I had already covered Cairo and Alexandria in my previous posts about my trip to Egypt, and sure, they are some great places to start your Egyptian journey because Cairo is, of course, the hub between the country and the outside world. Cairo has the Egyptian Museum, which has an impressive collection from ancient Egypt, which is a great starting point for visitors to understand the Egyptian history and culture and let’s not forget about the Great Pyramid of Giza and Sphinx, they are literally the symbol of Egypt which stands for almost 5,000 years.
Now, we are moving on to Luxor, a historic city that is filled with monuments, temples, palaces; and I am going to explain why you must include Luxor in your Egypt travel plan.
Something about… Luxor
Luxor, or Thebes or Diospolis, was the great capital of Upper Egypt for centuries during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras. It was the most venerated city throughout ancient Egyptian history. So why did it become “Luxor”? This word was actually derived from Arabic, meaning “fortifications” or “palaces”, based on the Roman fort that was built in the city. In fact, the majority of most important ancient Egyptian heritage sites are located here – from the Karnak and Luxor Temples on the East Bank to the royal cemeteries and funerary complexes on the West Bank.
Today, Luxor has a population of over 1 million and also the starting point of the Nile Cruises. Besides, it is a popular travel destination where you can experience quite a few cultural activities. This is one of the best cities in Egypt where you could truly get to know the country’s fascinating past.
So by now, you have learned that Luxor has a special status of the Egyptian past. Do you also know that Luxor is the oldest inhabited city in the world? What remains in Luxor has endured thousands of years of time, and what we can see today is evidence of the lives of people from the oldest civilization in the world. One of the most interesting things to do walking through the monuments and landmarks is trying to decipher the meaning of the drawings on the walls, which are so incredibly well-preserved. That’s why Luxor is often referred to as the “world’s greatest open-air museum”, as the ruins of the temple complexes stand within the modern city.
Compared with Cairos and Alexandria, Luxor is an even better place for you to dive into the ancient Egyptian World because here, you get to truly get close and indulge yourself in these great monuments and understand so much more about the Egyptian culture.
Furthermore, Luxor is a compact city that centers around the Luxor Temple, it is easy to get around (and you know the traffic in Cairo is… just horrendous!) and also very easy to get to all sorts of tourist facilities, hotels, and restaurants. There are also a lot of things to do between your visits to historic sites, making your entire trip so much more fun.
How to get to Luxor
There are a number of options for you to get to Luxor from Cairo, Hurghada, or Aswan; There are five ways to go to Luxor from Cairos: Nile Cruise, plane, night bus, train, or sleeper train. Luxor is about 600 kilometers away from Cairo, which takes approximately 8 hours to drive. That makes self-driving a tough journey as this is not exactly a fairly short distance. Having said that, if you are heading to Luxor from Hurghada, it is possible to self-drive as the city is about 300 kilometers away and the trip takes about 4 hours.
For backpackers, the best alternatives to go to Luxor from Cairo is by night bus or night train instead of taking a plane. Night train and night bus eliminates your travel time (as you will be sleeping in the vehicle, saving hours of sitting in a car and traveling, and also accommodation costs).
Cairo’s Ramses Train Station to Luxor’s Railway Station
8 am to 11 pm on a daily basis (The journey takes about 10 hours, but usually it takes longer)
Special class trains are new train and more comfortable train cars
Spanish class are older trains but cheaper
There are food trolleys selling food for the night train but it would be a good idea to prepare some snacks and picnic meals.
The tickets are sold in two different classes, however, I remember the upgrade because the ticket costs from US$7.5 to US$13, but it has more spacious seats and better bathrooms.
If you take off in the morning, you will get to see the beautiful sceneries along the River Nile.
The sleeper train takes off at 7:45 pm at the Ramses Station and 8:05 pm at the Giza Station in the evening. A two-bed cabin costs about US$80 and it’s best to book the tickets at least a few days in advance. A single cabin costs US$120. The same train has an option of reclining seats which costs about US$42.
While you cannot expect a top-grade sleeper train in Europe or Japan, it’s generally clean and safe for international travelers.
Day 1: Exploring Luxor’s East Bank
Once we arrived at Luxor we already had a big day – as we have to cover a number of locations before checking into our Nile Cruise. Well, as I said, Luxor is a compact city that we could cover all these locations in the East Bank smoothly. First stop: Karnak.
