Luxor has been a popular tourist destination for centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans traveled to the famed city for its warm climate and spectacular architecture. At the height of its magnificence, the city of Luxor had a million inhabitants, but around 30 BC, the Romans smashed the city to bits in retaliation for a revolt in Upper Egypt. Annual floods, sand storms, and natives scavenging the temple stones for building materials continued the destruction. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the glory of Luxor was rediscovered and restored, bringing tourists back to the beautiful city.
The “must-see” sites are many. Any serious tourist should plan to stay at least two days just to see the major sites. While it is possible to see more in that short period of time, stopping at more than two or three sites per day can create the effect of “temple burn-out” where everything starts to look the same and lose its significance.
The major sites on the East Bank are the temples of Luxor and Karnak. The Luxor Temple sits on the waterfront in the center of town, dominating the city. Built primarily by Imhotep III as a tribute to the god, Amun, visitors approach the entrance by an avenue of sphinxes which originally spanned the distance between Luxor and Karnak (1.2 miles away).
The temple attracts scientists and new age believers because of its mathematical precision. Some suggest that ancient Egyptians, not ancient Greeks, were the fathers of modern civilization, pointing to the technical and geometry knowledge shown in the original construction and the subsequent additions. This temple has been hailed as a beacon of harmony, proportion and symbolism. Although lovely from any vantage point, it is most spectacular when lit up at night.
The Temple of Karnak could not be more different. Karnak is not just a temple, but a complex. Begun in the 11th Dynasty as a modest temple to Amun, pharaohs for the next 1300 years added to it, creating the most important Pharaonic site after the Great Pyramids. The 100 acre site contains a vast array of courts, halls, colossi, and a huge sacred lake. Excavation was begun in the mid-19th century and continues to this day. An hour inside the complex would only get you a glance at the magnificence of Karnak.
While many Egyptian artifacts have been sent all over the world, the Luxor Museum houses what some consider to be the best of the best of Middle Kingdom sculpture. Unlike the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, each piece is displayed in a soothing atmosphere and given its own space. Each item is thoroughly and accurately described. Three floors of displays span the Predynastic to Coptic periods.
The East Bank offers two shopping areas, the old souk and the new souk. The new souk caters to tourists and runs parallel to the old souk. Both offer souvenirs, fruit, vegetables, spices, brass, alabaster, and jewelry. Animals, carts, and shoppers crowd the street making it a hectic, but interesting way to spend a few hours.
The West Bank is the “land of the dead.” New Kingdom pharaohs built their tombs here in an attempt to keep their treasure safe from looters. Their mortuary temples were also built here to honor and glorify themselves and Amun. Queens and nobles also made their tombs here.
The tan landscape is rugged and monotonous, never hinting of the brightly colored corridors that lay underground. The entry to most tombs is steep with colorful scenes painted on the walls designed to either show the dead king’s glorious deeds in life or to help him through the afterlife. Chambers off the main corridor usually stored treasure for the king to use in death. The burial chamber itself held the sarcophagus and mummy of the king. While a trip to the tombs is fascinating, the tombs are often crowded, hard to maneuver in, and lacking in fresh air. I don’t recommend it for claustrophobic people.
One of the most beautiful mortuary temples is that of Egypt’s only female pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut. This vast structure was partially cut into the stone mountainside which provides a majestic backdrop and creates a breathtaking view. Much of the original paint from the detailed murals remains vivid and alive. The massive statues of Hatshepsut as a man line on the upper terrace presenting an imposing sight. The temple continues to undergo reconstruction, and more of it is open to tourists all the time.
Another impressive mortuary temple is the Ramesseum, built for pharaoh Ramses II and dedicated to Amun. While mostly in ruins, the site is still awe inspiring. The huge, fallen statues of Ramses loudly speak of the ancients’ artistry. The extensive mudbrick storehouses attest to the large numbers of people who lived and worked here.
The Colossi of Memnon guard the now destroyed mortuary temple of Amenhotep III. These 60 foot high statues are thought to be the largest ever built in Egypt and are all that remain of this temple. These statues were tourist attractions in ancient times as one of the pair was said to whistle at sunrise. This phenomenon was likely caused the damaged sustained in an earthquake as it stopped once it was repaired. Despite the loss of this novelty, the size and beauty of these statues continue to attract tourists.
There are many other sites that visitors can see in Luxor, such as the temple of Medinat Habu- a temple second in size only to Karnak, Howard Carter’s house (the discoverer of Tut’s tomb), the villages of Gurna, the temple of Seti I, and the Mummification Museum. Carriage rides and felucca trips are other pleasant ways to spend an evening. With such a wide variety of things to see and do, it is a shame to see Egypt and miss Luxor. It really is a jewel of the Nile.