When I was a boy, I went on a family trip to Las Vegas that included a brief stopover at the glitzy gambling hall in Luxor Casino. As I was already obsessed with ancient Egyptian culture, nothing fascinated me more than wandering below the structure’s immense black glass ceiling and gazing up at the shiny graphite-laden columns that encapsulated the place. The experience set some pretty high standards for what real ancient Egypt would look like, and the subconscious connection between “Luxor” and the word “luxury” was firmly established in my mind.
Alas, I have recently discovered that the authentic Luxor, also known by its ancient Greek name Thebes, is not a glorified nightclub with 2,000 slot machines and 87 card tables for your gambling pleasure—truly tragic news. Plus, the name Luxor doesn’t even have anything to do with high class living—it’s just messed up way of saying “al-qusur”, which is Arabic for “the fortifications”. But the real Luxor is definitely still an entertaining place to spend money, albeit without the strippers and excess booze, and nothing can beat the authentic taste of ancient culture that it offers at its huge amount of funerary sites and temples.
If I had to pinpoint a single place in Egypt where you can best see what all the commotion is about the country’s magnificent history, Luxor would be on the other side of my outstretched index finger. There are enough worthwhile sightseeing options to spend 4+ days in the area, not counting excursions to temples north or south of Luxor along the Nile, so I’ve listed a few of my favorite places to filter this process below:
1) Bewilderingly-enormous Karnak Temple, home to gigantic columns that resemble mini-factory stacks made of sandstone, is an exercise in personal humility as you cower beneath the mighty work of people long dead but still revered for their power. The additions of Thutmose, some of the Ramseses, and other kings over time have given the complex an eclectically-styled sprawl that is quite enjoyable to wander around in. The halls all have different characters, making it a premier destination for those who enjoy architectural history.
Be sure to get to the site early in the morning, before hordes of cruise ship Russians, Spaniards, and Chinese arrive to blot out the sunshine from your good times. A guide of some sort, audio or book, would also be advisable in order to help you understand the wacky-but-fascinating development of the palace.
2) Hatshepsut Temple is an Indiana Jones film set waiting to happen. Situated under the fiery cliffs of the Theban hills, the site is a graceful testament to one of Egypt’s best pharaohs and one of history’s most powerful female rulers. Queen Hatshepshut ruled alone for 21 years and improved Egypt’s trade relations with other countries, using this peace dividend to spend a heck of a lot of time building grand projects dedicated to gods and, of course, herself. This temple is the result of that hard effort and I highly recommend a visit. The ramps leading up to the temple and its unique geographic setting give it a wonder that would be a pity for a visitor to miss out on.
3) South of Hatshepsut Temple by a few kilometers, the Valley of the Workers is a seemingly-dilapidated collection of destroyed mud huts, a single old temple, and a few holes leading to underground tombs. Don’t be deceived, though: this place has magic. Just out of sight in the coolness of the tombs’ interiors, you can find some of the most excellent examples of surviving Egyptian art open to tourists. The Valley was home to the artisans of the pharaoh, including his court painters, and the gentlemen who had this title spent plenty of time perfecting their own tombs with vivid reliefs. Thus, in burial chambers of men like Sennedjem, the work is a joy to admire, especially because of the intimacy that the close quarters provide. You’ll definitely be struck by the gleaming yellow on the walls and the amazing freshness of the images depicting daily life in ancient Egypt, which are all original and have not had any restoration. I was induced into a trance of cosmic satisfaction by staring at these images, still bursting with life 3000 years on, for about ten minutes while a turbaned attendant stared at me like I was a bit nuts for spending more than sixty seconds down there.
Though touring these treasures is a treat, be careful to respect their openness and refrain from touching the walls. Every year that tourists visit an Egyptian tomb, that location’s paintings lose a fraction of their beauty due to a microbial fungus emitted from human breathing that eats the paint. So, sticking your grubby digits all over what amounts to be a priceless work of humanity makes you not much better than a destructive microbe!
4) Medinat Habu, my last place to recommend, is simply big. Big walls surround a succession of big courtyards that are hemmed in by big columns. Luckily for you, the only thing that is lacking in size here are the crowds, who steer clear of the place and leave it in wonderful isolation.
Ramses III built the temple in the 12th century for himself, no surprise, and the blocky structure communicates the military prowess he used to crush a series of foreign invasions from the Sea Peoples and various other upstarts. One graphic relief depicts his army counting vanquished foes from Libya by piling up their severed hands and cut-off penises (hope they were dead beforehand!).
The area seems to be much less visited than any of the other places in Luxor, like the Valley of the Kings or Luxor Temple, and that is definitely an added advantage to visiting. I bought a white chocolate ice cream bar from a nearby shop and just sauntered around the grounds of this goliath construction for about an hour until closing. So, grab a snack and get wandering!
To Sum Up:
There you have it: four places that deserve your remaining Egyptian pounds before you fly home, head to the Red Sea for scuba-diving, or get lost in the desert to the south. I purposefully left out the Valley of the Kings and a few other popular sights because there is enough information about them elsewhere. Plus, their stuffy crowds and the level of tourist control in these places can be a real put-off compared to the more isolated sights at Medinat Habu and the Valley of the Workers. Karnak and Hapshetsut may get traffic but their charms more than make up for the feeling that you are at an outdoor moshpit in the horrible alternate reality of Mosdridjing.