Temple of Amun at Karnak
While tourists may easily associate Luxor with Luxor Temple, Karnak, or the Karnak Temple Complex, is the oldest and largest temple in the area with a mix of temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings that covers an area of 1.5 kilometers by 0.8 kilometers. Karnak was linked to the Luxor Temple by a grand 3-kilometer-long avenue lined with sphinxes – sphinxes have gone, the avenue remained.
The temple was originally built in the period of 2000-1700 BC and was then developed for over 1,000 years into the scale that we see today. For nearly 2,000 years, it is a place of pilgrimage and pharaohs come here to affirm their throne. Back then, the temple was a sacred place that only the privileged could enter and “contact with Gods”. Consider how lucky we were to be able to walk through the sacred enclosure of Amun, among the 134 giant columns that could hold ten European Cathedrals! The entire site is now a World UNESCO Heritage and it’s said to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt after the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The areas (or precinct) of the temple is briefly divided into the following parts: Great Forecourt > Temple of Seti II > Statue of Ramesses II > Temple of Ramesses III > Great Hypostyle Hall > Kiosk of Taharqu > Courtyard of the Third Pylon and Obelisk of Tuthmosis I > Wadjet > Forth Pylon, Fifth Pylon, and Obelisk of Hatshepsut > Sixth Pylon > Sacred Bargue Sanctuary > Middle Kingdom Courtyard > Scared Lake > Botanical Garden > Great Gestival Hall > Eastern Temple > Akh-menou
Pylon, in Egyptian terms, is a large gate at the front of a temple. The walls of the Pylon were always decorated with carved and painted scenes of the pharaoh, gods, goddesses, with the addition of large statues and obelisks. Given the scale and importance of Karnak, it is one of the few sites that has three pylons that are sandwiched between the entrance, the Great Forecourt, and the Hypostyle Hall.
The temple originally had one Pylon (the Third Pylon), and Horemheb (1333-1306 BC) built the Second Pylon which then became the entrance to the Temple, and in front of which several monuments were installed. Around 1200 BC, Seti II built a triple repository chapel for the sacred barques of the Theban triad, Amun, Mout, and Khonsu. The First Pylon was the last to be built at Karnak by Nectanebo and it is the main entrance into the temple today – it is the largest pylon in Egypt, yet it’s sadly unfinished that you could see it’s not as beautifully decorated as other pylons that you see, with the presence of mud-brick remnants of the construction ramps.
The first thing that you would see upon entering the temple is the Great Forecourt. This forecourt and the area adjacent to the main entrance doorway of the Precinct of Amun were a privileged place of contact between God and the people, who had limited access to the Temple in the past.
The courtyard was redecorated and reconstructed in different Dynasties. Amenhotep III erected the royal colossi in front of the entrance Pylon (the Third Pylon). The sanctuary of Maun was built between the end of the 14th century to 4th century BC. Ramesses III built his temple in front of the south mole of the Second Pylon for collecting annual possessions. Bubastis transformed the courtyard into a closed area with large colonnades commemorating the pharaonic monarchy. Taharka had his monumental portico entrance installed and added sphinxes in front of the Bubastis colonnades.
Great Hypostyle Hall
The Hypostyle Hall is no doubt (well, at least to me), the most impressive and memorable precinct in Karnak. I mean, just look at the massive columns standing in the hall reaching over 20 meters tall… and there are 134 of them! The hall is situated between the Second and Third Pylons and these massive columns are all at the approximately same size, with the two rows of six open-bud columns in the center slightly bigger with a 10 meters circumference and 24 meters in height. It was believed that the hall was lit by clerestory windows on either side. The design of this hall is to imitate the primeval papyrus marsh… the creativity of the ancient Egyptians had really gone above and beyond. Not only the massive columns (or papyrus?) impressed me by size, each of them was intricately engraved (and colored in the past; the paint obviously faded due to sunlight and damages. But fortunately you could still see a hint of color in places where sunlight couldn’t quite hit on) and it was just amazing. Every inch of the column was inscribed by Ramesses II that depicted him offering to the gods.
