When I was planning my itinerary to Egypt, the stops in Luxor, Aswan, and Cairo all seemed like obvious musts. Cairo was the Pyramids, Luxor was the New Kingdom, Aswan was the later, most complete temples. But, I spent a lot of time deciding: should I take nearly a full-day out of my trip to fly to Abu Simbel, just to see one temple?
In the end, I made the journey, am glad I did, and would highly recommend anyone traveling to Egypt to make the hike.
The Temple, which was Ramases II's greatest architectural achievement, is unique in Egyptian temple building. First, its setting, which was adjusted when the Aswan Dam was created but is still uniquely striking. You stand on the end of a small cliff over water, rounding a bend, and all of a sudden the whole rock-cut temple is standing in front of you. The statues in front of it stand like massive guardians, staring down at you as you walk through the door in the center.
Inside, it's a compelling mix: kind of like if you crossed one of its peers in Luxor with a journey inside Jordan's famous rock-city, Petra. It's dark, but light protrudes through the entrance, enough to make out the incredibly detailed and still colorful figures on the walls. With few tourists in Egypt overall these days, and even fewer making this hike, you can have it all to yourself, and clearly hear the birds chirping on the rock outside.
But most of all, its incredible for what it is: a unique homage to Kingship. If Karnak is kind of like the Capital Building, then Abu Simbel is a bit like Mount Rushmore - if Presidents were kings who ordered themselves carved into stone and worshipped (thankfully, not quite yet). There's no other place quite like it among the great Egyptian sites so, despite the long trip, it's really not to be missed.