Luxor, considered to be the “world’s greatest open air museum”, is home to some of the most interesting, biggest, and beautiful temples in all Egypt.
For centuries, Luxor –formerly known as Thebes– was considered to be the capital of the known world. And as the capital, it developed its temples and monuments architecture to a level never seen before.
Among these temples, we find the six great temples of Luxor: Goornah, Deir-el-Bahari, the Ramesseum, and Medinet Habu on the West Bank; and Karnak and Luxor on the East bank.
It’s easy to have a budget-friendly trip in Luxor while still enjoying everything about its history and culture. Here are the major temples and sights that will transport you back to the glory days of ancient Egyptian history and architecture.
On the East Bank
The Luxor Temple was founded in 1400 BCE (during the New Kingdom), and like other Egyptian structures of the time, it used the common design techniques of symbolism and illusionism. For example, to the Egyptian, when a sanctuary was shaped like an Anubis Jackal, it was really Anubis.
The illusions are used to make the layout of the temple and its spaces feel bigger, smaller, or taller than what they really are. Also, there is an illusion in the visual perspectives of the temple; like columns of different size and height that look exactly the same.
The temple was dedicated to the Theban Triad of the cult of the Royal Ka, Amun, Mut, and Chons. It was the focus of the annual Opet Festival (a celebration of fertility), in which a cult statue of Amun was paraded down the Nile from Karnak Temple, and placed at Luxor Temple for a while with his consort Mut.
The temple was built over different eras – during Tuthmosis III reign, the Roman era, by Alexander the Great, and more recently, a mosque was built inside it.
The Karnak Temple Complex comprises a mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings that span from the reign of Sesostris I in the Middle Kingdom, all the way to the Ptolemaic period and the New Kingdom.
Karnak is considered to be the largest ancient religious site in the world, and once you’re there, you can truly believe it is –that’s how big it is! Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, allowing it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not found elsewhere in Egypt.
The most famous aspect of Karnak is the oversized Hypostyle Hall. It is the largest hypostyle hall in the world, containing 134 massive columns in the shape of open and closed papyrus flowers. This is considered an engineering marvel, as it is believed that the weight of the columns is capable of sinking the entire hypostyle hall under the desert soil. But still to this day, they all stand.
When Constantius II ordered the closing of pagan temples throughout the empire in 356 AD –after Constantine the Great recognized Christianity in 323 AD– Karnak was mostly abandoned and Christian churches were founded amongst the ruins. Among those is the reuse of the Festival Hall of Thutmose III’s central hall as a church, where painted decorations of saints and Coptic inscriptions can still be seen.
On the West Bank
Deir el-Bahari is a collection of three temples – the Mortuary temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, and the Mortuary Temple of Thutmose III. But today, the only temple that can be seen is Hatshepsut’s, since the other two have been either completely destroyed or in the early stages of restoration.
While it doesn’t share the same intricate details and architectural variety of the temples of its era, it is important to note that Hatshepsut was a woman pharaoh that ruled as a man – dressing and acting like one.
Hatshepsut’s temple is unusual in the way it is located in the valley basin, surrounded by steep cliffs. The terraced temple is a three-level colonnaded structure – designed by Senemut, royal steward and architect of Hatshepsut (and possibly her lover, scandalous!).
The architecture of the temple has been considerably altered – a result of bad archeological reconstructions. Today the terraces only give a faint idea of Senemut’s original design and most of the statues are missing (or were destroyed after Hatshepsut’s death, as a posthumous condemnation).
Don’t miss the relief sculpture that recites the tale of the divine birth of Hatshepsut and the many statues depicting her as a male pharaoh, but still giving a hint of her gender with her female figure and facial expression.
The Ramesseum is the mortuary temple of Ramesses II (the same one that did Abu Simbel).
This building follows the New Kingdom royal burial practices: oriented northwest-southeast; and comprised of two stone pylons (gateways), one after the other, each leading into a courtyard.
In the center of the temple was a covered 48-column hypostyle hall that surrounded the inner sanctuary.
In the ancient scripts, the temple was originally called the House of millions of years of Usermaatra-setepenra that unites with Thebes-the-city in the domain of Amon. While it was the temple of “millions of years”, it certainly didn’t live up to its name. The temple is in very bad condition thanks to the annual Nile flooding that occurs on the site, which undermined the foundations over the years. In addition, like many other Egyptian temples, it was used as a Christian church afterward.
Medinet Habu is the name commonly given to the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Aside from its intrinsic size and architectural and artistic importance, the temple is probably best known as the source of inscribed reliefs depicting the advent and defeat of the “Sea Peoples” during the reign of Ramesses III. There are more than 75,350 sq.ft. of decorated wall reliefs, most of them relatively well preserved.
The temple also follows the orthodox mortuary design of the New Kingdom, resembling closely the Ramesseum.
A distinctive feature of the temple is its massive mud brick enclosure. The original entrance is through a fortified gatehouse, known as a migdol (a common architectural feature of Asiatic fortresses of the time).
Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon are two massive (60 ft tall) stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III – depicted in a seated position with his hands on his knees and facing towards the east. The original function of the Colossi was to stand guard at the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple (the largest and most opulent temple in Egypt at the time).
Both quartzite sandstone statues are cracked and heavily damaged, giving a sense of the old age of these statues – built around the 14th Century BC and later partially reconstructed by the Roman Empire.
Two shorter figures are carved into the front throne alongside Amenhotep legs: these are his wife Tiy and mother Mutemwiya.
Ok, why the name “Colossi of Memnon” you ask? It is said that the name Memnon means “Ruler of the Dawn” and that it was probably applied to the colossi after people reported hearing one of the statues “cry at dawn”. In 27 BC, a strong earthquake broke one of the statues, destroying it from the waist up and cracking the lower half. This particular break made the statue “sing” with the wind at dawn.
Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is not exactly a temple and no exterior architecture can be seen. It is a complex of underground tombs made for pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom – between the 16th and 11th century BC.
The usual tomb plan consisted of a long inclined rock-cut corridor, descending through one or more halls (a symbolic procession that resembled the descending path of the sun-god into the underworld), passing through a deep shaft (or well), until reaching the burial chamber.
The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and have some of the best graphics that depict the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Many of the tombs still conserve the wall paintings as if they were painted last week.
While almost all of the tombs were opened and robbed in antiquity, they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the pharaohs and nobles buries there. One tomb that didn’t have such fate is Tutankhamun’s tomb. While it is a very small tomb (Tutankhamun died at a young age – The younger and “least powerful” you’re considered to be, the smaller your tomb is.), but it contained the originally buried treasures intact, making it one of the most famous archeological sites in the world.
Not all tombs are open to visitors, but the ones that are open show some of the best architectural and artistic samples of royal burials of the time. But, here’s the catch: your entrance ticket only allows you to see three tombs. It’s so hard to decide which one to see, as they are all distinct and beautiful.
Fun Fact: The official name for the site in ancient times was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes.