We sailed north from Edfu to Luxor, arguably the most important site of Ancient Egypt. Known to the Greeks as Thebes, the city grew in prominence from about 2000 BC when it was the capital of Upper Egypt (note that I’m finally getting used to the fact that Upper Egypt is in the south, referring to the upper Nile, which flows northward into the Mediterranean) until by 1550 BC it was the political, religious, and military capital of all Ancient Egypt. Its local god, Amun, rose in prominence with the city and he soon became associated with the sun god Ra as the “king of gods,” Amun-Ra. Together with his wife Mut and son Khonsu, the moon god, they ruled as Egypt’s divine trinity. (Wait, a big god father, a mother who is worshipped, and a son also worshipped as a god; I’ve seen that pattern somewhere. It seems like a good model to copy if someone were creative…) By the time of the conquest of Alexander the Great in 323 BC the city had fallen into ruins but he came to pay respects and essentially claim the mantle as the new Amun-Ra.
During those thousand-plus years, though, there was a millennium’s worth of wonders built and today Luxor is known sometimes as the world’s greatest open-air museum: temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens across the Nile. With so much to see we were glad to have three days here to drink it all in.
It might be worth mentioning that modern history hasn’t been as kind. Luxor was the site of major 1997 attack where six Egyptian terrorists killed 62 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, devastating the tourist industry in Egypt broadly and Luxor specifically. The 9/11 attacks just four years later, followed by a terrorist attack at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and the revolution in 2011 that removed long-serving President Hosni Mubarak, didn’t help. Today the area seems remarkably calm; tourism is still reduced but there’s lots of security and – from a purely selfish perspective – it’s a lot more fun to tour the sites without massive hordes.
What’s all to see in Luxor now? A lot. First on our agenda was Karnak, a vast temple complex just a couple miles from the modern city center. How vast? After Angkor Wat in Cambodia Karnak is the second-largest religious temple in the world. And if you’re wondering – I was – in our travels Mark & I have been to seven of the 10 largest.
At any rate, construction here began at the start of the second millennium BC and lasted all the way through the Ptolemaic period after Alexander’s conquest. Some 30 pharaohs contributed to the construction giving it diversity and complexity unmatched anywhere. The largest part of the temple is dedicated to Amun-Ra, an area consisting of 134 massive columns, though there are all sorts of areas in the temple worth exploring. An obelisk or two that have stood tall for some 3,500 years, massive pylons (the Greek term for the monumental entrances to Egyptian temples), lots and lots and lots of stone carvings. Truly an amazing site.
From Karnak we made a relatively brief stop at the Luxor Museum. By now it was late in the day and I wasn’t really up for it but when your tour guide tells you to go, you go. And I was really glad I did. Inaugurated in 1975 it is much, much smaller than the great Egyptian Museum in Cairo but at the same time much easier to digest; the museum prides itself more in the quality of display than the quantity. And the quality is spectacular, including a couple mummified pharaohs and some stunning sculptures.
Then there was Luxor Temple itself. Built about 1400 BC, it seems to be a temple dedicated to kingship itself and may have been where Egyptian pharaohs were crowned. The entrance to Luxor Temple is a bit unbalanced; the single obelisk on one side needed another to balance it off. Well indeed there was once another obelisk there and it turns out I’ve seen it many, many times: it’s the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris! And I was intrigued with a temple within the complex that was supposedly built under the orders of Alexander the Great in honor of … himself.
Then it was across the river to the various necropolises that were built on the west bank (the sun sets in the west, so that side is all about dying apparently). The Valley of the Kings is the star where from the 16th century BC until the 11th pharaohs had tombs cut into the rocks and were buried in lavish style. While many of the tombs were robbed and ransacked the tomb of a distinctly minor king who died at the age of just 19, Tutankhamun, was found nearly intact in 1922.
Our last major site was the Mortuary Temple of Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, dating to the 15th century BC. Hatshepsut was an interesting figure. She was, you see, a she, not very common among ancient royals. I mean, some 3,500 years later the U.S. still has issues with elevating women to high office, but I digress. But Hatshepsut reigned for at least 21 years and perhaps as long as 50 years, donning a fake beard and dressing as a man, but definitely a woman. She ascended to the throne after her husband died and left only a two-year-old son to succeed him. Hatshepsut ruled in his place and, as he grew older, came to kind of resent his mother. On her death he succeeded on his own and had all her names erased from the temple. Still, she is regarded as one of the great Egyptian pharaohs though not necessarily as the nicest mom in the world. She opened major trade routes for Egypt and is considered one of the greatest of Egyptian builders.
After all that, I have to admit that I’ll be glad to spend a few days not touring old temples. And it’s worth adding that if I had it to do over again, we wouldn’t have done this on a cruise. We’re not cruise people, you see, and don’t usually like organized tours of any sort. I had this romantic notion of cruising down the Nila ala Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, but in practice there was more anchoring in a couple towns than actual cruising. We’d have been better off staying in hotels where we could experience the contemporary scene along with the great ruins and then maybe taking a day cruise or two to experience floating on the Nile. But – and this is a big but – I learned a tremendous amount from our guide. Until now Ancient Egypt has always been a big, vague empty spot in my understanding of ancient history but this was about as good an introduction as you can get. Good enough that I’m now reading a history of Ancient Egypt that I just never would have been able to understand before. So in that sense, mission accomplished.