|Luxor Temple||25 42 01.63N|
32 38 23.49E
|This places you in the courtyard immediately outside the temple. Notice that there are several panoramas of this temple on which you can click.|
|Mummification Museum||25 41 45.41N|
32 38 07.79E
|There is nothing to note in the picture other than the location of the museum, almost opposite the Winter Palace Hotel.|
|Luxor Museum||25 42 27.49N|
32 38 40.26E
|There is nothing to note other than the building itself and its location.|
|Karnak Temple||25 43 09.19N|
32 39 23.46E
|This places you outside the entrance to the temple. Again notice the panoramas. Zoom out to see the huge wall surrounding the sacred precincts Explore to the south along the avenue of sphinxes heading towards Luxor.|
Luxor is situated about 500 miles south of Cairo. It is possible to fly there direct from many European cities, as it has become a popular tourist centre. Indeed, a package holiday of 7 days in Luxor may be the cheapest way of seeing the place.
If you are already in Cairo, then there are basically two ways of getting to Luxor. The first is by air, which takes about an hour. The plane flies over the desert and one looks down at this vast expanse of hot, dry land which is nevertheless riven by countless dry watercourses, so obviously at one time there must have been substantial rainfall in the area. It is a relief to finally arrive and see water and greenery beneath the wings. The airport is about 4.5 miles outside Luxor, so a taxi ride is necessary unless you have made other arrangements or your hotel provides a shuttle bus.
The alternative is rail. At one time this was shut to tourists because of the threat of terrorism in Middle Egypt, but the trouble appears to have died down. The overnight sleeper from Cairo is a convenient method of making the journey - but be sure that you have booked a private cabin. It is no joke to try and spend the night sitting up, keeping an eye on your belongings and fighting sleep, inquisitive (but friendly) neighbours and hawkers of souvenirs and food.
It is advantageous to book your ticket in advance, but be aware that Egypt Air has an unfortunate tendency to change or cancel plans at 5 minutes notice and is often less than helpful about finding alternative flights. The railway also frequently loses reservations and your turn up expecting to find yourself in a comfortable private cabin only to find that the railway has no record of you, doesn't recognise your ticket and can grudgingly offer you a second or third class seat.
A pleasant way of getting to Luxor is by cruise ship, but that is not really a form of travel: it is a separate, slow but enjoyable method of seeing Egypt. Another way is to hire a car and drive yourself. The journey will take about two days (depending on route) and you will be harassed by official security and unofficial speed ramps all the way, to say nothing of the awful Egyptian traffic. I am told that it is faster and easier to drive to the coast at Suez, then down along the coast to Quseir where you can turn inland to Qena and Luxor. The only disadvantage is that while you will have wonderful views over the Red Sea, you miss out on all the historical sites in Middle Egypt.
If you are totally masochistic, however, there is no doubt that travelling along the Nile is the way to experience Egypt. It will be slow, frustrating, possibly even dangerous, but you will certainly come to appreciate the geography and topography of the Nile Valley.
There are many reasonably priced hotels in Luxor, from bug-ridden no-star hovels to the luxury of the Winter Palace Hotel. If you can afford it, I can certainly recommend the Winter Palace, but be sure to book in advance through a travel agent. Even with his commission, you will probably pay less than if you just walked in off the street and asked for a room.
Just as a note, the ancient Egyptians called this place Waset or "City of the Sceptre". The Greeks called it Thebes - Hundred-Gated Thebes. The modern name of Luxor comes from the Arabs who saw the great temples and thought that they were fortresses or castles. The word for "castle" is "qasr", so the place was called simply "the castle" - al-qasr - from which it is a short step to "Luxor".
Luxor - East Bank
Luxor, once you have reached it, can be divided conveniently into two areas, divided by the Nile. On the east bank you have the two great temples of Luxor and Karnak, plus the museums. This is where the hotels are situated and the bazaar, so whether you are travelling on a budget or in luxury class, you will inevitably spend time on the east bank.
Right in the middle of town is the Luxor Temple. The entrance to this seems to vary from year to year. Last time I was there you entered from the river side and walked down to the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. From there you looked right to see the great entrance pylons flanked by statues of Rameses II and by a single obelisk. The matching obelisk is in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. When you get closer you will be pleased to notice that Rameses included his wife on his statue: she is the tiny female figure down around his ankles.
