Luxor sights are spread on the east and west banks of the Nile. Start on the east bank, where visitors will find most of the hotels, the modern city of Luxor and the temple complexes of Luxor and Karnak. The west bank, traditionally the ‘side of the dead’, is where the mortuary temples and necropolis are located.
Don't Miss: The Best Tombs
Although the practice of preserving dead bodies can be found in cultures across the world, the Egyptians were the ultimate practitioners of this highly complex procedure that they refined over a period of almost 4000 years. Their preservation of the dead can be traced back to the very earliest times, when bodies were simply buried in the desert away from the limited areas of cultivation. In direct contact with the sand that covered them, the hot, dry conditions allowed the body fluids to drain away while preserving the skin, hair and nails intact. Accidentally uncovering such bodies must have had a profound effect upon those who were able to recognise people who had died years earlier.
So began a long process of experimentation to preserve the bodies without burying them in the sand. It wasn’t until around 2600 BC that internal organs, which is where putrefaction actually begins, began to be removed. As the process became increasingly elaborate, all the organs were removed except the kidneys, which were hard to reach, and the heart. The latter, which was considered the source of intelligence rather than the brain, was left in place, often with a heart amulet inscribed with an invocation from the Book of the Dead. The brain was removed by inserting a metal probe up the nose and whisking to reduce the organ to a liquid that could be easily drained away. All the rest – lungs, liver, stomach, intestines – were removed through an opening cut in the left flank. Then the body and its separate organs were covered with piles of natron salt and left to dry out for 40 days, after which they were washed, purified and anointed with a range of oils, spices and resins. All were then wrapped in layers of linen, with the appropriate amulets set in place over the various parts of the body as priests recited the incantations needed to activate the protective functions of the amulets.
With each internal organ placed inside its own Canopic jar, the wrapped body complete with its funerary mask was placed inside its coffin. It was then ready for the funeral procession to the tomb, where the vital Opening of the Mouth ceremony reanimated the soul and restored its senses; offerings were given, while wishing the dead ‘a thousand of every good and pure thing for your soul and all kinds of offerings on which the gods live’.
Temples of Karnak
More than a temple, Karnak is an extraordinary complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks dedicated to the Theban gods and the greater glory of pharaohs. Everything is on a gigantic scale: the site covers more than 2 sq km, large enough to contain about 10 cathedrals, while its main structure, the Temple of Amun, is one of the world’s largest religious complexes. This was where the god lived on earth, surrounded by the houses of his wife Mut and their son Khonsu, two other huge temple complexes on this site. Built, added to, dismantled, restored, enlarged and decorated over nearly 1500 years, Karnak was the most important place of worship in Egypt during the New Kingdom, when it was called Ipet-Sut, meaning ‘The Most Esteemed of Places'.
The most important place of worship was the massive Amun Temple Enclosure (Precinct of Amun), dominated by the great Temple of Amun-Ra, with its famous hypostyle hall, a spectacular forest of giant papyrus-shaped columns. On its southern side is the Mut Temple Enclosure, once linked to the main temple by an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. To the north is the Montu Temple Enclosure, which honoured the local Theban war god. The 3km paved avenue of human-headed sphinxes that once linked the great Temple of Amun at Karnak with Luxor Temple is now again being excavated. Most of what you can see was built by the powerful pharaohs of the 18th to 20th dynasties (1570–1090 BC), who spent fortunes on making their mark in this most sacred of places. Later pharaohs extended and rebuilt the complex, as did the Ptolemies and early Christians. The further into the complex you venture, the older the structures.
Wandering through this gigantic complex is one of the highlights of any visit to Egypt. The light is most beautiful in the early morning or later afternoon, and the temple is quieter then, as later in the morning the tour groups as well as day trippers from Hurghada arrive. If you have time, try to visit more than once, to make sense of the overwhelming jumble of ancient remains.
The west bank is a world away from the noise and bustle of Luxor town on the east bank. Taking a taxi across the bridge, 6km south of the centre, or crossing on the old ferry, you are immediately in lush countryside, with bright-green sugarcane fields along irrigation canals and clusters of colourful houses, all against the background of the desert and the Theban hills. Coming towards the end of the cultivated land, you start to notice huge sandstone blocks lying in the middle of fields, gaping black holes in the rocks and giant sandstone forms on the edge of the cultivation below. Magnificent memorial temples were built on the flood plains here, where the pharaoh’s cult could be perpetuated by the devotions of his priests and subjects, while his body and worldly wealth, and the bodies of his wives and children, were laid in splendidly decorated tombs hidden in the hills.
