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Published: January 21st 2018
I'm in Luxor for my last 3 days in Egypt. I'd saved the best for last. Several of the world's most famous and most ancient sites now lay at my doorstep. My hotel was on the West Bank of the Nile, in the Valley of the Kings, the location where the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered a century ago.
Despite knowing that I still wasn't prepared for just how astounding and exceptional the antiquity would be. There is so much. I explored them under the expert guidance of Ahmad Almozamel my Egyptologist guide. I was more than eager to get out there so we made an early start, as always in desert lands it is customary to start early to avoid being out in the midday heat (though I love that!)
Called LUXOR today, it was WASET the City of A Hundred Gates to the ancients, then THEBES to the Greeks. For 500 years this was the capital of Egypt under the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom - the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties. These Pharaohs were Sudanese Nubians from the south so they moved the capital from Gizeh and Memphis in the north, to their region
in the south. Theirs was the Golden era of Egyptian conquest, trade and wealth, her glory days of construction, the time of her most famous names....... Ramsis, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut .....
Tomb building and preparation for the after life was forever a Pharaoh's first priority. Knowing the fate of earlier above-ground pyramid tombs of the north, which had been raided and proven vulnerable, Nubian Pharaohs took a new approach. To protect the deceased in the journey through the Underworld to the next life, they switched to burials in rock-cut concealed tombs below-ground in the cliffs near their mortuary Temples.
At Waset they found an ideal set up, a flat plain across the Nile from a Wadi, the narrow valley of a ravine with a protectable entrance, in the hills of Wadi Al Muluk.
The flat plain served for Temple building and the limestone cliffs for tomb cutting. Very important too, the cliffs were on the west Bank where the sun sets after first traveling across the Temples, to enter the netherworld. Thus the sun followed the natural progression of life, first rising over the life of the Pharaohs (as recorded in their mortuary Temple) then setting
on their after life at their burial tomb. Coincidentally the dominating mountain peak here (el - Qurn, the Horn) is shaped like a pyramid.
Over centuries the valleys became a concentration of tombs. A Necropolis. The Valley of the Kings, a site so vast that although over 800 rock cut tombs of royal families, (over 60 Pharaohs) nobles, high officials etc have already been uncovered, the search continues. Thousands more are believed to exist. Today it is the world's biggest open air museum, a city of Temples. The location sketches I've borrowed from the internet illustrate the size of the area and scale of the discoveries to date.
But let me put into context exactly how overwhelming are treasures you will find at Luxor, by just the bare facts :-
The LUXOR TEMPLE
and the KARNAK TEMPLE
complexes are both on the East Bank of the Nile
. Facing them across on the opposite bank
of the Nile, is the NECROPOLIS
COMPLEX : the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.
So here we go......
The KARNAK Temple is in the city of LUXOR
. Its name "Ipet-isu" means the most select of
places. It spans 200 ACRES (the Queens Park Savannah by comparison is 300 acres) and is the largest building ever built by man. It was constructed over 2,000 years by 30 Pharaohs and for 2000 years was a place of pilgrimage dedicated to the God Amum. INSIDE KARNAK TEMPLE
are the following :-
- the sacred Amun enclosure
, which is 61 Acres, about the size of 10 average European cathedrals.
- the Great Karnak Temple
at the core of the complex, inside which we could comfortably fit
St. Peter's, Milan and the Notre Dame Cathedrals.
- the Hypostyle Hall
covering 54,000 Sq ft (16,459 Sq m ) its 134 columns roofed with flat painted stone is the largest room in any religious building anywhere in the world.
- plus a myriad of smaller Temples, a Sacred Lake
bordered by living quarters for the priests, storerooms for religious objects and an aquatic bird aviary.
And that's only at Karnak Temple!
The LUXOR TEMPLE
is just down the road. It is less spectacular, its mud brick buildings having disappeared over time. But numerous formidable granite and stone structures
have endured together with some outstanding features..... the mile and a
half long avenue of human headed sphinxes (originally 1,350 of them) lining the processional route between the two Temple complexes...... the obelisk,
twin companion to the stolen one dominating the Place de la Concorde in Paris..... and a further array of massive temple structures
including pylons, colonnades, courts. Not only that, but in later years upon the ancient Temples a section of the Hypostyle hall was converted into a Byzantine Coptic church during the Christian era, and still later Moslems built a mosque, the Abu Al-Hajjaj, which is in use today. Luxor Temple is a site of worship unbroken for over 4500 years.
AND THAT'S JUST THE EAST BANK TEMPLES.
Taking the ferry boat across the river to the West Bank you will find the sprawling NECROPOLIS which contains these gems :-
- The Valley of the Kings
: as its name says, the place of rock cut tombs and Temples for three dynasties of Pharaohs of the New Kingdom. The tombs of more than 60 Pharaohs have been located here.
- el Deir al Bahri has the massive Mortuary Temple
, the "Holy of Holies" a 3 tiered monument by Hatshepsut the woman pharaoh who ruled for
22 years. The ruins of the Temple of Thutmose III lie nearby.
- the Valley of the Queens
burial site was mainly for princesses, pharaohs wives and children. People like Nefertari the favorite wife of Ramsis II.
- The Ramesseum, temple of Ramsis II, the Great,
who ruled for 60 years. This temple took 20 years to build. Its colossal statues are 50 ft high weighing 1,000 tons. One of these fallen granite faces inspired the poem Ozymandias by Shelley in 1818... " I am Ozymandias king of kings, look on my works ye mighty and despair." The wall paintings inside depict his military victories including at Qadesh over the Hittites... Which was really a stalemate and a truce was signed! He is also accused of being the Pharaoh of the jewish exile but that is more probably Ramsis III.