Just inside the pylon on your left is a huge baulk of mud 25' high on top of which is a modern building. This is the mosque of Abu el-Haggag, an unknown Muslim saint whose festival involves a voyage by boat on the Nile. One cannot help but suspect that it is a hang-over from the days when Amun voyaged between Luxor and Karnak in the days of the pharaohs. The important thing to notice, however, is that at one time the mosque stood on ground level. Centuries of flooding had deposited so much silt that only the tops of the columns protruded above the ground. Archaeologists have dug away this silt everywhere except beneath the mosque!
This first courtyard is linked to the second by an avenue of columns erected by Amenhotep III. The columns on the right (and possibly those on the left as well) were dismantled a few years to and re-erected on sheets of plastic as a damp-proof course. Since Nasser built the High Dam at Aswan, the ground water pressure has increased throughout Egypt and the pillars were serving as giant wicks, sucking up the water and evaporating it into the air. As the water is rich in salts, these salts were doing incredible damage to the stone - you can see some of this damage at the base of the columns, where the reliefs and inscriptions have virtually disappeared within my lifetime.
In the course of this work a cache of 26 statues was discovered, carefully buried in the area between the columns and the river. Presumably they had been removed to make way for new statues and new offerings and buried reverently by the priests. They form the heart of the collection in the Luxor Museum (see below).
The second courtyard leads to a maze of chambers and storerooms. At the far end is an inner sanctum consisting of a room within a room, which is decorated with reliefs showing a youthful pharaoh making offerings to Amun. The pharaoh is Alexander, who paid for the temple to be repaired and restored.
One of the doorways into this area has an arch over it and an semi-circular apse while to the right the wall is covered with badly damaged plaster. This indicates that at one point this part of the temple was converted into a Christian church - for which an apse was a necessary architectural feature. The plaster covered over the "heathen" pictures of gods and goddesses.
On the side of the temple away from the riverbank note the extensive area covered in rows of blocks of stone. These are stones which have been found by the archaeologists but whose location in the temple is not known. The hope is that it may be possible to reassemble the reliefs and inscriptions - the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world - and thus rediscover the structure, whether wall or shrine. Alas, so many of the pieces are missing or broken that no progress has been made with this task. From time to time one hears reports of new computer programs that will take digital photographs and join all the bits together, but presumably if it was that easy humans would have done it long ago!
You exit the temple opposite the entrance, but on the town side. Note the avenue of sphines, erected by Nectanebo I in the Thirtieth Dynasty. It extends all the way from Luxor to Karnak, though if you look on Google Earth you will see that the route is not straight but had major kinks in it. Most of the route is still buried beneath the earth, though efforts are being made to excavate it and you probably passed by the more recently uncovered areas as you travelled in from the airport.
There are two museums within walking distance of the town centre. By the riverside there is the Museum of Mummification, a single largish room containing a couple of mummies, a dessicated brain, a few instruments used in mummification, and a good deal of information about the process of mummification. The whole is kept in near stygian darkness, though whether this is to preserve the exhibits, cut down on the electricity bill, or is some perverted designers idea of "artistic" I don't know. If time hangs heavy on your hands it may be worth paying the entrance fee to get out of the heat for a while, but I cannot really recommend this museum - the more so as photography is forbidden.
The Luxor Museum, however, is a must. Photography is now forbidden thanks to Zahi Hawass, Egypt's unpleasant Director of Antiquities, but nonetheless it is worth visiting to see the splendid array of objects on display. These range from models from tombs to statues of the gods. Note the statue of Tutankhamun in the guise of the god Amun; the headless statue of the scribe Senenmut, thought by some to be the Biblical Joseph; the statue of Horemhab worshipping Amun; and much else beside. Fortunately the museum was built before the passion for darkness overtook Egypt's curators and the lighting, although dim, is adequate.
The most interesting object in the museum is the mummy of Rameses I, which somehow ended up in a museum at the Niagara Falls! This museum closed in 1999 and its Egyptian exhibits were acquired by the Micahel C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, which made the generous gesture of sending the mummy back to Egypt. (A great pity, as you would have been able to photograph it in Atlanta!) It arrived in 2004 and is housed in a special annex to the Luxor Museum.
The Temple of Karnak is said to be the largest religious structure ever built, including the Vatican, Angkor Wat, and various temples in China. It started out as a fairly small, absolutely normal Egyptian temple, but over the next half a dozen centuries each king with time on his hands added another pylon, another shrine, another colonnade or courtyard, and so the temple grew, both down towards the river and south towards Luxor.
