Luxor’s West Bank Day 2 and the Valley of the Kings

I started today with a visit to the Temple of Hatshepsut, the impressive building I had seen from a distance the day before. Viewed from afar, it is indeed an amazing sight, sitting at the base of sheer cliff in its own valley.

Temple of Hatshepsut – best enjoyed at a distance

Closer up though, the temple was less interesting than many others I had visited before. To make things worse, it was hugely popular with tour groups. Hatshepsut was a rare female pharaoh, whose reign was marked by prosperity and many building projects. She was initially supposed to be only a temporary regent for the infant Thutmose III, but refused to hand over power to him and reigned until her death. As an act of revenge Thutmose III had her name removed from every Egyptian monument when he finally became pharaoh.

Close up view of the temple and surrounding cliffs

After a quick exploration of the temple itself I set off on a detour to see some nearby tombs. They were only moderately interesting, but the walk provided a spectacular view of the site.

Next I visited the house of  Howard Carter, the British archaeologist famous for his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Howard Carter’s modest house

Back then, searching for ancient artifacts was done by various foreign teams, of which Carter’s was one. The many other expeditions have been long forgotten, but Carter was lucky, being the discoverer of a very rare tomb not be completely emptied by grave robbers. The simple house – with its archaeological instruments, letters from Carter’s sponsor the Earl of Carnarvon and some paintings by Carter – was an interesting change to visiting ancient monuments.

Inside Carter’s house

In the garden was a recreation of Tutenkhamun’s tomb with some interesting information. Tutenkhamun died young, and probably unexpectedly, so his burial was rushed and his tomb was small. His famous death mask may even have been modified from an already available mask intended for someone else – a woman, since it has holes for earrings which only women wore. His cause of death is not known, but DNA analysis suggests it might have been malaria. Thieves attempted to rob the tomb at least twice, after which the main passage leading into it was deliberately blocked off with dirt to discourage further attempts. This made the tomb hard to find and its location was forgotten until Carter stumbled on it, thousands of years later.

A replica of Tutenkhamun’s tomb

Having seen a replica, I set off to see one of the highlights of any visit to Egypt – the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. My driver told me that the day before it has been packed with visitors, so I crossed my fingers. I had aimed to start my visit at 1pm – the usual lunch hour for tour groups. As we rounded the final bend into the valley, the visitors’ car park was only partly full – I was lucky. At the Valley of the Kings, you buy a ticket to enter the site, and this gives the right to visit any three tombs – excluding the tombs of Ramses VI/VII, Seti I and Tutenkhamun which require special additional tickets.

The Valley of the Kings

As you visit each tomb, the guardian punches a hole in your ticket, and after three holes, your ticket is no longer valid. I had some more luck, since at the first two tombs I mistakenly gave the guardian my ticket for Carter’s house, which looks identical. The first two guardians didn’t notice the mistake, so I got two extra visits. The kings’ tombs were much bigger and more richly decorated than the tombs of the nobles or the queens. Most had a very long shaft leading deep into the ground, ending with a series of rooms where once would have been the pharaoh’s sarcophagus.

The walls were decorated with scenes from sacred texts, like the Book of the Dead, pictures of the pharaoh’s soul reaching the afterlife and of the gods welcoming the pharaoh. Work started on a tomb during the intended occupant’s lifetime, but stopped as soon as he died. This had two curious results. Firstly, many tombs had unfinished portions, cut out from the rock but not yet decorated, and secondly the pharaohs that reigned the longest had the biggest tombs. For this reason Tutenkhamun had one of the smallest and most unremarkable tombs of all.

Siptah’s unfinished tomb

First, I visited various tombs included with the general entry ticket. I chose at random; some were almost empty of tourists, whilst others were very busy.

I had the Tomb of Ramses VII to myself
The (too) popular tomb of Merenptah

As I headed further into the valley, the number of visitors to each tomb dropped, as people used up their free visits.

I wanted to save the best to last, so after using my “free” visits, I went back to visit the special tombs for which I had bought additional tickets. First was the dual tomb of Ramses V and VI, which had a spectacular painted ceiling.

The spectacular ceiling of the tomb of Ramses V/VI
The reconstructed sarcophagus of Ramses VI

Finally came the highlight of all of Luxor – the tomb of Seti I, whose special ticket is very expensive. Seti I was one of Egypt’s greatest and longest rulers, so his tomb was huge and richly decorated. After a long walk down, several remarkably decorated rooms opened up, their walls painted with scenes of Seti’s journey to the afterlife and of him being greeted by different gods.

