Tombs and temples in Luxor are, in my opinion, the most beautiful things to visit in Egypt. Not even the world-famous pyramids of Giza can compare with the beauty of these monuments in the south of the country and the wonder they arouse when visiting them. The hieroglyphs, still in their original colours, cover every wall, door and column. They make the monuments in Luxor a visual feast for the tourists’ eyes. Seeing in first person all this richness of detail is something truly magical. If you’re travelling to Egypt, you can’t miss this beauty: it’s fascinating beyond belief!
Luxor: the ancient capital Thebes
Luxor was the Upper (actually meaning Southern) Egypt’s capital during the New Kingdom, around XVI – XI century BC. It used to have the name of Thebes and it was the city of the God Amon (later on also called Amun-Ra), the main deity in ancient Egypt.
Nowadays it’s divided into the East Bank and the West Bank, with River Nile in the middle. East Bank is the actual modern city, with most of the hotels and restaurants, chaos, shops and traffic. The West Bank, in ancient times, used to be the land reserved for the dead, the necropolis with tombs and mortuary temples. Today, life flows much more calmly on the West Bank than on the opposite bank. It has a small village feeling. Nonetheless, almost all the most interesting monuments are right here and it gets flooded with tourists every single morning.
UNESCO has declared ancient Thebes a world heritage site, including the temples of Luxor and Karnak, and both Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.
What to visit in Luxor
A standard tour takes you to visit Luxor in one day, or two half days. I strongly suggest you save money on other things, and rather reserve at least two or three days for this area because it’s incredibly beautiful and absolutely worth the money!
One day Luxor classic tour includes:
Except for the Colossi, which I consider a useless waste of time and I will explain later on why, the other four attractions are certainly well worth seeing. But I suggest you stay at least another day and a half in Luxor to visit the other must-see, of the West Bank:
To fill in that half a day left you might still have to spend, you could also add:
Many of these attractions are worthy of an Egyptologist to explain the details of what you’re seeing. I suggest you read this post about tips and tricks to organize a trip in the south of Egypt for more in-depth information about tour guides and agencies for your visit. But if you like being your own guide or if you want (and you should!) to have an idea of what you’re going to visit in Luxor, I suggest the travel book Lonely Planet. The English version is quite recent, but even if it wasn’t, ancient Egypt is not going to change much!
Let’s quickly look at all the main attractions in Luxor, in the order I mentioned them before, to give you an idea of what to expect from each of them.
What to visit on East Bank in Luxor
An architectural, archaeological and historical delight, the Karnak temple is hands down the most beautiful temple I have seen in Egypt. It is dedicated to the god Amun-Ra and is located 3 km north of the one in Luxor. Between the two used to run a ceremonial road adorned with two parallel rows of sphinxes. There are only a few dozen of them left, and they are on display at the entrance to both temples.
The Karnak temple has been built over several centuries. The very first shrine dates back nearly 4,000 years. Since then and for the next 1500 years, every pharaoh has added or redecorated some parts of the complex. The present temple is really huge and you can spend several hours to visit all its buildings.
The Great Hypostyle Hall (a covered room supported by columns) is definitely the most spectacular part of the temple. It’s a wide space with 134 impressive papyrus flower-shaped columns, 24 to 26 meters high and more than 10 meters in diameter. Their surface is completely decorated with hieroglyphs and sacred scenes, and many of them maintained the original colours through the centuries. Almost all the columns resist, with some restoration, the 3500 years of the force of gravity. The roof, however, had almost completely collapsed.
There are four obelisks in the complex, and the one built by Hatshepsut, the pharaoh queen, won the title of the tallest in Egypt. The female ruler had a pink granite monolith of almost 30 meters excavated and transported from Aswan. The tip was covered with an alloy of gold and silver and could be seen from far away.
Among the many other highlights in the Temple of Karnak, there is a wall decorated with a curious list of offerings collected in the territories around Luxor in honour of the god Amun-Ra.
This temple is located in the middle of the city and it opens until late in the evening. It is well lit and visiting it with artificial lights can be an interesting experience. The road with the sphinxes, which once reached Karnak Temple, is particularly fascinating at night. The downside of an evening visit is the crowd. In fact, almost all tours, especially the one-day-only, take tourists to visit the Temple of Luxor during these hours. Maybe exploring it during the day isn’t such a bad idea.