You approach the temple from the river. Only remnants of the grand avenue of sphinxes that once stretched all the way to the river bank can be seen; others may still be buried beneath the ground, but most were probably destroyed in one way or another.
Entrance is via the first pylon. Notice high on the right inside the entrance way the names of various Frenchmen, who stood on ground level to carve their names. These are the savants who accompanied Napoleon on his expedition to Egypt and who ventured down here to explore the land of Egypt.
Inside the first pylon and on the right there is a mass of mud brick heaped up against the inner face of the pylon. We cannot be sure what this was for but the suggestion is that it is the remains of a ramp up which stones were dragged, either for the pylon itself or for the colonnade of the courtyard. It seems curious that it was not removed, for even if money for construction ran out, surely the priests themselves could have carted it away one brick at a time. It is possible, therefore, that it served some other purpose, but what that was I have no idea.
There is a stairway running up the heart of the pylon, from which you can get to the top and to the "windows" on either side. During great festivals the rectangular grooves in the front of the pylon held huge flag poles made of tree trunks or poles lashed together. Banners were hung from these and the staircase and "windows" facilitated the hanging of the banners. Hieroglyphic texts record the occasion - and there must have been more than one such incident - when the leather thongs holding the poles together snapped, leading to the collapse of the flagpole with numerous deaths and injuries in the crowd of devout pilgrims outside the temple.
There is a single huge column in the courtyard, but apparently Pharaoh Tarharqa intended a complete avenue of such columns, but died before he could complete his plan. As another indication of the depth to which the temple was buried, I have a picture of a party of dinner-jacketed gentlemen seated around a table on the stone block at the top of the column, which at that time was only five or six feet above ground level!
Beyond this column there is a second pylon, inside which is the famous Hypostyle Hall of Karnak. The columns here are the largest in the land of Egypt and if you are visiting with a group, it is traditional to link hands around a column and have your photograph taken; I believe you need something like 12-18 people to encircle one of these columns. However even more impressive, to me, is the gargantuan lattices that filled the windows at the top of these columns, allowing light into the hall.
Most Egyptian temples had a hypostyle hall, if not one quite as large as that of Karnak! The reason is simple: the Egyptians did not understand the potential of the arch. Their only method of roofing a space was to lay slabs of stone across it and there are limits to the weight of stone that can be lifted so high and also physical limits to the length a single block can span, so they had to have lots of pillars to support the lots of roofing slabs!
Continue through the Hypostyle Hall and out the far end. On your left there is a tall granite obelisk closely surrounded by a ruined wall. The obelisk was erected by Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, and was a grand affair with a golden tip that reflected the sun. Her son and successor caused every reference to his mother to be destroyed and everyone of her pictures to be defaced, but for some reason piety forbade him to remove or destroy the obelisk. Instead he erected a wall all around it to hide it from view!
Go further and you will find on your left a wall covered with an inscription commemorating Tutmose III's expedition to Palestine. The extensive reliefs depict the vast quantities of loot he brought back and some, with a vivid imagination, have claimed to see here the treasures from Solomon's temple. Beyond this wall is a shrine that is still roofed; notice the blue painted ceiling and the formulaic stars depicted on it.
Beyond this again is a pillared hall, at one end of which is a statue of three gods - probably the Theban Triad - which has been mutilated. Muslim guides assure you that it was mutilated by Christians to form a cross. This seems highly unlikely, as its resemblance to a cross is tenuous to say the least. I fear that Muslims themselves are the most likely culprits, but as whoever it was didn't leave a note saying "Ahmed waz 'ere" (or "Gregory waz 'ere") we will never know for sure.
Continue to the end of the temple and admire the huge mud-brick wall that surrounds the complex. This is now lined with police guard posts, all facing outwards. The government is determined to protect tourists from any lunatic Muslim extremists who may wish to mount another attack, but I suspect this is mainly cosmetic to reassure the tourists.
In the first place, the low-paid policemen in the guard posts are more likely to take to their heels in the event of an attack. In the second place, the idiot extremists learned a salutary lesson from the Deir el-Bahri attack: tourists don't like being shot at. The year after that attack tourism in Egypt just about collapsed and all the mad mullahs found that their congregations were unemployed and no longer able to give offerings and keep them in the style to which they had become accustomed. The following year the mad mullahs discovered that it is contrary to Islam to attack tourists and promised never to do it again.
