so pleased this very special and unique day is being celebrated. The Abu Simbel Sun Festival is observed twice every year on 22nd of February and on 22nd of October. Prior to moving the temple, the dates were the 21st of each of those months, the dates supposedly marking the pharaoh’s birthday and his ascension to the throne. On these days, shafts of sunlight enter the temple and illuminate the statues of the great king Ramses II and the two sun gods Re-Horakhte and Amen-Re seated beside the Theban god Ptah, the god of darkness, who symbolically stays seated in darkness. The ability of the ancient Egyptians to use mathematics and astronomy to calculate the alignments necessary for this phenomenon to occur seems beyond our belief.

The story in National Geographic reports:

“That the days of illumination correspond to actual days in the life of Ramses is highly unlikely”, says Leo Depuydt, an egyptologist at Brown University.

“The Egyptian calendar was based on 365 days and while it was precise, the solar calendar is minutely different from year to year,” says Depuydt, who adds that it is also difficult to know the precise date of the birth or coronation of Ramses II.

“Regardless of the alignment, if the temple faces East, the sun is going to shine in it twice a year,” says Depuydt, who adds that “excitement is the key here — people are going to come to see the sun in the temple. But science is a different matter.”

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