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Egypt

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          Best Places to Visit in Egypt

Overview of the West Bank of Luxor, Egypt

Overview

The Necropolis of Thebes

The West Bank of the Nile, across from Luxor, contains  the famed Valley of the Kings and other tombs that were built to entomb deceased pharaohs and other members of the nobility.  Other major monuments were constructed as mortuaries, where the bodies of the pharaohs would be prepared for their journey in Underworld.  This vast area on the West Bank of the Nile is known as the Necropolis of Thebes. 

The leading attractions that can be found here include: the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, Medinet Habu, and the Colossi of Memnon.  In addition, we cover two other activities that might be of interest if you are in the area: 1) hot air balloon rides over the Theban Necropolis at dawn, and 2) shopping for Alabaster.

Valley of the Kings

Away from the floodplain of the Nile is a sinuous wadi (the Wadi el-Muluk - an intermittently dry river valley) that house over 60 tombs made for the  pharaohs of the New Kingdom, mainly of the 18th to the 20th Dynasties, as well as their children or other important male relatives.

Click this photo to see other pictures of the Valley of the Kings

In Thebes, the Pharaohs chose  to be buried in underground chambers that were purpose-built to their specifications.  The Valley of the Kings is located in an arid, and formerly isolated location, which  helped to preserve many of the monuments.  However, unplanned for rises in the local water table proved damaging to some of the tombs, particularly that of Ramesses II who was one of Egypt’s greatest builders.  In past centuries tomb robbing was rampant in this area and  most of the tombs were vandalized in the past, though now restored.  It appears that the sole tomb of a pharaoh that was not disturbed was that of Tutankhamen (King Tut).  It was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter with the support of the Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert.

The general ticket for admission to the Valley of the Kings provides you access to three tombs of your choice, although there are a few that require a special (additional) ticket and fee.  One important caution is that cameras are not allowed in the Valley of the Kings and visitors are urged not to bring them to this site. If you bring your camera with you, you will have to leave it on the bus as neither photographs nor photographic equipment  are  allowed beyond the main gate. Next, not all tombs are open at the same time or even during the same season, so let your guide recommend the best of the tombs that can be toured during your visit. 

A tram provides transportation from the entrance to the location of the tombs. From there, you will  walk  to your chosen destinations.  The tombs are actually tunnels and chambers dug into the hills and there are no external temples to see.  In fact, most of the tombs that have been excavated so far are  comprised of relatively compact but finished passageways, that lead down to the burial chamber. Usually there are a few twists, turns, ramps  and steps on the path, but nothing extremely strenuous or difficult, although wheelchair access is not provided.

Most of the underground passageways and chambers are decorated with colorful designs and interesting collections of images including animals, people, astronomical signs and many representations of the ever present Egyptian gods. The images were meant to help the Pharaoh make a successful journey through the Underworld to the Afterlife. Images of snakes are particularly prominent, although no real ones will be found in the tombs.

Tour Guides are not allowed to accompany their groups into the tombs, so you will likely huddle together for a short lecture before you enter a specific tomb.  We recommend that you  listen closely to the description of what you are going to see, as the complexity of the images in the burial chambers can be confusing.   You could spend hours gazing at the details on the walls, but the best you can do during a visit is to tour three or four  tombs.  More than this and you will soon tire of seeing another burial chamber, no matter how interesting.

While many visitors are attracted to the Tomb of Tutankhamen, it is one of the smallest and least decorated of those available.  The fame of this tomb was that it was not violated by grave robbers and its treasure were preserved for all to see after its discovery in the 1920’s by Howard Carter (although most of these are at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).  The leading tombs are those of Seti 1 which is large and ornate, the tomb of Ramesses VI (extra fee), as well as those of Ramesses IV and IX.

Valley of the Queens

The Valley of the Queens consists of approximately 80 tombs of queens from the 18th to 20th Dynasties.  Although less frequently visited than the Valley of the Kings, there are several impressive tombs here with that of Nefertari,  favorite wife of Ramesses II, considered the most spectacular.  Most of these tombs were less ornate than those of the pharaohs and have received less attention from the authorities.

Temple of Hatshepsut    

Deir al-Bahari

Hatshepsut is the famous for being the female pharaoh who reigned during  the 18th Dynasty  (approximately 1480 BC).  She ascended to the role of co-regent after the death of her husband (Pharaoh Thutmose II), as her stepson was too young to ascend to the throne (although he later become Thutmose III).  Hatshepsut wore a fake beard and pretended to be a man in order to protect the birthright of her son.  However, the deception was so enjoyable that she did not give up the throne when he came of age and kept it for quite some time, much to his indignation.  After Hatshepsut's death her son attempted to remove any trace of her existence, which included defacing her tomb and statues of her across the kingdom.  Hatshepsut's reign is regarded by many as one of the most peaceful and successful on any pharaoh.

Click this image for a photo tour Deir al-Bahari and the Temple of Hatshepsut

The Temple of Hatshepsut is not in the Valley of the Kings, but in nearby  Deir Al-Bahari.  The name translates roughly as  “northern monastery”, as the temple was once used for residential and religious purposes by early Christians. The temple is dedicated to the sun god Amun, although there are, also, minor temples for the worship of Hathor and Anubis (the Jackal-headed god who examined the scales of justice as the dead were judged when they entered the afterlife).  Excavations at  the site are ongoing .  Adjacent to the temple of Hatshepsut are the ruins of the temple of an earlier pharaoh, but details of his reign are still sketchy

The Temple of Hatshepsut was in ruins for several centuries and many of its treasures were looted, while others remain missing.  The present temple was largely reconstructed by modern day craftsmen, although it is said to reflect the design of the original temple.  The  temple is three-tiered and its design is quite unique compared to other temples from this period..   There are no pylons and the first courtyard ends at a lower portico that is divided by a ramp up to the second courtyard, followed by another portico and ramp.  The modest temples to Hathor and Anubis are on either side of the ramp before you ascend the upper portico leading to the upper terrace and the temple celebrating Amun.  Of course, the Temple celebrates Hatshepsut and you will find statues of her adorning the upper terrace.  

