Things to Do in Luxor
The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.
Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.
Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.
The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.
The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.
Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.
Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.
Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.
In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.
This ancient temple, built as homage to the falcon-headed god Horus, was erected between 237 and 57 BC, during the reign of six different Ptolemies. It’s the second-largest temple in Egypt, only after Karnak, and its main building includes a number of marginally preserved reliefs.
The temple pylons stretch an impressive 118 feet into the sky and visitors can still see where guards once stood, keeping watch over the pharaoh’s enemies. Visitors to this ancient site can trace history through age-old etchings that record years of land donations and even depict the annual Triumph of Horus—a yearly ritual that uses 10 harpoons to kill a ceremonial hippopotamus.
The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled the New Kingdom in the 14th century, enjoys fame disproportionate to his short reign and modest achievements. This is mostly due to the discovery of his largely intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his mummy adorned by a dazzling gold mask (now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, along with most of the tomb’s other bling).
Having risked the curse said to await anyone who disturbs the tomb’s rest, visitors may be slightly disappointed by its modest scale and relative lack of adornment. “King Tut” is, however, still in residence, his linen-wrapped mummy visible in a glass box watched over by richly colored wall paintings.
The main lure at Dendera is the Temple of Hathor, one of the least ancient of ancient Egypt’s glories, main construction being more or less contemporary with the life of Christ, although it was built on much older foundations.
There are fascinating glimpses of the meeting of great civilizations, with a famous wall relief of Cleopatra VII (the Cleopatra of legend) and her son, fathered by Julius Caesar. Other depictions of Roman emperors make this a Who's Who of the ancient world.
Well-preserved remnants in the Dendera complex also include modestly-sized Roman constructions and an early Coptic Christian basilica.
More Things to Do in Luxor
In a country that’s home to some of the most ancient structures on earth, the city of Abydos is a standout destination for lovers of history, hieroglyphs and architecture. That’s because this city is one of the nation’s most historic—and home to perhaps the most well-preserved temple in the country.
Travelers to this Middle Egypt destination can examine the exquisite reliefs of King List at the Temple of Seti. These finely-detailed carvings are some of the best kept in all of Egypt and the temple’s off-the-beaten-path vibe means it’s easy to explore without bumping into tons of other tourists.
Archeologists say the carvings on the temple’s exterior are worth checking out, but it’s the interior reliefs that really showcase the craftsmanship of early artists. Seti temple, which is dedicated to the god of the underworld and afterlife, is an essential stop for anyone traveling to Luxor.
The Avenue of Sphinxes was the site of ceremonial processions and originally connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak, although it is considerably more recent than either of those sites, dating to around 380 BC. It stretched some 1.5 miles (2.7 kilometers) and would once have had 1,350 sphinxes lining its sides. Around half of those have been uncovered, with many reworked by later civilizations or sitting in museums. Much of the avenue itself is covered by modern buildings.
There are dozens of examples in various states of preservation forming the immediate approach to each temple. Some of them bear the cat-like features of the famous Great Sphinx at Giza, others have rams’ heads. The entire avenue is the subject of a major ongoing excavation project.
While not as well preserved as nearby Medinet Habu, this mortuary temple dedicated to Ramses II, dating to 1258 BC, still has more than enough to interest the visitor. In the inner sanctuary, for example, the majority of the columns in the hypostyle hall are still standing, as are a number of osirid statues standing sentinel at the entrance, albeit mostly without heads.
As is typical with such structures, giant wall reliefs trumpet the pharaoh’s military accomplishments and proclaim his immortality. But also on view are parts of the fallen Colossus of Ramses, which in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) became a powerful warning against hubris.
The Tombs of the Nobles (or Valley of the Nobles) may lack the star power of the Valley of the Kings or other Luxor hotspots, but this neglected gem is well worth a visit. This is a cemetery on a rare scale, with hundreds of tombs embedded in the rock, often richly decorated with frescoes depicting the working lives of their inhabitants.
Only a fraction of the sites can be accessed. Highlights include the tomb of Sennofer, the mayor of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), with its charming painted grapevines, and the harvest scenes accompanying Nakht the astronomer on his eternal journey.
One of the grandest tombs belongs to the nobleman Ramose, and it affords the visitor a rare glimpse of life under Akhenaten, possibly the earliest of all rulers to espouse a monotheistic faith.
Creating the Valley of the Kings was no simple undertaking: a small army of builders, engineers, engravers and other workers was required to carve the dozens of tombs out of sheer rock over the centuries.
Naturally they all had to be housed somewhere, ideally not too far away. But it was only with the discovery Valley of the Artisans (or Deir el-Medina), around the time of the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, that we learnt more about their living conditions.
The outlines of the “workmen’s village” are still clearly visible, and extant reliefs offer a fascinating portrait of everyday life. All of this makes the Valley of the Artisans a pleasant change after countless monuments glorifying the pharaohs and their morbid fixation on the afterlife.
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