LUXOR has been a tourist mecca ever since Nile steamers began calling in the nineteenth century to view the remains of Thebes, Ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom capital, and its associated sites – the concentration of relics in this area is overwhelming. The town itself boasts Luxor Temple, a graceful ornament to its waterfront and “downtown”, while a mile or so north is Karnak Temple, a stupendous complex built over 1300 years. Across the river are the amazing tombs and mortuary temples of the Theban Necropolis, and as if this wasn’t enough, Luxor also serves as a base for trips to Esna, Edfu, Dendara and Abydos temples, up and down the Nile Valley.

In a town where tourism accounts for 85 percent of the economy, it’s hardly surprising that you can’t move without being importuned to step inside a shop or rent a calèche, but once you get to know a few characters and begin to understand the score Luxor becomes a funky soap opera with a cast of thousands. See the advice on hotel touts, hustlers and gigolos for an idea of how things are.

Most foreigners come between October and February, when the climate is cooler than you might imagine, with chilly nights and early mornings. Around the end of March the temperature shoots up 10°C, and from late April onwards the daytime heat is brutal, until temperatures begin mellowing out in October.

Brief history

The name Luxor derives from the Arabic El-Uqsur – meaning “the palaces” or “the castles” – a name which may have referred to a Roman castrum or the town’s appearance in medieval times, when it squatted amid the ruins of Thebes. This, in turn, was the Greek name for the city known to the ancient Egyptians as Weset, originally an obscure provincial town during the Old Kingdom, that gained ascendancy in Upper Egypt under Mentuhotep II (c.2055 BC) and later became a power base for local princes who eventually liberated Egypt from the Hyksos invaders and founded the XVIII Dynasty (c.1550 BC).

As the capital of the New Kingdom, whose empire stretched from Nubia to Palestine, Thebes enjoyed an ascendancy paralleled by that of Amun, whose cult temple at Karnak became the greatest in Egypt. At its zenith under the XVIII and XIX dynasties, Thebes may have had a population of around a million; Homer’s Iliad describes it as a “city with a hundred gates”. Excluding the brief Amarna Period (c.1345–36 BC), when the “heretic” Akhenaten moved the capital northwards and forbade the worship of Amun, the dynasty’s – and city’s – supremacy lasted some five hundred years. Even after the end of the Ramessid line, when the capital returned to Memphis and thence moved to the Delta, Thebes remained the foremost city of Upper Egypt, enjoying a final fling as a royal seat under the Nubian rulers of the XXV Dynasty (c.747–656 BC).

Though Thebes persisted through Ptolemaic into Roman times, it retained but a shadow of its former glory, and might have been abandoned like Memphis were it not for Christian settlements. During Muslim times its only claim to fame was the tomb of Abu el-Haggag, a twelfth-century sheikh. However, Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt awakened foreign interest in its antiquities, which were gradually cleared during the nineteenth century and have drawn visitors ever since.

Luxor today
Not every visitor has been impressed, however: during the filming of Death on the Nile, Hollywood icon Bette Davis remarked that “In my day we’d have built all this at the studio – and better.” In a sense she had a point: the temple was half hidden by ramshackle bazaars, and downtown was a mess. But the “solution” approved by UNESCO – whose remit is to preserve the intergity of historic sites – has left the city centre scarred, and citizens embittered. Governor Samir Farag demolished hundreds of homes and shops to create an all-round view of Luxor Temple and expose the Avenue of Sphinxes that once ran out to Karnak. Residents were outraged by the derisory compensation (eighty percent less than allocated by UNESCO), and archeologists appalled by the “excavation” of the sphinxes (using bulldozers, with the damage crudely rectified in concrete). Work has stalled since the Revolution (when Farag was forced to resign), leaving ugly trenches (used as rubbish dumps) rather than the tree-lined promenade originally envisaged.

Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple stands aloof in the heart of town, ennobling the view from the waterfront and Midan el-Haggag with its grand colonnades and pylons, spotlit at night till 9pm. Though best explored by day – which takes an hour or so – you could come back after dark to imbibe its atmosphere and drama with fewer people around.

