Egypt is an ancient country which elevated temples and tombs to new heights of magnificence. For the resolute tourist, a trip to Egypt must include the tell-tale signs everywhere of a glorious history spanning over 3,000 years. Nowhere is this more evident than in Luxor (aka the New Kingdom capital of Thebes). Located just over 400 miles south of Cairo, Luxor lies on both sides of the Nile as it bisects the country. In Luxor, both the East and West banks of the Nile are mandatory visits for the intrepid traveler.
Tombs and temples seem to call to us from the beating heart of Luxor. When you first arrive, making the choice among so many of which site to visit first is one of the most difficult decisions of the day. But, then, It’s impossible not to visit the granddaddy of all temples immediately. You’ll probably want to set your alarm for 4 or 5 in the morning to get ready to visit Karnak Temple, one of the most important sites in all of Egypt. Be warned that, by the time noon rolls around, scorching heat may turn the sizzle of Karnak into physical distress rather than impressive memories.
Built over the course of 1,300 years by succeeding kings and queens (each of whom added something unique), Karnak is the largest temple in the world and has been called complete perfection by many. Eighty thousand men reportedly worked on the temple, which was buried under sand for over a thousand years. Get ready for a big-time walk if you’re planning to see all of this huge complex. There are various temples, tombs, rows of sphinxes, carvings, flagpoles, statues, pillars, obelisks, and an open-air museum and sacred lake. And that’s just the beginning. A word of caution: it will seem as if everyone in Egypt has come to Karnak on the day you visit, and the word crowd will quickly become superfluous. Regardless of any small details blocking your way, there is nothing which can compare to standing motionless between the parallel rows of mini-sphinxes or amid the queues of towering carved columns while staring upwards at the heaven those ancients dreamed about and sought after. For you night owls, there is a stirring Sound and Light show after dark.
Keep those hiking shoes on – and plan on another very early morning – for your eagerly anticipated trip to the Valleys of the Kings and Queens and Nobles. Of course, your trip will begin with the Valley of the Kings, where some of the most impressive archeological discoveries in decades lie. Years of excavation eventually revealed that this remote valley was the necropolis of the New Kingdom pharaohs. Would that all those eager archeologists were as canny as the hordes of “unofficial” seekers who sacked most of the tombs years before they were “discovered.” Sixty-three tombs have been found in the valley, each with its own special feature. For example, the tomb of Ramses VI contains the inner sarcophagus of the pharaoh, while tombs of Horemheb, Amenhotep, Tuthmosis III, and others are filled with stunning carvings – some still bearing traces of vivid color – of the Book of the Dead and other funerary rituals, as well as the gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon patiently waiting to welcome the monarch to the afterlife. One of the deepest tombs in the valley has 90 steps leading down to multiple levels, while one of the longest spans 350 feet. Be aware that only a few of the tombs are open for public viewing at any one time. However, even a limited portion provides intriguing things to see – and lots of exercise.
But probably the most famous tomb still awaits – the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Compared to many of the other spectacular tombs in the Valley of the Kings, King Tut’s tomb is small – in keeping with his brief reign and youthful death. After all, he ascended the throne when he was nine years old and died at 18. Scholars have suggested that the “boy king” was controlled and manipulated by others – and his demise may have been under questionable circumstances. Apparently, royal intrigue surrounded his reign and may have been a constant over the three Kingdoms. So what makes this tomb so special? Not only did King Tut’s tomb receive more fanfare than other tombs in the area – but it was one of the only tombs which was not pillaged by robbers. Thus, it is still possible to view – in museum settings -Tut’s gold and jewel encrusted three sarcophagi, as well as the jewelry, furniture, and other artifacts assembled to send Tut to the next world in style. Even though the tomb is not as elegantly decorated as many others, it contains something very special: Tut’s mummy, which offered some new findings – but also raised some new questions. Scholars found that his leg was deformed – and then there is that unexplained hole in his head.
But there is still more to see. Between the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens lies the Mortuary Temple of Hatschepsut (known to many as hot chicken soup), the female pharaoh of Egypt who ruled for 18 years and introduced the concept of diplomacy to Egypt. Despite her creative alternatives to war with neighboring states, statues depicting the lady king are in poor repair, perhaps a testimony to her penchant for wearing the royal beard. Set at the foot of a sheer limestone cliff face, the imposing colonnaded temple sports its share of chapels, sphinxes, statues, and carvings – three stories connected by ramps. The trees from neighboring countries that dotted the area in times past have all but disappeared. From the air, this temple stands out as a spectacular reminder of Hatschepsut’s reign.
To the southwest of the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens, a burial site for royal wives and children dating from the reign of Ramses I. Few tombs are open to the public, but it’s worth a trip to see Queen Nefertari’s tomb if you can get special permission and pay a steep fee. In general, the tombs are not as well maintained as the more famous Valley of the Kings. Finally, the Valley of the Nobles contains the tombs of more than 400 Theban nobles and high officials. What marks these tombs as special is their emphasis on day-to-day life in old Egypt – rather than on the world of the kings and the Gods. These tombs share the lives of servants, minor bureaucrats, middle-class families, farmers, fishermen, and hunters of the time. There is little carving due to the poor quality of the stone in the area; however, the paintings often retain their vivid colors and provide a fascinating panorama of life in the New Kingdom. A sharp-eyed tourist might notice some human bones tucked away in the sand. Again, only a small number of tombs are open.
But on to Luxor itself and the Luxor Temple. In the heart of Luxor next to the famous Winter Palace Hotel fronting the Nile lies the temple complex – sort of a Karnak without the extensive public relations. Built around the time of Alexander the Great, scholars have suggested that Alexander wanted to demonstrate to Egyptians that he honored their traditions – and so he made sure to treat their pantheon and rituals with respect. In other words, the overall message conveyed by the Luxor Temple seemed to be political rather than religious (or even artistic). The temple sports an interesting mixture of Greek and Egyptian elements – a blending of two styles to create a third. A glance at the carvings immediately heralded a change from the traditional mathematically squared-off images at Karnak. Suddenly, the King and Gods had curves rather than the ubiquitous parallel lines and angles. And sometimes doing things considered unseemly at the time – like a king dancing to unseen music. In fact, Luxor Temple has the most complete scenes of the annual Opet Festival, where a procession carried images of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu from Karnak to Luxor.
But the surprises keep coming. At the very end of the complex we come upon something unexpected – a Christian church emerging from a temple wall. Over time, colorful Christian scenes began to peek through the dust. Keep looking up, and you’ll see another startling change. Rather than traditional Egyptian papyrus and folded lotus buds at the top, the capitals are now grandly embellished; and Greek orthodox underpinnings again emerge. If you keep looking up, you can also see a mosque above your head. It seems that, while the entire complex was covered in sand and silt for centuries, people forgot about its existence and built a village directly over the temple – including the thirteenth century Abu al-Haggag Mosque. When the village was removed and the sand was cleared away in the late 1800s so that archeologists could do their thing, the mosque remained nearly suspended in air atop eons of sand. Happily, there was another entrance on the other side. As you stand at the entrance to the temple, you’ll probably stop to admire two enormous seated statues of Ramses, as well as a huge pink granite obelisk, one of a pair whose twin now graces the Place de la Concorde in Paris. A visit to Luxor Temple will convince you that this site contains its own hidden mysteries.
Luxor has so much to offer that it’s possible to spends days just exploring. And Luxor is only one small piece of the ancient Egyptian puzzle. It’s important that you don’t let the heat fry all your plans. Just remember that these folks have been dealing with blazing sun and shifting sands for over 3,000 years.