German architect Peter Grossmann, who died two years ago, got lucky. In the 1960s he was able to admire up close the colossal pharaonic temple complex that had stood there for more than three millennia. On the Nile and just a few meters from the river bank.

“We traveled there by boat,” he says. “We could see the temple of Abu Simbel from 25 kilometers away and we could see how big it was.”

However, the temples could not remain in this position. In 1953, Egypt, under then president Gamal Abdel Nasser, decided to build a new dam on the Nile near Aswan. Construction began in 1960 and a race against time began as the complex was in danger of disappearing into the lake.

A huge technical challenge

The temples were sinking into the water and in danger

Egypt appealed to UNESCO for financial and technical assistance to rescue and relocate the temple complex. On November 17, 1963, an international consortium undertook to dismantle the temples and rebuild them in a new location. Ramses II had built the temples in the 13th century BC.

The sculptures were carved into the rock and their interior reached a depth of 60 meters. They were broken into 1036 pieces weighing up to 30 tons. A huge technical challenge for architect Grossman, who contributed to the project. The project was completed in 1968. The two majestic temples were erected 64 meters higher than before and 180 meters deeper inland, in a safe place.

The principle of UNESCO World Heritage

Rescue work in Abu Simbel
Photo from the rescue work

The two temples even maintained their geographical orientation, so that the so-called “miracle of the sun” could continue to take place twice a year, when the sun’s rays reached 60 meters inside the great temple.

The spectacular rescue of Nubian antiquities involved 50 countries and was the cornerstone for the adoption of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1972. For the famous Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna, a real milestone.

“The relocation of the Abu Simbel temple complex was important, it gave a boost to UNESCO. It was the first major work of its kind.”

The temples of Abu Simbel have been a World Heritage Site since 1979.