Located along the bank of the Nile approximately a 10 hour train ride south of Cairo lies Luxor. During the time of the New Kingdom (ca. 1600BC) this area was known as Thebes, and was the capital of Egypt. It is therefore home to a tonne of important sites for the Egyptian Pharaohs on both sides of the river.
On the east bank lies the main city with hotels, restaurants, museums and the souq, and the temples that are dedicated to the then living Pharaohs. The sun rises in the east symbolising life, and sets in the west symbolising death. Thus the tombs of the passed Pharaohs lie on the west bank, in the necropolis of the ancient Thebes.
The east bank is easy to explore alone. The Temple of Luxor (c.1350BC) is located right in the heart of town. It is open until late most evenings and the massive facade and rows of column are lit up by spotlights at night. This is a great time to go as it is less busy and very beautiful! If you ignore the noise from the car and horse-drawn carriage clogged streets, it is really magical. The temple is remarkably well preserved as it used to be covered in sand and was built over by the city, but was excavated in 1885 with the only structure remaining is the mosque of Abu Al Haggag. There used to be an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes that led the entire way to Karnak Temple located a couple of kilometers north, now only about 150m of this avenue remains.
The Temple of Karnak lies 2km north of the city centre of Luxor, easily accessible by foot along the Nile. This temple region was Egypt’s most important religious and intellectual centre for over 1500 years, and with every Pharaoh the temple grew, as each one wanted to leave his mark. It is quite an incredible place with so many areas to explore. Here you can witness the development of the Egyptian architecture, design and construction over the centuries, with my favourite area being the Great Hypostyle Hall with its 134 immense stone pylons. It is worth taking a couple of hours to walk around in this entire complex, but avoid the middle of the day as the heat can be unbearable.
I also went to the Mummification Museum. It was a nicely presented museum with nice artefacts, but very small, and didn’t go into as much detail on the mummification process as I had hoped. If you have already visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I would skip this one.
Getting to the west bank isn’t as easy as crossing a bridge from the city centre. The only bridge lies out of town, requiring a large detour, or you catch a boat across the Nile. From here you can take a taxi to the different tombs. I joined a day tour of the West Bank which I really enjoyed and it made getting to all the essential locations much easier. It cost 200LE for the transportation and guide plus the entry fees to the sites. The tombs of the pharaohs, queens and other notable people were carved out of the mountains of the west bank in the hopes of them being closer to the god Amun-Ra in the afterlife, by being placed in the direction of the setting sun. Elaborate tombs were carved out of the rocky mountainsides as tributes both to the pharaoh and the immortal gods they honoured.
In the Valley of the Kings 63 tombs have so far been discovered, with the most well-known one being that of Tutankhamen. A ticket to the site includes entry into three of the tombs, but an extra (large) fee is required to visit the Tomb of Tutankhamen, which I was told was surprisingly disappointing which is why I didn’t go in there. All of the artefacts from his tomb are located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and so all that is left is a rectangular sparsely decorated chamber. I entered the tombs of Ramses IV, Merenptah and Ramses IX. These were stunning and ornately decorated. The hieroglyphs and images on the walls and ceilings are incredible, let alone the construction of the tomb, being dug into the side of the mountain. I found it amazing that the colours used to paint the walls are still present today and still so vibrant. Construction of the tombs often begun while the Pharaoh was still alive, however once they died, the tomb had to be completed within 70 days, the length of the mummification process. Therefore some tombs are incompletely decorated or only have painted hieroglyphs rather than carved ones on the walls.
The Temple of Hatshepsut is a huge three-tiered structure that from a distance could pass as a modern railway station. It is not until you get closer you can appreciate the monumental scale and beauty of this structure. It was once partially destroyed, but has been reconstructed to its original scale.
The Habu Temple is enormous and has a beautiful facade with large carvings of Pharaoh Ramses III, with large statues and columns on the inside.
We did not visit the Valley of the Queens on this tour. This is where the queens and royal children were buried. The most ornate tomb here is that of Queen Nefertari. It is usually not open for visitors, and when it is it is very expensive to enter. But I have heard it is the most beautiful and ornate tomb with very well preserved images.
I treated myself to a hot air balloon ride over the west bank, which was so much fun! I had never been in one before and it was a really great experience. We launched just after sunrise and floated over the western suburbs and fields and had great views over the temples and tombs that I had visited the day before. The flight was smooth and lasted over an hour, the pilot was lovely and the landing uneventful.
The nitty gritty:
- You have several options to get to Luxor from Cairo – bus, train, plane or tour. There are some tours that include Cairo, Luxor and Aswan/Abu Simbel in the one tour, and if you are pressed for time, I would recommend you look at these.
- The Luxor train station is basically in the middle of town and easy walking distance to all accommodation. The main bus station is situated a little way out of town.
- See my post on catching the train in Egypt here.
- I stayed at the New Everest Hotel/Hostel – it was cheap, the rooms were clean and the staff were very friendly and helpful. The owner helped organise my west bank tour and a very well-priced Nile cruise for a couple of other people I met (which I didn’t have time to do as I wanted to spend more time volunteering at ACE)
- Places to eat:
- There are a bunch of small street stalls selling falafel and sweet treats that are worth trying out for a cheap snack. There are small convenience stores and fruit stalls for snacks also.
- Kosheri is a popular Egyptian meal – basically it is a carb overload – pasta, rice, lentils, fried onion, spices and sauce. It is delicious!
- There are a heap of small restaurants along the strip between the train station and the nile and the surrounding streets. Meat of any kind is popular here, but you can also find nice salads and vegetarian options.
- There is a “western-style” small supermarket called Arkwrights.
- If you take a tour to the West Bank, expect a stop off at an alabaster factory, usually a friend of the tour guide. Alabaster is a stone quarried in the area and used to make vases and other trinkets, and also used to build parts of the pyramids and temples.
For more posts on my trip to Egypt follow these links: