The dawn of 10th Apr saw us taking a peaceful morning walk on the beautiful Nile Corniche with the chirping of sparrows (so glad to see hundreds of them wherever we went in Egypt) to keep us company as we headed to the Karnak Temple 3 km away from our hotel.
We made an early start to beat the heat of the day and the hordes of visitors who would descend post their breakfast. Though it was not the peak tourist season and hence in general not too much of a crowd at any time, we preferred the luxury of having these amazing historical sights almost entirely to ourselves by getting there as close to opening times (6 am in Luxor) as possible. It certainly helped that we lived across the road literally both at Giza and Luxor, choosing clean & modest accommodations over the more comfortable downtown places we are otherwise used to.
Luxor, like Cairo, in the ancient times, had the two banks of the Nile used for distinct purposes – the East with its sunrise was the land of the Living while the West where the sun sets was the destination for those making their way into the After-Life. So the temples are of worship are located on the East bank while the West bank houses the tombs and memorial / mortuary “temples” built for the departed.
We had read about the magnificence of the Karnak Temple, but seeing it in person left us awestruck and wondering at the splendour & grandeur that had been achieved over 3000 years ago! Entering through an avenue of ram-headed Sphinxes, we found ourselves in a large courtyard with tall pillars and statues and leading into altars on the two sides.
The Karnak Temple was dedicated to the reigning deity of Thebes (the
region) Amun, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu, referred to as The Thebian Triad. The highlight of this massive temple complex (for us) was the huge Hypostyle Hall, large enough to house London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral & Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica together. It has an array of massive 25+ meter high pillars each of which is engraved with various symbols of ancient Egypt. There are 2 distinct patterns of engravings on the 2 sides, attributed to the 2 Pharaohs responsible for their construction, with pillars on each side being exactly identical!
The walls of the hall are engraved with detailed scenes of rituals of offerings and processions. Looking up, one can still see the remnants of the bright blue and red colours that once adorned the pillars and ceiling. What would this place have looked like in its heyday ?!!
Beyond the grand hall we see two obelisks, Egypt’s tallest at 30 meters. It was erected by Queen Hatshepsut, one of the rare women rulers of ancient Egypt, to the glory of her “father” Amun (the deity of Thebes). We wandered through the rest of this massive temple complex, to see more halls, altars and the inner core, the original sanctum of Amun which is perfectly aligned in the East-West direction.
The tourist buses have now begun to arrive and we exit, in an antique taxi, to head back to the cool environs of our hotel for breakfast and escape the heat wave that continues to grip Egypt.
In the evening it was hop, skip & jump across the road to the Luxor temple and the Avenue of Sphinxes. This is not a temple of worship and was probably used for coronation ceremonies, besides an annual procession of the deities from the Karnak temple.
In what may have been akin to the chariot festivals a.k.a “Rath Yatra” / “Ther Thiruvizha” still held in some temples in India, the deities of Karnak temple were brought to the Luxor temple in an annual procession through the Avenue of Sphinxes that connected the two temples.
What remains now is a very small portion of the 3 km stretch lined with Sphinxes, with the city getting built over various parts. A lone Sphinx can still be seen here & there as one traverses the town.
The Luxor Temple, though smaller in scale than Karnak, is characterised by similar large courts, hypostyle hall, larger than life statues and grandeur that were characteristic of this great civilisation.
The temple was built and extended over years by various kings and completed by Tutankhamun. A statue of him with his wife Ankhesenamun can be seen in the temple.
The Temple was converted into a fortress by the Romans when they occupied the area much later around 250 AD. In a bid for their own claim to fame, the Romans painted over some of the walls and used the altars as chapels. The Roman painting is visible in a corner of the wall – note the top left corner in the picture below.
A lot accomplished in the day on the East bank and having braved the hot dusty breeze that persisted even at sunset, we wound down with a horse cart ride and a dinner on the rooftop. Manish braved the gusts of wind that started up as we finished dinner to revisit the temple to see the night lighting. Mihika & I chose to admire it from a distance!
Next up on our list for the West bank are the Valley of Kings, the Hatshepsut memorial temple, Medinet Habu and Colossi of Memnon.