In ancient Egypt, the temple came to life especially during the annual festival of Opet. On this occasion the statues of the gods Amun, Mut and Khonsu were brought from Karnak to Luxor, along the way of the sphinxes. This temple has shrines dedicated to different deities, but it was mainly used to worship Amun.
Among the numerous engravings and hieroglyphs that cover the temple, I’d like to mention two scenes that I found particularly curious. In the colonnade of Amenhotep III (past the entrance and the first courtyard), a representation of the festival of Opet can be seen on the exterior wall. There are the pharaoh, the nobles, the peasants, but above all the acrobats doing contortion!
The second interesting scene is found in the sanctuary of Amun, the last and most important room of Luxor temple, where the sacred golden boat once stood. Here we see Alexander the Great depicted as a pharaoh, because the ego of a great conqueror has no boundaries.
One last peculiarity of this complex is the presence of the small Abu al Haggag mosque. You can see it on your left past the entrance, on top of the little rocky hill. This part of the temple had been turned from an Egyptian temple to a Coptic church and finally into a mosque. Since the mosque is still running, Luxor Temple is considered the oldest religious building still in use, with 3400 years of service!
What to visit on West Bank in Luxor
The Valley of the Kings
Definitely one of the most incredible places to visit in Egypt, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor is a very popular destination and therefore always crowded. Here are the tombs of the pharaohs who died between 1500 and 1000 BC. The leaders of that era realized that however magnificent, the pyramids weren’t a very safe burial system. They had thus chosen this valley hidden in the rocky mountains to dig their graves and then hide the entrances.
Unfortunately, we know that not even digging tunnels in the mountains prevented tombs from being looted. Among those discovered so far, in fact, we found all but one empty. The famous tomb of Tutankhamun survived looters because its entrance is directly below that of Ramses VI. This trick, and the fact that poor Ramses was found first, made the area around the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb “already plundered”. And therefore uninteresting for subsequent thieves.
Far more names of pharaohs are known than tombs discovered throughout Egypt. So there are chances of finding more. And maybe some of them might have been sealed for more than 2000 years!
The most interesting tombs in the Valley of the Kings
There are about a dozen graves open to the public. They open in rotation to safeguard their appearance and allow their restoration and conservation. The flow of tourists is in fact really intense and the Valley of the Kings is constantly crowded.
The entrance ticket to the Valley includes a visit to three tombs of your choice. If you want to see more, you can buy a second ticket and choose three more. There are also 3-4 tombs that can only be visited by buying an extra ticket.
To get an idea of what each tomb looks like, check out this amazing mapping project of the entire Valley. There are maps of all the tombs, names, historical information and lots of photos. Speaking of maps, in the ticket hall of the site, there is a maquette of the valley. Stop here for a minute and have a look, lowering your eyes to the level of the display case. Under the layers of dust, you can admire not only the reconstruction of the entire valley and the entrances to the tombs, but also all the passages dug out of the rock by the ancient Egyptians!
I visited the tombs of Ramesses IV, Merneptah and Ramesses III. The first has an impressive descending corridor almost 90 meters long. Its walls are completely covered in hieroglyphs and it ends in a hall with a huge sarcophagus that fills the room almost completely. 160 meters long, the tomb of Merenptah is one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings. The mortuary room is much wider than the corridor and the mummy of the pharaoh rested inside 4 sarcophagi. When it was time to close the fourth, an unpleasant problem seems to have arisen. The workers realized that the sarcophagus was too wide to go through the door! Apparently, they had to widen access at the very last minute. The tomb of Ramesses III is one of the most known because, in addition to having wonderful decorations, it has a peculiar structure. Shortly after the excavations began, the workers emerged in a secondary room of the tomb of Amenmesse. They had to stop the diggings and then resume with a parallel corridor!
Judging by the price, the tomb of Seti I is the one to not miss among those with an extra ticket. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t personally recommend it.
On the other hand, I can recommend what not to visit: the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun died very young, so they didn’t have much time to create something majestic. His grave is small, sparsely decorated, and clearly hastily finished. It’s famous for the magnificent treasure it contained, but all that is now on display in Cairo’s museums. So the tomb is empty, just like all the others. If you want to get an idea of how it must have looked in the eyes of the archaeologists who opened it in 1922, in Luxor you could visit the replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb, which is located in the garden of the Museum of the House of Carter, the expedition leader who discovered it.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
The life of Hatshepsut fascinated me even more than her most famous monument. I have told her story in a post about Hatshepsut and her mortuary temple in Luxor. I’ll give you here a brief summary to understand what kind of woman we’re talking about.
