At one time, 4,000 years ago, the ancient city of Luxor was one of the greatest cities in the world. The golden-era of Thebes, as Luxor was then known, lasted for thousands of years and its grandeur rivaled even that of Athens or Rome. Great pharaohs built an almost unbelievable amount of tombs, temples and monuments in the city and its surrounds, which even today retain much of their incredible glory.
Roughly 700 kilometers south of Cairo, Luxor, like most Egyptian cities, sits on the River Nile. The longest river in the world, a small patch of greenery lines the shores of the River Nile as it snakes through the Sahara Desert and its waters are the only reason civilization ever flourished here.
[Also see our travel article "Ten Days in Egypt"]
In Luxor it creates quite the contrast, as the city itself is rather green with its suburbs dominated by small farming plots, but travel just a few minutes outside of the city and one could be forgiven for thinking that the massive sand dunes and mountains of the Sahara were endless.
Today, most travelers begin their holidays to Egypt at Luxor’s international airport, but it is still possible to arrive the traditional way, via the River Nile. Luxury cruise ships make the journey regularly to nearby Aswan and even all the way to Cairo.
Once in Luxor travelers are literally surrounded by the antiquities of ancient Egypt. The grandeur of the ruins and temples in their real-life settings far surpasses what’s possible in any museum, and there aren’t many travel experiences in the world that can rival a person’s first visit to Egypt.
The Luxor Temple is in the center of the city and its giant sandstone columns covered in hieroglyphs offer an imposing first impression of the city. The complex is even more impressive at night, when it’s possible to visit the illuminated ruins and admire the small statues of the Avenue of Sphinxes without the crowds that throng the site in the day.
A few thousand years ago the Avenue of Sphinxes connected the Luxor Temple with the Karnak Temple to the north of the city center. These days, however, a regular street will have to suffice.
Much larger than the Luxor Temple, Karnak was the preeminent temple of Thebes and all of Upper Egypt. In light of how impressive the Karnak Temple is in this modern-era of skyscrapers and architectural feats, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision what the reaction to its Great Hypostyle Hall must have been thousands of years ago.
The hieroglyphs that adorn every inch of the temple contain the spiritual knowledge of ancient Egypt. The decline of the Egyptian civilization and religion happened rather quickly and so rapid was the displacement of hieroglyphics by the Greek alphabet that the meanings of the hieroglyphs were lost even to the modern Egyptians themselves. It wasn’t until the soldiers of an invading Napoleon found the famed Rosetta Stone, which had a translation of ancient Greek into hieroglyphics, that their meanings began to be studied and understood once more.
Outside of Luxor, on the west side of the River Nile, the Valley of the Kings beckons to be explored. The official burial site of the Egyptian pharaohs for over 500 years, elaborate underground burial chambers that were constructed to safeguard the mummified remains of the kings of Egypt line the valley.
Understated entryways lead travelers past the rock faces and immediately underground into the dimly lit chambers, which wouldn’t seem too far out of place in an Indiana Jones film. The young Pharaoh Tutankhamun is the best known resident of the valley, and his burial chamber ordained in gold is not to be missed, though much of its treasures now sit in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.
Leaving the Valley of the Kings a small trail climbs the mountain and leads hikers on a 45-minute trek through the desert to its payoff of stunning panoramic views of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. The limestone temple would blend seamlessly into its desert landscape and cliff-face backdrop if it weren’t for its grand staircase and perfectly uniformed support columns.
This temple was built by Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female ruler, to curry favor upon her death with the sun god Amon Ra, and it sits just across the mountain from her tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
Though there are always more wonders to discover, the gist of it is that a trip to Luxor is an unforgettable journey into ancient Egypt that should not be missed.