KarnakSee the pyramids along the Nile…the words of the old song evoke strong images, images of a place that has captured people’s imaginations since medieval times.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s, though, with the decoding of the Rosetta Stone, that the hieroglyphics adorning Egypt’s pyramids and monuments could be understood, and the resulting Egyptomania caught the western world by storm.

The storm is not over. If Luxor – at the start of any journey to the Upper Nile – represents the crowning glory of Egypt’s treasures, then many jewels of that crown are yet to be discovered. Officials in Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities predict that 70 percent of Luxor’s ancient glory still lies buried beneath the sands.

Across the Nile on the West Bank the dead rule. Or, more particularly, dead royals and highborns in a series of valleys collectively known as the Necropolis of Thebes.

Rulers such as Ramses II and III, and Queen Hatshepsut were entombed in the elaborate underground structures with chambers and passages decorated with paintings, and filled with everything a pharaoh could desire in this world or the next. Even pets.

The Necropolis of Thebes,The area illustrates a changing point in ancient Egypt when pharaohs abandoned the pyramid style in favour of tombs dug into limestone. They thought this would prevent grave robbing and would preserve the mummies for eternity.

They were wrong on both counts. The tombs were stripped of much of their content many centuries ago, except the well hidden burial site of Tutankhamen, discovered in perfect condition in 1922 by Howard Carter.
While the other tombs may be missing their mummies and movable treasures, the wall paintings remain, showing fascinating, minutely detailed scenes of pharaonic life.

Such paintings – equally interesting – are also found in the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles. The most famous queen’s tomb is that of Queen Nefertari, principal wife of Ramses II. Another highlight is the temple of Medinet Habu. 

The Luxor and Karnak complex on the East Bank, known as the world’s greatest open-air museum, comprises towering temples, numerous ancient monuments, and 62 treasure-filled tombs. (It’s interesting to note that the east and west banks of the Nile represented life and death respectively for the ancients. They believed the setting sun symbolized the journey to the afterlife. Thus it was fitting to bury the dead west of the Nile.)

This was the Thebes of ancient Greece, and known simply as Waset – The City – to its ancient inhabitants who numbered a million in its heyday. By the time Luxor’s power ceded to Memphis in the north (about 1085 BC), the city had held sway over ancient Egypt for more than two millennia.

Luxor Temple’s soaring columns, grandiose halls, and colossal statues of a seated Ramses II at the entrance are figures almost as familiar to us as images of the Sphinx or the Pyramids at Giza.

First built as a temple to Amun the fertility god in the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II (1500 to 1200 BC), other rulers from Tutankhamen to Alexander the Great added their contributions over the years. It’s still a place of worship – the Abu el-Haggag mosque was added in the 11th century and remains operational today.

The complex was joined to Karnak, itself a 40-hectare temple district, with an imposing three-kilometre-long avenue lined with sphinxes. Here, Hatshepsut’s obelisk rises 27.5 metres, and other massive structures and columns paid tribute to four different gods in awe-inspiring columned halls.

It might sound superfluous, but a visit to the Luxor Archaeological Museum is highly recommended. Myriad treasures are on display, offering close-up views that would be impossible anywhere else. For example: the sculpture of Amenhotep III, discovered in the 1980s, carved from pink granite. Another favourite is the carved wood cow head of the goddess Hathor as Mehit-Werit, from Tutankhamen’s tomb. The horns are copper and the eyes – emulating the “eye of Horus” – are inlaid with lapis lazuli. Gorgeous.

Today’s Luxor includes a pleasant, modern city of half a million people, most of them employed in tourism. Green spaces and graceful colonial-era buildings set the tone, but the traditional bazaar has been retained. Because there’s little industry, the air is crisp and clear. Sunset views from Luxor and Karnak are, quite simply, amazing.

Old Winter PalaceAccommodations range from the simple – such as the hotels used by archaeologists in the past – to the luxurious, like the El-Moudira Hotel on the Nile’s West Bank, or the history-filled Old Winter Palace on the East Bank, where you’ll also find other luxury properties, exclusive spas, and a golf course.

Luxor is a shore excursion for cruise ship passengers docking at Safagwa (about 220 kilometres east) on the Red Sea coast. Safagwa has its own attractions including mineral springs and therapeutic sands that are giving it a reputation as a healing centre. It’s also popular with divers and water sport buffs. Sagagwa’s clean beaches, attractive islands and small town are additional attractions.

Back in Luxor, there’s no shortage of shopping opportunities in the souks and bazaars, and best buys include locally made alabaster sculptures, copper utensils, decorated papyrus sheets, and jewelry among other items.
After a busy day of sightseeing, you might opt to relax on a sunset felucca cruise. (Feluccas are the traditional Nile boats.) Or perhaps indulge in a hot-air balloon ride over the temples. Either would be a marvellous way to end the day.

A visit to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings is surely on many people’s bucket list. Getting here is easy – by plane, boat, or train. There’s even a bus service from Cairo.

More information: www.egypt.travel.