From the New Kingdom onwards, the necropolis also supported a large living population of artisans, labourers, temple priests and guards, who devoted their lives to the construction and maintenance of this city of the dead, and who protected the tombs full of treasure from eager robbers. The artisans perfected the techniques of tomb building, decoration and concealment, and passed the secrets down through their families. They all built their own tombs here.
Until a generation ago, villagers used tombs to shelter from the extremes of the desert climate and, until recently, many lived in houses built over the Tombs of the Nobles. These beautifully painted houses were a picturesque sight to anyone visiting the west bank. However, over the past 100 years or so the Supreme Council of Antiquities has been trying to relocate the inhabitants of Al Gurna. In 2007, their houses were demolished, and the families were moved to a huge new village of small breeze-block houses 8km north of the Valley of the Kings. A few houses have been left standing, although it has not been decided what use they should be put to.
Practical Tip: Tackling the West Bank
Take more than a day to visit the west bank, if you can. Plan your day in advance as tickets for most sights must be bought from the central ticket office, and are only valid for that day. Early morning visits are ideal, but that is unfortunately when most tour groups visit the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut or the Valley of the Kings. So try to leave these two to the afternoon to avoid the crowds and visit other sights such as the Tombs of the Nobles or the Ramesseum in the morning.
The Antiquities Inspectorate ticket office, beyond the Colossi of Memnon, sells tickets to most sites except for the Temple at Deir Al Bahri, the Assasif Tombs (available at Deir Al Bahri ticket office), the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Check here first to see which tickets are available, and which tombs are open. All sites are officially open from 6am to 5pm.
Photography is not permitted in any tombs, and guards may confiscate film or memory cards. Alternatively, they might see you using a camera or phone as an opportunity to extract some extra cash.
Tickets are valid only for the day of purchase, and no refunds are given.
Practical Tip: What to Bring
When visiting the west bank sights, bring plenty of water (it is available at some sights, but you should overestimate the amount you will need). A sun hat, sunglasses and sun protector are also essential. Small change for baksheesh is much needed, as guardians rely on tips to augment their pathetic salaries; LE10 or LE20 for each should be enough for them to either leave you in peace, or to open a door or reflect light on a particularly beautiful painting. A torch (flashlight) can come in handy.
The Greatest Find Since Tutankhamun
In 1995 American archaeologist Dr Kent Weeks discovered the largest tomb in Egypt, believed to be the burial place of the many sons of Ramses II. It was immediately hailed as the greatest find since that of Tutankhamun, or as one London newspaper put it: ‘The Mummy of all Tombs’.
In 1987 Weeks had located the entrance to tomb KV 5, which James Burton Carter had uncovered in the 1820s but had thought was a small tomb as it was filled with silt and sand. The entrance to the tomb was then lost beneath debris from other excavations. When Weeks and his team cleared the entrance chambers, they found pottery, fragments of sarcophagi and wall decorations, which led the professor to believe it was the tomb of the Sons of Ramses II.
Then, in 1995, Weeks unearthed a doorway leading to an incredible 121 chambers and corridors, making the tomb many times larger and more complex than any other found in Egypt. One chamber has 16 pillars, more than any other in the Valley of the Kings. Clearing the debris from this unique and enormous tomb has been a painstaking and dangerous task. Not only does every bucketful have to be sifted for fragments of pottery, bone and reliefs, but major engineering work had to be done to shore up the structure of the 440m-long tomb. Progress is slow, but Weeks speculates that it has as many as 150 chambers. The excavation can be followed on the excellent website www.thebanmappingproject.com.
The Future of Tourism?
In April 2014, British artist Adam Lowe and his Factum Arte team (www.factum-arte.com) completed work on an exact replica of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. The chamber, dug into the sand beside Howard Carter’s house, is an experiment. When ancient Egyptians were buried, they built their tombs for eternity, but did not imagine that thousands of people would walk through them each day. The heat and moisture generated by visitors pose a real threat to tomb decorations and some have now been closed indefinitely. Lowe’s team used state-of-the-art scanners and printers, studied paint pigments and measured the the rise and fall of the plaster to recreate each bump and every irregularity of the original. But Lowe went further, wanting to recreate the same experience of seeing the tomb, even the same soundscape. The point behind all this effort is to suggest a way forward towards a more sustainable tourism, where other at-risk tombs would be replicated and the originals closed. The Stoppelaëre House, on the hill immediately above Carter's, has now been turned into the 3D Scanning, Archiving and Training Centre, where Egyptian conservators will be trained to scan tombs as part of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative.
