Kids love learning about ancient Egypt –I did, at least. To me, ancient Egypt felt like history with a sense of adventure. Maybe we have Indiana Jones to thank, but I imagined buried tombs, the cracking of codes, and mysterious gods.
The great history museums around the world are filled with treasures from Egypt –I had seen them myself– so the history felt somehow relatable. As the cradle of civilization, Egyptian history is all of our history.
And yet, I recently realized, it isn’t quite. On my recent trip to Egypt, the locals I met were so proud of their heritage. And how could they not be? Standing before these massive, ancient sites carved from Egyptian sandstone, I could feel the deep history humming in my bones. The sense of adventure was mine –climbing into tombs and smelling the dusty air– but the history was theirs.
Oh, but it’s a thrill to tap into it. Luxor has been a tourist destination for European travelers since the 18th century, as you may see from Victorian-era graffiti on temple walls. It feels silly to call Egypt a new hotspot, but it does seem that way. Due to political unrest following the 2011 revolution, tourism numbers dropped steeply. Now that the country has stabilized, travelers from around the world are finally coming back.
Luxor would be the grand finale of my Egyptian tour. I began with the pyramids, mosques, and museums in Cairo, then flew to Aswan for a few days on the Nile before boarding a cruise to Luxor.
Due to its wealth of sites, Luxor is often called the “greatest open-air museum in the world.” In ancient times, however, it was called Thebes. It was a living, breathing city that served as the capital of Egypt on several occasions. Modern-day Luxor straddles the Nile, its new city mingling with ancient temples on the eastern bank. On the western bank is the necropolis, or city of the dead. This stark, barren landscape is where you’ll find the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.
Before we step inside, let’s take a moment for history. During the Middle Kingdom –when Egypt made its greatest strides in art, architecture, and science– the Theban prince Mentuhotep II (2055-2004 BC) reunited Upper and Lower Egypt. Perhaps out of hometown pride, he made Thebes the capital of Egypt. The political capital moved several times, but Thebes remained the religious capital for many centuries. As this period coincided with a time of great wealth in Thebes, pharaohs had plenty of money to spend. Luckily for us, they spent much of it on temples.
The greatest of these temples is Karnak, devoted to the local god, Amon. Construction began in approximately 1971 BC, but 30 pharaohs would expand and embellish the site over the next 1,500 years. To this day, Karnak remains one of the largest religious complexes in the world.
For me, the most awe-inspiring space in this staggering site was the Great Hypostyle Hall, where 134 enormous papyrus-shaped pillars reach for the sky. During the floods of the Nile each summer, this hall would fill with water like the swamp papyrus grows in. As I weaved through the columns –early in the morning before the crowds arrived– I felt very small and very, very new.
I exited Karnak and followed the long walkway lined with sphinxes. This three-kilometer stretch leads to the Temple of Luxor, situated in the center of the city and guarded by a single grand obelisk. The temple was built by King Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) and Ramses II (1279-1213 BC). It was used for the Opet Festival, when the statues of Amon, his consort, and his son were brought from Karnak down the sphinx-lined street while the city celebrated. I went to the Temple of Luxor during the day with a guide to learn the history, but I was drawn back to wander at night. All lit up in the darkness, it was even more magical.
Of course, Luxor is not just an open-air museum, but a city. The area around the Temple of Luxor is home to restaurants, hotels, smoky shisha cafés, and yes, the excellent Luxor Museum, where you’ll find the mummies of two pharaohs and a curated collection of treasures from Thebes.
As a lover of storied hotels, I was excited to step inside the Sofitel Winter Palace. In 1922, from the steps of the grande dame hotel, Howard Carter announced his discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. With that, he launched a fervor of interest in Egyptology (and, when his patron died six weeks later, rumors of a curse). Whether or not you stay at the historic hotel, take a walk through the lobby into the sprawling gardens for a cup of tea.
On my final day in Luxor, I went to the Valley of the Kings to walk inside King Tut’s tomb. I remember King Tut’s gilded mask staring back at me from the cover of my middle school history textbook. Decades later, I was inside the tomb, looking down on the mummy, his face no longer covered in gold. Not quite Indiana Jones, but not too far off.
The tomb of King Tutankhamun is the most famous in the Valley of the Kings, but that’s not because it was the most impressive. King Tut’s tomb is small, but special because it was still intact when it was discovered. The other known tombs in the valley –there are 63 in all– were plundered over the centuries. That means there are no treasures inside, but the tombs themselves are a treasure. Where the paintings on the temples at Karnak have mostly washed away, the paintings inside the 4,000-year-old tombs could have just dried.
The following day, I flew back to Paris, where I was spending a few months. I had biked around the Place de la Concorde dozens of times, where a traffic circle spins around a single obelisk at the foot of the Champs-Élysées. This time, I stopped on the concrete island to take a closer look. The obelisk was a gift from the Egyptian government to the French in 1829. Its twin stands outside the Temple of Luxor. Standing before this ancient artifact, as traffic spun around me, was that just the traffic, or did I feel something humming?