LUXOR, Egypt – Known in its heyday as Thebes, today the city of Luxor stands as a trial of endurance in the cacophony of modern-day Egypt.
Walking along the east bank of the Nile, in the paradoxical city of Luxor you get a New-World-meets-Old-World feeling. Horse-driven carts plod along the road next to motorized tuk-tuks piled high with just about everything except the kitchen sink.
Much more striking is the manner in which 4,000-year-old monuments stand side-by-side next to shantytown-styled structures with colorful carpets hanging from the windows.
And let’s not forget the constant bombardment of sounds that surrounds you at every moment, whether the emanate from the honking of horns, the Islamic call to prayer or the chant of every taxi or felucca owner pleading for your business.
Despite all this eclectic mix, there is a singular charm to Luxor that simply cannot be found elsewhere in the world. Luxor is peppered with the historic sites of Luxor Temple and Karnak, and is just a hop, skip and jump away from the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile River, the sacred site of Hatshepsut Temple and the Colossal of Memnon.
Start your Luxor adventure by taking an early morning flight from Cairo to Luxor. Egypt Air offers an average of seven flights to Luxor every morning, all departing Cairo by 11 am. It’s a short one-hour flight.
After the necessary stopover at the hotel of your choice to drop off your luggage, head straight to the Luxor Museum.
Keep in mind that outside every hotel and tourist area you will usually be badgered by local merchants who promise to take you to “x” or “y” site and back for a certain minimal fare. Having fallen into this trap with some of my fellow travelers, I recommend you instead ask your hotel concierge to arrange transportation for a fixed fee for all passengers traveling in your party.
The Luxor Museum does not house a very large collection of Egyptian antiquities (you can see it all in about 45 minutes), but in comparison to the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, it offers the opportunity to appreciate some of the best preserved pieces of ancient Thebes with detailed explanations in both English and Arabic. As an added bonus, it is usually not very full, so you can appreciate the works without getting claustrophobic.
The most extraordinary pieces on display are 26 statues excavated in 1989 from below the solar court of Amenhotep III. While one of these statues represents Amenhotep III, with a body in red quartzite that would make even Michelangelo admire the detailing in the pectoral muscles, the majority of the statues represent gods and goddesses. The seated statue of Hathor, sculpted in grey granite, depicts the deity with the hint of a smile on her face.
After touring the Luxor Museum, head back to your hotel for a quick lunch and then go to Luxor Temple. Try to arrive about an hour and a half before twilight, as this will give you plenty of time to see the main façade of the temple in daylight while also letting you see the pillars transformed by the light of the setting sun.
Luxor Temple, also known as the Southern Sanctuary, was founded around 1392 B.C. (historians differ on the dates by a range of about 30 years) by Amenhotep III, who initiated the construction, although it was not completed until the reign of Tutankhamen. The massive structure was later added to by subsequent kings and queens, including Ramses II and even Alexander the Great.
Unlike most temples in Thebes and in greater Egypt, Luxor Temple was not constructed for the worship of gods and deities. Its purpose was to symbolize the rejuvenation of kingship, and it may have served as a coronation site for many of the pharaohs and kings of the period. But history lessons aside, I was awed by Luxor Temple. I don’t think I have ever walked through anything grander or more breathtaking in my life.
The actual entrance to Luxor is certainly majestic, but it does not come close to even hinting at the treasures that lay within. Upon arrival, you are greeted by an 80-foot-high granite obelisk and a 24-meter-high pylon, both commissioned by Ramses II. The hieroglyphics on the obelisk are somewhat worn near the base, but you can still make out the images of four baboons at the pedestal. The pylon itself depicts Ramses II at the battle of Kadesh, with the right side of the pylon showing the king and his advisors, and the left side showing the Ramses victoriously driving his chariot over his enemies.
Proceeding through the pylon gateway is a courtyard surrounded by 74 columns and colossi. If you look upwards and behind, you will notice a mosque door opening to nowhere that once belonged to the Mosque of al-Hajjaj. The door is a stark reminder that for many centuries the ancient Temple of Luxor was buried under sand and time, and that this allowed for part of the modern city of Luxor to actually be built on the ruins, making for a tedious excavation process between 1884 and 1960.
The courtyard is daunting and it is highly recommendable to hire a guide to explain some of the columns, particularly those on the right side, which have carvings of the blueprints for Luxor Temple’s construction. Be sure to stop at the base of the two seated statues of Ramses II, where the pedestals depict African and Asian kings being brought as slaves to Egypt in a processional march with their hands and necks bound.
Moving onward, you will pass the Colonnade of Amenhotep III, a hall or passageway constituted by 14 columns, each 16 meters high. This area was built primarily as a processional pathway for the sacred boats of the Theban kings that were hand-carried from Karnak twice a year.
Next, you will reach a second and larger courtyard, commissioned by Amenhotep III, which opens on to a Hypostyle Hall. And it is here that some of the earliest graffiti in history can be witnessed. You may be jolted by scenes of the Last Supper and other Christian images intermingled with the ancient pharaonic hieroglyphics and cartouches.
The portrait of the Last Supper was painted over the hieroglyphics in the Hypostyle Hall during the fourth century A.D., when this area was used by the Roman military and strategists as a headquarters, as well as a place of worship for the Christian faith.
Despite the obvious incongruence of the Christian theme in this ancient setting, the painting seems perfectly in place when you continue your tour toward the rear of Luxor Temple and see the chapel and sanctuary that Alexander the Great commissioned between 332 B.C. and 305 B.C.
By the time you finish your tour of Luxor Temple and start heading toward the exit, the sun should be setting and the temple’s electric lighting starts to be turned on. The luminosity makes it a little hard to take photographs, but you can still admire the statues and columns with this enhanced lighting.
On the way back to your hotel, stop for ice cream at Wenkie’s German Ice Cream & Iced Coffee Parlor. When our guide first suggested ice cream, everyone in our group was game. After all, who doesn’t like ice cream? However, no one was really expecting to be wowed by ice cream in Egypt. But this ice cream is extraordinary. Hand-crafted by a German couple who studied gelato-production in Italy, it is made from organic buffalo milk and is a true culinary delight. Be sure to order a scoop of chocolate-cardamom-chili ice cream and the fresh mandarin sherbet. It’s a delicious way to end your day in Luxor, the world’s greatest open-air museum, the city of palaces and kings, an ancient metropolis that will live on forever as a tribute to both ancient and modern Egypt.