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Jewel Of The Nile

Described as the world's greatest open-air museum, Luxor is an exposition par excellence of ancient Egyptian civilization, says Achal Dhruva

The Temple of Hatshepsut
All pics: Achal Dhruva

The huge sails fluttered in the gentle breeze. The silence interspersed with the occasional cacophony of a flock of birds flying overhead and the unavoidable excited chatter of tourists echoed through the tranquil waters of the River Nile.

I sat mesmerised, watching the receding reflections on the water as the red orb disappeared below the horizon, setting the sky aflame in rich hues of red and orange.The silhouettes of other feluccas (traditional sailboats) against this backdrop completed the picture. Sunsets are generally arresting, but the experience of the sunset cruise on the Nile at Luxor was like having a picture postcard come to life. It was certainly one of the highlights of my whistle-stop tour of one and a half days of this popular tourist destination in Egypt.

Luxor, described as the world's greatest open-air museum is chock-a-block with ancient monuments, the scale and the grandeur of which are mind-boggling and sure to evoke interest even if you are not a history buff. The River Nile divides the city into the East Bank and the West Bank. However, the town is largely spread on the East Bank comprising hotels, bazaars and major monuments like the Karnak Temple, the Luxor Temple and the museum.

Part of ancient Thebes, Luxor was the seat of power for almost 1,350 years - from 750 BC to 2100 BC - a period when Egyptians constructed several works of art, which today provide a glimpse of ancient Egypt's glorious history of palaces, temples and tombs. Called as 'The City of Hundred Gates' by the Greek historian, Homer, because of its buildings and large gates, it was renamed Luxor - City of Palaces by the Arabs who were impressed by its beautiful palaces and huge edifices. It is not recently that the city - with a population of around 1,50,000 - has become a major draw for tourists. It had been popular as a destination even with the dynasties during the Greek and Roman periods!

Feluccas on the River Nile

Luxurious Luxor

The amazing architecture of Luxor Temple

After the hustle and bustle of Cairo, the short drive from Luxor International Airport to the hotel was my first exposure to the Egyptian countryside. The outskirts of Luxor are dotted with fields and small hamlets one can witness the complete beauty of it on the Nile cruise from Cairo to Aswan, including Luxor for four to seven days. But I had to resign myself to these fleeting glimpses of rural landscape by road instead.

In fact, our short seven-day FAM trip (organised by the Egyptian Tourism Ministry) that included Cairo and Hurgadha, allowed us only one and a half day in Luxor. We had to therefore forego some of the monuments like the Valley of the Queens (a complex of tombs) in West Bank, Luxor Museum, and experiences such as a ride on the amazing hot air balloon.

Pastoral landscape of Luxor

But we did manage to sample some of the delicious Egyptian cuisine and witness their culture, post the sunset cruise at the Jolie Ville Movenpick Luxor Resort. Located on a privately owned the Crocodile Island, this resort combines a 'natural' experience with five-star luxury. We had a spread of traditional Egyptian cuisine and entertainment comprising folk dances including the Tanura and a snake show at Fellah's Tent, which recreates an Arabic atmosphere.

It was an exotic mix - with wine and vipers! While some of us joined the dancers, there were a few brave souls who posed for photographs with vipers and cobras around their necks. Perhaps, the heady and very popular Omar Khayam wine (no, really!) and the seesha (hookah) helped.

Getting there
Luxor has an international airport but there are no direct flights from India. There are flights from Cairo to Luxor and it takes slightly over an hour. One can also each Luxor by bus and by train. The bus journey takes around 11 hours and there is a daily bus service connecting the two cities. The daily Wagon-Lits train from Cairo takes 10 hours to Luxor and departs in the evening. It is advisable to do reservation of tickets as both trains and buses can get crowded. One can also opt for a Nile Cruise from Cairo ranging from four to seven days covering Luxor and Aswan.

The Temples (East Bank)

Carving on the walls of Karnak Temple

The cultural experience that evening culminated with a sound and light show at the Karnak Temple. The seating - overlooking the Sacred Lake - presents an overview of a major part of the temple complex and the illumination of different areas showcases a different face of the temple. While I felt that the sound and light show at our very own Khajuraho was better (perhaps it was the rich baritone voice-over of Amitabh Bachchan), the experience of walking through the colonnade consisting of 14 huge pillars in scant moonlight was eerie.

But this part of the temple is a jaw dropping sight by daylight. Intricately carved, the columns are a towering 8.5 metres and had me wishing for a fish-eye lens to capture them in totality. Karnak is a complex of temples dedicated to God Amun Ra - the god of fertility and growth. It starts with the Avenue of the Rams representing Amun and then passes through the first pylon dating to King Nekhtebo of the 30th dynasty. From here, one moves to a large forecourt that has the chapels of the Thebes Triad on the right, which dates back to Seti II and the temple of Ramses III on the left. Once you leave the colonnade, you come to the huge court of Amenhotep II, which is surrounded by two rows of pillars on three sides. This leads to a hypostyle hall containing 32 pillars.

