Luxor’s Deserted Attractions

Avenue of Sphinxes, Luxor Temple

October 1 – 5, 2012

Photo set on Flickr

Ok, that’s enough about the economy. What about the temples and tombs, you know, the reason why I was in Luxor in the first place?

Without question, the sites in Luxor are as impressive as any I have seen. Inevitably places of such high caliber are always packed with visitors, except when, like the Arab spring, headline grabbing instability occurs and scares people away. Contrary to popular discourse, unless the situation in Egypt deteriorates further, I believe now is a great time to visit Luxor and take advantage of the lack of visitors almost everywhere, including the world-famous Luxor and Karnak Temple Complexes.

By no means had I seen all of what Luxor has to offer. With just three full days, I only managed to get the most famous places under my belt.

Luxor Temple (14th century BC)

Luxor Temple at Night

My first impression of Luxor was its namesake temple. Founded by Amenhotep III in 14th century BC, the complex was expanded over the subsequent century, especially during Ramesses II’s reign. Located in the heart of town, we could see the complex in its entirety from the rooftop of our hotel. And it was not a particularly pretty sight. Long encroached by homes and shops, UNESCO had approved a plan to restore the historic site to its original state by first tearing down all the surrounding buildings and then establishing a tree-lined promenade between Luxor Temple and Karnak. Construction work has stopped since the revolution, leaving behind a series of ugly, unfinished trenches.

After passing through the ticket office, to the right was the recently excavated Avenue of Sphinxes, which like the name suggests is a road flanked by sphinx statues on both sides. To the left was the gateway of the temple, guarded by a 25m tall obelisk. Even to someone like myself who has never been to Luxor before, it looked strangely familiar. Indeed it was identical to the one at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, which was looted by the French in 1835.

Although not our favorite, Luxor Temple was the only site we visited twice, once in the morning and again at night. The experience was literally as different as night and day. With the aid of sunlight we could appreciate all the temple’s meticulous details, while at night we immersed in the temple’s timeless aura.

Karnak (21th century BC)

Great Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple

The Karnak Temple Complex consists of four sections, but as of now only the Precinct of Amun-Re is available to visitor.

Two unique aspects define Karnak – its longevity and size. Thirty pharaohs spanning from the Middle Kingdom to the Ptolemaic dynasty had constructed on the site, allowing Karnak to expand into one of the largest religious complexes on earth.

I wasn’t prepared for the unparalleled scale of Karnak, even though I had seen the Luxor Temple earlier in the day. Standing among the 134 columns of the 50,000 sq ft Hypostyle Hall, each at least ten meters in height and thousands of years old, my own existence appeared minuscule and temporary.

Karnak’s status usually guarantees a ceaseless flow of visitors, but under the current political climate I could marvel at this wonder without distraction. I was truly inspired by what the Ancient Egyptian civilization managed to accomplish, and thankful for all the factors that contributed to the preservation of these temples to present times.

Valley of the Kings (16 century – 11 century BC)

The Theban Necropolis, one of the largest collection of funerary monuments in the world, is across the Nile on Luxor’s west bank. According to Ancient Egyptian belief, the path of the underworld lies to the west, the direction where the sun disappears everyday.

Our day on the west bank would include visits to the Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut and Medinet Habu. We first visited the Valley of the Kings because temperature climbs up rapidly in the shadeless valley after early morning. A single ticket was valid for three tombs, which we used for the tombs of Ramesses I (KV 16), Ramesses III (KV 11), Ramesses IX (KV 6). Photography was not allowed in the site.

The burial treasures inside the tombs had long been stolen by tomb raiders or, in a few fortunate cases like the Tomb of Tutankhamun, been transferred to museums for public admiration. That doesn’t mean a visit to these empty tombs becomes meaningless – the tombs’ sunk-reliefs, colourfully restored to their original state, continue to provide deep insight to the times of the pharaohs. Better visit them soon as there is plan to build replicas and make the originals off-limit to most visitors.

Nov 2013 update: a replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb is about to open to the public.

