Luxor: a quick history
Luxor was a city at the heart of Egypt's long and illustrious history; a hub of art, religious thinking and political power that stood as the country's capital in different eras and whose bold, native kings would rescue Egypt from civil war and occupation at least once. Egypt was unified into a single kingdom around 3100BC and ruled from Memphis near modern-day Cairo. Around 2200BC, Memphis began to dwindle in power with local chiefs emerging in different parts of Egypt, who frequently came into conflict. In 2050BC, after more than a century of civil war, a family from Luxor fighting under Montuhotep II subdued Egypt's warring regions, uniting it into a single kingdom once again. Montuhotep II became the country's new Pharaoh and made Luxor or Thebes as it was then known his capital. His successors would move it elsewhere again within a century, but Thebes had become an established city by then and Theban culture would continue to have a strong influence across Egypt. In the next centuries, settlers from Asia - whom Egyptians called the 'Hyksos' - conquered large parts of northern and southern Egypt, proclaiming themselves the new Pharaohs. Nevertheless, Theban rulers refused to submit, regarding themselves as Egypt's rightful monarchs and mounting the only effective native resistance to the occupation. Egypt was liberated from Hyksos rule and united into a single kingdom again by the Theban King Ahmose in 1550BC. Thebes became the capital for a second time and under its ruling family - the eighteenth family or 'dynasty' to rule - Egypt entered perhaps the greatest of golden ages in its history. Thebes grew into one of the crown jewels of the ancient world and became the grand seat of power from which its Pharaohs would rule over an ever-expanding empire with a great influence across the ancient world.
QUICK TRAVEL TIPS
Luxor is dotted with archaeological sites & museums & 2-3 days are needed to see the best of it. Its sites are widely spaced, especially on the West Bank, so hiring a taxi or renting a bicycle are the best options for getting around. Most archaeological sites open 6am-5pm & get busy with tour groups from 9am-2pm, so visiting early or later will help avoid crowds & queues. Luxor Museum & the Mummification Museum keep different hours, with both opening 9am-1pm & 5pm-8pm. Tickets can be purchased on-site at Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, the Temple of Hatshepshut, the Valley of the Kings & Luxor's museums. Tickets for more minor sites on the West Bank such as Deir el Medina, the Ramesseum & Tombs of the Nobles must be bought from a small ticket office near Medinet Habu. Ticket offices for all archaeological sites close at 4pm. The cost of tickets adds up & one potential money-saving option is to buy a so-called 'Luxor Pass' for USD100. This gives access to every archaeological site on both banks for 5 days. If you will be visiting a lot of sites it will work out a little cheaper & it avoids the hassle of queuing for tickets multiple times. A premium pass costs USD200, giving additional access to spectacular pay-to-enter tombs in the Valley of the Kings & Queens - including Seti I, Tutankhamun & Queen Nefertari - & is also cheaper than buying individual tickets for these tombs. If you only intend to visit Luxor once in a lifetime, these tombs are the best of the best & well worth the ticket price, especially those of Seti I & Nefertari. Luxor passes are sold at Karnak & Luxor Temples & you will need two copies of your passport ID page, two passport photos, with payment only accepted in USD or EUROS.
Luxor's East Bank is home to Karnak & Luxor Temples, along with two museums. The Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens & almost everything else are on the West Bank. On the West Bank, sites are several kilometres apart & getting around is best done by renting a bicycle or hiring a taxi. Taxis take 45-60 mins between the East & West Banks, crossing the Nile via a circuitous route to the south. It is quicker & cheaper to take a small boat over the Nile, with taxis easy to find either side on arrival. Hiring a taxi for a full day & going between archaeological sites on both banks will cost EGP1000-1500. Bicycles can be hired for EGP200-300/ day from shops on the main road running inland from the West Bank harbour. Archaeological sites on the East Bank are closer & it is possible to walk a 3km ancient walkway between Karnak & Luxor Temples. Taxis will cost EGP150-200.