Dedicated to the Theban Triad of Amun-Min, Mut and Khonsu, Luxor Temple was the “Harem of the South” where Amun’s consort Mut and their son Khonsu resided. Every spring a flotilla of barques escorted Amun’s effigy from Karnak Temple to this site for a conjugal reunion with Mut in an Optet, or fertility festival, noted for its public debauchery, which lasted from two to four weeks.

Brief history
Whereas Karnak is the work of many dynasties, most of Luxor Temple was built by two rulers during a period when New Kingdom art reached its apogee. The temple’s founder was Amenhotep III (c.1390–52 BC) of the XVIII Dynasty, whose other monuments include the Third Pylon at Karnak and the Colossi of Memnon across the river. Work halted under his son Akhenaten (who erased his father’s cartouches and built a sanctuary to Aten alongside the temple), but resumed under Tutankhamun and Horemheb, who decorated its court and colonnade with their own reliefs.

To this, Ramses II (c.1279–13 BC) of the XIX Dynasty added a double colonnaded court and a great pylon flanked by obelisks and colossi. Despite additions by later pharaohs and the rebuilding of its sanctuary under Alexander the Great, the temple has a coherence that reproaches Karnak’s inchoate giganticism. When the French army first sighted it in 1799, the troops spontaneously presented arms.

The clarity of its reliefs is due to the temple having been half-buried by sand and silt, and overlaid by Luxor itself. Nineteenth-century visitors found a “labyrinthine maze of mud structures” nesting within its court. When the French wanted to remove an obelisk, and archeologists to excavate the temple, they had to pay compensation for the demolition of scores of homes.

In recent years, an underground ring-drainage system has been installed to deal with the rising groundwater that had been damaging the temple, and surrounding buildings demolished to reveal more of the Avenue of Sphinxes leading to Karnak and provide an unobstructed view of the temple from all sides.

Approaching the temple
The site is entered by an underground gate beside the coach-park on Sharia Maabad el-Karnak. Behind the ticket office is an Avenue of Sphinxes with human faces (a XXX Dynasty addition by Nectanebo I), whose full extent has been recently exposed by excavations. Beyond the Chapel of Seraphis dedicated by the Roman emperor Hadrian on his birthday in AD 126, a mound of rubble near the Corniche road shows the level at which the medieval town of Luxor overlaid the ancient city.

The gateway and pylon
The temple gateway proper is flanked by massive pylons and enthroned colossi, with a single obelisk soaring 25m high. Carved with reliefs and originally tipped with electrum, this was one of a pair until its mate was removed in 1835, taken to France and re-erected on the Place de la Concorde. The four dog-faced baboons at the base of each obelisk also sported erect phalluses until prudish Frenchmen hacked them off. Behind loom three of the six colossi of Ramses II that originally fronted the pylon (four seated, two standing). The enthroned ones have Schwarzenegger physiques and double crowns; reliefs of the Nile-god binding the Two Lands adorn their thrones.

The pylon is 65m wide and once stood 24m high; it is notched for flagpoles and carved with scenes of Ramses’ supposed victory over the Hittites at Qadesh. You can see Ramses consulting his commanders in the Egyptian camp, before charging his foes and battling them until reinforcements arrive. Centuries later, Nubian and Ethiopian kings left their mark: notice the relief of Pharaoh Shabaka running the heb race before Amun-Min, high up on the left as you walk through the pylon.

Court of Ramses II
Beyond the pylon lies the Court of Ramses II, surrounded by a double row of papyrus-bud columns, once roofed over to form arcades. The courtyard is set askew to the temple’s main axis, doubtless to incorporate the earlier barque shrines of Tuthmosis III, dedicated to Khonsu (to the right as you enter), Amun and Mut (nearest the river). Incongruously perched atop the opposite colonnade (as best seen from the Corniche), the Mosque of Abu el-Haggag is a stocky Fatimid edifice bearing the name of Luxor’s patron saint, whose demolition the townsfolk refused to countenance when the temple was excavated. Its interior juxtaposes Islamic motifs with pharaonic hieroglyphs; the prayer niche is hewn from a temple column. Providing it’s not prayer-time, non-Muslims might be allowed in – ask at the top of the stairway from Midan el-Haggag.

