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.