Our tour leader Wahlid jokingly says that Luxor has more antiquities than any other place in the world. Having now seen it, I’m not so sure he’s joking. There are so many Egyptian ruins in this city, it’s kind of unbelievable. The capital of the Egyptian civilization was moved to Luxor during the Middle Kingdom (around the 16th dynasty) because of it’s strategic and secluded location. Luxor is, not surprisingly, right on the Nile River in the center of Egypt.
On our first day in Luxor, we visited the Karnak Temple. The largest of all the ruins discovered in Egypt, this temple took approximately 2000 years to build. Can you imagine that??? Each new pharoh added on new portions, such as a gate or an offering room or a collanade, so it just continued to grow and grow until the decline of the empire. Now it spans several kilometers and has been largely restored. Unlike the other temples we’ve visited, it sits in it’s original location. You start the visit at the West gate, and immediately you will notice the sphinx sidewalk. Over a hundred sphinx statues originally lined the walkway, all built by Rames II. They have a ram head with a lion’s body, representing god Amun Rah or the supreme Egyptian god, who is the god this temple is dedicated to.
At the end of the walkway, you reach the first pylon or gate. You enter into a large square where you get your first glimpse of the true size of this place. There are some massive Rames II statues as well as some tall Egyptian columns. Unlike their roman counterparts, the tops of these columns represent local flora like the papyrus or lotus flowers. You will continue down the main sphinx walkway until you reach the impressive columned section of the temple. It contains 134 massive stone columns. All individually engraved with hieroglyphics, they tell various stories about the gods, show offering scenes and depictions of the pharohs, particularly Rames II, who was largely responsible for the construction of this section of the temple. I think this was the most amazing part of the temple for me, just because every direction you looked were more columns all containing these carvings. The sheer amount of time and man power needed to construct it boggles the mind, but also the fact that they still stand in tact with many of the painting and colors still on the columns.
Once you’re done marveling at the columns, you will enter into the next open square of the temple. This contains several obelisks. These were the first obelisks discovered in Egypt, built during the 18th dynasty by a pair of father and daughter pharohs. They are believed to point to the gods and were built tall in order to show the gods their dedication. They also represent the classic pyramid shape that you see throughout Egypt, representing the journey of the sun across the sky. Since this temple is dedicated to the sun god, it should come as no surprise that obelisks were prevalent and important here. Carved out of a single piece of red granite, I was shocked that any of them were still together.
Also unique to this temple is the cleansing pool. Apparently most temples used to have pools during the Egyptian times, but this is the only one still together. It is fed by the Nile, and was only used by the pharohs and high priests during rituals and ceremonies. It is in the center of the temple, but is unique in it’s lack of embelishment. The rest of the temple is covered floor to ceiling in carvings, but the pool has none around it. Must have been the taste of that pharoh!
Spending several hours in the temple, we sufficiently explored the site and headed out for a walk around town and some dinner. After dinner, we walked off our food babies by exploring the nearby street markets and the Luxor temple. Easily visible from the town square, there is no need to buy a ticket to this site. You can see it easily, and its especially pretty at night, when it is all lit up! As usual, there are heckling children asking you to buy their goods, or salesmen hawking their crappy fake papyrus bags. Just ignore it all, it’s better than engaging them.
Across from the Luxor temple, is an excellent English book store. It’s like a little retail oasis in a sea of crap, because the staff is friendly but aloof. They let you shop in silence, only stopping to offer you tea while you shop. They have an incredible selection of Egypt specific books, including many about the history and ruins. They also have some fiction by Egyptian authors or about Egypt, as well as some interesting cook books. Well worth a stop!
Since there are so many ruins in Luxor, we spent a second day touring the sites around the city. Today, we visited the infamous Valley of the Kings. Located about 30km outside the city on the west bank of the Nile River, the Valley of the Kings was the burial grounds for the pharaohs during the early New Kingdom (17th-19th dynasty) from about 1500 BC to 1200 BC.
What is unique about this area is the sheer amount of tombs. Over 60 have been discovered so far, and discoveries are still being made. This place is hotter than hell, over 45 C during the day, so try to go as early as possible. We left the hotel at 7am to get there!
On the drive to the Valley, we made a pit stop to check out the Colossi of Memnon. Known as the goddess of dawn, thse are the rebuilt remains of a temple that was discovered only about 10 years ago. The statues depict Amenhotep III, the builder of the temple. After seeing some of the other ruins, these are too impressive since they were badly damaged by water. But the size is impressive, and once the rest of the site is excavated, I think it will be a much more worthwhile stop.
Continuing on, you will drive up the side of the mountain until you reach the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. Sadly, there are no photos allowed inside the actual Valley, so I will have to rely on my words to describe the experience. You will start the tour at the visitors center, which provides the only bathrooms, as well as a beautiful 3D diarama of the Valley. It shows both the topography above ground, but also the depths and lengths and rooms of the tombs underground. You can get a feel for how deep some of them go!
Then you’ll take a small mini train up the mountain to get into the valley itself. The valley looks much different than I expected. It is totally arid, so there is not a plant in sight. And the rocks are all dirty white sandstone, with loose gravel and steep slopes. The tombs are dug into the sides of the mountain and you walk up through the central valley, with the mountains on either side of you. Once inside the site, you will notice lots of small wooden posts and signs pointing out the various tombs. There are so many, and you can see all the different pharaohs’ names. You’ll literally walking through hundreds of years of history!