Hatshepsut was the firstborn princess, the daughter of the pharaoh. She tried to obtain the throne after the death of her father. But she was instead given in marriage to her half-brother and became queen. The husband died soon and she suddenly turned into a widow without male heirs. Instead of ruling as regent until her stepson Thutmose III reached reigning age, she came up with a great idea. She declared that hers was a miraculous divine conception and proclaimed herself pharaoh, holding absolute power for more than 20 years. Obviously, her tomb is in the Valley of the Kings, not in that of the queens!
The story goes on with a petty revenge by the stepson and nephew against Hatshepsut and gossip about an alleged relationship between herself and the architect of the temple. If you are curious and want more details, go read the post mentioned above.
As for the mortuary temple, Hatshepsut spared no expense. It’s a three-level temple, with two imposing colonnades on either side of the access stairway. A row of sphinxes and a garden with ethnic trees accompanied pilgrims to the entrance. The third level esplanade gives access to the sanctuaries of Hathor, Ibis and Osiris, dug directly into the mountain. Up here there are also the chapels for the worship of Hatshepsut and her father Thutmose I, and other rooms for the exclusive use of the queen and the priests.
Colossi of Memnon
Without exception, every single tour in Luxor includes these two statues. The only possible reason for this fact is that the Colossi of Memnon are located on the very same road to the Valley of the Kings (you literally pass by them) and that their visit is free of charge. There are no other explanations.
The Colossi are the least interesting thing I’ve seen in all of Egypt. And I’m not saying they aren’t big or ancient or historically important. The fact is that with all the wonders in the area, the two statues are a totally expendable stop.
Valley of the Queens
A sort of small Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens is a gem not to be missed. The tombs are slightly smaller than those of the pharaohs, but they were still made for queens, princes and royal families, so no expenses were spared and the richness of the decorations is still amazing. Given the minor amount of tourists, these tombs can be better appreciated than the ones in the Valley of the Kings.
The tombs open to the public are not many but, as always in Egypt, excavations and new discoveries continue. Among those that can be visited, there are two tombs of the still very young sons of Ramesses III: Prince Kha Em Wast and Prince Amen Khopshef. In both tombs, the most beautiful scenes carved on the walls represent the pharaoh accompanying his sons before the gods, teaching them how to make their way to the afterlife. Another interesting one is the tomb of Queen Titi. Several rooms overlook the main corridor, each profusely decorated with hieroglyphs and sacred scenes, including some cute guardian animals.
Nefertari was one of Ramesses II’s wives and, judging by the beauty of the tomb, probably his favourite. Visiting her tomb is not included in the entrance ticket and costs no less than 1400 EGP (January 2023), the higher tomb price in all of Luxor.
The tomb was opened to the public a few years ago and I had heard such good things about it that I wanted to see it. The decorations are truly impressive and still incredibly well maintained nowadays. Every single inch of the walls is carved with hieroglyphs and sacred scenes. The ceilings are covered with yellow stars on a blue background and the colours, as for the walls, are still very bright.
The tomb is a real visual feast, but is it worth paying the high price of admission? There are many wonderful tombs between the two valleys of Kings and Queens. This is certainly one of the most beautiful, with especially vibrant colours and very well maintained through time. But in the eyes of a tourist with an average knowledge of Egypt, like me for example, the beauty of this tomb is comparable to that of others. I recommend it to those with a passion for ancient art or Egyptology, those who can appreciate the differences.
Medinet Habu Temple
Compared to the temples of the East Bank, the Medinet Habu temple, also called the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, is less popular and therefore can be visited without the crowd which distinguishes many other attractions in Luxor. Perhaps exactly for this reason, I liked it a lot and I think it’s greatly underestimated.
Built as a tiny temple for the god Amun, it was with time enormously enlarged and converted into a mortuary temple for Ramesses III. The entrance passes through a huge wall, covered with reliefs with sacred and non-sacred scenes. The two internal courtyards are beautiful, and currently under restoration. Take a tour of the colonnades and look at the colours of the ceilings! On the left of the first courtyard, there is a little door, from which the pharaoh could look out to speak to his assistants. Just behind the passage, there are still the remains of the pharaoh’s palace and harem.
