Luxor – the world’s greatest open air museum

From Aswan we caught a train to Luxor arriving late in the afternoon. After the Pyramids of Giza, Luxor is the most visited tourist destination in Egypt. Luxor sits on the site of the Ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, with the majority of the city on the East Bank of the Nile and the Tombs and Temples on the West Bank Necropolis. We gave ourselves two days only to visit all of Luxor’s sites, it would be rushed.

On arrival we checked into our hotel and then made our way to Luxor Temple, situated in the heart of Luxor. On arrival it was already sunset but the temple was lit up which provided a different view, and one that wasn’t part of a sound and light show. Entering the temple we were presented with the first pylon on the left and Avenue of Sphinxes on the right. The Avenue of Sphinxes now consisting of fifty or so sphinxes, originally connected the Temple of Luxor with the Temple of Karnak, a little over two kilometres away. The government is attempting to restore the avenue, but it unfortunately means destroying existing local housing.

Walking along the Avenue of the Sphinxes towards Luxor Temple gave a magnificent view of the first pylon. A pylon is a monumental gateway, placed at the entrances to rooms of temples. The pylons would be covered in Egypt stories chiselled in to the stone. The Luxor Temple first pylon was named Pylon of Ramesses II and led to the Great Court baring the same name.  Outside the first pylon was also a large red granite obelisk, obelisks where commonly found in pairs at the entrance to temples. The missing partner was gifted to France and is standing at the centre of the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

The Great Court of Ramesses II consists of columns with capitals of closed papyri buds (representing Lower Egypt) interspaced with statues. From the Great Court is the Colonnade consisting of two magnificent rows of columns with capitals of lotus flowers (representing Upper Egypt). Before entering the temple sanctuaries was the Sun Court of Amenhotep III.

Head of Ramesses IIAvenue of SphinxesFirst Pylon, obelisk and sitting statues of Ramesses II
Travis and Sonya outside First PylonFirst Pylon, obelisk and sitting statues of Ramesses IIOne of the two obelisks
Sitting Ramesses II statues at the entrance to the Great Court of Ramesses IITravis in the Great Court of Ramesses IIStatues of Ramesses II in the Great Court
Travis and Sonya in the Great CourtSitting Ramesses II statueStatue of Ramesses II and his queen Nefertiti
Papyrus bud columnsBound OxSonya at the Colonnade

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to have dinner at a corner restaurant. We tried karkadé (Hibiscus tea) which is very popular in Egypt.

Abu Simbel – reign of Ramesses the Great

We awoke at 2:45am the following morning to start the journey south to Abu Simbel. The hostel had packed us breakfast (bread, boiled egg and juice) and we hopped onto the bus at 3am to pick up other travellers along the way.  As Abu Simbel is about forty kilometres north of Sudan, there are some rules around travel there – buses need to travel in a police escorted convoy and there are regulated times for these convoys departing Aswan. The three hour bus ride was quite uninteresting – mostly desert outside and so I slept most of the way. One highlight was seeing the sunrise across the bare, flat horizon, it was very beautiful.

Nothing can really describe the feeling of awe as you look above at the huge statues of Ramesses II carved out of the side of a mountain over two thousand years ago.  The depictions inside the temple were also quite amazing, of war, family life… and the wonderful statues of Ramesses with the three gods – Ra, Amun and the Ptah god of the underworld which is the only statue which the sunrays do not fall upon inside the temple.

There is also another temple next to Ramesses temple, the temple of Hathor and Nefertari – built for his wife Nefertari. Inside were pictures dedicated to the beautiful Queen.

We headed back to the bus back to Aswan. At Aswan, we stopped at a local restaurant and tried koshary – something we had seen Egyptians eat in Cairo.  Koshary seemed to be a mix of beans, rice, pasta… it was interesting, but by then I had already grown quite fond of falafel and much preferred eating that.

We decided to leave Aswan for Luxor that afternoon so headed to the train station.  We purchased tickets on the train and settled down for the ride to our next destination, Luxor.

