Over 3,000 years ago, Pharaoh Ramses II ordered the temple complex of Abu Simbel to be hewn into a rock massif on the banks of the Nile. In 1813 the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered the temples, which had been buried in the sand—and laid the foundation of their worldwide fame. However, in the mid-1960s the Aswan Dam was about to go into operation, putting this unique testimony of ancient Egyptian culture at risk of disappearing forever under its waters. At the very last minute, an international consortium headed by HOCHTIEF was commissioned to save Abu Simbel.
AMENDMENT FIFTY YEARS AGO: HOCHTIEF saves the Abu Simbel temple complex CONSTRUCTION SITE
Three years after the start of the dam project, when the waters of the Nile had already begun to rise, Egypt finally responded to the UNESCO’s cry for help and commissioned a consortium led by HOCHTIEF to remove the two temples of Abu Simbel and reassemble them on a rocky plateau nearby. Starting in late 1963, a workforce numbering 1,000 on an average day and representing ten nations began working at the site under the direction of the experienced construction engineer Walter Jurecka. Hans-Michael Treiber, who was a student at the time, worked at the Abu Simbel site for six months. “We were a group with a shared destiny,” he says.
Heavy equipment weighing 1,700 tons was transported by ship to southern Egypt. In an unprecedented operation, the temples, together with their four 22-meter-high statues, were disassembled into 1,036 cuboidal blocks weighing up to 30 tons each, then numbered and loaded onto ships. Specialists from marble quarries in Italy sawed the temples into blocks by hand. But before that could happen, the porous stone had to be stabilized by injecting 30,000 liters of epoxy resin into about 17,000 drill holes. “We didn’t want to add any more cracks when we built it all up again,” says Treiber. In mid-1965 the first block was transported the short distance to the temples’ new site.
At the new site, just over 180 meters northwest of the old one and 64 meters above the banks of the Nile, the engineers had to put this gigantic puzzle back together, making sure that the temple figures were gazing in exactly the same direction as before. “It was so hot that I sometimes thought I was about to die,” Treiber recalls. The cuboidal blocks were put in place, supported by two gigantic reinforced concrete domes in the artificial mountain. The builders also integrated 1,112 blocks of stone that had been scattered around the temple’s original site. All things considered, from an archaeological standpoint the result of this masterful piece of engineering led by HOCHTIEF was even more valuable than the original.
On September 22, 1968, Abu Simbel was reopened in a solemn ceremony offering a spectacular view over the freshly filled Lake Nasser. The total cost, which was shared by 50 countries, was US$36 million—an impressive sum at that time, 50 years ago. But the result has justified the expense. HOCHTIEF acquired a legendary reputation in the construction industry for making incredible projects possible—a reputation it still enjoys today. In spite of visible saw kerfs, the new incarnation of the ancient Abu Simbel temple complex was the initial impulse behind the UNESCO World Heritage program. In 1979 Abu Simbel became one of the first monuments on the list of World Heritage sites.
RESCUING ABU SIMBEL