Luxor’s West Bank – tombs galore

I had decided to spread my visit of Luxor’s west bank – site of countless ancient tombs – over two days. It was a wise decision.  My hotel provided me with a car and driver and I set off.  The entry to the west bank is guarded by two giant statues of Amenhotep III, which were rather worse for wear and now resembled modern art sculptures. 

Ancient art begins to look like modern art…

Behind these statues a large area was being excavated, which my driver said was the site of a huge, now totally ruined, temple – possibly even bigger than Karnak.

We headed first to the ticket office. The west bank can be frustrating to visit – tickets to many sites are only sold at the central office, so you need to plan in advance exactly what you want to visit, if you want to avoid having to come back to buy more.

Tickets in hand, I went first to the temple of Medinat Habu, dedicated to the local god Amun and built by Ramses III around 1150BC. Though it is not one of Luxor’s most famous places, I enjoyed its graceful structure, setting amongst hills, and well-preserved painting and stone relief carvings. A particularly striking set of reliefs showed Ramses III slaughtering Libyan invaders, with many scribes counting the thousands of prisoners. Some of the latter were shown later with their heads cut off – no Geneva convention in those days!

The entrance gate (“pylon”) to Medinat Habu
Ramses III slaughters many Libyans as his scribes count the bodies and prisoners
Inside Medinat Habu

My next stop was Deir al Medina, where many of the painters and sculptors who made the rich peoples’ tombs lived and were buried.  There are hundreds of tombs here, and the hillside sometimes looks like Swiss cheese, but only a few of them were open. The few I managed to visit were all similar – small, with wall paintings of the owner’s body being prepared for the afterlife by mummification. The painting seemed like a recent restoration, rather than the original paint, but there was little explanation available anywhere. The tomb particularly recommended by my guidebook needed an extra ticket….which of course I had forgot to buy at the central ticket office.

A restored tomb of one of the painters who worked on richer people’s tombs

From there I headed on to the Valley of Queens, who were buried in a separate area to the male pharaohs. These tombs were more elaborate than those of the workers but still fairly small and modest compared to what I would later see elsewhere. The most famous tomb is that of Ramses II’s favourite queen Nefertari, which is small but extremely richly decorated. However, to preserve the paintwork, visits of this tomb are limited to a maximum of ten minutes and required a separate and very expensive ticket. I decided to pass, and thought I had made the right decision when I saw a long queue outside. 

The next best tomb to Nefertari’s is that of Amunherkhepshef – actually not a queen, but a prince. I had the place almost to myself.

Tomb of Amunherkhepshef, in the Valley of the Queens

My final stop of the day was to visit the Tombs of the Nobles. These were by far the most impressive tombs of the day. They were built deep in the ground and their walls were covered with scenes of their daily life. My favourite was the tomb of Sennofer, the mayor of Thebes in time of Amenhotep II. Its roof was covered with paintings of vines and grapes – Sennofer was presumably a bon vivant.

Tomb of Sennofer, a man who obviously liked wine – area of the Tombs of the Nobles
Some of the tombs are very deep in the ground, down steep stairs

From Sennofer’s tomb I headed across the dusty site to the more remote tombs of Menna (an estate inspector) and Nahkt (an astronomer). These were locked, and I had to wait for the guardian to come and unlock them for me.

The tomb of Menna

The guardian also showed me the tomb of Amenemore, a high priest in the reigns of Ramses III, IV and V. This was not supposed to be open to tourists. It was not the best-preserved tomb I had seen, but its remoteness and the sense of being invited to see something that is normally off-limits made it one of my favourites.

Tomb of Amenemore

I thanked the guardian with some baksheesh, and he invited me to have some tea with him. His little hut was simple but had a great location on top of a small hill, with a view over to the Nile and Luxor in one direction and to the Temple of Hatshepsut in the other. From a distance, the latter looked like an IT-billionaire’s house in California….

The view back to Luxor
The view inland to the Temple of Hatshepsut

I headed back to the hotel to relax and went out to dinner in local restaurant in the village. After days of eating only fish (freshly caught from the Nile) or vegetables I took the risk of eating meat, and was rewarded with an excellent chicken tagine.

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