It was a separate temple from the Ipet-Sut by Seti I, where Amun met with the Ennead during the annual festival. The Hypostyle Hall is described in the texts inscribed in the architraves as a “temple of millions of years”, in association with the cult of Amun, was celebrated. The colored decoration on the inside portrays the ceremonies carried out here, such as the sacred Barque festival or the daily religious rituals, whereas the decoration on the outside walls portrays the military victories of Seti I on the north side and Ramesses II on the south side.
Amun is one of the most commonly-seen ancient Egyptian deities who appears as a member of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. Amun rose to the position of patron deity of Thebes and it could be seen everywhere in Luxor and that’s why it was worshipped in Karnak on such a massive scale. His engravings or drawings could be easily recognized by identifying the two vertical plumes on top, and the ram-headed Sphinx. Amun is the King of Gods and Amun is also combined with the Sun god, Ra, as Amun-Ra or Amun-Re. As Zeus ammon, he came to be identified with Zeus in Greece.
Felucca ride on the River Nile at dusk
There are two ways to see Luxor that tourists must-try in the city – and the first one is jumping on a Felucca at dusk. Felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat, mostly used in the eastern Mediterranean. It was also widely used in countries like Malta, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan, along the River Nile in particular. The boat has a rig with one of two lateen sails, and it is still used as a way of transport along the River Nile in cities like Aswan and Luxor (but the locals get to use the motorboats to commute between the East and West Bank of the city). It is, though, more commonly used today for tourists to enjoy a quieter and calmer mood as it sails down the river.
It is possible to simply look for an operator at a dock by the river and hop on a felucca during sunset, there are plenty of operators looking for tourists and for sure they won’t miss you.
Pricing in Egypt… well, is not exactly science math. So when you ask how much is for a felucca ride, it really depends on your bargaining skills. For me, in the spirit of supporting the local businesses and not to get too worked up over prices when I am on a vacation, I would agree to a price within a reasonable range of US$5-10 per person. The price fluctuates when dealing with different boat operators, and to be honest their felucca may look very different. Some look brand new and some look a bit older. I guess what I am trying to say is, make your best judgment on the spot and agree to the price and a felucca that you are comfortable with, and don’t focus too much on getting the cheapest price. If budget is not an issue, book your felucca ride with a reputable travel operator, and they have some more luxurious options that include a hotel pick up a welcome drink, and a private felucca for you to enjoy the sunset on the River Nile.
As I mentioned, the Felucca is a must-do because it’s a unique and beautiful experience in Egypt. You don’t get to hop on a felucca anywhere else in the world, and even if there is, there is no better place to do so in Luxor, on the River Nile. The city has dry weather with a clear sky that is quite pleasant for boat rides. My trip started in the north close to Karnak, and we traveled down the river and landed in the city center close to the Luxor Temple.
Horse carriage ride through a local market
Before we visited the Luxor Temple, we experienced another musts-try, the horse carriage. Again, there are quite a lot of carriage operators lined up along the road in the city center. One horse carriage can take two passengers and the price ranges around US$20-25 for a short tour of about 30-minutes. It will cost more if you opt for a complete city tour, but I reckon a quick spin is quite enough to have a taste of what Luxor really likes.
My route started right outside the Luxor Temple along the Nile Corniche and then the carriage took a turn to explore the local neighborhoods, railway stations, and markets.
Luxor Temple in the evening
There are quite a lot of Hookah (or shisha) cafes on the side of the road in Luxor and we took a break and had a drink before visiting the Luxor Temple at night. The temple opens from 6 am until 10 pm and it looks quite different after the sun goes down.
Luxor temple was built in 1400 BC it is one of the two primary cults’ temples in Luxor. It was quite amazing to see that the temple was preserved on such an impressive scale for over three thousand years. The temple is different from other temples that were usually dedicated to a cult god or a deified version of the pharaoh in death, rather, the temple was dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship. Furthermore, the temple was the main site of the annual Opet Festival, where a cult statue of Amun was paraded down the Nile to stay in the temple with an aim to promote the fertility of Amun-Re and the Pharaoh.
The Pylon of Luxor Temple sat two giant statues of Ramses II. The massive engravings on the Pylon was a depiction of the myths and legends that shows only legitimate pharaohs of the country would return from death and take revenge. The highlights of the temple are the Sun court of Amenhotep III, the Grand Colonnade, and the Sanctuary. Fun fact: look up “Luxor Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde”, as you would learn that the west obelisk at the temple was moved to Paris and placed in the center of Place de la Concorde by King Louis-Phillipe in 1836!