The Return of the Mummy
In 1881 Egypt’s antiquities authority made the greatest mummy find in history: the mummies of 40 pharaohs, queens and nobles, just south of Deir Al Bahri in tomb No 320. It seems that 21st-dynasty priests had them moved as a protection against tomb robbers to this communal grave, after 934 BC. The mummies included those of Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis I, II and III, Seti I and Ramses II and III, many of which are now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Their removal from the tomb and procession down to the Nile, from where they were taken by barge to Cairo, was accompanied by the eerie sound of black-clad village women ululating to give a royal send-off to the remains. The episode makes for one of the most stunning scenes in Shadi Abdel Salam’s 1969 epic Al Mummia (The Mummy), one of the most beautiful films made in Egypt.
However, the cache had already been found a decade earlier by the Abdel Rassoul family from Gurna, who had been quietly selling some of the contents. Mummies, coffins, sumptuous jewellery and other artefacts made their way to Europe and North America. One of the mummies ended up in a small museum in Niagara Falls, Canada, until the late 1990s, when the crossed arms and excellent state of the body were recognised by an Egyptologist as signs of possible royalty. When the museum closed in 1999, the mummy was acquired by the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory, Atlanta. CT scans, X-rays, radiocarbon dating and computer imaging attempted to identify the mummy, and although they could only suggest that it was from later than the Ramesside period, an uncanny resemblance to the mummified faces of Seti I and Ramses II was seized upon by some Egyptologists as proof that this was the missing mummy of Ramses I. As a gesture of good will, the museum returned the mummy to Egypt in 2003, and it is now in the Luxor Museum.
Pharaoh appears to have been an exclusively male role and in early Egyptian history there was no word for a queen regent, but records show that there were female pharaohs. From early dynastic times it seemed common practice that on the death of the pharaoh, if his heir was too young to rule or there was no heir, his wife, who might also be his stepsister or sister, would be appointed regent. It’s not clear if this role was limited to a regency, or if they were created pharaoh, but what is sure is that they were often buried with all the honours associated with a pharaoh.
The first queen to have ruled independently is thought to have been Merneith, wife of the 1st-dynasty Pharaoh Djer (c 3000 BC), and mother of Den who ruled after her. Her name was found on a clay seal impression with all the names of the early kings, and she was buried with full royal honours at Abydos. Almost every dynasty had a woman who ruled for a short while under the title of ‘King’s Mother’. The 12th-dynasty Sobeknofru, daughter of Amenemhat III and wife and half-sister of Amenemhat IV, is thought to have ruled Egypt from 1799 to 1795 BC, and her titles included Female Horus, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and Daughter of Ra.
Hatshepsut is one of the most famous of Egypt’s female pharaohs. When her husband and half-brother Tuthmosis II died in 1479 BC, Hatshepsut became regent with her stepson Tuthmosis III. Later, with the support of the Amun priesthood, she declared herself pharaoh, and her rule (1473–1458 BC) marked a period of peace and internal growth for Egypt. Sometimes she is shown in the regalia of the male pharaoh, including the false beard, while at other times she is clearly female. When Tuthmosis III finally took control in 1458 BC, he ordered all reference to her be wiped from Egyptian history. Her mummy has never been found, and her name and images were almost all erased.
Nefertiti, wife of the rebel pharaoh Akhenaten, was clearly involved in her husband’s policies and is often depicted wearing kingly regalia. Some believe that she was in fact the mysterious Smenkhkare, known to have ruled for a few years after Akhenaten’s death in 1336 BC. After Seti II died, his wife Tawosret became co-regent with her stepson Siptah, and later proclaimed herself pharaoh (1188–1186 BC): she was buried in the Valley of the Kings.
About 1000 years later, Cleopatra VII came to the throne at the age of 17, in 51 BC. It’s thought that she first ruled jointly with her father Ptolemy XII and, after his death, with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII. To keep Egypt independent, she allied herself with the Roman Julius Caesar, whom she married and whose son she bore. After Caesar’s death, she famously married another powerful Roman, Marc Antony, and fell with him to the might of Augustus Caesar.
Tombs were initially created to differentiate the burials of the elite from the people whose bodies were placed directly into the desert. By about 3100 BC the mound of sand heaped over these elite graves was replaced by a more permanent structure that looked like a mud-brick house and whose characteristic bench shape is known as a ‘mastaba’ after the Arabic word for bench.
