Secrets of southern Egypt's tombs and temples
The Pyramids of Giza, the last surviving wonders of the ancient world, are undoubtedly Egypt’s most-visited attraction, and for good reason. But farther up the River Nile, the essential artery that blesses the otherwise barren sands of the Sahara with lush life, the tombs and temples of southern Egypt harbour their own complex riddles that lie in wait, ready to be unlocked.
Seeing these magnificent, ancient sites in person allow them to spring to life more than they ever could behind glass in a foreign museum. From Luxor, often dubbed ‘the world’s largest open-air museum’, along the Nile to Aswan, southern Egypt’s temples and tombs stand with their doors open, inviting in modern-day detectives to uncover the secrets and mysteries of this ancient civilisation in a country that Egyptians today still call Umm Al Dunya, mother of the world.
Egypt’s largest temple complex, Karnak was the Vatican of its day. Ten cathedrals could be stuffed inside the space, which covers more than 2 sq km and contains multiple temples, timeworn houses and a sacred pool for offerings and sacrifices. Some visitors never make it past the gargantuan Temple of Amun-Ra, the terrestrial ‘home’ of the king of the gods and father of the pharaoh, which sprouts with a forest of 10m-tall, hieroglyphic-covered columns (indeed, some might still be lost within this playground prime for playing hide-and-go-seek). But there’s plenty more to explore, though some areas are still being excavated.
Karnak’s secret lies at its entrance, and it’s tempting to rush straight past the bland, undecorated walls to explore the treasures within. Over a span of 1500 years, Karnak was constructed, chopped, changed, razed and rebuilt by 30 pharaohs. The farther back you walk into the complex, the further back in time you travel, making the area that you first enter comparatively new. So new in fact, that construction was never completed, and the remnants of the mudbrick ramps that workers used to assemble this gateway still lie there waiting to be used millennia later.
Follow the nearly excavated avenue lined with sphinxes three kilometres from Karnak to Luxor Temple, anchored by two colossal statues of Ramses II, one of ancient Egypt’s greatest leaders who loved to show his power by plastering his face on the kingdom’s monuments. Set in the middle of the ancient capital of Thebes, Luxor Temple has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship since its construction in the 13th century BC. It was originally built to honour the pharaohs and gods idolised by the ancients, but if you look closely enough, you’ll find evidence of more modern religions.
Embedded in the structure of the temple itself are the foundations of the Mosque of Abu Al Haggag, which was constructed in medieval times. Luxor Temple was nearly entombed under centuries of debris and rubble, which had formed a new artificial ground level that locals started building on, meaning that the original front door of the mosque is now precariously perched midway up a wall.
Perhaps the mosque isn’t much of a secret, especially if you happen to visit during the midday azan (call to prayer), which will rattle your eardrums if you’re standing right below the minarets. But tucked further away in the complex are faded paintings from the early Christian era, delicately plastered over the hieroglyphics. The muted faces gaze curiously towards the original decorations of a seated Egyptian god surrounded by a ring of etched cobras and cartouches.
Valley of the Kings
In ancient times, the west bank of the Nile, where the setting sun throws its last rays over the golden sands of the desert, was seen as the home of the dead, while the east bank, the first to greet the morning light, was the home of the living. The hills west of Luxor hide Egypt’s largest pharaonic necropolis, the Valley of the Kings. From the outside, the tombs look like plain, simple entryways carved into the rock, but step inside to see the best examples of art still surviving from the ancient world.
More than 60 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, but only a rotating section of about 15 are open to the public at any given time. Long since stripped of their sarcophagi and heaps of afterlife treasures – taken to decorate locals’ homes and populate far-flung Western museums – some tombs in the Valley of the Kings can be disappointing. But the recently renovated Tomb of Seti I, closed since 1991 but finally reopened at the end of 2016, is immaculate and might be the highlight of your trip to Egypt.
