Created | Updated Feb 7, 2012
The modern town of Luxor in Upper Egypt is on the site of the Ancient Egyptian capital city of Waset. From this city, known to the Greeks as Thebes, the pharaohs ruled a mighty empire for more than a thousand years. Although the pyramid-building days were long past, the Waset Pharaohs excelled in building and left a legacy of statues, tombs and enormous temples.
Nowadays, Luxor is a major destination for tourists coming to see the ancient remains and monuments. Situated about 500 kilometres south of Cairo, it can be reached by road, rail, air or river. There are plenty of decent hotels. Winter is the high season, when temperatures are bearable. In summer, temperatures can reach 50°C (120°F); the hotels are all empty and many accommodation bargains are to be had.
Luxor is on the east bank of the Nile river, which is only about 500 metres wide at this point. The Ancient Egyptians liked to bury their dead on the west bank at the edge of the desert. The 'Necropolis', or City of the Dead, was vast, with temples as well as tombs. Most of the tombs are still there, as well as some of the temples.
Is it Safe?
Egypt's population is 90% Muslim, but is tolerant towards other ways of life: alcohol consumption is permitted, women have equal rights with men and can go out of doors if they want without covering their heads, and so on.
There has been much political unrest throughout Egypt in the recent past. There have been violent clashes between the police and demonstrators in many places in Egypt, including Luxor. For up-to-date information you are advised to consult with a reputable travel company, or the UK Foreign Office Travel Advice website.
The Geography of Egypt
Egypt is dominated by the Nile river and is clearly divided into two regions. In the north is the Nile Delta, where the river spreads out into many branches before it reaches the sea. In the south is the Nile Valley, which is steep-sided and about 20 kilometres wide for most of its length. The Ancient Egyptians called these the Land of the Ant (the Valley) and the Land of the Bee (the Delta). On ancient inscriptions you often see an ant and a bee beside a pharaoh's name, meaning ruler of the Valley and the Delta.
Both the Valley and the Delta were flooded once a year1 as the rains fell in Ethiopia. This laid down a new layer of prime agricultural silt each year, making Egypt one of the most fertile places in the world. Outside of the Delta and Valley, Egypt is a desert. The transition between agricultural land and desert is sudden: it is possible to stand at the edge of the desert where everything in front of you is sand and everything behind you is well-managed fields of crops.
Egypt was civilised as early as about 3200 BC. The capital was at Memphis (just south of modern-day Cairo), where the Valley meets the Delta. The early rulers, known as pharaohs, had enormous pyramids built as tombs, always on the west bank of the Nile river. There are more than 75 pyramids along the lower stretches of the Nile.
The Egyptians worshipped many gods. Over the 3,000 years of Ancient Egyptian history, certain gods became more popular while others dropped out of favour. Two particularly important ones, Amon and Re, were eventually treated as two aspects of the one god, Amon-Re2. In about 2000 BC, the town of Waset became the centre for the worship of Amon-Re, and giant temples were built there.
In about 1650 BC, Egypt was invaded by an army of people called the Hyksos. They had horse-drawn chariots, something the Egyptians hadn't seen before. They quickly conquered the Delta. The Egyptian rulers retreated into the Valley, abandoning Memphis. Waset was chosen as a suitable site for a new capital, because it already housed the temples of Amon-Re. In 1570 BC, a new kingdom was established, which is now known as the 'New Kingdom', with a series of strong pharaohs. They drove out the Hyksos and re-established themselves as the rulers of all of Egypt.
The period 1570 - 700 BC was the heyday of the New Kingdom, with powerful rulers such as Thutmose, Amenhotep and Ramses.
After 700 BC, the country went into decline, with a series of invasions from all sides. Eventually, in 332 BC, the New Kingdom was conquered by the Macedonian Alexander the Great. He installed a general by the name of Ptolemy to rule the country from a new city on the coast by the name of Alexandria. After Alexander's death, Ptolemy declared himself to be Pharaoh and his descendants ruled the country for centuries. All the male rulers were called Ptolemy and all the females were called Cleopatra.
The city of Waset was abandoned. It became a tourist destination, with Greeks and later Romans coming to see the ruins. They even carved graffiti into the statues. Gradually, as the Nile flooded each year, the temples of Waset were buried under layers of earth and were forgotten.
Waset was rediscovered at the end of the 19th Century by archaeologists, under and around the modern town of Luxor, and has been a tourist destination ever since. Egyptology had its greatest day in 1922 when Howard Carter discovered the undisturbed tomb of a virtually unknown pharaoh, Tutankhamen. Although the tomb was surprisingly small, its contents were incredible.
The East Bank
Sightseeing in Luxor starts at the centre of the town, where you will find the Temple of Amon-Re.
