Luxor is Egypt’s number two stop on the tourist trail. Loaded with Ancient Egypt sights, there is no wonder why it’s so famous. It’s most known for the Valley of the Kings, but there is so much more. Unlike Cairo, there are not as many Islamic sights, but the plethora of ancient sights by far makes up for it. Thebes was the capital and most important city in Ancient Egypt with several dynasties, including the 17th, 18th, and 19th, arguably a high point in Ancient Egypt.
After our 11-hour overnight bus from Cairo, we arrived at the Boomerang Hotel, our home for the next three days. Run by an Australian woman who is married to an Egyptian man, it’s one of the top ranked hotels in Luxor. We were able to get a private room for $14 per night – a great deal. Luxor is split into the West Bank and East Bank. Most accommodations are on the East Bank while just outside the West Bank are many of the sights.
We had two nights and three full days in Luxor, and we took advantage by staying busy. Our first afternoon was spent at the Karnak Temple, located just a mile from Luxor’s city center. Our second day had us on an organized tour, where we visited several historical sights on the West Bank in the ancient city of Thebes. Finally, our third day, we took a ferry to the West Bank and hired a taxi to take us around to three sights that we picked out and were interested in. I’ll talk about each day in its own section.
Day 1 – Karnak Temple
The East Bank of Luxor has two main sights, the Luxor Temple, located right in the heart of the city on the banks of the Nile, and Karnak, located about a mile north of the city. Recently uncovered by excavations is what they now call the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a small road that connected the Luxor Temple with the Karnak Temple which was lined with Sphinxes.
We made our way to the Karnak Temple along some back roads. Immediately, we could tell Luxor was a whole different ball game than Cairo. A man offering a horse carriage ride stalked us for about 10 minutes trying to have us pay him 5 Egyptian Pounds ($0.70) for him to take us to the Karnak Temple. We prefer walking most places, so we politely refused, and he continued to follow until we got close enough to the temple that he finally gave up. When we got a bit closer to the temple, four boys around the age of 7 or 8 years old came out and were heckling us to give them money. They kept coming behind me trying to open zippers on my bags. I made sure to keep my wallet and other valuables in a good place, so I wasn’t worried. They pestered us for about 10 minutes before a man from a nearby house started yelling at them in Arabic. They finally went away. Thank you, sir! It was clear that tourism is much more important here in Luxor, and that people are much more desperate at the moment. I read that Luxor’s tourism industry makes up 85% of its economy. A 98% drop in your main industry for four straight years means that people are strapped for money, and this desperation definitely showed throughout our time in Luxor.
Karnak, built around 2000 BC (yes, about 4,000 years ago), is said to be the second biggest ancient religious site in the world – only Angkor Wat in Cambodia is bigger. The temple is dedicated to three gods, Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, each with its own temple within Karnak. The Amun Temple alone is made up of 61 acres, enough to hold 10 European Cathedrals. Karnak was developed for more than 1,200 years, with over 30 different pharaohs contributing to its construction.
Karnak was the holiest of all holy places during the Middle Kingdom. Like the pyramids, one must have marveled at such a larger-than-life temple. To me, the most impressive part of the temple is the Hypostyle Hall, the precinct of the Amun-Re Temple. The Hypostyle Hall is made up of 134 massive columns in 16 different rows in an area of over 50,000 square feet. The columns range in sizes from 30-60 feet and are about 10 feet in diameter. Up and down these columns are writings in hieroglyphics. Looking at this hall of columns and comparing it straight up to the Parthenon in Athens, I would call Karnak more impressive. What makes it even more incredible is that Karnak was built almost 2,000 years before the Parthenon!
We took about 3 hours at the Karnak Temple, walking around and admiring the enormous statues, the hieroglyphics, and the carvings in the walls of the temple that have still kept their color after 4,000 years. It really is one of the greatest sites of Egypt and a must-see for anyone visiting Luxor. We stayed until it closed and were literally the only people left in the temple as we walked out. As it was getting dark, we ended up getting a horse carriage ride back to the city center, a nice ride as the sun set on the other side of the Nile.