Four colossal statues of Ramesses II outside the Great TempleSonya and Travis outside the Great TempleClose up of one of the Ramesses II statues
Sonya next to the ear of the Ramesses II collapsed statueHorus statue outside the Great TempleStoreroom wall carvings
Inner Sanctuary featuring Ra-Horakhty, the deified Ramesses II, Amun Ra and PtahInside the Hypostyle Hall with eight Ramesses II as Osiris statuesRamesses II as Osiris statues
Close up of one of the Ramesses II statuesSonya outside the Great TempleKing Ramesses II and Queen Nefertari outside Temple of Hathor and Nefertari
Egyptian standing at the door of Temple of Hathor and NefertariTravis outside the Temple of Hathor and NefertariView of the Great Temple cut in the hill

Aswan – Temple of Philae, Unfinished Obelisk, High Dam

We caught the Abela Sleeping Train from Cairo to Aswan. It was $60 USD per person for the twelve hour trip there, which included dinner and breakfast. I had caught overnight trains in India but this one was very comfortable in comparison. We had a cabin to ourselves which had a small table, a sink, a seat (which converted into one bed) and a fold up bed above it. Dinner was an aeroplane-like meal (various formats of chicken, salad and bread, some pastries), drinks were extra.

The following morning I awoke to hear passengers get off for Luxor. That meant about three more hours before our stop, Aswan. We headed to the dining cart for some coffee.  As it was daylight, we could now see the beautiful scenery outside the train – a view of the Nile and its rich fertile land.

We arrived around 9:30 am in Aswan. As soon as we departed the train the atmosphere felt very different to Cairo. It was much hotter… and seemed more relaxed, laid back. We headed towards our hostel, walking through the souk. The shops were selling Nubian-style goods, Nubian being the local people of Aswan.

Sonya on the Abela sleeping train to AswanFelucca on the Nile River with Qubbet el-Hawa in the backgroundView of the Movenpick Hotel from our room at night

Our hostel was not far from the souk. We were given a lovely room with absolutely stunning views of the Nile. We booked a driver with our hostel who would take us to three places that day – Temple of Philae, the High Dam and The Unfinished Obelisk.

Temple of Philae

The Temple of Philae was our first stop, about fifteen minutes away from the city. The temple is located on an island and so requires travel by boat. The LP stated that the price of the boat trip was about 20 EGP per person, however the boat taxi men insisted on a price of 50 EGP per person! (It’s about a ten minute boat ride). Fortunately, we came across a friendly Brazilian couple who were looking to share costs, in the end we paid 100 EGP for four of us on one tiny dinghy.

The Temple of Philae was actually originally located at Philae Island but moved to Agilkia Island due to rising water levels from the Aswan High Dam.  We had watched a number of Ancient Egypt documentaries and recognised the front of the temple as we approached by boat – with its beautiful inscriptions across the front.  One of the benefits of travelling post-revolution was that there was barely anyone at most of the sites we visited. At Philae there were a handful of people. It was peaceful, serene and stunning.

Egyptians selling souvenirs on the ferry jetty to PhilaeTemple of Philae from the NileSonya at the Outer Court with the Nile River in the background
Sonya touching some hieroglyphsTravis outside the first pylonTravis in the Outer Court, not many people around
Horus and Hathor on the facade of the first pylonSonya at the entrance of the Mamissi or Birth HouseSonya outside the second pylon, the facade depicts Ptolemy XII offering incense to Horus
Sonya and Travis inside Temple of IsisSparrow in the ruins, the background Hathor columns are visibleTravis and Sonya outside the utility room
Outside Temple of HathorColumns in the Outer CourtTravis outside the first pylon

High Dam

The High Dam was a drive further south from Philae. Aside from the view of Lake Nasser, it wasn’t too eventful and could have been skipped. However, it was interesting to see how and why the dam was built and the effect it had on the surrounding areas.

Unfinished Obelisk

The Unfinished Obelisk has an interesting story.  Aswan was the primary source of granite during ancient Egypt.  Due to the many pharaohs desires of leaving their legacy, granite was important for making obelisks and other monuments and statues.  The unfinished obelisk is a forty-two meter long humungous piece of granite which was planned to be the biggest obelisk ever. But after three or four months into its making they noticed that there was a major flaw /crack in the granite hence having to abandon it. The obelisk is located in a quarry where there is evidence of other obelisks being cut out of the granite (some are now in Karnak, Luxor or Thebes as it was known then). The quarry men who worked carving out these monuments lived on the quarry, as can be seen by various pictures carved on the surrounding rocks.  It is said they came from places afar, as the pictures are of exotic birds and dolphins which are not generally found in the area.