The Temple of Amon-Re in Luxor
Amon-Re was the Egyptian Sun-God, the most important God at the time when Waset was the capital. The priests of Amon were very powerful and had enormous temples built to honour him. The one in Luxor, built in the period 1400 - 1250 BC, is a 'minor' one, but is still staggering in its immensity.
The general layout of all Egyptian temples is linear, with a massive gateway known as a pylon, followed by pillared courtyards, and a most holy area. The Luxor temple follows the pattern as follows:
- Pylon of Ramses II
- Courtyard of Ramses II
- Pillared colonnade
- Courtyard of Amenhotep III
- Hall with densely-packed pillars (hypostyle hall)
- Inner sanctum
Unlike Greek pillars, which are straight and elegant, Egyptian pillars are intended to represent the papyrus plants of the Nile River. They come in two forms: those representing an unopened papyrus have a bulge at the top and are squat-looking and bulky. Those representing the opened plant widen out at the top into leaves.
The inner holy area and the hypostyle hall would originally have had roofs but these are now gone. Every surface is covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions.
In one corner of the first courtyard, you will see the Mosque of Abu Al-Haggag. Because this was built in the 19th Century, thousands of years after the temple, the ground level had risen and the mosque's floor is almost on a level with the temple's roof. Excavation of the temple has left the mosque suspended high in the air.
The Great Temple of Amon-Re in Karnak
Just a few miles from the centre of Luxor, this massive temple is mind-blowing. Again, the temple is laid out in a line so that a procession can start at the first gate and proceed without turning along the entire length of the temple as far as the 'Holy of Holies' at the end. The temple started out big, and each successive ruler added more to it, almost all of it along the central axis, so the temple has ended up as an apparently endless succession of gates, courtyards and pillars.
The temple starts with an avenue lined with ram-headed sphinxes, each with an image of the pharaoh between its front paws. Originally this avenue extended the whole two miles to the Luxor temple. Then we reach the first pylon. This gateway is in the form of two mighty blocks of stone, one on each side of the gateway. The gap between these forms the gateway: there is no arch or lintel across the top. At 40m high, the first pylon is the biggest in the world. It was the last feature to be added to the temple and the inscriptions on it were never completed.
After the first pylon, there is a great courtyard of more than 8,000m2, with the small temple of Seti II on the left and the temple of Ramses III on the right. Then we reach the second pylon.
Next comes the Hypostyle Hall. This room would originally have had a roof and was one of the biggest rooms in any temple anywhere in the world. With a floor area of 5,000m2, the room should give the impression of spaciousness, but doesn't because it is packed with pillars: 134 massive pillars hold up the roof beams, although the roof itself is now gone. These are packed in so tightly that there seems to be as much pillar as there is open space. Most of the pillars are 13m high, while the 12 pillars along the central axis are 21m high, the biggest load-bearing pillars in the world. Originally the two-level roof allowed for windows in the space between the two levels, letting light into this enormous room. Every surface of the hall is covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions and pictures. Originally, these were all painted in bright colours. Now, three thousand years later, the paint on the walls and pillars is gone, but you can still see some of the original colours on the roof beams.
After the hypostyle hall come the third pylon, the obelisk court, the fourth pylon, the obelisk of Hatshepsut, the fifth and sixth pylons and the Inner Sanctuary.
Other temples in the Karnak Temple Complex
The temple complex also includes temples to Amon's fellow deities, Mut, wife of Amon and goddess of motherhood, and Konshu, the god of the moon. There's a sacred lake, which was used for ceremonies involving a boat called the Barque of the Sun.
The West Bank
The Colossi of Memnon
One of the first things you meet on the West Bank is two giant statues of seated figures. These were given the name the Colossi of Memnon by the Greeks (who couldn't read hieroglyphs). The inscriptions on the statues tell us that they were built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III and are statues of him. Originally they guarded the door to a giant temple, but the temple was demolished thousands of years ago to make room for farming land.
The statues are each about 23m high. According to ancient historians, after an earthquake in 27 BC, one of the statues used to 'sing' every morning when the sun's first rays hit it. This was probably due to the statue warming up. We don't know, because in 199 AD, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus ordered repairs to be carried out on the crumbling statues and since then, the singing statue has been silent.
If you look carefully at the statues, you can see some graffiti in Ancient Greek, carved more than 2,000 years ago.
The Valley of the Kings
The Pharaohs of the New Kingdom were buried in rock tombs cut into the cliffs at the edge of the Nile Valley. There is a valley set into the cliffs in which no vegetation grows. Here they dug the tombs in which all the pharaohs were buried. This valley is now known as the 'Valley of the Kings'.