In the temple itself, you can locate the lower half of a frieze depicting Amun’s procession approaching the temple during the Optet festival, when the god was presented with lettuces, symbolizing his fertility. Ramses makes offerings to Mut and Mont (the Theban war god), observed by his queen and seventeen of the hundred or so sons that he sired over ninety years.

Colonnade and Court of Amenhotep III
The portal is flanked by black granite statues of Ramses, their bases decorated with bound prisoners from Nubia and Asia. Beyond lies the older section of the temple, inaugurated by the lofty Colonnade of Amenhotep III, with its processional avenue of giant papyrus columns whose calyx capitals still support massive architraves. On the walls are more damaged scenes from the Optet festival, intended to be “read” in an anticlockwise direction. After sacrifices to the boats at Karnak, Amun’s procession arrives at Luxor Temple, returning to Karnak 24 days later. The pharaoh shown here is Tutankhamun, who had the colonnade decorated, but the cartouches honour his successor, Horemheb.

At the end of the colonnade lies the great Court of Amenhotep III, surrounded on three sides by colonnades of papyrus-bundle columns with bud capitals. The southern one merges into a Hypostyle Hall with 32 papyrus columns, serving as a vestibule to the temple proper. Between the last two columns on the left of its central aisle is a Roman altar dedicated to Emperor Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity.

The inner sanctums
Beyond the hall lies a columned portico or antechamber, whose central aisle was flanked by the barque shrines of Mut and Khonsu. Roman legionaries later plastered over the pharaonic reliefs and turned it into a chapel where local Christians were offered a choice of martyrdom or obeisance to the imperial cults. Paintings of Roman emperors are visible near the top of the walls, and around the niche on the south wall; elsewhere the stucco has fallen away to reveal Amenhotep offering sacrifices to Amun. In the smaller, four-columned Hall of Offerings, beyond, reliefs show the pharaoh leading sacrificial cows and presenting incense and sceptres.

More interesting reliefs occur in the Birth Room of Amenhotep III, whose north wall emphasizes his divine paternity, since he was not of direct royal descent. The ravaged lower register shows Thoth leading Amun (disguised as Tuthmosis IV) into the queen’s bedchamber, where, the hieroglyphic caption states, “his dew filled her body”. Examined from left to right, the middle register depicts Thoth foretelling Amenhotep’s birth; Mutemuia’s pregnancy and confinement; Isis presenting the child to Amun; and the god cradling his son.

If the Birth Room is inaccessible from the Hall of Offerings you can reach it via the next hall, which Alexander the Great converted into the Sanctuary of Amun’s Barque by removing four columns and installing a granite shrine.

The remaining chambers to the south constituted the private apartments of the gods, but are badly damaged and really only notable for the name Rimbaud, carved high up on the wall near the river. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud spent the last sixteen years of his life roaming the Near and Far East; while living in Ethiopia he was feared dead, so Verlaine published his poems (all written by the age of 21), which took Paris by storm and inspired the Decadent movement.

Outside the walls, assorted pharaonic, Roman and Christian stonework is stored near the spot where, in 1989, workers uncovered a cache of 26 New Kingdom statues, sixteen of which are on show in the Luxor Museum.

Mummification Museum

Reached by a stairway north of Luxor Temple, the Mummification Museum is sunk into the Corniche like a tomb. Its well-presented exhibits lift the lid on Ancient Egyptian mummification techniques and beliefs about death and the afterlife. Among the materials and tools is a spoon and spatula, for scraping out the deceased’s brain (which was discarded as an unimportant organ). The well-preserved mummy of Maserharti, a XXI Dynasty high priest of Amun, attests to the embalmers’ skills, and there are several richly painted coffins. A wooden bed and two linen pillows, found in tomb KV63 in the Valley of the Kings, are recent additions to the museum.

Visitors can consult the museum’s Egyptology library, which in wintertime may host free archeological lectures by such experts as Kent Weeks (studying tomb KV5 in the Valley of the Kings) and Zbigniew Szafranski (of the Polish Mission at Deir el-Bahri).