Day 2 – West Bank Tour
We lined up a tour through our hostel. The tour cost 50 Egyptian Pounds ($7) and lasted from 8am until 2pm and included a guide. We hit several of the main sites on the West Bank, including the Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, Medinet Habu, and then stopped for a quick view of the Colossi of Memnon.
Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is the most important burial site of the New Kingdom pharaohs between the years of 1550 and 1070 BC. There are 63 known tombs in the valley – 26 built for kings and the rest for royal family members of other elites. In comparison to the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, which were built with an extravagant exterior but not much in the interior, the tombs at the Valley of the Kings were hidden inside of a mountain but were decorated lavishly with carvings of offerings, depictions of their supposed daily life, and of other scenes to forever immortalize the pharaoh. It was thought that these carvings, along with actual offerings in the form of food, gifts, clothes, and other goods, would be taken into the afterlife. The idea was to give the deceased king everything they will need as they spend their eternity in another life.
The ticket to the Valley of the Kings lets one enter three of the fifteen tombs. At one time, usually only ten are open in order to give the others a rest and to limit deterioration. Our guide recommended tombs 11 (Ramses III), 8 (Merenptah), and 6 (Ramses IX). Each of these were dug deep into the mountain in their respective locations, a few were dug about 150 feet inwards. Descending down, elaborate carvings depicted images of the pharaohs, as well as the said offerings. Many pictures of slaves were shown with their hands behind their backs and some even decapitated. Many showed the gods of Horus (god of kings falcon), Ra (sun god), and Anubis (god of funerals – a jackal). All of the mummies, except for King Tut’s, have been removed from their tombs and placed in the Egyptian Museum or other museums around the world (like the British Museum). The tomb of Ramses III still contains his sarcophagus, which was incredible to see still inside the tomb. We took about 20 minutes for each of these tombs, looking at every little detail of the carvings. Since these have been covered since their existence, the insides are very well preserved with almost all the colors and carvings still remaining.
The Valley of the Kings was an especially warm place. Where Cairo was usually in the 60s or low 70s, Luxor was in the 70s, but the Valley of the Kings was in the low 80s. It’s complete desert once getting out that far, as it extends past the reaches of the Nile. It was great to be visiting the site without many tourists around. There were plenty around; however, I was told that at one point there were 20,000 tourists visiting the Valley of the Kings daily – now it’s just around 500 per day. Whereas we were two of six of eight people in a tomb at a time, I heard that one used to have to wait two hours to enter a tomb. After visiting in the lowest of all seasons, I can’t imagine it being so busy.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
Queen Hatshepsut was the first ruling monarch in Ancient Egypt. After her stepson passed away, she ruled for about 20 years during the 18th Dynasty in the years of 1490 BC and 1470 BC. In her later years of rule, we was depicted with many male features, such as a royal headdress, kilt, and a false beard. It is thought that she may have hidden the fact that she was a woman in order to retain control of the monarchy.
Queen Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple took about fifteen years to build. It was built just below the desert mountain with three terraces. It’s unique style and design make it a great place to visit for an hour.
After making a brief stop at a lame tourist shop in Deir el-Medina, the old workers’ village, we made our way to Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III. Having had just seen Ramses III’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, it was great to see his mortuary temple afterwards. Whereas the Valley of the Kings was his burial site, Medinet Habu was his shrine, his memorial (I also saw his mummy in the Egyptian Museum). Ramses III lived from 1186-1155 BC in the 20th Dynasty. He is considered to be the last great pharaoh to have great authority over the country.
Medinet Habu was one of my favorite temples that we visited. I was so impressed by the layout, the large carvings and depictions covering the walls, the enormous columns, and the large statues. It is not as visited as many other places, but I would highly recommend it. An interesting part of the temple is that Ramses III’s name in hieroglyphics is carved much deeper than any others. This was done because it was known that Ramses II carved his name all over statues and temples that he did not build, so Ramses III made sure that no one could erase his name from his mortuary temple.