Karnak Temple

The Sacred Lake is located outside the main hall and was used for purification. But today, it only provides relief from the overwhelming stone architecture all around. There are reams and reams of history associated with the temple. But not one to be historically inclined, I was more attuned to absorbing and pondering about the ingenuity of ancient Egyptians at building such architectural marvels.

Luxor temple, built by the two pharaohs - Amenhotep III and Ramses II - is a collection of irregular structures, much smaller than Karnak Temple. It was the venue of the marriage of Amun Ra and Mut, and continued to host their anniversary every year where the sacred procession moved by boat from Karnak to Luxor and then back by road, which has been lost by settlements down the ages.

The Sacred Lake at Karnak Temple

The entrance to the Luxor temple is a huge pylon built by Ramses II (1280 BC) and has two seated statutes of the king. Originally, two large obelisks stood in front of the pylon but while one is still there, the other stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris. This temple has always been a sacred site. After Egypt's pagan period, a church and a monastery was built here followed by a mosque in the north-eastern part, which continues to be used for prayers even today. But I suspect that the rest of the history seems to be buried below the modern day town as I stand and admire the overwhelming stone structures.

The colonade at Karnak Temple
The obelisk at Karnak Temple

The Tombs (West Bank)

While the East Bank signified life due to the rising of the sun, the West Bank correspondingly symbolised death. And as a part of the coronation ceremony, the Pharaoh had to cross the Nile to the west side to choose his burial site. The workers would then commence work immediately and continue till the time the king died.

This is perhaps why the West Bank is among the most important archeological sites in the world and the entire area around the base of the Theban Range of Hills is a honeycomb of tombs ranging from those of ancient Egyptians kings, queens to noblemen and workers.

Located at the base of Qurn Peak - meaning 'horn' or 'forehead' in Arabic - which is the highest peak in the Theban Hill range, the Valley of Kings is a complex of 62 numbered tombs and several other unfinished ones. The limestone hills are a breathtaking sight; stark, desolate and majestic. Most of the tombs were cut deep into the limestone hills following the same pattern: three corridors, an antechamber and a sunken sarcophagus chamber. These catacombs were harder to rob and were more easily concealed.

A village house on the West Bank

The Colossi of Memnon

The kings' formal names and titles have been inscribed in their tombs along with their statues and other artifacts that were deemed necessary for afterlife. A single ticket is valid for three tombs and visitors have to buy a special ticket to visit the tomb of Tutankhamum, the most popular tomb in the complex. The ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber of the tomb of Ramsses IV depicts goddess Nut. The lid of the pink granite sarcophagus is decorated with Isis and Nephthys, who were meant to serve as guardians for the body. The most interesting part of the richly decorated walls and ceilings of the corridors leading to the burial chamber are the paintings of sentries - no matter from which direction you stare at them, they stare back at you. Eerie!

The Valley of Queens comprises 80 numbered tombs, most of them belonging to family members of the kings. The most famous tomb is of Queen Nefertari. While we did not visit the Valley of Queens, I certainly did rue the fact of missing out on the opportunity of trekking over the hills from Valley of Kings to the Valley of Queens or the Hatshepsut Temple. Treks are organised by tour operators and I am sure one can get a splendid bird's eye perspective of the area from there, especially the Hatshepsut Temple which is a massive and beautiful work of architecture. Built by Queen Hatsheput as a dedication to Amun Ra, the temple is called Djeser-djeseru or 'sacred of sacred' by the people. Hatshepsut's terraced and rock-cut temple is one of the most impressive monuments of the West Bank and is situated directly against the rock face of Deir el-Bahri's great rock bay. The temple not only echoes the skyline of the surrounding cliffs in its design, but it seems like a natural extension of the rock faces.

One of the larger than life statues at the Hatshepsut Temple
Souvenier shops on the path leading to Hatshepsut Temple

A real tongue twister, we nicknamed this the Hatshepsut Temple as `hot chicken soup’ and were quite surprised to learn from our guide, Hassan that it was a favourite moniker used by tourists. Adorned by pillars and larger than life statues, the temple is sprawled over two levels.

The grand edifice is a kind of a surreal time machine that transports one back in time - several centuries actually- in a matter of seconds. In fact, Luxor is one such place that succeeds in bridging the time gap between ancient Egypt and the modern country that it has now become with such ease that it left me feeling like one in a time warp.

Avenue outside Luxor Temple
Stark, desolate and majestic: Valley of The Kings