If you have seen Karnak during the day, it would be a different experience to see the Luxor Temple at night because the statues and bad reliefs gave me a mysterious mood under the spotlight in the dark.
Ramesses II is also known as Ramesses the Great, who is one of the longest-ruling pharaohs to have taken the throne in his late teens from 1279 to 1213 BC (67 years). He outlived 12 of his sons that his 13th son eventually inherited the kingdom after he died. His sons and himself were buried in the Valley of the Kings, and his body was now on display in the Egyptian Museum.
If you have more time and would like to spend a few days more on the East Bank, there are other places to explore like the Luxor Museum, Mummification Museum, and the Winter Palace Hotel.
Day 2: Exploring Luxor’s West Bank
The city of Luxor is mainly located on the East Bank, leaving the West Bank a sparsely populated area with a number of heritage sites in the desert. The two key highlights are the two adjacent sites: The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.
Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is a valley of tombs in Egypt that was supposed to be well hidden. It took 500 years between the 16th and 11th century BC to excavate these tombs for pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom. For the last two hundred years, it is an important archeological site and new chambers are discovered from time to time, including the latest discovery of two tomb entrances in 2008. It is the principal burial place of the major royal figures (Occupants include Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Tuthmosis III, and Seti I) of which the tombs are decorated with Egyptian mythology scenes.
The valley is located under the hill al-Qurn on the West Bank of the River Nile. The location was selected with a belief that they are well hidden away from “tomb raiders”, these tombs were sealed with mummies, treasures, and funerary artifacts. Interestingly, almost all of the tombs have been opened and robbed. Lots of people stole the mummies and offerings and sometimes even buried them in another location. Children found pieces and sold them in markets and that’s how archeologists discovered these mummies.
Consider joining a day tour to cover the West Bank. While it’s possible to get to the Valley of the Kings by taxi (and the drive takes about 45 minutes), there are a number of travel operators that offer different packaged, group, or private tours covering the West Bank.
The only way that I would recommend going there by yourself is that you want to beat the crowd and have the valley all to yourself. You should visit there early in the morning before the tour groups flood in. Note that you should also prepare yourself and do your research so you know what to see when you are entering the tombs.
To make your day more relaxed and hassle-free, booking a day tour online before your visit so that you can sit back, and enjoy some rather lively commentary from the tour guide while you are visiting the valley. There are so many choices with different price levels on-line that I am sure you will easily find what you need.
Visiting the Valley of the Kings is a bit more complicated than the other sites. The valley is divided into two sides, the east and the west; currently, 65 tombs are discovered, and they are labeled with numbers and the abbreviation “KV” from KV1 to KV65. Only 11 tombs in the East Valley out of the 65 tombs are opened to the public. Some of the tombs are closed for the restoration work, and some of them are closed with an aim to minimize damage due to the heavy traffic. Besides, the opening of these tombs may change from time to time (only slightly); and if you are unlucky, the major tombs maybe even closed the day you are there. You need to be flexible and have a better understanding of the site so you don’t miss out (too much) on the goods that the Valley has to offer. It never hurts to check with the people around or have an experienced guide to give you some insights into the process.