At any given time, there are only about 3-5 tombs open to the public. The valley of the kings is the second most visited site in Egypt besides the Pyramids, so there is constantly renovation and restoration work. The insides of the tombs are susceptible to degradation from all of the sweat, breath and moisture of the visitors going in and out. For our visit, we got to see three tombs. The first tomb, of Merneptah, is one of the deepest in the valley. It contains multiple burial chambers as well as the original sarcophogus. The second was for Rames III and the thrid we visited was for Rames VIIII.
What is impressive about the tombs, aside from the depth and size, is the detailed paintings throughout the chambers. You will see scenes on every wall and the ceiling, depicting the journey to the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians believed that their spirit leaves the worldly body upon death, and will return to it to prepare for the afterlife. That is why they were buried with so many goods, food and clothing. They were all things they would need for the next world. The spirit would then read the depictions on the walls in order to prepare themself for the final judgement, which involved a series of challenges, offerings and judgements by the various Egyptian gods. So that is what you see shown as you descend through the tomb. You will see a smiting of the enemies scene, a scene of the final judgement, offerings to Osaris and Isis, as well as the mummifcation process.
It’s truly amazing the amount of detail that was involved in the carvings. Some of the tombs, especially Rames III, still have the original painting that covered the walls. These dyes have last over 3000 years and are still bright and vibrant. Plus the depictions are very well-propotioned and anotomically accurate. I really love the aesthetic of these carvings; the gods and animals are so beautiful and inspiring. I’m especially drawn to the falcon god, which always has these incredibly detailed wings, and Nubes, the god of Mummification. Always shown with the head of the jackal, its haunting and beautiful and sleek. Really impressive.
Also in the Valley of the Kings is the famed Tutankhamun tomb. Famous for its discovery in the 1920s, Tutankhamun was the best perserved tomb every discovered in Egypt. It went largely untouched and undiscovered, because it was buried beneath another tomb (Rames VI) until the discovery by Howard Carter. As I mentioned before, I saw most of the collection at the Egypt Museum in Cairo. All of the items found were removed and restored, and now only the sarcophogus and the mummy still remain in the actual tomb. It is a small tomb, and it actually wasn’t even intended for King Tut. Due to his untimely death, they buried him in somebody else’s tomb hastily, leaving the hieroglyphics incomplete and many of the burial items thrown about haphasardly.
After getting sufficiently sweaty from the Valley, we stopped for a lunch of falafel and mint tea along the way to the temple of Hatshesptu. Also known as Deir el-Bahari, it is one of the most unique temples in Egypt due to its unusual design. Hatshesptu was the first female pharaoh in Egyptian history. She ruled as a queen regent for a few years, until she sent the king to a military academy and ruled in his sted. But at that time, pharaohs were believed to be descendents of god Amun Rays. In order to fulfill this necessity, she fabricated a story about being the daughter of the sun god, and made it a central feature of her temple.
This suited the people, and she was a popular and largely accepted pharaoh. She was known for her strong personality and natural aptitude for politics and the poltical mind. Her temple is features three large tiers, perfectly stacked on one another to form a sort of oblong pyramid shape. THen up the front, there are ramps connecting the three vertical levels. It looks almost Roman in it’s design, with hundreds of carved pillars forming the front facade. Once inside, there are of course walls full of hieroglyphics paintings and stories about the pharaoh and gods. There is little shade in this spot, and by our 2pm visit, it was super hot. But well worth a stop, because it is something different!
On the drive back from the temple, we stopped at a nearby papyrus workshop. We got to see the traditional and modern methods of creating papyrus paper. Indigenous to Egypt, papyrus is a versatile plant that the ancients used to make all sorts of things, including scrolls and rooftops. It grows about 8 feet tall in water. You start by shaving off the skin of the plant, then you soak it in water for about 72 hours. It helps to soften up the papyrus and break down the natural fibers. Then you weave the wet pieces together, just as you would a basket, into the desired size. Then the ancients used a large stone to press the paper into a flat sheet, leaving it under the rock for 1 week. Now they use a modern press, but still leave it for about a week. There is no glue used, just the natural sugars hold it together. Once it’s dry, you can paint it, fold it, write on it, do whatever! Very versatile. Naturally, I bought a new piece of art for my collection featuring a paiting on papyrus… Now just to find the wall space.
The final stop for the day was at ACE. One of the things that drew me to Intrepid in the first place was their dedication to community service and supporting non-profits in the countries where they have trips. ACE, or Animal Care in Egypt, is one of those orginzations. They are a clinic and care center for injured, abandoned or abused animals in Luxor and surrounding areas. Largely filled with work animals, like horses and donkeys, they help to rehabilitate the animals, tend to their injuries, and then release them to safe and reputable families or small business owners in Luxor. We got a lovely tour of their facilities, getting to meet the animals and interact with them. They can handle about 120 animals in the facility at a time, as well as daily free clinics open to the community. I, of course, fell in love with the stray kitties they had brought in, especially a social kitten that was recovering from a dog bit. She followed me all around and even let me pick her up. So sweet! ACE does great work in the community, providing information and instructional sessions for local farmers on proper animal care, as well as bringing school kids in to teach them how to treat and deal with animals. Right now, Intrepid is matching all donations dollar for dollar, so if anyone is interested in supporting ACE (or any of the other Intrepid foundations), take a peek at their website.