Egypt: Luxor no longer a luxury

By Simon Calder

A tourist takes photos at the Temple of Luxor. Photo / Alan Gibson
A tourist takes photos at the Temple of Luxor. Photo / Alan Gibson

About 400 miles south of Cairo, Luxor exists because of one reason: the Nile, the great river of Africa that, even here, is a half-mile across.

This was the ancient city of Thebes. It brought agriculture and civilization to Egypt at a time when the English were still working on piles of stones in Wiltshire.

THEY SAY

"Royal Thebes, Egyptian treasure house of countless wealth, who boasts her hundred gates/ Through each of which, with horse and car, two hundred warriors march." Homer, The Iliad.

"I love history and your country is full of it. Brazil is only 508 years old and we don't have history to tell. Please, preserve your history for the humanity." "Wishmasterrr", reviewing Luxor on TripAdvisor.

FIRST MORNING?

Ignore the good-natured invocations from traders in the small, modern souk, and instead peel back the millennia. Get to the temple of Luxor as early as you can (it opens at 6am), to evade the crowds and the fury of the sun.

Enjoy a first glimpse of this sacred masterpiece (and come back later, with the same ticket, for the night-time illuminated version).

Be amazed by the Avenue of the Sphinxes. The ranks of stone felines that you can see comprise just a tiny part of the whole thoroughfare: archaeologists have long known about the avenue, flanked by beautiful stone creations, each of them different. But only recently has the sheer scale of this ancient creation become apparent. It stretches all the way to the Temple of Karnak, about two miles away, providing Luxor with a pathway to the past.

Once the temperature and visitor numbers rise, escape into the cool of the Luxor Museum; unlike the main museum in Cairo, this is a modern, sophisticated collection of the archaeological wonders.

DAY TO REMEMBER?

Take the municipal ferry from the east bank to the west, and pause for a drink while one of you negotiates with the guides who will doubtless make themselves available. You'll need a guide and driver, because of the distances involved and the insights that a good local expert can provide. I paid around £50 (NZ$106) for a group of six for a four-hour stint, not including admission fees (the guide will explain the complicated ticketing system).

The first essential is the Valley of the Kings, a surprisingly bare, scruffy hillside that just happens to be the necropolis for the masters of the known universe 4000 years ago. Whichever tomb you choose to visit (many are sporadically closed), the sense of time travel has never been more intense.

For a bit of modern (or at least 19th-century) context, insist on a visit to Howard Carter's house - where the Egyptologist stayed while searching for Tutankhamun's tomb. It does a good impression of being a dusty old museum telling a dry story of this remarkable dig, but there are rumours that a cafe is soon to open.

Make your last stop of the day the Temple of Hatshepsut, a place of terraced grandeur despite the imposition of a coach park and tourist tat. Then time your run to the ferry to coincide with sunset, when the feluccas are sailing on the evening breeze.

FINAL FLING?

You will either feel energised or exhausted by Luxor's feast of history, but to witness the marvels of the past on a stupendous scale save the Temple of Karnak till last. One of the many chambers - probably the hypostyle hall, a forest of ancient stone columns - may strike you as the most astonishing room you have ever seen.

Besides the audacious architecture, there is art in abundance. This is a city where the past is constantly with you; rarely is history so accessible - and powerful.

WHAT GOOGLE WILL TELL YOU

"There remains a risk of indiscriminate attacks including places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers, such as hotels and restaurants. Security authorities may insist on escorting you in some areas. We recommend that you carry photo identification and co-operate fully with officials." (UK Foreign Office).

WHAT GOOGLE WILL NOT TELL YOU - UNTIL TODAY

The best elevated view of the Temple of Luxor is from the upstairs dining area of the branch of McDonald's on the south side of the site. The ice cream is both delicious and safe to eat.

- INDEPENDENT

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