A historical perspective – As we move in time from the Old Kingdom of Lower Egypt (Dahshur, Saqqara, Cairo) through the Middle Kingdom and to the New Kingdom of Upper Egypt (Luxor to Aswan), the Pharaohs moved from building pyramids to carving out & decorating their would-be tombs in the pyramid shaped Thebes mountain on the West bank of the Nile in Luxor. The kings are buried in the Valley of Kings, the queens in the Valley of Queens and the aristocrats in the Tombs of the Nobles. The workers who built the tombs also had a place designated for their own tombs, the Deir al-Medina.
It was an early start and we were pleasantly surprised by the cool morning, cloudy and with a drizzle! What a relief after the heat wave, we couldn’t have asked for better weather for this day of intense sight-seeing. Crossing over the Nile, we drove up the Thebes passing a few sharp bends (!!) to get to the Valley of the Kings.
There are 8 tombs that are open to the visitors on any given day (and these can be different) and one can choose any 3 to explore from the inside. The first one we chose was Merenptah’s, the 13th son of the great Ramesses II, who finally got a chance to rule after 67 years of his father’s reign while his 12 older siblings had no such luck! We chose this as it is reputed to be among the most beautiful of all in the Valley of Kings.
Tomb-building had become more elaborate with time and unlike the older pyramids where we had to bend and walk single-file through a tunnel to get to the sarcophagus, here we have wide passages with high ceilings to walk down comfortably. Just as well, as the tombs are built quite deep inside with at least a 100 steps to climb down. The walls and ceilings of the passage and the rooms inside are all elaborately decorated with the Egyptian Book of the Dead to guide the soul on its journey to the afterlife. No photos are allowed in any of the tombs here, so sorry can’t share the beauty we witnessed inside.
The next 2 choices were Horemheb and Tuthmosis III, the former being a General who went on to become the only Pharaoh of non-royal origin and the latter famed as the Napoleon of Egypt. Tuthmosis III’s tomb is unique in the way he built it – high up between 2 hills and across a ravine, with many tunnels and false doors – all to keep it safe from the tomb raiders who the Pharaohs dreaded. A visit to his tomb is breath-taking, literally that is, with having to first climb up about 4-5 floors worth of steps and then down about 5-6 floors. Needless to say, you need to climb up & down to get back out!
Our morning exercise more than taken care of, we headed to the Hatshepsut Temple, a beautiful piece of architecture that looks like its been carved out of the mountain. Hatshepsut was the most important of all female Pharaohs (there being less than a handful of them throughout the dynastic rule) who ruled for nearly 15 years when she became a widow.
Climbing up past the vast open court, we came face-to-face with the huge statues of Osiriform Hatshepsut, only a few of the original 24 remain now. The walls in the halls a level below have painted depictions of the divine birth of Hatshepsut and her expedition to the Land of Punt, an exotic country on the Red Sea coast to get plants needed for incense-making and other trade.
The temple houses a sanctuary of Anubis, the jackal headed God of mummification and afterlife. Here is a relief depicting Anubis that has survived on the temple walls. The ceilings here have the familiar “shower of stars” – see the golden stars set against the night sky backdrop here.
The next monument we visited and nearly the last for the day was Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Built in the style of a Syrian fort, it has well preserved reliefs and pillars.
We found the depiction of Ramesses II riding his chariot quite striking. A pigeon was perched in the centre, on horseback when we clicked!
On our way back we stopped by the landmark Colossi of Memnon, the giant twin statues of Amenhotep III.
We crossed back over the Nile to come home to a lunch with Egyptian Sakara beer and local veggie and chicken to fill our starving selves before a nice afternoon nap, all the time thanking our lucky stars for the pleasant cool morning that made it possible for us to cover so much ground. In the evening, we were finally rewarded with a beautiful sunset over the Nile (not having had any before due to the storm dust hanging in the air). We took a felucca (wooden sailboat) ride for a quiet evening to mark the end of our Egyptian sojourn.
Much to Mihika’s delight, she found an antique PBX with a dial-pad at the hotel reception that evening and it was fun to tell her how we dialled numbers on telephones in the days when we were growing up.
Thanks for reading this rather long post! We had the envious task of giving you a glimpse of human feats achieved over a 2000 year period!!
Keep following and encouraging us … as we move to the next continent(North America) on our itinerary ! Also keep reading Mihika’s blogs at www.iammihika.com