Having said that, these are the eleven tombs that are opened to the public; your ticket gives you access to any three of the eight tombs in the list below:
- KV1 – Ramesses VII
- KV2 – Ramesses IV
- KV6 – Ramesses IX
- KV8 – Merenptah
- KV11 – Ramesses III
- KV14 – Tausert-Setnakht
- KV15 – Seti II
- KV 47 – Siptah
For an extra entrance fee, you could visit three more tombs in the Valley:
- KV9 – Ramesses V & VI (100 EGP per person)
- KV17 – Seti I (1,000 EGP per person)
- KV62 – Tutankhamun (300 EGP per person)
In general, the three tombs that require additional costs are worth a visit if you have the time. After all, you have traveled all the way to the valley. But which tombs to choose out of the eight tombs? While it may sound unfair to pick a favorite, the best picks combining my research, the recommendations of our tour guide and other bloggers are:
- KV2 – Ramesses IV
- KV6 – Ramesses IX
- KV11 – Ramesses III
- KV14 – Tausert-Setnakht
- KV15 – Seti II
Taking photos inside the Valley of the Kings is another tricky situation. The rule changes from time to time and I heard that photography was not allowed (or an extra photography ticket is required) before my visit. When I did, photography was allowed for free but it only applied to mobile phones. If you want to take photos with a camera or any other photo-taking equipment, a photo pass was required. All in all, do not try to take a photo without a pass as there are many security guards in the tombs and they are watching you lie a hawk. You will get into a rather unpleasant situation if they catch you, they yell and ask you to delete the photos from your cameras. The photo pass costs 300 EGP and just don’t try to sneak in and take pictures without the pass – as a matter of fact, do not even take your camera out of your bag if you don’t have a pass. In general, the tombs are narrow and it could get crowded during peak hours, it would be a hassle to use any camera in the tombs unless you really want high-quality photos. I reckon the photos taken by my iPhone are already very nice so just taking pictures with your phone is probably quite enough.
Osiris is the lord of the dead… and rebirth. The painting of Osiris could be seen predominantly in the Valley of the Kings because of its representations. Osiris was the judge of the dead and the underworld, and the agency that granted all life. One of the most important features is his green skin, symbolizing rebirth, and he could also be recognized by the symbols of crook and flail, Atef crown, ostrich feathers, fish, mummy gauze, and djed.
Valley of the Queens
The Valley of the Queens is on the other side of the Valley of the Kings yet the roads go around the mountains that make the sites seem like miles apart. Obviously, the Valley is the burial place of the wives of the pharaohs and princesses (Occupants include Princess Ahmose, Queen Sitre, Hebiri, Queen Nefertari, Princess-Queen Tyti, Henut, Queen Iset Ta-Hemdjert, Princess Merytre, and Nebettawy and Meritamun – the two daughters of Ramesses II). The main wadi contains 91 tombs, with an addition of 19 tombs in the Valley of Prince Ahmost, the Valley of the Rope, the Valley of the Three Pits, and the Valley of the Dolmen. The tombs are labeled with numbers and the abbreviation “QV” from QV1 to QV95.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
Also known as the Djeser-Djeseru, the temple is a majestic sight on your way to the Valley of the Kings. It is a mortuary temple built for the pharaoh Hatshepsut, an important female leader of ancient Egypt who died in 1458 BC. The temple is also dedicated to Amun and Hatshepsut and it’s considered one of the “incomparable monuments of ancient Egypt”. While the architecture of the temple was well-preserved that the shape of it could be seen from afar, the statues were quite damaged and the paintings faded completely due to exposure to the sun. However, visitors can still appreciate the incredible astronomical alignments and classical design of the temple. It is a great example of the New Kingdom funerary architecture.
Hatshepsut is one of the most well-known female pharaohs in the world. She came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC in the New Kingdom for being a daughter, sister, and wife of a king. She established herself as God’s Wife of Amun. Officially, she co-ruled the country with Thutmose III, who had ascended to the throne the previous year as a child of about two years old; and then banished her own son.
Having said that, she was considered as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman in ancient Egypt. She had a lot to prove and justify her position as a pharaoh. One example is that she found a secretive place to build the Temple of Hatshepsut in the valley, and to build it fast, the temple was built on a cliff instead of on the open ground. Thutmose III came back as the pharaohs 21 years later after the death of Hatshepsut, and he built a wall to block the sunlight of Hatshepsut’s obelisk in Karnak.
Colossi of Memnon (Memorial temple of Amenophis III)
On the way back to the East Bank of Luxor, drop by the Colossi of Memnon, two massive quartzite stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The two statues are about 15 meters apart and weigh about 720 tons! Towering 18 meters high, the statues were created for the entrance to Amenhotep’s memorial temple. Today, only parts of the mortuary temple’s layout remain.
While the city developments are mostly on the East Bank, the West Bank is filled with historic sites that although many of them are damaged, are worth a visit if you have more than a day in Luxor. For example, Medinet Habu (memorial temple of Ramesses III), The Ramesseum (memorial temple of Ramesses II), Deir el-Medina (workers’ village), Tombs of the Nobles, Malkata (palace of Amenophis III), and Al-Asasif cemetery.