Theban Necropolis

Across the Nile from Luxor, the Theban Necropolis testifies to the same obsession with death and resurrection that produced the Pyramids. Mindful of how these had failed to protect the mummies of the Old Kingdom pharaohs, later rulers opted for concealment, sinking their tombs in the Theban Hills while perpetuating their memory with gigantic mortuary temples on the plain below. The Necropolis straddled the border between the lands of the living and the dead, verdant flood plain giving way to boundless desert, echoing the path of the dead “going west” to meet Osiris as the sun set over the mountains.

Explore the Enchanting Theban Necropolis

Though stripped of its treasures over millennia, the Necropolis retains a peerless array of funerary monuments. The grandest of its tombs are in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, but there’s also a wealth of vivid detail in the smaller Tombs of the Nobles. Equally amazing are the mortuary temples which enshrined the deceased pharaoh’s cult: among these, Deir el-Bahri is timelessly magnificent and Medinet Habu rivals Karnak for grandeur, while the shattered Ramesseum and Colossi of Memnon mock the pretensions of their founders.

On a humbler level, but still executed with great artistry, are the funerary monuments of the craftsmen who built the royal tombs, and the ruins of their homes at Deir el-Medina.

Spread across wadis and hills beyond the edge of the cultivated plain, the Theban Necropolis is too diffuse and complex to take in one visit. Even limiting yourself to the Valley of the Kings, Deir el-Bahri and one or other of the major sites, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed by the end of the day. Most people favour a series of visits, taking into account the climate and crowds – both major factors in the enjoyment of a trip.

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Hieroglyphic relief details from the Ramesseum, memorial temple or mortuary temple of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II, part of the Theban Necropolis on the West Bank of the Nile, Luxor © Shutterstock

Hieroglyphic relief details from the Ramesseum, memorial temple or mortuary temple of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II, part of the Theban Necropolis, Luxor © Shutterstock

Best tombs to visit at Theban Necropolis

This is one of the best sights in Egypt, so there is no shortage of things to do. From the Valley of the Kings to Nefertari’s tomb, here are the best things to do in and around Theban Necropolis.

#1 Tomb of Tuthmosis III (#34)

Secreted in a separate wadi, high up in a cleft, the tomb of Tuthmosis III (c.1479–25 BC) is one of the oldest in the valley. Its concealment and (futile) defences make this tomb especially interesting.

Having ascended a wooden stairway to the cleft, you descend through several levels, crossing a pit by footbridge to reach a vestibule.

The walls depict 741 deities as stick figures, in imitation of the format used on papyrus texts from the Middle Kingdom onwards, which was favoured for murals early in the New Kingdom.

Reduced to their essentials, the ramps and shafts that led into the underworld, and Khepri’s role in pulling Re’s barque, are clearly visible.

The unusually rounded burial chamber is also decorated with outlined figures and symbols. Although the yellow background simulates aged papyrus, the texts were only painted after Tuthmosis had been laid to rest.

#2 Tomb of Amenhotep II (#35)

One of the deepest tombs in the valley lies at the head of the wadi beyond Horemheb’s tomb. Built for Amenhotep II (c.1427–00 BC) midway through the XVIII Dynasty, it has more than ninety steps and gets hotter and stuffier with each level you descend.

When the tomb was discovered in 1898, the body of the king was still in its sarcophagus and nine other royal mummies were found stashed in another chamber. The tomb’s defences included a deep pit (now bridged) and a false burial chamber to distract robbers from the lower levels (which would have been sealed up and disguised).

From a pillared vestibule, steps descend into the huge chamber. On its six square pillars, Amenhotep is embraced and offered ankhs by various gods. Beneath a ceiling, the walls are painted pale beige and inscribed with the entire Book of Amduat, like a continuous scroll of papyrus. When found in his quartzite sarcophagus (still in situ), the king’s mummy had a floral garland around its neck. The second chamber on the right served as a cache for the mummies of Tuthmosis IV, Merneptah, Seti II, Ramses V and VI and Queen Tiy, after their original tombs proved insecure.

#3 Valley of the Queens

The Valley of the Queens is a misnomer, as it also contains the tombs of high officials (interred long before the first queen was buried here during the XIX Dynasty) and royal children.