Hardly visited because of its slightly eye-watering entrance fee (LE1000, about £40), Seti I’s tomb feels like a secret in plain sight, and it’s worth the splurge: this is one of Egypt’s greatest not-talked-about wonders, even though it’s full of superlatives. This tomb is the longest, deepest and most complete of any in the Valley of the Kings, and its art set the precedent for every subsequent tomb constructed here. The first to have paintings cover every passageway, Seti I's 137m-long tomb is a monument to a golden age of art in ancient Egypt. Stars dot the ceiling, painted as black as the night sky. Vivid scenes of Seti I with the gods and passages from the Book of the Dead and other ancient funerary texts are splashed across every wall and across the domed ceiling (the first of its kind) in the burial chamber. The colour has been wonderfully restored, and it looks like the artists could have just finished up yesterday.
Temple of Edfu
Dedicated to the sun god Horus, the Temple of Edfu is one of the best preserved in Egypt and one of the few with its roof still in place, making it much easier to feel what atmosphere of the inner sanctuaries must have been like thousands of years ago, as you gradually venture from bright desert sun into cool and still darkness. Its late construction, which started only 2700 years ago, has likely contributed to its preservation, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t been modified since.
Hidden amongst the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the back enclosing wall is a curious carving. Chopped away from the original stone is a surprising symbol of a fish, a Christian badge that gives a small hint of the later uses of this temple and how its congregants started to worship a new ‘sun god’, Jesus Christ. Look up as you’re walking through Edfu’s inner rooms to see the sooty black residue left from fire burned here after Christianity was adopted and pagan temples like this were ordered to be closed.
Standing proudly on a bend in the Nile, the temple of Kom Ombo, Egypt’s only double temple, was dedicated to two gods: the crocodile god Sobek and falcon-headed Horus. Nile crocodiles would freely roam the temple grounds and were mummified when they died. More than 300 croc mummies have been unearthed around the premises and are now on display at the Crocodile Museum near the temple’s exit.
Along with his other divine duties, the ancients believed that Horus was a doctor, and they would flock to Kom Ombo to be healed. Hieroglyphics on the back wall of the temple are thought to be the first depictions of medical tools ever recorded. About 40 medical instruments are carved here, from forceps and scalpels to knives and a vase with ever-burning incense.
At ancient Egypt’s southern frontier, the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae was one of the last pagan temples to operate after the arrival of Christianity. The rising seasonal waters of the Nile would partially submerge the temple, and the flooded remains were a favourite of Victorian explorers who would row their boats amongst the columns and kiosks. Dam construction projects in the 20th century threatened to drown the temple entirely, so after Unesco intervention, it was moved block by block to higher ground on a nearby island.
This temple is thought to be where the last hieroglyphic was inscribed, carved in AD 394, before Christianity became more widespread. Many reliefs of the ancient Egyptian gods at this temple are defaced, and Christian symbols have been carved out of some, including a number of Coptic crosses and an altar.
Chipped into the side of a mountain, the mighty temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel looks intimidating. Four 20m-high stern-faced statues of the most recognisable pharaoh guard the entrance. The ever-shifting Sahara sands had covered the structure up to the statues’ shoulders when Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt accidentally stumbled across it in 1813, fresh from rediscovering Petra for the West a year earlier.
Like the temple at Philae, the temples of Abu Simbel, imperilled by rising river waters from construction of dams on the Nile, were moved to higher ground in 1968. The original temple was orientated so that each year on 21 February and 21 October, Ramses’ birthday and coronation day, light from the sunrise illuminated part of the darkest of the chambers, where statues of three gods and another carving of Ramses II sit. However, since the temple’s relocation, the illumination now happens on the 22nd.
Getting a guide
It’s worth hiring a guide for your explorations, as there is almost no signage at any of these tombs or temples. While these wonders are magnificent enough to walk through, the best (and perhaps only) way to understand the stories behind the symbols is to hire a guide who specialises in Egyptology to translate for you. Guides are not permitted inside the tombs at the Valley of the Kings, but they can explain with pictures outside before you enter.
The best way to see these temples and tombs is on a Nile cruise. Boats ply the river between Luxor and Aswan and will call at these stops en route over the course of a few days’ sailing.
Lauren Keith travelled to Egypt with support from Exodus Travels. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.