Temple of Hatshepsut (15th century BC)

Hatshepsut’s Temple

Thanks to its awe-inspiring location at the base of towering cliffs, the Temple of Hatshepsut is perhaps the most recognizable of all the temples in Luxor. Hatshepsut dedicated her namesake temple to the sun god Amon-Ra and is part of the Deir el-Bahari (The Northern Monastery) complex.

After not seeing any tour group elsewhere, I was slightly surprised to see the Temple of Hatshepsut filled with package tourists from Mainland China. I supposed they were on a whirlwind one-day tour of Luxor after their cruise from Aswan, since I had not seen them around town before or since.

The crowd was unavoidable given the Temple of Hatshepsut’s miniature size. A massive amount of people was clogging along the temple’s iconic stairs, wiping away any good photographic opportunity and our interest to linger.

Medinet Habu (12th century BC)

Medinet Habu

My wife’s favorite temple, Medinet Habu’s appeal is immediately apparent upon first sight. The three imposing pylons leading to its central courtyard eclipsed even Karnak’s in size. The outer wall of the Hypostyle Hall, filled up with exquisite reliefs that depict Ramesses III’s victory over the Libyans and the Sea Peoples, was as impressive as anything we had come across in Egypt.

What Ramesses III probably didn’t foresee when he erected this massive wall was, during several periods of unrest in later times, his complex would be turned into a safe haven. Its status as a refuge brought considerable damage to the temples, especially during the late Roman era when much of the complex was occupied by Christians as dwellings.

Temple of Seti I, Abydos (13th century BC)

Temple of Seti I, Abydos

We hired a driver on our last day in Egypt to visit two temple complexes north of Luxor, Abydos and Dendera. Abydos, while only 90km north of Luxor, required two hours to cover the distance. Why? Because the country’s main north-south “highway” is a mere two-lane road.

The long drive wasn’t necessarily bad news – I would love to recover some lost sleep after being woken up by an amplified broadcast of a tahajjud (night prayer) at 3 am the night before. My craving for sleep was again interrupted, this time by our driver’s recording of a monotonous Islamic chants. Normally I would ask to have the volume turned down, but I decided to let it go. A good precaution, I figured, to display more sensitivities toward anything religious-related in this land of Sufism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turning my attention away from the mind-numbing chants, I focused outside, on the dirt roads, donkeys, wheat field, farmhouses and never-ending trail of trash. With our own eyes we had seen the situation in Cairo, but Egypt’s garbage problem is equally dire across the country.

While nowadays most Egyptians endeavour to visit Mecca once in their lifetime, their ancestors aspired to make the same pilgrimage to Abydos. As the cult centre of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, Abydos was believed by Ancient Egyptians to be close to the entrance of the underworld.

The main draw of Abydos is the Temple of Seti I, constructed by Ramses II in honour of his father Seti I. Unlike its counterparts in Luxor, the roof of Seti I remains intact due to the temple being covered by sand for centuries. Going in with tempered expectation (this was our fifth temple in three days), I was thoroughly dazzled by the temple’s exquisitely detailed bas-reliefs, the best we had seen on this trip.

Temple of Hathor, Dendera (1st century BC)

Temple of Hathor, Dendera

30km south of Abydos is Dendara, home to a temple which dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of joy with an appearance of a cow. Her presence is immediately visible inside the temple; eighteen cow-headed columns support the Hypostyle Hall. Regrettably most of the faces of the deity are heavily damaged and barely recognizable.

The columns, walls and even the roof had their blue and white colours repainted, giving the hall a dimension unique to its unrestored counterparts. Our attention, however, was drawn by a different stimulus altogether – the sound of flapping wings. Some dark objects were flying under the roof, which upon closer inspection were in fact bats. Between the lack of light, the scratched faces of Hathor and the bats, I felt like being at an apocalyptic movie set where human sacrifice was about to take place to calm a bloodthirsty deity.

Although rooftop sanctuaries were a feature of most Ancient Egyptian temples, Dendara’s are one of the rare few which remained standing to this day. We have seen a handful of temples and monuments in Egypt, and amazingly each stands out in its own way. My appetite is unfulfilled – I would love to see Abu Simbel and Edfu, but that will have to be at another time in the future.

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