This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Few countries have attracted tourists for longer than Egypt. Visitors were admiring its already ancient monuments as early as the second millennium BC.
And when the great Greek poet Homer immortalised Thebes – modern-day Luxor – in the ninth century BC, he was merely articulating the awe that the city had been inspiring among his countrymen for centuries.
Countless visitors since have fallen for Luxor’s charms. One of them was the Roman emperor Hadrian who, in AD 130, took his party to the spectacular Colossi of Memnon, two huge statues that still front the funerary temple of Egypt’s greatest pharaoh, Amenhotep III (c1390–1352 BC).
Almost 17 centuries later, the arrival in Egypt of another leader – Napoleon, at the head of a French invasion force in 1799 – led to Egypt’s ‘rediscovery’ and the first modern wave of European ‘Egyptomania’.
Soon, the continent’s aristocrats were spending their winters in Luxor’s therapeutic climate – either aboard their private boats or at the iconic Winter Palace hotel, where a drink on the terrace is still heartily recommended.
One such visitor was Lord Carnarvon, whose winter seasons by the Nile – initially recovering from a car accident – led to an interest in Egyptology, an introduction to unemployed archaeologist Howard Carter and one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. For when Carter discovered the tomb of Amenhotep III’s grandson Tutankhamun in November 1922, Luxor was transformed overnight from a rarefied retreat to a place packed with tourists, for whom the local economy adapted accordingly.
Indeed, for me, much of Luxor’s charm is its buzz, nowhere more apparent than while running the gamut of salesmen in its tourist bazaar, passing the belly-dancing outfits and King Tut paperweights. Not far away is the riverfront corniche with its impressive museum of ancient Egyptian art and the nearby Mummification Museum.
Then of course, there are the legendary temples of Luxor and their much larger counterpart at Karnak just a short drive away. With its prime riverside location enabling you to follow in the footsteps of countless dynasties of pharaohs, who came south to pay tribute to the gods of Egypt’s religious heartland, Luxor Temple in particular is a wonderful place to spend a few hours.
I’d particularly recommend a visit in the evening, when the lights begin to twinkle across the river on the west bank. Yet at any time this is a spectacular view, with a fabulous backdrop of limestone cliffs fronting the world’s most famous cemetery, the Valley of the Kings.
To cross the Nile at Luxor is not only to move from the east bank to the west bank, but to travel back in time. The first monuments you’ll encounter are the Memnon Colossi that so impressed Hadrian in AD 130. These welcoming figures – for so long alone – have now been joined by increasing amounts of the temple they once fronted, thanks to ongoing excavations.
Beyond lies a series of other such temples – each different in size and style. They include the Ramesseum of Ramesses II (c1279–1213 BC), whose fallen colossus inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias, and the temple of female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c1473–1458 BC), its clean lines brilliantly offset by the backdrop of the cliffs at Deir el-Bahari.
And right behind this, of course, is the Valley of the Kings, its massive rock-cut tombs bearing repeated images of mighty monarchs in the company of endless deities.
If you find the size and sheer number of these royal tombs overwhelming, then my advice is to visit some of the smaller ‘tombs of the nobles’ – little gems whose painted scenes of life range from harvesting crops to throwing parties.
And if you’d like to see the houses in which ancient Egyptians lived – rather than simply the tombs in which they are buried – you can visit the ruins of the village of Deir el-Medina, home to the workers who constructed the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
A perfect visit for me ends with the temple of Medinet Habu, whose atmosphere late in the day is truly magical, especially if combined with a reviving Turkish coffee at Shahat’s ‘Ramses Cafe’ next door. There are many such places across the west bank, whose small hotels offer a less luxurious yet more immediate experience than their counterparts on Luxor’s east bank.
Although I’ve only been to Luxor as a tourist once – on my first visit to Egypt in 1981 – I’ve made countless return trips as part of my life as an Egyptologist. And when I’m here in Luxor, which has been dazzling visitors for millennia, I truly believe that life can never get much better.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Temperatures can reach in excess of 40˚C in June, but things begin to cool down from August. Avoid the extreme temperatures by travelling between October and March.
At the moment most direct flights to Luxor are from London, with those from UK regional airports dependent on demand.
What to pack
A torch (for examining interesting nooks and crannies in Luxor’s many tombs and temples); mineral water spray and tissues.
What to bring back
Coloured scarves and silver jewellery. And lots of photographs.
Hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and the Nile at sunrise. Utterly magical!
Was very excited to sail past the original boat that inspired Death on the Nile!
Make sure you visit in the winter months when the temperature is only 25 degrees centigrade!
Professor Joann Fletcher of the University of York is an author who regularly presents documentaries on ancient Egypt for the BBC. Read more about Joann’s experiences in Luxor at historyextra.com/luxor