Sonya at the unfinished obeliskTravis standing on the unfinished obeliskTravis inside one of the channels used to separate the obelisk
Sonya on some graniteAncient drawings of fish, assumed by the workersAncient drawings of birds, assumed by the workers

Aswan Souk and Felucca Cruise

In the evening we decided to take a walk through the souk and later take a felucca on the Nile. It was extremely relaxing and romantic, watching the sun set across the Nile.

Aswan marketSpicesColourful scarfs
Helmsman preparing the feluccaQubbet el-HawaThe helmsman, Sonya and Travis
The helmsmanSun setting over the Nile RiverThe captain adjusting the sail

We had dinner at a restaurant on the Nile – traditional Nubian fish tagine (which was delicious) and shish tawook (grilled chicken, always a favourite).

Egypt – Egyptian museum and Islamic Cairo

We headed to the famous Egyptian museum, next to Tahrir’s Square, the following day. Whilst we had arrived early, there were already busloads of tourists waiting at the gates. We found out we would have to wait another half an hour till the museum opened so we took photos with relics outside.  Unfortunately, the museum does not allow photographs inside.

When opening time arrived we decided to head first to the Tutankhamun galleries.  It was on the first floor.  There we saw the iconic Tutankhamun mask, and the various items and relics found in his tomb by the English archaeologist, Howard Carter. It was simply amazing, the jewellery, clothes, vases, and other items that were found in his tomb, many of which were in excellent condition.

Other highlights of the museum included:

– The royal mummies – particularly the Ramesses II mummy. Amazingly well preserved – some of them had their hair, teeth and skin intact. Slightly eerie.

– Animal mummies – the Ancient Egyptians believed the scarab (dung beetle) to be representative of the rising of the sun in the way they rolled their dung around. Here we saw a scarab sarcophagus! Plus plenty of animals that had been mummified including a crocodile, dog and baboon.

The museum is definitely a must-see. It was a bit overwhelming to have so many ancient artefacts sprawled around haphazardly, waiting to be observed.  Most of the artefacts are not well described – so a guidebook or guide comes in handy.

Sphinx in front of the Egyptian MuseumSonya in front of the Egyptian MuseumObelisk outside the Egyptian Museum
Ramesses II flanked by Ptah and SekhmetSekhmet Sculpture with Obelisk in the backgroundSonya next to Ramesses V sculpture

After the museum we decided to head to the Khan El-Khalili markets near Islamic Cairo.  We walked there from the museum which was quite a distance however it gave us an opportunity to experience the full hustle and bustle of Cairo. The markets were quite impressive.  There was everything from perfume, to paintings, spices, similar to what we’d seen around the region, with an Egyptian flair.

As we sat down for a rest and were approached by a taxi driver. We told him we weren’t looking for a driver he told us that he was wanted to buy Heineken beer for his niece’s wedding and asked if we could buy some for him.  We politely refused and shortly after a lady next to me asked if we wanted assistance buying anything, that she would be happy to help as a local.  Not sure how many requests or offers for help were genuine but we decided to err on the side of caution.

After the markets we headed towards Islamic Cairo (also being accosted several times along the way – one guy even followed us!), admiring the architecture. We went into the medieval gate Bab Zuweila and climbed the tower which allowed us a good view of Islamic Cairo.

Markets on Gohar Al KaedMarkets on Gohar Al KaedStart of markets on Gohar Al Kaed
Centre of the Khan el Khalili MarketsMinaret of Al-Hussein MosqueMan selling bread
Towards Islamic CairoMarkets with mosque in the distanceMarkets with minaret in the distance
View from Bab ZuweilaView of Cairo from Bab ZuweilaView of Cairo from Bab Zuweila
Sonya at the entrance to Bab Zuweila minaretBab Zuweila minaretBab Zuweila minarets