Karnak is sprawling cluster of religious buildings that once constituted one of the biggest, most important spiritual centres in the world. It stands on ground the Thebans associated with Amun - a local deity who came to gather wide popularity as Thebes rose in power - with the first construction starting after Montuhotep II ended Egypt's civil war, unifying it into one kingdom in 2050BC. Senwosret I, a warrior Pharaoh who launched military expeditions to Nubia, built the original temple to Amun at Karnak around 1970BC, with his successors adding other elements in their reigns. After King Ahmose had liberated Egypt from the Hyksos in 1550BC, much of the early construction at Karnak was swept away, with new Pharaohs rebuilding existing parts of it and adding new ones in line with their own visions. The most impressive part of Karnak is a hall of 134 pillars, which centre on the original temple; the pillars stand up to 22m tall and were mostly built by Pharaohs Seti I and Ramesses II. Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis III, Queen Hatshepsut and other famous Pharaohs later added obelisks at the far end of this hall. Karnak grew haphazardly in this fashion for over 2000 years, incorporating new temples, courtyards, colonnades and gateways - all of which had inscriptions and carvings added over time - along with newly dug sacred lakes and roads linking it to satellite precincts like Luxor Temple. Egypt's last native Pharaohs, the Ptolemaic successors to Alexander the Great and early Christians continued to add their marks to Karnak, making into the place it stands as today.
Luxor Temple stands in the bustling downtown heart of modern Luxor and is the town's most prominent monument. Queen Hatshepsut built a shrine here around 1470BC but it was with Pharaoh Amenhotep III - who came to power in 1390BC and ruled over a great age of prosperity with his beloved wife Queen Tiy - that the first major construction began. Luxor Temple grew in honour of the god Amun and was created as his private residence to the south of Karnak. Every year statues of Amun, his goddess-wife Mut and their divine son Khons were carried in a procession between the temples at Karnak and Luxor as part of a festival known as the Opet. After 24 days at Luxor Temple, the statues would be returned to Karnak. Whilst the route of this procession varied in later times it aligned with a walkway flanked by over 1000 ram-headed statues that was recently restored and which can now be walked again. Amenhotep III's grandson Tutankhamun added to Luxor Temple along with Ramesses II, who built a grand new gateway fronted by obelisks and statues. Roman frescoes made under the Emperor Diocletian - whose violent persecutions drove early Christians to seek refuge in the nearby deserts - are plastered over hieroglyphics in rooms at the southern end of the temple. The remains of churches built around the temple can be found too. A mosque also stands in the ruins of Luxor Temple today dedicated to Abu Haggag; a holy man who died in Luxor and whose moulid is still celebrated in the town.
Valley of the Kings
Wadi el Mulook or the Valley of the Kings winds through the desert tablelands of Luxor's West Bank and is home to the rock-hewn tombs of some of history's greatest Pharaohs. The custom of burying Pharaohs here did not arise until King Ahmose had made Thebes the capital in 1550BC. Egypt's first Pharaohs were buried at simple tombs at a royal cemetery in Abydos, 150km downriver from Luxor. A few centuries later from around 2630BC, they were buried in pyramids near modern day Cairo. Whilst the tombs of the Pharaohs were once designed to be visibly remarkable, those in the Valley of the Kings were hidden underground, designed never to be seen. The tombs were tunnelled deep into the mountainsides - sometimes with traps to stop tomb raiders - and were stocked with furniture, clothes, jewellery, mummified pets, food, drink and other items the Pharaoh might need in the afterlife. Many tombs were decorated with beautiful artworks showing animals and scenes of the Pharaoh in the presence of deities, along with magical texts that would help the Pharaoh navigate the next world. There are more than 60 known tombs in the Valley of the Kings today, but only 11 are open to the public. On any single visit, only three of these 11 tombs can be seen and some - including those of Seti I, Tutankhamun and Ramesses V and VI - require an extra entry fee. Each one of these pay-more-to-access tombs is spectacular. Of the 11 standard tombs that can be entered, those of Ramesses III, IV and IX, Tausert, Seknakht and Merenptaph are stand-outs.
Valley of the Queens
A few kilometres south of the Valley of the Kings is the Valley of the Queens, where Egypt's Queens and royal children were buried. More than 90 tombs have been identified here so far and whilst few have the same resplendence as their counterparts in the Valley of the Kings, that of Queen Nefertari - the beloved wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II who died around 1256BC - is an exception. Colourful images of gods, goddesses and hieroglyphics cover the walls and the ceiling is adorned with starry night skies. An additional entry fee must be paid for Queen Nefertari's tomb, but others - of which the tombs of Prince Amen and Queen Tyti are both impressive - can be accessed on a standard ticket.