Princes were educated by priests and scribes, taught swimming, riding and shooting by officers, and finally apprenticed to military commands at around 12 years old. Less is known about the schooling of princesses, but several queens were evidently well-versed in statecraft and architecture.

Originally named the “Place of Beauty”, but now known in Arabic as Biban el-Harem (Gates of the Harem), the valley contains nearly eighty tombs, most of which are basically just pits in the ground.

Mortuary temple of Queen Hapshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs, Valley of the Queens, near Luxor (Thebes), Egypt

Mortuary temple of Queen Hapshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs, Valley of the Queens, near Luxor (Thebes), Egypt © Shutterstock

#4 Nefertari

The magnificent Temple of Queen Nefertari, which lay to the north of the great temple of her husband Ramesses II, is so fragile that it is only accessible to VIP groups.

Nefertari was the most beloved of the wives of Ramesses II; and the pharaoh took the unprecedented step of having the facade of this temple decorated with statues of himself, his wife and their children.

The goddess Hathor, to whom the temple is also dedicated, lovingly attends to the sun-god during his day’s passage, so Nefertari is depicted watching admiringly as her husband kills his enemies.

#5 Amunherkhepshef

After Nefertari’s, the best tomb in the valley belongs to Amunhirkhepshef, a son of Ramses III who accompanied his father on campaigns and perhaps died in battle at the age of 9.

He is shown wearing the royal sidelock of youth, in lustrous murals where Ramses conducts him through funerary rituals, past the Keepers of the Gates, to an unfinished burial chamber containing a granite sarcophagus.

A glass case displays a mummified foetus that his mother aborted through grief at Amunhirkhepshef’s death, and entombed with her son.

#6 Tombs of the Nobles

Whereas royalty favoured concealed tombs in secluded valleys, Theban nobles and high officials were ostentatiously interred in the limestone foothills overlooking the great funerary temples of their masters.

The pharaohs’ tombs were sealed and guarded; the nobles’ were left open for their descendants to make funerary offerings. Whereas royal tombs are filled with scenes of judgement and resurrection, the nobles’ chosen artwork dwells on earthly life and its continuation in the hereafter.

Given more freedom of expression, the artists excelled themselves with vivid paintings on stucco (the inferior limestone on this side of the hills militates against carved reliefs).

The tombs’ layout marks a further evolution in funerary architecture since the Middle Kingdom tombs of Beni Hassan. Most are entered via a courtyard, with a transverse hall preceding the burial shrine with its niche containing an effigy of the deceased (or statues of his entire family).

Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor, Egypt © Shutterstock

Tombs of the Nobles, Luxor, Egypt © Shutterstock

#7 Nakht

Northeast of Ramose’s tomb lies the burial place of Nakht, whose antechamber contains a small museum with drawings of the reliefs and a replica of Nakht’s funerary statue, which was lost at sea en route to America in 1917.

Nakht was the overseer of Amun’s vineyards and granaries under Tuthmosis IV, and the royal astronomer, but stargazing does not feature among the activities depicted in his tomb. The only decorated section is the transverse antechamber, whose ceiling is painted to resemble woven mats, with a geometric frieze running above the brilliantly coloured murals.

To one side, Nakht supervises the harvest in a scene replete with vivid details. Beyond a stele relating Nakht’s life is the famous banqueting scene, where sinuous dancers and a blind harpist entertain friends of the deceased.

#8 Sennofer

From Rekhmire’s tomb, slog 50m uphill to the left to find another colourful tomb, in better condition. Entered by a low, twisting stairway, the tomb of Sennofer is known as the “Tomb of Vines” after the grapes and vines painted on the textured ceiling of the antechamber.

As mayor of Thebes and overseer of Amun’s estates under Amenhotep II, Sennofer had local viticulture among his responsibilities. The walls of the burial shrine depict his funeral procession, voyage to Abydos (back, right) and mummified sojourn with Anubis.

Its square pillars bear images of Hathor, whose eyes follow you around the room. A small tree-goddess appears on the inner side of the rear left-hand pillar.

