Our bus ride from Hurgada to Luxor was a long, sweaty and uncomfortable journey through the punishing desert and we couldn't help but be overjoyed at our first sighting of towering date palms and other lush greenery nurtured by the Nile. Like all major population centers in Egypt, the Nile runs straight through the center of Luxor, dividing the city in two. The East Bank is affectionately known as the city of the dead and was once the necropolis of ancient Thebes. The West Bank is home to today's modern city, as well as several temples used to worship the many Egyptian gods, and is thus called the city of the living.
Visiting Luxor is like stepping back in time some 4,000 years. We had some hesitation about visiting yet more ruins after getting our fill in Greece, Turkey and Israel, but whereas you really have to use your imagination to appreciate the Greek and Roman ruins, the Egyptian ruins come to life without much effort on your part.
As you head away from the Nile and toward the desert mountains of the West Bank, you are greeted by the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of massive statues that once adorned what is thought to have been the largest complex in the area. Their size is imposing and you immediately feel awe and respect for the incredible accomplishments of the Egyptian people.
Leaving the flood plains, you reach the mountains where you come across literally hundreds of tombs that have weathered the test of time, if not the repeated intrusions of tomb raiders. Archaeologists believe that there are many others still buried under the sand, and the government is even trying to relocate the current inhabitants (for the locals have built homes in and around the tombs) from the area so that further field work can be conducted.
We visited several tombs in both the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, where the Pharaohs and their queens and royal children were laid to rest. Building the tombs of the Pharaohs began when they took power and work continued on the underground tunnels until their death, so that the depth of the tomb generally signifies the length of time the Pharaoh ruled. The tomb walls are adorned with hieroglyphs and images, some of which are so well preserved that it looks as if they were created years, rather than millenia ago. The colors of the tomb of Prince Amanherkhepshet, in particular, were so extraordinarily vivid that we couldn't help but think that we were visiting a "reproduction" rather than the real thing. Even where the natural dye paint had faded, you get a good sense of the scenes being portrayed because each image is not only painted, but also carved into the facade. No pictures are allowed inside the tombs to protect the colors, and there isnt realy much to see from the outside, so you will have to take our word for it.
We also visited the temple of Hatshepsut, one of the few and most powerful female Pharaohs. The sole purpose of the temple was to prepare her body for burial - a long and highly technical process of mummification. While the temple was in remarkably good shape, all of her images had been defaced (literally) by her step son and successor, Tuthmosis III, who tried to destroy her legacy.
The temples in the East Bank are huge and elaborate structures that were built over centuries. The Temple of Luxor is right in the center of the modern city and could be seen from our hotel balcony (which we rarely used because it was so oppressively hot that sitting outside was unthinkable!). Approaching the temple was an avenue lined with hundreds of sphinxes that once extended 3 km to the temples at Karnak and the entryway was adorned with a soaring obelisk. The match to the pair can now be found in Paris, as it was gifted to the French by Mohammad Ali - ask any Egyptian about it and they will tell you what a bum deal they got since the clock tower that was given in exchange has never even worked properly!
We visited the temple in the afternoon so that we could appreciate the ornate reliefs along the inner walls (including one colorful scene of the god of fertility ejaculating into the cup of Alexander the Great...), but stayed until the sun set. The temple was gradually lit up and a cast of eerie shadows descended upon the ruins, making for quite a stunning sight.
Karnak is the other major site in the East Bank. It is a massive complex of buildings exhibiting different architectural styles, since nearly every major Pharaoh contributed something to the place in his or her time. It is said to be the largest open air museum in the world, and since we spent the better part of the day there, we certainly can't refute the claim!
Soon after entering the main temple you arrive at the great hypostyle hall, a forest of gigantic pillars adorned with papyrus-shaped capitals painted red and green. Gazing up at the towering columns you feel very, very small. You also feel miniature when looking up at the Obelisk of Hatshepsut in the next court, the largest obelisk in the world. As with Hatshepsut's other monuments, Themosis III tried to hide its grandeur by surrounding it with walls, but it was clearly a futile effort.
One of the most interesting sites was the Temple of Ptah. After entering through a series of 5 doors, you reach two of the temple's original statues, the headless figure of Ptah and his goddess wife, Sekhmet, the Spreader of Terror. The Sekhmet statue was in fact a little terrifying, as it looked like an alien or some strange mythical beast and was housed in a dark chamber filled with smokey incense and two heavily-breathing tourists who seemed to be in a bit of a trance. Freaky.
In sum, if you can handle the touts and the crowds (which we didn't find to be half as bad as we had been warned), Luxor really is an archaeological treasure that should not be missed.