Temple of Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut was the daughter of the great warrior Pharaoh Tuthmosis I, whose military campaigns around 1500BC extended the borders of Egypt's empire further than any Pharaoh before him. Hatshepsut became the wife of her half brother Tuthmosis II, who died after a short reign with Tuthmosis III - his son and heir by a minor wife - still too young to become Pharaoh. Queen Hatshepsut governed Egypt in this interim period and was one of its few female rulers. She had a remarkable reign, consolidating Egypt's foreign empire, launching exploratory expeditions to faraway lands and building monuments across Thebes. One of these was a mortuary temple where her reign could be commemorated and her spirit cared for after death. Built next to the older mortuary temple of Montuhotep II - the first Theban king to unify Egypt in 2050BC - Hatshepsut's temple stands on three separate terraces, each connected by a rising ramp. The temple walls were decorated with images depicting her close relationship with the gods and key events of her queenship and the holiest of its sanctuaries was a room in which the statue of the god Amun - which normally resided at Karnak - could be housed during the annual festivals when it crossed from the East to the West Bank. On Hatshepsut's death many images were defaced at her temple and she was not buried next to her father Tuthmosis I, as she had requested. Most believe Tuthmosis III was responsible, harbouring ill will towards her for barring his kingship.
The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon are two gigantic statues created as monumental gatekeepers to Pharaoh Amenhotep III's mortuary temple, whose ruins stand crumbling behind. Each stands 18m high, weighs 720 tons and was carved from a single block of sandstone dragged here overland, being too heavy to be shipped on the Nile. Memnon was an African king who it is said fought with the Trojans against the Greeks and his association with the Colossi comes from a legend this king was in fact Amenhotep III. One of the Colossi is reputed to have started making noises as if speaking after damage by an earthquake long ago. Many visitors came to listen, some of whose names can be seen inscribed on its base today.
Other mortuary temples
Luxor is home to several mortuary temples. Whilst tombs held the caskets of the deceased Pharaohs mortuary temples commemorated their reigns and presented shrines where their spirit or ka - which was believed to remain alive as a force on earth, requiring food, drink and other provisions - could be tended by priests. Queen Hatshepsut built hers near that of Montuhotep II, one of her greatest predecessors. Pharaoh Amenhotep III - who constructed the first parts of Luxor Temple - built a huge mortuary temple too, guarded by the twin statues of the Colossi of Memnon. Nearby is the mortuary temple of Ramesses II, known as the Ramesseum. The most spectacular and best-preserved mortuary temple in Luxor is Medinet Habu, built around 1150BC by Pharaoh Ramesses III; famous for his heroic defence of Egypt against foreign forces from Libya and a group known as the 'Sea Peoples'. Medinet Habu has huge gateways, open courtyards, colonnades of gigantic pillars, colossal statues and high, fortified walls; all carved with hieroglyphics, religious imagery and scenes showing the extraordinary violence of Egypt's battles and the rounding up and torture of prisoners of war, some of whom are seen begging for mercy. Medinet Habu was used as a fortified place of refuge by surrounding communities in later centuries and a succession of rulers upto the Romans added their own new elements to the temple. After the early Roman period, a bustling Christian town known as Djeme grew within and around Medinet Habu.
Other things to see
Deir el Medina is where workers who created tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens lived with their families. A village of less than 100 closely-packed houses with one main street and a perimeter wall, it was founded by Pharaoh Amenhotep I around 1514BC and occupied for over 400 years. The village can be explored and the tombs of its workers visited too. Amongst them are the tombs of artists who decorated the tombs of the Pharaohs, some of whom left artworks of extraordinary beauty in their own tombs too. One stand-out is the tomb of Sennedjem, whose colourful underground burial chambers are topped with a small mud-brick pyramid. Near to Deir el Medina is a site known as the Tombs of the Nobles; a collection of over 400 burial chambers cut all over the hillsides for high ranking civil servants, priests, military officers and other officials. These tombs show scenes from the lives of their owners, sometimes depicting their final burials and greetings by gods in the afterlife. A vivid, varied and illuminating snapshot of a more normal, everyday kind of life in ancient Egypt is given by these tombs, which makes them all the more interesting. Howard Carter was a British Egyptologist who had a leading role in locating Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 and his old house - with his old fan, gas lamp, dark room, typewriter and desk - can be visited near the Valley of the Kings. A convent in the Coptic tradition called the Monastery of St Tawdros stands about a kilometre west of Medinet Habu on the edge of the desert, which is open to visitors too.