The last part of the temple, with the sanctuaries for the offerings and some secondary rooms, has suffered the most over time, even though the restoration works continue.
Dendera and Abydos
A little out of Luxor, Dendera and Abydos are two temples off the beaten path that I strongly suggest you visit. They are not often explored mainly because they take time to reach. They are in fact located respectively 70 and 170 km from the city. It takes a full day to see both, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Furthermore, this trip gives you the opportunity to discover the Egyptian countryside, with its villages, markets, dirt roads and animals along the way. It is an image of the country as common as it is completely ignored by most tourists.
Hathor Temple in Dendera
This temple dedicated to Hathor is truly spectacular and it has nothing less to offer than the monuments in Luxor. It is well maintained and the great hypostyle hall with its huge columns is decorated to every inch, including the ceiling. Two long narrow staircases with beautifully carved walls lead up to the roof. Here is another small temple and a copy of an elaborate zodiac whose original is now in Paris.
Outside the temple, you can also visit the sacred lake, where the priests purified themselves, a Coptic basilica of which not much remains, and two structures dedicated to women in labour and pregnant.
Among other festivities, the Harvest Festival was a major event for the Dendera temple. Once a year the statue of Horus was brought here from Edfu, so that the god could meet his bride Hathor and together they would bring a fruitful season.
Seti I Temple in Abydos
The main monument of the Abydos complex is the temple of Seti I. It really strikes the visitors for how well it has been maintained over time. It isn’t visited a lot, which makes it all the more satisfying to explore. The temple was dedicated to seven deities, including Pharaoh Seti himself. Although Seti I has a shrine of his own, the temple is famous for the many royal cartouches (frames containing the names of kings and queens) left empty. The temple was in fact built in a historical period of particular political instability, and it appears that the artists did not know who to honour in their decorations: the pharaohs didn’t last long!
Abydos offers important information from a historical point of view. On the walls of one of the side corridors, a list of almost all the pharaohs up to Ramesses II (about 1200 BC) is carved. This incredible list gives us a pretty clear idea of the successions and how many tombs are still missing!
Besides the majestic columns and the huge halls, the temple has an original L-shape. When excavating the deepest part of the temple, the workers had to change its orientation because they encountered an older and rather curious construction: the Osireion. It is a sort of mortuary room reached by an underground tunnel and otherwise surrounded by water channels to make it look like an island. Being sacred, it could not be torn down, so the architecture of Seti I’s temple had to adapt.
The Tombs of the Nobles
Compared to other archaeological sites, the Nobles’ Tombs are generally ignored by tourists who visit Luxor in a single. You can see them with the greatest silence, almost alone. Though smaller in size and richness compared to the royal ones, they are still fairly interesting. The decorations on their walls, in fact, show mostly worldly scenes, absent in the kings and queens’ tombs. You can admire city festivals, fieldwork, animals, banquets, family scenes.
The ticket office is in common with other attractions in the area. It sells tickets to individual tombs, so you can choose which ones to visit. I have seen the tombs of Nacht, Menna and Amenemipet. The first is small and narrow, but the drawings are very original, showing the daily life of the common people. The tomb of Menna impresses with the details of the drawings and the still very lively colours. Slightly more ruined, in the tomb of Amenimipet you can see the carvings of the once colourful decorations and the remains of numerous statues.
Something both curious and annoying is the fact that the guardians of the Tombs of the Nobles lock the entrances of the tombs for safety reasons. When you arrive in front of the door, therefore, you have to find the man on duty with the keys, St. Peter’s style, and ask him to open the tomb for you (and give him a tip). The positive thing, however, is that if at the last minute, you decide to visit an extra tomb you didn’t buy the ticket for, you only need to slip a good tip to the guardian and the door will magically open in front of you.
The workers’ village in Dir El Madina
As a young student, I was taught that the workers in ancient Egypt were mostly slaves. It is now widely accepted that this theory is absolutely false. Here in Luxor, as well as near the famous pyramids of Cairo, archaeologists have unearthed an entire village inhabited by the workers of the nearby necropolis of West Bank. From diggers to skilled artists, they built and decorated the tombs of their kings.
In Dir El Madina you can visit what remains of more than 70 houses and a small temple dedicated to Hathor and Maat. Not far away there are also the well-decorated tombs of some of the residents, mainly artists, but also simple servants with a certain big ego.