Turn to the right and walk a short distance before heading back towards the temple again. This should bring you to the Sacred Lake, which must have been linked to the Nile in some way, because there is a covered staircase Nileometer beside the lake.
Continue past the lake and walk along the outside of the temple. Two or three doorways beyond the lake you come to a wall on the right covered with an extensive relief. At the top left you have pharaoh crowned with a tall headdress holding a wand or sceptre up while a battered Asiatic crouches at his feet. Beneath his feet and all around him are dozens of captives, depicted as cartouches topped with a head and bound arms. (There is another relief vaguely similar, but it shows the pharaoh smiting his enemies with a mace.) This is Sheshonq, who is usually identified with the Biblical Shishak. The only problem is that he doesn't mention Jerusalem and most of the cities he lists are well to the north. On the other hand, there are considerable damaged blank spaces in the list and it is possible that Jerusalem fits in there somewhere.
Behind you are a number of pylons heading south towards the Luxor temple, one of which has a construction crane looming over it. That crane has been there for at least thirty years. At first the archaeologists were trying to repair these badly damaged pylons; now however they are trying to pull at least one of them to pieces. The reason is that they discovered it had been built with stones taken from a destroyed temple of Akhenaton and as pylons are two-a-penny and temples by Akhenaton are rare, they are quite prepared to sacrifice the pylon in order to reconstruct the temple. Alas, rather like the wilderness of carved stone outside the Luxor temple, the spirit is willing but actual implementation is weak and the temple is a long way from being reconstructed.
The West Bank
This will be written in the near future.
treasures from Solomon's temple The theory runs like this: Tutmose III boasts of having capture Kadesh, a city which Egyptians frequently fought against up in Syria. However "Kadesh" sounds like "Qodesh" - "Holy City" (Arabs still refer to Jerusalem as al-Quds) so it must be Jerusalem that he captured and therefore Tutmose III must be Shishak of the Bible.
Of course Tutmose III was was some 600 years before Solomon and his name sounds nothing like "Shishak", but these are minor problems if you are sufficiently determined and ingenious. I certainly don't claim to have the last word in chronology, but just on the point of temple treasures, I have gazed long and earnestly at this relief and it requires a better imagination than mine to see the furniture from Solomon's temple in the objects on display here. Return
blue painted ceiling It is interesting that the tabernacle constructed by Moses in the wilderness was roofed with blue cloth - over which was laid black goats' hair cloth for strength and red-dyed leather for water-proofness. Almost certainly the blue cloth was intended, like the Egyptian temples, to indicate the sky above, but unlike Egyptian temples, it was without stars. In other words, it was the daytime sky, not the nighttime. Return
attack tourists On the whole, they have kept to their word. Instead they are attacking the native Egyptian Christians, the Copts. There are still a few individuals who try to attack tourists, but they tend not to be successful. There is also a problem with al-Qaida out in the Sinai, but that need not concern us.
In a way, however, I have a certain sympathy for the mad mullahs. Egypt is a Muslim country where women are obliged to cover their bodies (men too, but to a lesser extent), and where alcohol and pork are prohibited. Along come these western tourists, wandering around in bikinis if female and shorts if male, demanding bacon for breakfast and brazenly guzzling beer and other alcoholic drinks. I have walked along the river bank and seen women sunbathing topless on the cruise ships tied up twenty feet or less away from women in black with their faces veiled.
I believe very firmly that we should respect the culture and customs of the country in which we are guests. Please, wear trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and if you are female, keep those shirt buttons done up. If you simply cannot survive a week without eating dead pig and drinking alcohol, then go take your holiday somewhere else - Las Vegas or the Bahamas. Don't come to Egypt! Return
Sacred Lake There is a delightful story concerning this lake. A certain pharaoh, feeling bored, summoned his court magician and demanded entertainment. The magician, wise beyond his years, forebore to pull rabbits out of hats and instead suggested that the youngest and most beautiful members of the royal harem be summoned, dressed in fishing nets (there's nothing new under the sun!) and set to row pharaoh around on this lake.
The ladies were duly summoned, unclothed, draped in nets, and set to rowing and pharaoh found his ennui dissipating satisfactorily. Alas, one of these ladies dropped a favourite piece of jewellery overboard and the magician was once more summoned. Muttering a powerful spell, he rolled the water of the lake up like a carpet, retrieved the jewellery and unrolled the water back into its place. Presumably the rowing continued. Return