Off the Beaten Track With a Visit to the Temple of Kalabsha
Travelers to Egypt know that the Abu Simbel site features one of the largest temples in the world to be successfully relocated to a new home. Yet, far fewer know of the equally impressive Temple of Kalabsha, an enormous temple of the Roman era and a truly stunning example of architecture from Egyptian Nubia.
Like so many other sites in northern Nubia (modern-day Sudan), the Temple of Kalabsha is no longer in its original position. Flooding from the creation of Lake Nasser would have caused it to disappear beneath the waters in the 1960s. To stop that, it was relocated to higher ground and sits on an island in the heart of the lake, and in close proximity to the Aswan High Dam.
Accomplished thanks to the support of a German backed organization, the entire temple was divided into more than 12,000 pieces and then lovingly rebuilt on the island. It took more than two years to complete, and resulted in a complete success. The original outer stone gateway of the temple was given over to the German people as a gift of thanks and it can be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin today.
What is the Temple of Kalabsha?
Originally located around 30 miles south of modern Aswan, the Temple of Kalabsha resided on the western bank of the Nile in Nubia and sat atop the ruins of a sanctuary built during the rule of Amenhotep II. It is believed to have been started during the late Ptolemaic period in Egypt, but was completed as a Roman era temple in roughly 30 BCE, under the rule of Augustus. Yet, it is surprising to many to learn this while gazing at the beautiful relief carvings throughout as they often depict classic Egyptian motifs, especially the god Horus.
An” incomplete temple”, it is dedicated to the Lower Nubian sun god known as Merwel (called Mandulis by the Greeks). Its dimensions are massive and it is roughly 250 feet long by 72 feet wide. Yet it has also served as a church in the past. When the man who first rediscovered Abu Simbel saw the Temple of Kalabsha, he described it as one of the most “precious remains of Egyptian antiquity” and it still generates similar feelings in modern-day visitors.
And though it is often described as incomplete, many archaeologists and even early explorers in Egypt felt it was a flawless example of Egyptian art and architecture. William John Bankes said this of the art and reliefs, “Wherever the sculpture and painting and architectural ornaments are finished about the building, they have great delicacy and are finely executed… the workmanship…is very neat.”
What to Expect During a Visit to the Temple of Kalabsha
One of the first things to anticipate during your visit to the Temple of Kalabsha is to be surprised at its size. This is interesting for a few reasons. The first is just the magnitude of the effort required to construct it, but also the Herculean effort it took to relocate it to the island where it sits today.
You approach along a stunning stone causeway that extends from the first pylon and down to the water. Passing beneath the first pylon you enter a colonnaded court that takes you into a classic hypostyle hall. With its eight columns and its beautifully carved walls depicting pharaohs and emperors alongside the ancient gods, it is a stunning sight.
Pass through the hall and into a series of three antechambers. From one, you can take the stairs that lead to the rooftop and from which you will see truly stunning panoramic view of the Aswan High Dam, Lake Nasser and the scenery beyond. Set against the capitals topping the columns of the court and the surrounding halls, it is a perfect photographic location.
If you head back down to the inner passage, between the outer wall and the temple you can also find an authentic and preserved “nilometer” used to measure the rising flood waters that inundated the Nile every year.
Nearby the Temple of Kalabsha
Of course, if you make the visit to the stunning Kalabsha temple, you are just an easy walk to several other stunning sites, including the gorgeous Kiosk of Qertassi with its six remaining columns beautifully carved and finished; the Beit el-Wali, dedicated to Ramses II and full of beautifully restored paintings; and Gerf Hussein, also a Ramses II structure that had already partially succumbed to the flood waters before being saved and rebuilt on the island.
Visiting the Temple of Kalabsha
As is so often the case with visits to important historical sites in Egypt, we recommend you plan your visit in the company of a knowledgeable guide or as part of a tour. As one travel expert explained, just getting to the island on which the Temple of Kalabsha (and the other relocated temples) resides is “bit complicated, as it involves taking a couple of local microbuses, hitchhiking and negotiating boat transportation with a local fisherman. It’s quite tricky…” Though it is possible, you won’t want to lose any time trying to reach the site negotiating a difficult journey.
Additionally, once on the island, an expert guide is able to help you see the specific sites you had intended to visit, learn answers to any questions about the different sites, and even discover facts you may not have known.
So, hiring a private boat or joining an organized tour may be the best way to arrive. Approaching it by water also allows you to savor the amazing view of the first pylon and the carved stairs leading to the waterfront. Because it is in the Aswan area, you will want to dress for the heat and come prepared with a hat and sunglasses. There is an admissions fee to access the island, but transportation is not part of admission.
If you are eager to experience something as beautiful and inspiring as Abu Simbel, a visit to Kalabsha temple is a perfect choice.