Luxor Museum

Further north, the Luxor Museum displays a superb collection of statues and funerary goods from the Theban Necropolis and temples, dating from the end of the Old Kingdom up until the Late Period. The museum is wheelchair-accessible, and well laid out and labelled in English, making the illustrated guide sold at its bookshop unnecessary.

Cachette Hall
To the right as you enter is a ramp down to the sunken Cachette Hall, displaying sixteen of the royal statues found beneath Luxor Temple in 1987. It’s uncertain whether they were hidden at the start of the Roman occupation or nine hundred years earlier, when Egypt was invaded by the Assyrians. They include an alabaster sphinx of Tutankhamun; Amenhotep III and Horus enthroned, in basalt; a headless cobra poised to strike in the name of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa; Horemheb kneeling before the god Atum; and a processional effigy of Amenhotep III, its rose quartzite left unpolished to highlight the texture of his kilt, armbands and Combined Crown.

First level
The first level opens with a sensitive-faced statue of the adolescent Tutankhamun and a gilded head of the cow deity Mehit-Weret from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. A colossal head of Amenhotep III, found on the west bank in 1957, leads you on to a raised level showcasing more works in stone. Compare the careworn face of Sesostris II and the watchfulness of bureaucrat Yamo-Nedjeh with the serenity of the boy Tut beside the crocodile god Sobek, or the diorite head of Sekhmet from a colossal statue in the Precinct of Mut at Karnak.

Thebes Glory
An extension called Thebes Glory focuses on the New Kingdom war machine that was honed against Egypt’s Hyksos invaders and later unleashed on neighbouring states. Its logistics were so sophisticated that Tuthmosis III was able to move twenty thousand troops 400km in nine days, while Ramses II extended Egypt’s strategic reach to 2000km by pioneering the use of oxen (the mainstay of military logistics for the next thousand years).

Tutankhamun’s war chariot, a relief of Amenhotep II target-shooting and royal bows (some recurved and composite) show how the Egyptians mastered the tactics and technology of the Hyksos. A statue of Horemheb and his wife from their unfinished tomb at Memphis, a granite head of Ramses II and a super-sized alabaster Seti I recall the hard men of the XVIII and XIX dynasties.

Best of all, there are two royal mummies. That of Ahmosis I has a surprisingly delicate physique for the ruler who expelled the Hyksos. His gold-and-electrum axe (found at Dra’ Abul Naga on the west bank) and a gold collar with Flies of Valour, from the tomb of Queen Ahhotep (who may have led the Theban army when Ahmosis was a child), are exhibited nearby. The other mummy was returned to Egypt from a museum at Niagara Falls, and might belong to Ramses I.

Top level
On the museum’s top level are model boats from the Meir Tombs at Assyut, gilded shabti figures from Tut’s tomb, and architects’ tools from the Workmen’s Village at Deir el-Medina. Between two haunting heads of Akhenaten, from his Aten temple at Karnak, is a wall from the same temple, made of talatat; the talatat were later used as filler for the Ninth Pylon, wherein they were discovered in the 1960s. Reassembled, the painted sunk-reliefs depict Akhenaten’s Sed festival, with the king and Queen Nefertiti in a litter surrounded by fan-bearers. Their figures have the strange physiognomy associated with Akhenaten’s reign.

A multimedia display shows how papyrus was harvested and pressed into sheets for writing and how scribes were taught from childhood to read and write hieroglyphics. Trained scribes were managers and bureaucrats, overseeing taxation, irrigation systems and construction projects, whose social status reflected their importance to the state.

Nile Heritage Centre

A vanity project from the last years of the Mubarak regime (when it was called the Suzanne Mubarak Library after his wife, and as it’s still known to locals), this grandiose edifice has an Egyptology library that pointlessly duplicates the one in the Mummification Museum and an exhibition of gilded replica Islamic astrolabes and sundials, purely for bling. The centre’s intended highlight is Culturama, a forty-minute interactive 3D tour of Egypt’s ancient civilization, nowadays only screened by prior arrangement (t 012 2907 6243). During the 2011 Revolution the centre narrowly escaped being burnt to the ground. Hardly any tourists ever visit, or even know that it exists.