As stone replaced mud-brick, the addition of further levels to increase height gave birth to the pyramid, whose first incarnation at Saqqara is also the world’s oldest monumental structure. Its stepped sides soon evolved into the more familiar smooth-sided structure, of which the Pyramids of Giza are the most famous examples.
It was only when the power of the monarchy broke down at the end of the Old Kingdom that the afterlife became increasingly accessible to those outside the royal family, and as officials became increasingly independent they began to opt for burial in their home towns. Yet the narrow stretches of fertile land that make up much of the Nile Valley generally left little room for grand superstructures, so an alternative type of tomb developed, cut tunnel-fashion into the cliffs that border the valley and which also proved more resilient against robbery. Most were built on the west side of the river, the traditional place of burial where the sun was seen to sink down into the underworld each evening.
These simple rock-cut tombs consisting of a single chamber gradually developed into more elaborate structures complete with an open courtyard, offering chapel and entrance facade carved out of the rock with a shaft leading down into an undecorated burial chamber. The most impressive rock-cut tombs were those built for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), who relocated the royal burial ground south to the remote valley now known as the Valley of the Kings. New evidence suggests that the first tomb in the valley may have been built for Amenhotep I (1525–1504 BC; KV 39). The tomb intended for his successor, Tuthmosis I (KV 20), demonstrated a radical departure from tradition: the offering chapel that was once part of the tomb’s layout was built as a separate structure some distance away in an attempt to preserve the tomb’s secret location. The tombs themselves were designed to resemble the underworld, with a long, inclined rock-hewn corridor descending into either an antechamber or a series of sometimes pillared halls, and ending in the burial chamber.
The tomb builders lived in their own village of Deir Al Medina and worked in relays. The duration of the ancient week was 10 days (eight days on, two days off) and the men tended to spend the nights of their working week at a small camp located on the pass leading from Deir Al Medina to the eastern part of the Valley of the Kings. Then they spent their two days off at home with their families.
Royal tombs were planned by architects (one of their groundplans is on display in Luxor Museum). Once the tomb walls were cut, decoration could then be added; this dealt almost exclusively with the afterlife and the pharaoh’s existence in it. The tombs were decorated with texts from the Book of the Dead and with colourful scenes to help guide the pharaoh on his or her journey through the afterlife. The Book of the Dead is the collective modern name for a range of works that deal with the sun god’s nightly journey through the darkness of the underworld, the realm of Osiris and home of the dead. Ancient Egyptians believed that the underworld was traversed each night by Ra, and it was the aim of the dead to secure passage on his sacred barque to travel with him for eternity.
Don’t Miss: Contemporary Luxor
With so many world-class monuments it is easy to lose sight of contemporary Luxor, particularly when time is limited. Take some time to stroll through the Luxor souq. Be sure to venture beyond the tourist bazaar just off Sharia Al Mahatta, where locals shop for fabrics, food and household goods – liveliest in the early evening. There you get a glimpse into a world far away from the temples. On the west bank, Souq At Talaat is a rural-style weekly market, little visited by tourists. It is held on Tuesday mornings in Taref near the also little-visited Temple of Seti I. Instead of taking a taxi across the bridge, head for the local ferry opposite Luxor Temple to go across, and take a taxi, pick-up or bicycle, all available near the west bank ferry landing.
The Great Plan
Ever since mass tourism arrived in Luxor, it has become one of the greatest threats to the city’s, and the country’s, monuments. Dr Zahi Hawass, former head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, has stated that if nothing is done, the monuments will be destroyed in less than 100 years. Before the 2011 revolution, there was a plan to turn Luxor into the largest open-air museum in the world, but at the time of writing most of the work remains stalled because of a lack of government funds. On both banks, huge swathes of houses and entire villages have been demolished to clear the areas around the historical sites. On a positive note, visitor centres are being built at the main sights and the new Luxor documentation centre is archiving data to create replicas of some of the most beautiful but fragile tombs.
Practical Tip: Time Your Visit
At busy periods, coaches bringing daytrippers from the Red Sea arrive in Luxor around 10am. They head directly to either the Valley of the Kings or the Temple of Karnak, so avoid those sights late morning if you don’t like being overrun.
Avenue of Sphinxes
A 3km-long alley of sphinxes connecting Luxor and Karnak is being excavated. Most of the buildings covering the sphinxes have been demolished, including some that were important to the development of 19th- and early-20th-century Luxor. The avenue will eventually be completely revealed, although it remains to be seen how many people will want to walk from Luxor to Karnak temples.