The long way down to Seti I’s tomb
Beautifully painted columns
More remarkable painting – 3,400 years old
Inside Seti I’s tomb

The place where Seti’s sarcophagus would have been was empty – it was taken off to the British Museum long ago.

Where Seti I’s sarcophagus would have been

I stayed nearly half an hour in Seti’s tomb, soaking in the atmosphere. Apart from the tomb’s guardian, I had the place to myself – other visitors being put off by the high price of entry. It was a fitting end to one of the greatest tourist destinations of the world, the Valley of the Kings.

The god Amun-Ra greets Seti I in the afterlife

Back at the hotel, I suddenly wondered where the tomb of Ramses II was. He was the longest reigning pharaoh, and also an egomaniac who liked building huge monuments to himself. I did some research and found out that his tomb was indeed the biggest of all. However, he chose a poor site for it, and it was frequently flooded. Its decorations have long since been destroyed by the water and its contents plundered by thieves. As I enjoyed another fish tagine with beer and a view of the Nile, I reflected on the impermanence of the existence of even the greatest humans (or bears).

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.


Today I crossed the river again to visit the sites on the Luxor’s east bank.  I reached the centre of Luxor, which was much nicer than the part I had visited the day before, with a pretty waterfront opposite the Temple of Luxor.

The view across the Nile from Luxor’s corniche
Luxor Temple from the outside

My first visit was to the Luxor museum – a small but high quality collection of the items found in the area. I particularly liked this statue of the god Sobak with pharaoh Amenhotep III.  There were also two mummified bodies on display; I wondered if the owners would have appreciated being dug up to be inspected by tourists.

The god Sobak, Pharaoh Amenhotep III and me
Mummy of Pharaoh Ahmose

From the museum I walked up along the Nile to Karnak, a place of superlatives. This complex of temples became Egypt’s most important religious site when the kingdom’s capital was moved to Thebes (now called Luxor) and royalty started to be buried in the Valley of Kings on the city’s west bank. Starting around 1950 BC, for nearly 2000 years  successive pharaohs sought to leave their mark for posterity by adding to the previous structures. The most impressive and largest buildings were constructed during the reigns of Seti I and Rameses II, around 1290 BC.  The final complex consisted of a huge central temple to Amun, the local god, and several smaller temples devoted to other gods, and covers a vast area. The central Temple of Amun alone is bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral and St Peter’s Basilica combined.

The entrance to Karnak

Just past the entrance archway – or “pylon” – an incredible sight opened up of the 134 huge decorated columns that make up the Great Hypostyle Hall, part of the central Temple to Amun. Entering this area felt like going into a thick forest, with huge stone pillars instead of trees. I wandered around, straining my neck to look up at the fragments of the ceiling, some of which still carried the original painting from ancient times. I stayed for thirty minutes, soaking  in the sheer vastness of the temple, and feeling smaller and smaller.

The Great Hypostyle Hall
A forest of huge decorated columns
I felt smaller and smaller…

After this amazing sight, I explored the central area further. Then I wandered further south to find a “no entry” sign apparently blocking further progress. A guard gestured to me to come through, and led me to a small Temple of Horus. We were completely alone, and it felt a world away from the crowds in the centre of the complex or the bustling city of Luxor. This temple also gave a good view back over the main complex.

Looking back at the central temples of Karnak

I continued exploring these remote outer parts of the complex. Many areas had “no entry” signs, but friendly guards would usher me through in the expectation of receiving “baksheesh” when I had seen everything. In these little-visited places, I wondered if the guards hadn’t put up the “no entry” signs themselves as a way to augment their salaries. I finally ended up at the remote Temple of Mut (the mother goddess) on the very edge of the site.

Mut and me

Beyond it lay a marsh – a reminder that in ancient times, the temple complex was often flooded by the Nile. After three hours of walking and admiring the vast monuments of the Temple of Amun and the quieter smaller temples in the outskirts, I felt that the marsh made a logical end to my visit of one of antiquity’s most impressive monuments.

The complex of Karnak finally ends

I found the southern gate to the complex where a long, straight ancient road led back to Luxor Temple – the recently-excavated Avenue of the Sphinxes, so called because for the entire 3km of its length the path was flanked by statues of sphinxes, rams or cows on either side. I thought about the countless Egyptian priests that must have used this path for hundreds of years – it was a wonderfully atmospheric way to say goodbye to Karnak.