Most of the tombs are enormous, with many large rooms, all of them embellished with hieroglyphs and wall paintings showing the Pharaoh's journey to the afterlife. The king was embalmed and buried with a vast collection of goods, so that he would have everything he needed when he awoke to the afterlife. Contrary to popular myth, slaves were not buried with the Pharaoh. Instead, small models of people, known as 'shabti figures' were included in the tomb. It was thought that these would come alive and become the Pharaoh's servant in the afterlife.
With only one exception, all these tombs were plundered by grave robbers almost as soon as the king was buried. It has been estimated that so much gold was buried with each Pharaoh that the country would have gone rapidly bankrupt, except that the grave robbers re-introduced the gold into the economy each time.
The most impressive tombs in the valley are the Tomb of Seti I and the Tomb of Ramses III. Both of these are huge, with a series of rooms and corridors, all adorned with paintings showing the path of the Pharaoh on his way to the afterlife. There is nothing in the tombs now except the paintings, but originally, they would have been furnished like palaces.
Although plundered in ancient times, the location of the tomb of Seti was forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni, an amazing character who gave up his job as circus strongman to take up tomb-raiding. Like Indiana Jones but without the hat, Belzoni's standard tool for opening the tombs of the pharaohs was a battering ram!
The one tomb that everybody wants to see is the only one that was not plundered in ancient times; that of Tutankhamen. He was a relatively unimportant pharaoh who didn't even get included in the official lists of pharaohs, because he had ruled for only a few years during a time of political upheaval. His tomb is a simple one, with only two small rooms. It is thought that he died suddenly and that his tomb had originally been built for someone else, such as a lesser nobleman. Nevertheless, Tutankhamen was given a right send-off, with more gold than has ever been seen anywhere outside of Egypt. The tomb was sealed and forgotten about. Soon afterwards, another tomb was built almost on top of it, so Tut's tomb was not found until the 20th Century. The treasures that were found in the tomb are now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the pharaoh's body was examined and then replaced in the tomb - so King Tut still lies there waiting for the afterlife in his golden sarcophagus.
While Tutankhamen's tomb is very small and the wall paintings in it are rather crude and hurried-looking compared with those of other pharaohs, they look new, as if they were only painted yesterday, because the tomb was sealed for more than 3,000 years. There's nothing in the tomb now other than the body of the pharaoh in a sarcophagus.
The Valley of the Queens
Another rocky valley was reserved for the tombs of the wives and children of the pharaohs. This is now known as the Valley of the Queens, although princes were buried there too. The tombs are not quite as impressive as those of the Kings, but are still well worth a visit.
There are about 80 tombs in the valley. The best one is the Tomb of Nefertari, the wife of Pharaoh Ramses II. It has wall paintings throughout the tomb.
The Tombs of the Artisans
Situated lower down the cliffs and slightly south of the Valley of the Queens, the Tombs of the Artisans are well worth a visit. Built by those responsible for decorating the tombs of the pharaohs and more akin to a village than a graveyard, they feature much less stylised art. The figures represent the everyday life of the Egyptians without conforming to the strictures of only portraying the front of the body. Illustrations in these tombs include scenes of hunting, fishing, gardening and relaxing with the family. One of the best examples is of vines with plump purple grapes which grow up the walls and cover the entire ceiling. The effect is startling and the colours are as fresh today as when they were first painted.
Ramses II was the greatest pharaoh to ever rule Egypt. At least, he liked to think so, so he set out to make his name remembered forever. He had enormous statues of himself constructed throughout Egypt, including the famous temple of Abu Simbel. Here in Luxor, his biggest project was a temple known as the Ramesseum.
This is an enormous complex of temples with pillars and statues. One statue was 17 metres high (56 feet) and tipped the scales at 1,000 tonnes. Now all that is left of it is a giant lump of stone, but there are plenty of other statues of the Pharaoh to choose from.
The Temple of Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut was the wife and half-sister of Pharaoh Thutmose II, who died suddenly. Thutmose's heir, Thutmose III, was only about three years old at the time, so he was not fit to reign. Hatshepsut had herself declared an honorary man and ruled as Pharaoh, wearing a false beard. Most of the statues of her show a male torso and a beard, an essential feature of the Pharaoh. Some of them show clearly a female form with breasts and with a woman's face. Officially, Thutmose III was also Pharaoh during this period, so she ruled jointly with him.
Hatshepsut had an enormous temple constructed on the west bank. This many-pillared building stands at the base of a cliff. It has been restored by modern archaeologists to some resemblance of what it originally looked like. The temple has three levels, connected by ramps. Throughout the temple, plaques and inscriptions contain tributes to the Pharaoh, listing her many achievements.
Tombs were prepared for Hatshepsut in both the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings. Until recently it was not known where she was buried, but in 2007 Egypt's antiquities chief, Dr Zahi Hawass, announced that a mummy buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings had been identified as the body of Hatshepsut.