#9 Ramose

The tomb of Ramose, vizier and governor of Thebes immediately before and after the Amarna revolution, lies down a dirt road. His spacious tomb captures the moment of transition from Amun- to Aten-worship, featuring both classical and Amarna-style reliefs, the latter unfinished since Ramose followed Akhenaten to his new capital.

Besides its superb reliefs, the tomb is notable for retaining its courtyard – originally a feature of all these tombs. Along the entrance wall of its pillared hall are lovely carvings that reflect the mellowing of classicism during the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father.

Predictable scenes of Ramose and his wife, Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy making offerings come alive thanks to the exquisite rendering of the major figures, carried over to their feasting friends and relatives. The sinuous swaying of mourners likewise imparts lyricism to the conventional, painted funerary scene, where Ramose, wife and priests worship Osiris.

#10 Deir Al Medina

Deir el-Medina, the Workers’ Village, housed the masons, painters and sculptors who created the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Because many were literate and left records on papyrus or ostraca, we know such details as who feuded with whom, their sex lives and labour disputes.

As state employees, they were supposed to receive fortnightly supplies of foodstuffs and beer, but when these failed to arrive (as often happened during the ramshackle XX Dynasty), the workers downed tools, staged sit-ins at Medinet Habu, or demonstrated in Luxor.

Normally they worked an eight-hour day, sleeping in huts near the tombs during their ten-day shift before returning to their families at Deir el-Medina. In their spare time, craftsmen worked for private clients or collaborated on their own tombs, built beneath man-size pyramids.

Temple-ruins at the village of The Workers at Deir El-Medina, a view from a hot air balloon, Luxor, Egypt © Shutterstock

Temple-ruins at the village of The Workers at Deir El-Medina, a view from a hot air balloon, Luxor, Egypt © Shutterstock

#12 Gezira

The west bank villages are incidental to most tourists visiting the Theban Necropolis, but integral to the landscape and atmosphere. The first village encounter will be with Gezira, where public ferries disgorge villagers returning from Luxor, and tourists arrive in motorboats. The depot for private and service taxis to villages on the west bank is just inland.

Traditionally Gezira’s role in tourism was to ferry tourists about or guide them on donkeys through the Necropolis, but the village now also has many hotels and flats for rent.

Luxor Council tried to claim all the land along the waterfront but met fierce resistance from locals who’d built houses and hotels there, as well as from foreigners who’d bought apartments in the chic new district of Ramleh. Many only escaped demolition after the matriarch of the Khalifa family lay down in front of the bulldozers.

#13 El-Tod and New Gurna

Gezira straggles to the El-Fadiya Canal, whose murky depths harbour giant monitor lizards (warran), which sometimes get sucked into farmers’ irrigation pumps, with gory results.

Beyond the lackadaisical police checkpoint, El-Tod lies across the main road from New Gurna, built in the 1940s with government funds to wean villagers away from Old Gurna in the hills.

Designed by Hassan Fathy (1900–89), an early advocate of appropriate technology through architecture suited to local conditions, the settlement contains two superbly proportioned public buildings – the mosque and Palace of Culture – made of Fathy’s favourite material, mud brick.

However, the village failed to attract many Gurnawis, and others moved in instead, to find that Fathy’s houses were too small for their extended families, obliging them to add breeze-block extensions.

#14 The Colossi of Memnon

Looming nearly 18m above fields of clover, the two enthroned Colossi of Memnon originally fronted the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, once the largest complex on the west bank – which later pharaohs plundered for masonry until almost nothing remained but these colossi.

Both have lost their faces and crowns, and the northern one was cleaved to the waist by an earthquake in 27 BC. Subsequently, this colossus was heard to “sing” at dawn – a sound probably caused by particles breaking off as the stone expanded, or wind reverberating through the cracks.

Before the colossus ceased “singing” after repairs to the statue in 199 AD, the sound was attributed to the legendary Memnon (whom Achilles killed outside the walls of Troy) greeting his mother, Eos, the Dawn, with a sigh.

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Closeup of the Colossus of Memnon, massive stone statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Luxor, Egypt © Shutterstock

Closeup of the Colossus of Memnon, massive stone statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Luxor, Egypt © Shutterstock

Best areas to stay

Accommodation in Luxor ranges from small but welcoming budget hotels to the luxurious Al Moudira Hotel. Hotels on the west bank are cheaper than those on the east bank.

