From the Pyramids of Giza to the bazaars of Cairo and the Nile River, Egypt is a land of world wonders and has enchanted archaeologists, explorers, historians and travelers since around 3100 B.C. The largest Arab nation in the world is the home of one of the planet’s oldest civilizations and is where hieroglyphics and the 365-day calendar were invented. Magnificent monuments decorate this Saharan country, many of them still baffling visitors with their antiquity, complexity and enormity. Here’s the story of three of the more famous landmarks.
Abu Simbel Temples
On the western banks of Lake Nasser, which sits close to the border of Sudan in southern Egypt, sit the monumental Abu Simbel Temples. This complex of rock-cut shrines is made up of the Great Temple and Small Temple. Historians agree that the temples were built during the rule of Pharaoh Ramesses II, although the exact dates are debated. Some believe that construction took place between 1264 and 1244 B.C. to celebrate Ramesses II’s victory at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C. Others claim 1244 to 1224 B.C. as more realistic dates, which would coincide with the defeat of the Nubians.
Today the temples stand on a hill above Aswan High Dam, but this wasn’t always the case. They had to be moved in the 1960s after the Egyptian government released plans to construct Aswan High Dam across the Nile. Rising water levels generated by the dam would have otherwise left the temples submerged.
With donations from UNESCO, archeologists dismantled and rebuilt the temples over a period of four years. The 98-feet-tall and 115-feet-long Great Temple is an elaborate celebration of the life and conquests of Ramesses II. The Small Temple honors the revered Egyptian queen Nefertiti. The complex forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae.
Great Sphinx of Giza
Arguably one of Egypt’s most recognizable sights, the Great Sphinx of Giza guards the eastern edge of the Giza Plateau with the Pyramids of Giza rising up behind it. Stretching for 240 feet and reaching a height of 66 feet, this half human-half lion sculpture is the biggest monolith on Earth. The age of the Sphinx, the method of building, its role in ancient Egypt, and connection with the pyramids have been the subject of debate for decades. This is largely due to there being no visible inscriptions on the sculpture or any reference to it in records from the Old Kingdom.
Many Egyptologists agree that the head of the Sphinx represents the Pharaoh Khafre (or Chephren) and that the sculpture appeared around 4,500 years ago. Consequently, there’s a plausible link between the Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre, the largest of the Giza pyramids. Nevertheless, the true identity continues to be an unsolved mystery.
Luxor, built over the site of the ancient pharaoh capital of Thebes, is home to a vast religious complex called Karnak Temple. Set back from the eastern banks of the Nile, this collection of ruined temples and chapels honors the god Amun, his wife Mut and son Khonsu. It also celebrates Montu and Osiris, among other Egyptian gods. The ruins date from about 2040 B.C. and were an important pilgrimage center for two centuries. An estimated 30 pharaohs, including Hatshepsut and Amenhotep IV, contributed to the creation and expansion of the complex.
Within the complex is the Temple of Amun, which is often credited with being the biggest single religious room in the world. Some 134 columns, above which sit 70-ton architraves, decorate this 50,000-square-foot hall. Arab invaders gave the site its present-day name in the 7th century A.D. as it reminded them of a fortified village, or el-Ka-ranak. By this time, the city of Thebes had all but been abandoned and the temples had fallen into ruin.