View of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el-bahari in the morning sun.
View of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el-bahari in the morning sun. Maciek67

Visit land of temples and tombs

IF YOU want to see some of the world's greatest temples, and what could be the world's richest archaeological site, go to Luxor in Egypt. Luxor is an hour's flight up the Nile from Cairo.

Luxor grew out of the ruins of Thebes, the capital of Egypt from about 1500-1000BC. Now it is one of the Middle East's major attractions, however, it is suffering badly at the moment because tourism has almost collapsed.

Direct flights from many European cities have ceased and the once-thriving river services to and from Aswan are virtually non-existent. Most of the 300 or so riverboats that took tourists in relative luxury along the Nile are now tied to the banks and many are rotting away.

This means it is a great time to visit. Hotels have cut prices, tour guides are readily available, crowds are nowhere to be seen and everyone is going out of their way to be friendly, helpful and courteous.

Safety is on everyone's minds, and my wife and I felt completely at ease everywhere we went.

We had gone to Luxor to see two massive temples - the Temple of Amun at Karnak and the Temple of Luxor - as well as the attractively named Valley of the Kings. Each met our expectations and we then discovered there was much more to see and do.

The Temple Of Amun (Karnak Temple)

This complex of three temples built over a 2000-year period is probably the biggest temple on earth. Our expectations were high and as we wandered the site we became more and more impressed. The stillness of the whole place with its stone columns soaring against the brilliant blue sky was breathtaking. The surfaces of the grand courtyards are all covered by fine carvings. The scale and detail is staggering. I thought of the vision, the work and the investment that went into this huge structure and then was told that all this could not even be seen at the time by the public. It was only for priests, royals, and the gods.

A millennia later the public entered. We saw marks on the columns where Roman soldiers sharpened their swords, and early Christian images of Mary and Jesus are carved on the ancient pillars like graffiti.

The Luxor Temple

The Luxor Temple is all about the great warrior pharaoh Ramses II, even though it was started 100 years or more (around 1380BC) before his reign. Two 25-metre pink granite obelisks built by Ramses once stood before the entrance gateway, but today only one remains; the other stands in the Place De La Concorde in Paris.

The temple has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship. During the Christian era, the temple's hypostyle hall was used as a Christian church.

Then for many centuries the temple was buried and a mosque was eventually built over it. This mosque was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today.

Originally an avenue lined with sphinxes ran the entire three kilometres between the Luxor and Karnak temples. This avenue is under excavation and reconstruction and you see a short completed section near Luxor Temple.

The Valley of the Kings

In about 1600BC there was a big change in the style of royal tombs. Until then, kings were buried in pyramids, but these were consistently being robbed, which meant kings were waking up in the afterlife without their precious earthly possessions. So, rather than mark their tombs with big pyramids, the kings started hiding their tombs underground in the valleys on the west side of the Nile.

Each buried king was provided with all the necessary things that would provide a comfortable existence in the afterlife, however, most of this has been looted over the centuries so most tombs were empty when they were rediscovered in modern times. The condition of the 63 tombs that have been discovered and the details on their walls, however, is incredible after all these centuries. Most are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology.

Most of the tombs are not open to the public. The entry ticket to the valley allows you to visit three tombs out of several that are open but some require additional payment.

The Hatshepsut Temple

This is perhaps the most spectacular structure on the west bank. The mortuary temple was only discovered about 150 years ago and there is still some ongoing restoration work under way.

The temple rises out of the desert in a series of terraces that from a distance merge with the sheer limestone cliffs behind.

This temple was built by Queen Hatshepsut, the first known female monarch, who ruled for about two decades. Her reign was one of the most prosperous and peaceful in Egypt's history. When Thutmose III followed her as pharaoh, he had all evidence of her reign destroyed by erasing her name and having her image cut from all public monuments, even within this temple.