Note that this this is the temple where are large number of tourists and Egyptians were murdered by terrorists in 1997.  Security forces are obvious here, but  entrance to the facility is relatively unhindered.

Medinet Habu

Medinet Habu,, built by Ramesses III (20th Dynasty, approximately 1300 BC), is an expansive complex  It is surrounded by  dilapidated defensive wall that encloses a massive temple with two impressive Pylons..  The temple was damaged by earthquakes in the past and parts are in relatively poor condition, but it  is well worth seeing if you have the time. This was one of the last of the great temples built by the Egyptian Pharaohs and it has many interesting features.  It was patterned, in part, on the nearby  Mausoleum of Ramesses, which, unfortunately did not survive the ravages of time.

Click this image for a photo tour of the impressive Medinet Habu

The entrance to Medinet Habu is through a gate-house that was once fortified and is called a migdol.  The gateway was constructed as part of the defensive wall and the tower is thought to have been at least one floor higher than it is today.

The massive first Pylon of the mortuary temple shows Ramesses III smiting his enemies.  On the left, Ramesses, in the presence of the god Amun, has his enemies by the hair as the beats them, while on the right he is smiting other enemies in the presence of the god Horus.  Pass through the central arch to view the First Courtyard, which has some excellent pillars along its edge that merge with the Second Pylon followed by a second courtyard.  Next is the spectacular Great Hypostyle Hall with its garden of colorful and relatively well-preserved columns nestled among walls and portals with numerous images of gods, goddesses and the pharaoh.    This is followed by the Second and Third Hypostyle Halls whose ceilings are missing, as are the columns, which,  except for their ornate bases, were destroyed by an earthquake in ancient times.   Next, you will encounter the sanctuary of Amun, which has been damaged, but is worth a brief view.

Colossi of Memnon

On the way to the major attractions in the Theban Necropolis, you will suddenly come upon two forlorn, extremely weathered sitting stone giants called the Colossi on Memnon. Approximately 60 feet tall, these statues of Amenhotep III (around 1400 BC) were later reconstructed  by the Romans.

Originally designed  guard to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple and thought to be at the front of a large pylon, the Colossi apparently  were miserable  failures as sentinels since the temple no longer exists, having been repurposed into building materials for other temples with parts being destroyed by Nile flooding. On the sides of the statues, near their legs are smaller statues carved into the main blocks and these  are reputed to represent Amenhotep III’s mother, as well as his favorite wife.

Click this image for other photos of the Colossi of Memnon

Alabaster

While on the West Bank of the Nile, your tour will likely pass any number of shops specializing in Alabaster and other cut stone.  Our tour stopped at an Alabaster factory named Morsy in El Qurna. The tour was both a show (put on by the craftsmen outside) and an opportunity to part with some cash (inside) as the alabaster on display was stunning and the craftsmanship of good quality.  If you are looking for unique trinkets and curios, you will find those here as well. Most visits include a lecture on how alabaster is processed and how the craftsmen work with it to produce thin, beautiful  translucent vases, dishes and other interesting pieces.

Click the image above for more photos of an Egyptian Alabaster shop

Hot Air Balloon Rides

One of the delights of visiting Luxor is the opportunity to take a hot-air balloon ride over the West Bank of the Nile at Sunrise.  The expense is approximately $200 per person.  For that fee, you will be picked up (around 4 AM) at your hotel or river cruiser, driven to a small, covered boat ( with complimentary continental breakfast) and shuttled to the West Bank of the Nile.  From there you will be transported to a large lot where a number of companies launch their hot air balloon tours.

Click the image above for aerial views of the Nile Valley and the Luxor area taken during a hot air balloon ride at dawn

The baskets attached to the balloons are designed to hold 25 people with two to three persons wedged in the small compartments that ring the sturdy basket and provide both security and good views. To  path of the balloon is determined by the prevailing winds, but usually the flight is over the Necropolis of Thebes and the Valley of the Kings. The flights last fifty minutes, depending on the winds and fuel needed for navigation. On a clear day the views are spectacular.

Flights can be usually be arranged by your tour manager.  See the Alaska Balloon website for examples of the type of balloons and services that may be provided by balloon companies in Luxor. There are many providers and you should seek the input of your tour manager for their recommendation on a company that provides reliable, safe and affordable flights.

Hot air balloon flights while exhilarating can be dangerous in Egypt or anywhere in the world.  Be aware of the risks (fire, explosion, bad landing due to wind, mid-air collissions) before booking.  If you are uncomfortable with the potential danger, do not take the ride as your personal safety is your responsibility.

Note - In February, 2013 a hot air balloon flying over the West Bank of Luxor exploded in a catastrophic accident killing 19 passengers.

Next

Click here for the last section of our Luxor guide to explore Dendera Temple  and its images of Cleopatra.

Or, click here if you want to return to Luxor proper and the Luxor and Karnak Temples.

Or

Click the index at the top right of this page for links to other sections of our Egypt Travel Guide

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Best Places To Visit in Egypt

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Cairo
Giza
Luxor
Nile - Luxor to Aswan
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Abu Simbel
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