The city’s governor would like you to know that Luxor is the world’s greatest open-air museum, but that comes nowhere near describing this extraordinary place. There is simply nothing in the world that comes close to the grandeur of ancient Thebes.
Visiting the main sights, today’s traveller risks being surrounded by coachloads of tourists as they are herded through tombs and temples at a furious pace. But with a little planning and flexibility, it is possible to avoid the worst of the crowds and get the most from the magic of the Theban landscape and its unparalleled archaeological heritage.
To help you make the most of this ancient city and its surroundings, here are some highlights to help you on your way:
At the East Bank
Temples of Karnak
More than a temple, Karnak is an extraordinary complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks dedicated to the Theban gods and the greater glory of pharaohs. Everything is on a gigantic scale: the site covers over 2 sq km, large enough to contain about 10 cathedrals, while its main structure, the Temple of Amun, is the largest religious building ever built.
Largely built by the New Kingdom pharaohs Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BC) and Ramses II (1279–1213 BC), Luxor Temple is a strikingly graceful monument in the heart of the modern town. Visit early when the temple opens, before the crowds arrive or later at sunset when the stones glow. Whenever you go, be sure to return at night when the temple is lit up, creating an eerie spectacle as shadow and light play off the reliefs and colonnades.
Housed in the former visitors centre on Luxor’s Corniche, the smallMummification Museum has well presented exhibits explaining the art of mummification. On display are the well-preserved mummy of a 21st-dynasty high priest of Amun, Maserharti, and a host of mummified animals. Vitrines show the tools and materials used in the mummification process – check out the small spoon and metal spatula used for scraping the brain out of the skull.
At the West Bank
Valley of the Kings
Once called the Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh, or the Place of Truth, the Valley of the Kings has 63 magnificent royal tombs from the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 BC), all very different from each other. The West Bank had been the site of royal burials from the First Intermediate Period (2160–2025 BC) onwards. Among others, tombs include the famous Tomb of Tutankhamun, but be warned that the story of the celebrated discovery of the famous tomb and all the fabulous treasures it contained far outshines its actual appearance, and it is one of the least impressive tombs in the valley.
Valley of the Queens
There are at least 75 tombs in the Valley of the Queens. They belonged to queens of the 19th and 20th dynasties and other members of the royal families, including princesses and the Ramesside princes. Only two were open at the time of writing, and the Tomb of Nefertari is closed for the foreseeable future but a replica will be built soon.
What else is there to do and see (beyond ancient sites)?
Hot-air ballooning to see the sun rise over the ancient monuments on the West Bank and the Theban mountains is a great way to start the day. Unfortunately, in April 2009 a hot-air balloon crashed after hitting a cellphone tower and several tourists were injured. At the time of writing only a limited number of hot-air balloons were allowed to fly, so you will need to book early. Hod Hod Suleiman, Sky Cruise of Egypt and Sindbad Balloons all offer early morning flights at varying prices, often depending on how many people are taken on board. Expect to pay from €80 to €150 per person, although it should be possible to bargain, particularly out of season.
Donkey, horse and camel rides
Riding a horse, a donkey or a camel through the fields and seeing the sunset behind the Theban hills is a wonderful thing to do. The boys at the local ferry dock on the West Bank offer donkey and camel rides for about E£30 to E£40 for an hour, but beware. There are many reports of women getting hassled, and of overcharging at the end. The West Bank hotels also offer camel trips, which include visits to nearby villages for a cup of tea, and donkey treks around the West Bank. These trips, which start at around 7am (sometimes 5am) and finish near lunchtime, cost a minimum of about E£50 per person.
As elsewhere in Egypt, the nicest place to be late afternoon is on the Nile. Take a felucca from either bank, and sail for a few hours, catching the soft afternoon light and the sunset, cooling in the afternoon breeze and calming down after sightseeing. Felucca prices range from E£30 to E£50 per boat per hour, depending on your bargaining skills. A popular felucca trip is upriver to Banana Island, a tiny isle dotted with palms about 5km from Luxor. The trip takes two to three hours. Plan it in such a way that you’re on your way back in time to watch a brilliant Nile sunset from the boat. Some travellers have complained that the felucca captain has added money for ‘admission’ to the island; make sure you are clear about what is included in the price you agree on.