vol 6 issue 3

Classic Projects: Relocation of Abu Simbel

14 March 2011
By Nick Smith
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Abu Simbel figures

Moving the figures guarding the entrance to the temple at Abu Simbel

The relocation of the temple complex of Abu Simbel was more than just a technical challenge.

For a country claiming the world's longest river, Egypt has been plagued by chronic water shortages for millennia. There had been several earlier dams built on the 4,132-mile River Nile, but none had been so ambitious as the Aswan High Dam project, announced in the 1950s. With a projected cost of $1bn (almost $6bn in today's money) the then Egyptian President Gamal Nasser was forced to nationalise the Suez Canal to raise funds. This angered the dam's principle shareholders, Britain and France, causing an international incident, the Suez Crisis.

One of the effects of the dam was the loss of some of Egypt's sites of antiquity, most notably the sentinel temple complex of Abu Simbel. An international effort was put in place to assemble funds to move Abu Simbel to higher ground to prevent its inundation by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. By the mid-1960s a project to relocate the temples to a site 65m higher was announced.

Although during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II the Ancient Egyptians had the luxury of decades to build the original Nubian Monuments, for modern engineers the clock was ticking fast.

Original site data

The great Sun Temple of Abu Simbel is the ultimate in Ancient Egyptian imperial oppression. Built by Ramses II (1304-1237 BC), it is sited at the southern extremity of the New Kingdom where its four colossal statues of the pharaoh were intended to intimidate invaders from Nubia. It's a remarkable feat of engineering, with such precise orientation that the Sun's rays penetrated deep into the mountain to illuminate the temple sanctuary on Ramses' birthday and the anniversary of his coronation. It was 'rediscovered' by Swiss explorer JL Burckhardt in 1813. The name of the site, according to legend, commemorates the name of a young boy who first led Burckhardt to the temple.

Project briefing

Project: relocation of the massive rock temples of Abu Simbel to save them from the rising waters of the Aswan High Dam on the River Nile. New site: 65m higher and 200m further back from the shore of Lake Nasser. Method: block-by-block removal and reconstruction on two artificial concrete hills capable of withstanding 10,000t. Special attention to be given to reproduce their relative positions and orientation to the Sun.

Budget and costs

The relocation of the temples of Abu Simbel came in at $40m, which in today's money is well over a quarter of a billion dollars, or approximately £160m. Egypt provided half of the financing and UNESCO (with global support) the remainder. In 1964 the salvage of the Abu Simbel temples went into action by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers and heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner.

Personnel

An international consortium of ten contractors formed Joint Venture Abu Simbel to carry out the work. During the most intensive periods, there were as many as 1,600 engineers, administrative staff and construction workers on site. Swedish company Sweco (at that time VBB) was brought in as consulting engineer and architect. Engineering and detail planning for control and monitoring were carried out at VBB's head office in Stockholm, while VBB maintained a team working on site for three years of the project's duration.

Materials

During the period 1964-5, the two 3,000-year-old temples were dismantled in a process where large blocks were cut by hand and removed. More than 10,000 blocks were numbered, stored and later reassembled in the new location where each piece – weighing up to 30t – was fixed into place with concrete. The new location, commanding the same aspect as the original, required the structural design of the two concrete domes to house the reconstructed temples

Design

The main aim of the reconstruction was to faithfully recreate the impression of the original. To do this, lost material from the removal of the blocks was replaced by cement. On the outside of the monument it is now impossible to detect where the blocks meet, although within the complex, where blocks are suspended from the concrete domes, some of the joins are visible. In the Nubian Museum at Awsan there is a scale model showing the original position of temples compared with their current site, now submerged by Lake Nasser.

Delivery and legacy

The relocation of Abu Simbel was completed in 1968, in time to prevent inundation by the rising waters caused by the Aswan High Dam. The project was described by Life magazine as 'one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history', while the 'new' complex is now Egypt's second most important tourism attraction after the Pyramids at Giza. A specially built airport located 1km from the temples allows visitors to make day trips and serves 500,000 visitors per year. Abu Simbel appears in the 1977 James Bond film 'The Spy Who Loved Me' as the headquarters of MI6.

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Timeline

1813 Abu Simbel temples 'rediscovered' by Swiss explorer JL'Burckhardt

1959 Campaign to save the monuments of Nubia begins

1960 Start of construction of High Aswan Dam on 9 January

1964 Salvage of the Abu Simbel temples begins by a multinational team working together under the UNESCO banner

1964 - 1968 Entire site dismantled, lifted and reassembled in new location

1966 Life magazine describes the relocation as 'one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history'

1968 Abu Simbel relocation work complete

1970 Completion of Aswan High Dam

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