The Avenue of the Sphinxes
Luxor Temple comes into view

The temple of Luxor was something of a disappointment in comparison to Karnak. It was less impressive than other temples I had seen in Egypt, and was much more crowded than Karnak had been.

The entry to Luxor Temple

The best time to see this temple is at night, when it is illuminated, but I was tired after so much walking and did not want to wait. Instead I strolled down the Corniche along the Nile, admiring the view as the sun set.

Sunset on the Nile

It was very pleasant, and even the continual approaches by taxi drivers, people selling things and caleche owners did not spoil my mood. Some of this hassle was done with a good dose of humour. Some examples:

“Why you walk like an Egyptian?” (taxi and caleche drivers)

“Welcome to Alaska” (salesmen trying to get your attention)

“I will hassle you tomorrow” (taxi driver who had stopped working for the day, said with a big smile)

To round off the day, I popped into Winter Palace, the grandest and most historic hotel in Luxor. It was here that Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. It had a wonderful colonial style including a comfortable bar where I had a drink and a snack to celebrate the day’s sightseeing.

A well-deserved drink at the Winter Palace

At the beginning of the day, I was worried about having “ancient ruin fatigue”. But the huge, sprawling Temple of Karnak was a sight that even the most jaded traveller would find awesome.

Aswan to Luxor – yet more temples

The next day, I left Aswan for my next destination, Luxor. On my way I visited two more temples. The first, Kom Ombo, is dedicated to both the crocodile-headed god Sobek and to Horus. Its courts and sanctuaries are all duplicated for its two gods. It was built around 100BC by Ptolemaic pharaohs. Although damaged by earthquakes and by builders seeking materials for other projects, the temple has a great site on a bend in the Nile, and I found its ruins very beautiful.  

Kom Ombo Temple

Near the temple was a museum with mummified crocodiles – sacred crocodiles used to live in a pool on the site.

Mummified Crocodiles!

The second temple on my route to Luxor was Edfu, which was built from 237 to 57BC and is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Like the Great Temple of Ramses, it was forgotten and covered by sand until it was excavated by a French archaeologist in the mid-19th century. It’s long period of burial means that it is very well preserved, and unlike most other ruins, still has an almost intact roof. As a result, the interior of the temple was dark and atmospheric, quite unlike all of the other places I visited in Egypt, which were open to the skies.

Edfu Temple
The atmospheric inside of Edfu Temple

Edfu was a very impressive temple, but I felt I was reaching saturation point for seeing ancient ruins. This was a little worrying, since I was due to spend four days in my next destination, Luxor – home to some of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

As we approached Luxor my driver scratched his head and looked hard at his sat-nav. We were heading for the west bank of the Nile, not the busy east bank where most of the hotels are. We entered a village-like area with narrow dirt tracks and simple buildings. We had to turn around once, as the route indicated went down a street too narrow for our car, but finally found my hotel – a huge place looking like an Arabian palace, totally unlike the modest houses all around.

My unusual hotel in Luxor

The hotel had been constructed by an Egyptian architect and his English wife. Neither had ever managed a hotel before, never mind built one, and the place had some quirks resulting from their inexperience. However its plus points easily outweighed these disadvantages. It occupied a huge plot, and behind the main building was a long strip of land with a pool and gardens, reaching right up to the River Nile. On both sides were fields with horses and buffalo.

The view across the Nile from the hotel’s garden – in the middle on the opposite bank, you can just see Luxor Temple

I was a bit worried about our remote location, but the hotel owner came to greet me and told me that they operated a free ferry across the Nile to get the city. After enjoying my room for a while, I decided to use this facility to cross the river to check out the centre of Luxor. It was now dark, and on the way to the pier, I got to enjoy another aspect of the hotel’s design. 

My hotel at night

The ferry dropped me off in a particularly drab part of Luxor to the south of the centre, and as I explored on foot, I was continually hassled by taxi drivers and the owners of horse-drawn carriages. I got a bite to eat in a pasta restaurant and headed back to the comfort of my hotel. My lodgings were really nice, but I had not liked my first impression of Luxor, and wondered whether I really wanted to see even more ancient ruins…….no matter how impressive they might be.

Blog at

Up ↑