- The Temple of Ramsis III
at Medinet Habu has an area of 690,000 Sq ft while the decorations on its internal walls cover 75,300 Sq ft.
- The Colossi of Memnon
, these two giants were carved 4,000 years ago from granite brought from the quarries near Cairo..... That's a (flying) distance of 300 miles! Today they sit very casually
at the side of a modern roadway.
- Deir al Madina
the village which housed the workers and craftsmen who built the Temples. Their tombs cut in the cliffs above contain some of the most excellent reliefs of all the tombs.
- The Tombs of the Nobles
contains literally hundreds of tombs of royals and high officials.
I spent two days here. It was impossible to visit all of even the major sites in one visit, to cover the distances between each location by car, to enter and explore each one. Such is the richness, the quantity and size of the monuments that we did not even think
of visiting Tutankhamun's tomb.... There simply was no time, he was a minor king. Besides all his tomb treasures have been moved and next year an entire museum dedicated to his treasures should open in Cairo! I say "should" advisedly, it's already 2 years overdue.
My visits with Ahmad included the Temple of Ramsis III, the Ramesseum (that's the Temple of Ramsis II) and we stopped on the roadside to visit the Colossi of Memnon.
But Hatshepsut's Mortuary temple was the most spectacular of them all. Her
name means "foremost of noble ladies". Known as "the Holy of Holies" it is set against a harsh backdrop of rugged cliffs aligned on a direct axis with the Karnak Temple of Amun across on the east bank. Hatshepsut, remember, was that rare creature, a female Pharaoh
. And she ruled successfully in the heyday of Egyptian prosperity 1490 to 1469 BC. Remember too that it was super important for every pharaoh to prepare for their journey to the after life, thus burial preparations were a major focal point during a Pharaoh's reign. She succeeded magnificently.
Hers is a sprawling three-story structure, magnificent in scale and elegant in design. There is a grand, wide colonnaded ramp from the ground to the third level. There is a reconstructed colossal statue of her, with several more pharaonic figures lining the columns in front the building. On the walls inside the Temple abundant reliefs tell the story of her rule including how two granite obelisks were transported by ship from quarries over 100 miles away in Asian, accompanied by soldiers, standard bearers, priests and musicians. It also tells of her divine birth. And of her highly successful trade expedition to the Land of
The wall paintings are exquisite, showing in fine detail villages and houses, animals, fishes and birds, men cutting trees, carrying off incense and ebony, loading the sailboats with tribute and treasure, cattle, baboons and a panther. In the Chapels of Hathor and of Anubis (the Jackal-headed god of death, dying, the Underworld, Guardian of the tomb) there are brilliant scenes of the pharaoh in the presence of Anubis. Hathor the cow goddess of creation and joy, who nourished all life with her milk, is shown suckling the pharaoh.
To return to the story of the two Temples of Luxor and Karnak on the East Bank, their purpose was extremely significant, their narrative is worth relating.
For 2,000 years they served a significant religious purpose to the ancient Egyptians. And did it on a grand scale befitting the biggest religious centre. Anywhere. Ever.
Every year in the 2nd civil month, at the end of the agriculture cycle when the banks of the Nile flooded, the need for the earth to be replenished was acknowledged (if only we had that awareness today). The OPET FESTIVAL
was held to observe and honour that renewal of earth's energy. It took
the form of a procession lasting 27 days.
Starting from the KARNAK Temple it proceeded south along the avenue of ram headed sphinxes to the LUXOR complex, a mile and a half away. The statue of Amun, Creator God, was clothed in linen and adorned with gold and silver jewellery, necklaces, bracelets, amulets, sceptres and placed on a ceremonial barque to be borne on the shoulders of the priests, through the temple halls and courtyard and among the excited crowds lining the street craning their necks to see. Led by the Pharaoh, the living god, the foot procession was escorted by Nubian soldiers, drummers, musicians and singers of devotional songs. There were rest stops.
Arriving at Luxor temple, they processed between the human headed sphinxes, all 1,350 of them. From inside the temple incense filled the air during the regeneration ceremonies performed by the priests. Amun’s power ( as Min the god of fertility) was again bestowed upon the Pharaoh. Upon its success they emerged to a tumultuous welcome from the cheering crowd celebrating the continuing fertility of the earth and good harvests to come.
During the festival the pharaoh contributed to the joy of the crowds by distributing
thousands of loaves and hundreds of jars of beer for the celebration. A few select people were allowed into the sacred precinct to ask the god questions... answered by priests hidden behind windows in a wall (this sounds familiar!) That was the OPET Festival.
Another annual festival, the Beautiful Feast of the Valley,
was held at Karnak in the 10th civil month. It was a colorful and joyful celebration of the dead. The procession carried the figure of Amun plus his wife Mut and child Khonsu to the barges which left from Karnak Temple and were towed across the Nile, going west to visit the mortuary temples at the Necropolis. There celebrants would commune with their loved ones in the after world. All this was accompanied by acrobats and musicians and women making a soft rattling sound with an instrument to soothe the gods. Food and drink were offered to the dead. Celebrants ate and drank plentifully to induce an altered state which brought them closer to their dear departed!
I spent two days exploring this area. Like the Pyramids at Gizeh, Luxor showed me just how incomparable Egyptian antiquity is. And it is really all over Egypt.
I still have one day remaining of my travels to blog about, the visit to Abydos and Dendara just north of Luxor. Finally ending with a lighter blog containing my random impressions, encounters and memories as I traveled along. Two to go!
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