The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.
Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.
Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.
The Valley of the Kings
The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.
Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans
Temple of Karnak
The largest of Luxor’s temples, Karnak was one of the most sacred sites in ancient Egypt. It marked the ascendancy of Thebes (present day Luxor) as the capital of the New Kingdom, with construction beginning in the 16th century BC. Most subsequent rulers tinkered with the complex so it represents a great crash course in different pharaonic styles.
The major site here is the Temple of Amon, the largest place of worship ever constructed. There the Great Hypostyle Hall, which was once roofed, dwarfs visitors with its dozens of colossal columns reaching 25 yards (23 meters) into the sky.
Other highlights include the serene sacred lake, gargantuan statues of rulers and gods, as well as the best selection of obelisks in Egypt.
Temple of the Sphinxes
The Avenue of Sphinxes was the site of ceremonial processions and originally connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak, although it is considerably more recent than either of those sites, dating to around 380 BC. It stretched some 1.5 miles (2.7 kilometers) and would once have had 1,350 sphinxes lining its sides. Around half of those have been uncovered, with many reworked by later civilizations or sitting in museums. Much of the avenue itself is covered by modern buildings.
There are dozens of examples in various states of preservation forming the immediate approach to each temple. Some of them bear the cat-like features of the famous Great Sphinx at Giza, others have rams’ heads. The entire avenue is the subject of a major ongoing excavation project.
Temple of Hatshepsut
The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.
Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.
The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.
Temple of Ramses
Where the fertile Nile floodplain meets the desert lies the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, known locally by its Arabic name Medinet Habu. The whole compound forms a huge rectangle, with the temple a smaller rectangle within. The ensemble is the second largest in Luxor after Karnak, and is related in both style and scale to the nearby Ramesseum.
Visitors come here mainly for the outstanding wall reliefs, enormous depictions of pharaohs, gods and battles; one section serves as an accounting system for notching up vanquished enemies. There are also highly impressive hieroglyphs on both walls and columns. Other extant structures besides the Mortuary Temple itself include the Memorial of King Horemheb and the lavishly decorated tombs of favored New Kingdom officials.
While not as well preserved as nearby Medinet Habu, this mortuary temple dedicated to Ramses II, dating to 1258 BC, still has more than enough to interest the visitor. In the inner sanctuary, for example, the majority of the columns in the hypostyle hall are still standing, as are a number of osirid statues standing sentinel at the entrance, albeit mostly without heads.
As is typical with such structures, giant wall reliefs trumpet the pharaoh’s military accomplishments and proclaim his immortality. But also on view are parts of the fallen Colossus of Ramses, which in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) became a powerful warning against hubris.
Tomb of King Tutankhamun
The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled the New Kingdom in the 14th century, enjoys fame disproportionate to his short reign and modest achievements. This is mostly due to the discovery of his largely intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his mummy adorned by a dazzling gold mask (now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, along with most of the tomb’s other bling).
Having risked the curse said to await anyone who disturbs the tomb’s rest, visitors may be slightly disappointed by its modest scale and relative lack of adornment. “King Tut” is, however, still in residence, his linen-wrapped mummy visible in a glass box watched over by richly colored wall paintings.
Tombs of the Nobles (Valley of the Nobles)
The Tombs of the Nobles (or Valley of the Nobles) may lack the star power of the Valley of the Kings or other Luxor hotspots, but this neglected gem is well worth a visit. This is a cemetery on a rare scale, with hundreds of tombs embedded in the rock, often richly decorated with frescoes depicting the working lives of their inhabitants.
Only a fraction of the sites can be accessed. Highlights include the tomb of Sennofer, the mayor of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), with its charming painted grapevines, and the harvest scenes accompanying Nakht the astronomer on his eternal journey.
One of the grandest tombs belongs to the nobleman Ramose, and it affords the visitor a rare glimpse of life under Akhenaten, possibly the earliest of all rulers to espouse a monotheistic faith.
Valley of the Artisans (Deir el-Medina)
Creating the Valley of the Kings was no simple undertaking: a small army of builders, engineers, engravers and other workers was required to carve the dozens of tombs out of sheer rock over the centuries.
Naturally they all had to be housed somewhere, ideally not too far away. But it was only with the discovery Valley of the Artisans (or Deir el-Medina), around the time of the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, that we learnt more about their living conditions.
The outlines of the “workmen’s village” are still clearly visible, and extant reliefs offer a fascinating portrait of everyday life. All of this makes the Valley of the Artisans a pleasant change after countless monuments glorifying the pharaohs and their morbid fixation on the afterlife.
While the size of its collection can’t rival the treasures of Cairo, Luxor Museum is renowned as one of the thoughtfully assembled displays of antiquities in Egypt. Most of its exhibits come from temples and other constructions in the Luxor area.
Highlights of the museum include sculptural depictions of Amenhotep III, under whose reign many of Luxor’s temples were built. There are also a number of objects from the controversial opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, including an imposing cow-headed deity, and the Talatat Wall, reassembled from one of the temples at Karnak.
For many visitors the chief attractions here are also among the newest: the mummies of pharaohs Ahmose I and Ramses I, which were presented to the public with much fanfare in 2004. They are shown without their bandages; a gruesome yet fascinating sight.