Luxor, also called the world’s greatest open-air museum, is a vast complex of ancient monuments from the time of Thebes. Located on the Nile River’s east bank in southern Egypt, about 500 kilometers from Cairo, Luxor is the site of ancient Thebes, the capital of the pharaohs during the height of their power from the 16th to 11th centuries B.C.
The ancient capital of Thebes centered around the Temple of Amon, dedicated to the ancient Egyptian’s primary god. The temple was commissioned by King Amenhotep III in 1392 BC, completed by Tutankhamun (1336-27 BC), and then expanded by Rameses II (1279-13 BC). It is known today as the Temple of Luxor. An avenue of sphinxes connects it to Karnak.
The original Temple of Luxor is said to have consisted of a large court and a complex of halls and chambers. In one hall is a granite statue of Alexander the Great. At the entrance stands two colossal statues of the pharaoh Ramses, and a pair of obelisks. One of the obelisks still stands there today, the other was removed and re-erected in 1831 in the Place de la Concorde, Paris where it still stands today. When Thebes fell into decline, Luxor remained the most populated part of the town.
Luxor, together with Karnak, the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Kings, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Excavations and preservation efforts are ongoing. In 1988 the Egyptian Antiquities Organization uncovered many 18th-dynasty statues. The temple has been used as a place of worship up to the present day.
Today, Luxor is a market town serving the surrounding agricultural districts. A large segment of the population is Christian. The town also has a railway station, an airport, and a ferry service to the western bank. The Luxor Museum was opened here in 1975.
Getting to Luxor
You can catch flights from Tel Aviv directly to Luxor from around $560. Of course, rates and availability will depend on the time of year. You’ll also need to arrange transport to and from the airports, accommodation, etc. Luxor’s history is intricate and complicated, so a guided tour is the best way to explore this expansive site.
What to see at Luxor
Karnak is a grand complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, and obelisks dedicated to the god of ancient Thebes and the glory of pharaohs. The site extends more than 2 square kilometres, large enough to fit 10 cathedrals! At the center is the Temple of Amun, the local god. Built, extended, restored, and decorated over nearly 1500 years, Karnak was perhaps the most important place of worship in ancient Egypt.
The area is dominated by the Temple of Amun-Ra, one of the world’s largest religious complexes. This temple is famous for its hall lined with giant papyrus-shaped columns. The main structure is surrounded by two other imposing temples built for the god Amun’s wife Mut and their son Khonsu.
A 3 kilometre-long avenue of human-headed sphinxes links the great Temple of Amun at Karnak with Luxor Temple. Most of what you can see today was built by the pharaohs of the 18th to 20th dynasties (1570–1090 BC), who spent fortunes adding their mark to this sacred place. The further into the complex you venture, the older the structures are.
Built by the pharaohs Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BC) and Ramses II (1279–1213 BC), this temple is a grand monument now standing in the heart of a modern town. Also known as the Southern Sanctuary, it was used for the annual religious celebrations, when the statues of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu would be brought from Karnak along the Avenue of Sphinxes to the temple. In ancient times the temple was surrounded by houses, markets, and workshops. The temple is less complex than Karnak, and again, the further in you walk, the older the structures get. In front of the temple begins the Avenue of Sphinxes that run 3 kilometres all the way to Karnak. It is now almost entirely excavated.
The temple’s imposing 24 meter-high pylon was raised by Ramses II and is decorated with depictions of his military success, including the Battle of Kadesh. The pylon was originally enclosed by six colossal statues of Ramses II – four seated and two standing. Today, only two of the seated figures and one standing remain. Beyond this is the Great Court of Ramses II, with walls decorated with scenes of the pharaoh making offerings to the gods. On the back wall of the temple is a relief of Ramses’ 17 sons, along with their names and titles. Beyond the court is the splendid Colonnade of Amenhotep III, built to be the grand entrance to the Temple of Amun.
The inner Hypostyle Hall has four rows of eight columns that lead to the temple’s main rooms. There is another four-columned chamber where offerings were made to the god Amun. Behind that is the Shrine of Amun which was later rebuilt by Alexander the Great and has reliefs portraying him as an Egyptian pharaoh. Another feature to note is Amenhotep III’s ‘birth room’ which has graphics of his symbolic divine birth. Most noteworthy is the moment of his conception when the fingers of the god touch those of the queen (his mother). The last chamber is the Sanctuary of Amenhotep III, with the remains of the stone base of Amun’s statue.
The Tombs of the Nobles
These tombs (also called the Valley of the Nobles) are some of the best, lesser-known attractions on the west bank of Luxor. Nestled in the foothills are more than 400 tombs of Egyptian nobles from the 6th dynasty to the Roman period. The nobles decorated their tombs with brightly detailed scenes of their daily lives. There have been several new discoveries here in recent years and these tombs are still being studied. The tombs open to the public are divided into groups, and each group requires a separate ticket to enter.
Valley of the Kings
The west bank of Luxor has been the site of royal burials since around 2100 BC, until the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC) chose this isolated valley to be the official royal burial grounds. This area was once called the ‘Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh’. To date, 63 magnificent royal tombs have been unearthed in the Valley of the Kings.
The tombs suffered greatly over the years from tomb robbers, floods and, more recently, tourism: carbon dioxide and the humidity caused by each visitor has affected the paintings that were made on plaster laid over limestone. The Department of Antiquities has since installed dehumidifiers and glass screens in the worst-affected tombs. They also introduced a strict control system – only a limited number of tombs are open to the public at any one time. The entry ticket grants access to three tombs. Additional tickets must be purchased to see the tombs of Ay, Tutankhamun, Seti I and Ramses VI.
The Valley of the Kings Visitors Center has a good model of the valley and a movie about Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Entry tickets are also sold here. A little electrical train called a tuf-tuf transports visitors between the visitor’s center and the tombs. It is worth taking along a torch to illuminate less well-lit areas. Photography is forbidden in all tombs. The best information about the tombs, including detailed descriptions of their history and decoration, can be found on the Theban Mapping Project website. Some tombs have additional entry fees and tickets.