Built around the 4000-year-old site of Thebes, Luxor is known today as the world’s “greatest open-air museum.” The concentration of monuments is extraordinary: they tower incongruously above the buzz of everyday life and make this a most compelling destination. From the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings and the magnificent sunset views at the majestic temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor to the exciting and fun Nile cruises, Luxor is the perfect choice for culture vultures.
Luxor is divided by the Nile into two areas commonly called the East Bank and West Bank which were considered in Ancient Egyptian times as symbolizing respectively Life and Death.
While the East Bank has grown to become a modern city, it has retained its lush green setting, its traditional bazaar and stunning view of the Nile. The West Bank is known for its necropolis and mortuary temples: the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Workers Village, and the Temple of Medinet Habu are the highlights of Luxor’s West Bank. In Ancient Egyptian mythology the setting sun to the west symbolized the journey to the afterlife, so it was fitting symbolism to bury the dead west of the Nile.
Karnak is, without a doubt, the most complex and impressive assemblage of ancient Egyptian religious monuments. The site is divided into three major precincts, dedicated respectively to the divinities Amun-Ra (the central complex), Mut (south of the central complex), and Montu (north). Inside the temple precinct, as in the Temple of Luxor, the Theban Triad of Amun-Ra, Mut, and Khonsu were the deities worshiped. The enclosure also includes smaller sanctuaries dedicated to Khonsu, Ptah, and Opet. The various temples were continuously enlarged and restored from at least the time of the Middle Kingdom down to the Roman period. We owe the most immense and enduring structures to the pharaohs of the New Kingdom.
The 660-yard-long main axis of Karnak proceeds from west to east, oriented toward the Nile. Another axis extends south toward Luxor from the midpoint of the main axis.
An avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, protecting statuettes of Pinudjem I between their front legs, opens the way to the entrance of the first pylon. This pylon was left unfinished by the kings of the 30th Dynasty. It is the most recent of all the pylons of Karnak, as well as being the most monumental on-site. Against the pylon, on the right side of Karnak’s first forecourt, are the remains of ancient mud-brick scaffolding, used for the erection of the pylon. In the center of the court, a single open-papyrus column remains of what once was the 10-columned kiosk of Taharqa (690-664 BC), an Ethiopian pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty.
In the southeast portion of the forecourt, the Temple of Ramses III (20th Dynasty) is fronted by two colossi representing the king. It has the same structure as most New Kingdom temples: a pylon, a court with 20 Osirid statues of the king (Ramses III in the form of Osiris), and a hypostyle hall. Like others, the sanctuary is divided into three parts for the cult of the Theban Triad.
The second pylon opens onto the hypostyle hall. Before you plunge into this fantastical court, the statue of Amun-Ra, in the company of a king, is on the left. Then wander into what seems like a stone forest—with its breathtaking 134 columns. Not only are the dimensions gigantic, but the colors and hieroglyphs are remarkable. The 12 columns alongside the processional way have open-papyrus capitals, while the remaining 122 columns have papyrus-bud capitals and are smaller. New Kingdom pharaohs built the elaborate hall: Ramses I began the decoration in the 19th Dynasty; Ramses III completed it some 120 years later in the 20th Dynasty.
Southeast of the temple lies the sacred lake, which is fed by the Nile. The morning rituals of the priests included purifying themselves in this lake. At the northwest corner of the lake, a large scarab dates from the reign of Amenhotep III and symbolizes the “newborn” sun. Legend has it that a woman who runs around it three times, clockwise, will become pregnant in the near future (at this writing, the southernmost sectors are not open to the public, so it’s not possible to prove the theory). Farther on the left lie the remains of the other Obelisk of Hatshepsut (its partner is back between the fourth and fifth pylons).
Karnak’s Sound & Light Show includes a walk through the temple, with several monuments illuminated successively, and ends at the sacred lake, where the second part begins. From stadium-like seating, the entire complex can be seen, with different temples lighted, music, and a narrated history of the site. On a rotating schedule throughout the week, shows are conducted in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. English shows run each night, the other languages less frequently.
Temple of Luxor
Far easier to explore and digest than the sprawling Temple of Karnak just downriver, the Luxor Temple (built between 1390 and 323 BC) stands near the edge of the Nile in the city center. The temple was dedicated to the Theban Triad—the gods Amun-Ra, Mut (goddess of queenship), and Khonsu (moon god)—as well as to the cult of Ka (the royal spirit). The ancient name of the 285-yard-long temple was Ipet-Resyt (Southern Harem), the southern partner of Karnak, which was the starting point of the late-summer Opet festival. This feast involved a great procession of priests bringing the ceremonial barque of Amun-Ra from Karnak to Luxor, where the god would be united with the Mother of the King to allow her to give birth to the royal Ka.
It is likely that the largely 18th Dynasty (1539-1292 BC) temple was built over a Middle Kingdom predecessor. Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BC) started to develop the temple, and then Ramses II added to it a century later. Ruins from later periods also surround the main temple. The Avenue of Sphinxes was the creation of Nectanebo I (381-362 BC), almost 1,000 years later. The next considerable work was accomplished relatively soon thereafter, during the reign of Alexander the Great, who built, in the heart of the temple, a sanctuary for Amun-Ra’s sacred barque.
During the Roman period, the temple was transformed into a fortified camp. Following the 4th-century AD (i.e., Christian) ban on pagan cults, several churches were built inside the temple. One of them, in the northeast corner of the court of Ramses II (19th Dynasty), was superseded by the Abu al-Haggag Mosque during the 12th century AD, and locals refused to allow it to be torn down to complete the excavation of the Luxor temple.
Valley of the Kings
Once called the Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh, or the Place of Truth, the Valley of the Kings has 63 magnificent royal tombs from the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 BC), all very different from each other. The West Bank had been the site of royal burials from the First Intermediate Period (2160–2025 BC) onwards. At least three 11th-dynasty rulers built their tombs near the modern village of Taref, northeast of the Valley of the Kings. The 18th-dynasty pharaohs, however, chose the isolated valley dominated by the pyramid-shaped mountain peak of Al-Qurn (The Horn). The secluded site enclosed by steep cliffs was easy to guard and, when seen from the Theban plain, appears to be the site of the setting sun, associated with the afterlife by ancient Egyptians.
Valley of the Queens
There are at least 75 tombs in the Valley of the Queens. They belonged to queens of the 19th and 20th dynasties and other members of the royal families, including princesses and the Ramesside princes. Only two were open at the time of writing, and the Tomb of Nefertari is closed for the foreseeable future but a replica will be built soon.
Temple of Hatshepsut
The eyes first focus on the dramatic rugged limestone cliffs that rise nearly 300m above the desert plain, a monument made by nature, only to realize that at the foot of all this immense beauty lies a man-made monument even more extraordinary, the dazzling Temple of Hatshepsut. The almost modern-looking temple blends in beautifully with the cliffs from which it is partly cut, a marriage made in heaven.