Colossi of Memnon
Finally, we stopped at the Colossi of Memnon for a quick view and a picture. The massive statues depict Amenhotep III, who lived in the 14th century BC. These statues used to guard Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. However, the temple was built in the Nile floodplain which destined for it to be destroyed. It is thought to have been bigger than Karnak, but the unfortunate location has destroyed almost all of the temple.
Early afternoon, we went again for a felucca boat ride on the Nile. This time, we went with the owner of the hostel with her two children, as well as a guy from the Ukraine. The calm day made our felucca ride a bit slower, but we worked our way north to Banana Island, a strange place to visit. A small island which grows many bananas, I’m not sure why I had to pay the 10 Egyptian Pounds ($1.40) to enter the island. Within a hour, we were back on the felucca making our way back to Luxor. The sunset shined the sky with bright colors – something you would hope as you let the wind guide you down the Nile RIver.
Day 3 – Self-guided Tour
As I mentioned before, our third day was spent in Ancient Thebes on the West Bank visiting sites we didn’t go to on our tour. We took a ferry from Luxor’s East Bank to get to the West Bank, and then we found a taxi to take us to three different sites. We paid 50 Egyptian Pounds ($7) for the taxi plus tip, which was a great deal since he made sure to be waiting for us at a set time to take us to the next site. We decided to visit the Tombs of the Nobles, Ramesseum, and Temple of Seti I.
Tombs of the Nobles
The Tombs of the Nobles is similar to the Valley of the Kings, except that it comprised of the tombs of very important and powerful people – people who were ranked very high up but weren’t part of the royal family. There are hundreds of tombs uncovered, and they are still finding more tombs today. We bought a ticket to visit two of the tombs, Nakht TT52 and Menna TT69.
The main physical difference between the Tombs of the Nobles and the Valley of the Kings is that the Tombs of the Nobles depicts images of normal, daily life. Whereas the pharaohs wanted to be seen as godly figures, the nobles were shown doing ordinary things. Also, rather than being carved, most of the images in the Tombs of the Nobles are paintings that have still survived with their many colors. Nakht is thought to be the main astronomer of his time, and Menna is thought to be the overseer of agricultural activities.
The Ramesseum is the mortuary temple of Ramses II, also nicknamed the “House of a Thousand Years.” Taking about 20 years to create, the temple had some of the most impressive granite statues of Ramses II. One, however, was taken by Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian engineer who took the statue to England. The other massive statue has fallen and lays on the ground in the Ramesseum Temple.
Because this temple also rests on the floodplains of the Nile, much of it has been destroyed. The remains are still an impressive site, as the huge columns still stand as well as various parts of other statues.
Temple of Seti I
Our last stop was the Temple of Seti I. Seti I was an important pharaoh in the 19th Dynasty and was the father of Ramses II. He ruled early in the 1200s BC. He happened to be one of the mummies I saw in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I must say that the Temple of Seti I was the least impressive of all the temples we visited. It may be that this was the last temple we visited, and we saw some of the most impressive temples that have survived. Either way, it was nice to see but I would’ve been happy skipping it.
That ended our time in Luxor. After getting back to our hotel, we just walked around the city for a bit and did some shopping. Right before leaving, we had dinner consisting of chicken, rice, tahini, and bread. It was a great way to end three full days of sightseeing in Luxor and ancient Thebes.
Although the people weren’t my favorite in Egypt, the sites around the country are unlike anywhere else I’ve been. The temples and pyramids are so old that the Ancient Greeks considered them to be ancient. And they were just as impressive, if not more impressive, than the works of the Greeks.
Egypt is a safe country. I even met several solo female travelers who would get a lot of attention while walking through the city, but they seemed to have never felt in danger. With the lack of tourists in the country, prices are cheap and even the most famous attractions are relatively empty. I’m glad that I had the chance to visit the fascinating country this year!