Luxor and Ancient Thebes: The Complete Guide

Luxor and Ancient Thebes: The Complete Guide
••• Temple of Luxor, Luxor. Visions Of Our Land/ Getty Images

One of Egypt's most important and best loved ancient sights, Luxor is commonly referred to as the world's greatest open-air museum. The modern city of Luxor is built on and around the site of the ancient city of Thebes, which historians estimate to have been inhabited since 3,200 BC. It is also home to the Karnak temple complex, which served as the main place of worship for the Thebans. Together, the three sites have been attracting tourists since the Greco-Roman times, all of them drawn by the area's incredible collection of ancient temples and monuments.

 

Luxor's Golden Age

Luxor's history pre-dates the modern city and is inextricably woven with that of Thebes, the legendary metropolis known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset. 

Thebes reached the height of its splendor and influence in the period from 1,550 - 1,050 BC. At this time, it served as the capital of a newly unified Egypt, and became known as a center of economy, art and architecture associated with the Egyptian god Amun. The pharaohs that ruled during this period spent vast sums of money on temples designed to honor Amun (and themselves), and so the incredible monuments for which the city is famous today were born. During this period, known as the New Kingdom, many pharaohs and their queens elected to be buried in the necropolis at Thebes, known today as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. 

Top Attractions in Luxor

Located on the east bank of the River Nile, present-day Luxor should be the first stop for visitors to the region.

Start at the Luxor Museum, where exhibitions filled with artefacts from the surrounding temples and tombs give a comprehensive introduction to the area's must-see attractions. Signs written in Arabic and English introduce priceless pharaonic art, colossal statues and intricate jewelry. In an annexe dedicated to the treasures of the New Kingdom, you'll find two royal mummies, one believed to be the remains of Ramesses I.

If you find yourself fascinated by the process of mummification, don't miss the Mummification Museum with its displays of carefully preserved human and animal remains. 

The main attraction in Luxor itself, however, is the Luxor Temple. Construction was started by Amenhotep III in approximately 1390 BC, with additions by a series of later pharaohs including Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. Architectural highlights include a colonnade of soaring columns decorated with hieroglyphic reliefs; and a gateway guarded by two massive statues of Ramesses II. 

Top Attractions in Karnak

North of Luxor itself lies the Karnak Temple Complex. In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, or The Most Selected of Places, and served as the main place of worship for 18th-dynasty Thebans. The first pharaoh to build there was Senusret I during the Middle Kingdom, although most of the buildings that remain date back to the New Kingdom golden age. Today, the site is a vast complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks, all dedicated to the Theban Triad. It is thought to be the second largest religious complex in the world. If there's one sight to top your bucket list, it should be the Great Hypostyle Hall, part of the Precinct of Amun-Re.

 

Top Attractions in Ancient Thebes

Head across the River Nile to the West Bank, and discover the great necropolis of ancient Thebes. Of its many sections, the most visited is the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs of the New Kingdom chose to be entombed in preparation for the afterlife. Their mummified bodies were buried alongside everything they wanted to take with them - including furniture, jewelery, clothes and supplies of food and drink contained within great urns. There are more than 60 known tombs in the Valley of the Kings, many of which have long been stripped of their treasures. Of these, the most famous (and most intact) is the tomb of Tutankhamun, a minor pharaoh who ruled for just nine years. 

To the south of the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens, where members of the pharaohs' families were buried (including both men and women).

Although there are more than 75 tombs in this section of the necropolis, only four are open to the public. Of these, the most famous is that of Queen Nefertari, whose walls are covered with magnificent paintings. 

Where to Stay & When to Go

There are many accommodation options to choose from in Luxor, most of them located on the east bank. You should be able to find something for every budget, from affordable options like the top-rated, three-star Nefertiti Hotel; to the splendid luxury of five-star hotels like the historic Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor. The best time to travel is during the March to April and October to November shoulder seasons, when the crowds wane and temperatures are still bearable. Winter (December to February) is the coolest time of year, but also the busiest and most expensive. In high summer (May to September), the heat can make sightseeing uncomfortable. 

Getting There

Luxor is one of the top tourist destinations in Egypt, and as such you're spoiled for choice in terms of ways to get there. There are regular buses and trains from Cairo and other major towns across Egypt. You can take a felucca from Aswan along the Nile, while Luxor International Airport (LXR) allows you to fly in from a myriad of domestic and international departure points.