Up at sunrise and with Luxor, Egypt splayed out along the Nile with its ancient riches and sites, I struck out close to downtown with a solitary visit to the Temple of Karnak. Then, with a full day ahead of me, I hired a taxi to take me to the famous west bank to visit Medinat Habu, Temple of Hapshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings. I went from the depths of tombs like Indiana Jones to craning my neck at the heights of Hypostyle hall at Karnack. It was a thrilling day with amazing sights, topped off with visit to a hotel rooftop pool.
Temple of Karnak in Luxor
There was no one around; I was completely alone in the garden of antiquities of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. The grand gates and row of sphinxes greeted me. Hushed in history, stoic in their stone silence, they were not new to visitors, but today, I had them to myself. It was 6:30 in the morning and I was the only visitor to the Temple. For one hour, I had the grand expanse of temples to myself. Karnack is 2 kilometers in length and home to the enormous Amun Temple, the temple to the god of Luxor, and several other temples and the sacred lake.
Beyond the first gates and sphinxes is Hypostyle hall, a polylithic hall with 122 stone pillars, wider in circumference than a redwood tree and reaching up to the heavens to honor Amun, the father of Amun Ra, god of gods. I heard that each pillar is topped with a lotus flower symbolizing Upper Egypt. It’s a forest of stone with a canopy created by these lotus structures and it and continues in perfect rows pillar after pillar. The pillars are engraved in hieroglyphics for the high priests and pharaohs. Beyond the hall, the temple complex has obelisks for different pharaoh, alters, and stations. Stone blocks represent the temple walls that enclosed the great building at one time.
I walked from room to room, snapped picture after picture. Like an archeologist first brushing off a jawbone in the sand, I was excited with the feeling of discovery and excitement. No one was there but me, and the temple was all mine for that hour. As I rounded back to the entrance, the clusters of tour groups began to make their way past the sphinxes to the great hall. The followed a flag holding guide like ducklings. I had the luxury of pictures with just the stone monuments, no red shirted tourists to ruin the view.
Touring Luxor: Hepshepsut, Medinat Habu, and The Valley of the Kings
After Karnak, it was only 8 a.m. so went to the train station to buy a ticket back to Cairo. They didn’t have any until the next day, so I bought on for then and walked across the street to the tourist office. The woman at the tourist office was very helpful, she recommended a few top sites: Medinat Habu, Temple of Hapshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings. I also learned the right price to pay for a taxi to take me to all these sights and negotiated the price for about four hours of transport and waiting (120 Egyptian pounds)
Medinat Habu was first and another temple for Amun. The grand gates with canvases of grand hieroglyphics marked the entrance. Inside were rows of pharonic statues and storerooms still with the original colors. This site had the most impressive hieroglyphics I’d seen thus far – there were deep etchings and related colors still in tact in this relatively small temple. A helpful man wanted to keep showing me the rooms, but I made it clear that I sight see alone. He did take my picture in front of one of the statues for some baksheesh. It’s the challenging part of traveling alone, no pictures of me with the sights unless I pay baksheesh or there are friendly tourists.
Temple of Hapshepsut – Honoring a Female Egyptian Pharoah.
At the temple of Hapshepsut, I walked up the stairs to the columned temple that looks to be carved out of the hillside. Hapshepsut was one of the seven female pharaohs; she had gained power when her husband died. Her memory was marred by desecrations from her stepson and future pharaoh Tuthmosis who believed he should have been reigning the years she was in command. This temple was a grand reminder of her, even with statues that showed her wearing the male headdress and pharonic beard.
Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings underwhelmed me at first sight, all I saw was walkways into the sandy, rocky hills and most of the tombs were closed. With my 80LE ticket (about $16), I was only granted access to three tombs. The first one, Ramses IV, I chose out of convenience and walked with groups of tourists down a small set of stairs to the tomb room. There was a huge red granite tomb in the center, carved with hieroglyphics and on the walls painted similar, but simpler markings than the temple hieroglyphics. The colors were original and bright and stunning. Some parts looked like they were painted recently, not 3500 years ago.
After this tomb, I walked down the pathways, looking for another tomb to visit. Off the main path and further down, I saw people walking down stairs, out of a crevice of two large rocks butting up to each other. That’s the one, I felt very Indiana Jones as I walked up the stairs (except in the IJ movies, there’s no stairs), through a small pathway between rock walls and then down three sets of stairs into the rock. I crossed a bridge over a 20-foot cavern, the top painted and the bottom full of strewn rock. This was the tomb of Tutmosis and the most impressive.
The first room was large – about 20 X 30 feet in dimensions and the walls were perfectly painted with the simpler hieroglyphics. I climbed down one more set of stairs and was in the tomb room. The guard in the room showed me the carvings on the red granite case – inside was an outline of the pharaoh, simple and silent, I could imagine the mummy fitting in the outline at burial. I pulled out my camera (no flash) and asked if I could take pictures, which were forbidden. The guard asked, group? I said no group and he put his fingers to his lips and I snapped away. He even pointed out drawings for me to capture.
The last tomb was Ramses I and was in a much smaller, much simpler room. More stairs down, my legs had begun to shake after the last tomb visit. It was worth it, the colors on the wall carvings were stunning, perfect blues, yellows and reds. Unfortunately a large tour group was immediately behind me and I could not sneak in some more pictures.
I took a tram back to Abdul, my taxi driver, who drove me back to my hotel. The sightseeing was excellent, but now in the afternoon I was tired and the hotel next door was allowing use of its pool for 30 LE. I bought a beer and changed into my swimsuit and lounged on the rooftop until early afternoon, remembering all the sights as the sun set on Luxor.
Tips for visiting the temples and tombs in Luxor
- Visit Karnack in the very early morning to have it to yourself.
- At this time (May 2009), it was 100 Egyptian pounds for an all day taxi ride to two temples and the Valley of the Kings for the half a day.
- Avoid any suggestions of stopping at “alabaster museums.” These are tourist shops meant to overcharge busloads of tourists.
- A rooftop pool is the best way to relax after a hard day of sightseeing. If your hotel doesn’t have one, a neighboring one does. Pony up the extra bucks and view the rooftops of Luxor, the streaming Nile, and the West Bank you just toured.