Many independent travellers like to stay on Luxor’s west bank in and around El-Gezirah where the ferry docks. The pace is slower away from the resort hotels and general hustle of the east-bank side of town. Here’s where to stay.

West bank

The west bank of the Nile near Luxor is home to a variety of budget-friendly guesthouses and smaller hotels, many of which are located in the villages of Al-Gezira and Al-Tarif. These areas are popular with backpackers and budget travellers.

East bank

On the east bank of the Nile, you will find an array of modern mid-range hotels, often with amenities such as swimming pools and restaurants, catering to those seeking a more comfortable stay.

Browse the best hotels in Luxor.

Things to know before visiting the Theban Necropolis

In Theban Necropolis, only a few of the tombs are open to the public at one time, as a rotation system has been introduced to protect the tomb walls from further deterioration caused by flashlights and respiration. Make the most out of your visit to the Theban Necropolis with these tips.

Opening hours

Typically, the Theban Necropolis tombs are open daily from 6am to 5pm.

Entrance fees

Admission charges are payable for each site in Theban Necropolis and are generally EGP20–40 each. Three tombs require extra fees: Seti I (EGP1,000), Queen Nefertari (EGP1,000) and Tutankhamun (EGP200).

Alternatively, buy a “Luxor Pass” (valid for five days). The standard pass costs US$100 (US$50 for students with ID), and the premium pass – which includes access to Seti I and Queen Nefertari – US$200/US$100. Only US$ or Euro cash is accepted. You cannot pay with debit/credit cards.

Passes are available from the Public Relations Office in the Luxor Inspectorate. You will need a passport photo and a photocopy of your main passport page.

When to go

In winter, mornings are pleasantly hot, afternoons baking but bearable, and most coach tours are scheduled accordingly, making the principal sites crowded between 9am and 2pm.

As lots of people come early to beat the crowds, the royal tombs are actually emptiest in the late afternoon. In summer, it’s simply too hot throughout the afternoon, and you should get here as early as possible.

What to pack

The Egyptian sun can be very strong. Pack sunscreen and a hat. Additionally, bring water to drink.

Can I take photos?

The tombs and temples at Theban Necropolis are ancient and fragile, so it's important to be respectful and not touch or damage any of the monuments. Photography is allowed in most areas, but be sure to ask for permission before taking pictures.

Guided tours

Theban Necropolis is a vast site with many different tombs and temples to explore, so it's a good idea to hire a guide to learn about the history and significance of each monument. Ask at the visitor centre for guides.

Queen Hatshepsut's temple (Dayr el-Bahari or Dayr el-Bahri) in Egypt, part of the Theban Necropolis © Shutterstock

Queen Hatshepsut's temple (Dayr el-Bahari or Dayr el-Bahri) in Egypt, part of the Theban Necropolis © Shutterstock

How to get here

There are numerous ways to get to Luxor, though it's worth noting that foreigners aren't allowed to travel here by microbus. Here's how to arrive:

By plane

Located around 7 km east of the city, Luxor Airport welcomes flights from Cairo. From the airport, only taxis serve the town. Arrange a transfer with your accommodation.

By train

Easily the best way to arrive in Luxor, there are trains connecting both Cairo and Aswan.

By bus

There are two bus stations: one north and one south of Luxor train station. Buses generally depart from outside their ticket office. From here, you'll need to get a taxi to Luxor itself.

By sailboat

It's possible to sail to Luxor from Aswan on a felucca (sailboat).

Find out the best ways to get to Egypt.

Best time to visit Theban Necropolis

The best time to visit the Theban Necropolis is during the winter months, from November to February when the weather is mild and pleasant with temperatures ranging from 20-25°C (68-77°F).

Visiting during the summer months, from June to September, can be extremely hot and uncomfortable, with temperatures often reaching above 40°C (104°F). Additionally, the summer months are peak season, so sites can be crowded.

Arriving in the shoulder seasons (March to May; October to November) can also be a good idea as the weather is still relatively mild and there are fewer tourists.

Find out more about the best time to visit Egypt.

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 25.04.2023

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