It was almost noon when our bus pulled into the gates of the Hilton Luxor. After a brief stop at the security checkpoint – this was becoming an expected part of our Middle East travels – we headed inside for a lunch break before our jam-packed afternoon itinerary. There wasn’t even time to check into the hotel. That would happen later, in between destinations.
“Welcome to Egypt!” the hotel manager greeted us. It was clear from our day in Sharm el-Sheik and throughout our stay in Luxor that Egyptians were thrilled to have visitors returning to their country. Tourism seemed to be on the upswing, and the people we encountered couldn’t have been more gracious and welcoming.
Our guide Merv was corralling the group for the afternoon tour. After her commentary on our three-and-a-half hour journey from Safaga, Merv had quickly become an endearing part of the trip. She named our group Ali Baba – “I don’t like calling you Bus 22,” she said – and kept us moving with her ever-present, “March!” I was grateful that this woman had landed on our bus. If anyone was going to make sure we didn’t skip a beat in our short stay, it would be Merv.
Luxor sits on the Nile River and is the site of the ancient city of Thebes, Egypt’s capital during the 16th through 11th centuries B.C. The ancient Egyptians built temples for worshipping their gods on the Nile’s east bank. On the west bank, they built royal tombs. As Merv explained, the east – where the sun rises – represented life to the ancient Egyptians. The sun-setting west was the beginning of the road to heaven.
Our first stop was Karnak Temple, the east bank’s glorious tribute to chief Egyptian god Amun-Ra, his wife Mut and son Khonsu. Built over a period of 2,000 years beginning around 2055 B.C., Karnak is considered the second largest religious complex in the world – only Cambodia’s Angor Wat is larger – growing and evolving over the centuries as different Egyptian pharaohs added their own shrines and monuments.
The exterior walls of Karnak offer only a glimpse of the treasures that lie beyond. Along the entrance is the Avenue of the Sphinxes, two majestic rows of ram-headed creatures symbolizing Amun-Ra. A small statue of Amun-Ra is nestled between each sphinx’ paws, and hieroglyphics are carved at the base of the monuments.
As we walked through the temple, Merv talked about Karnak’s history, stopping at various places to point out details. We passed soaring pillars, stunning obelisks, larger-than-life statues and fascinating-looking hieroglyphics. Everything had a meaning – everything had a purpose – steeped in the stories the ancient Egyptians had created to make sense of the universe as they saw it.
A Special Celebration
After the tour, Merv gave us free time to explore Karnak Temple independently. Herb and I knew this would be the best opportunity we’d have to take my much-desired seventh continent photo. We enlisted the help of new friends Cathy and Lee, our lovely next-door neighbors on the ship who happened to be in our group. “I’m happy to help,” Cathy said, “but how will you get a sign?” I sheepishly and proudly reached into my tote bag and pulled out the hand-made sign I had carted half-way around the world. We all laughed and set out to find a spot that would photograph well in the late afternoon sun, finally settling on a row of sphinxes.
And in that brief, wonderful moment, we held up our sign and celebrated our special milestone.
Although Luxor Temple is dedicated to the same triad of gods – Amun-Ra, Mut and Khonsu – it has a distinctly different atmosphere from Karnak Temple. The first thing you notice are the sphinxes. Gone are the ram-headed creatures reflecting Amun-Ra, and in their place are human heads perched atop lions’ bodies. It’s smaller and newer than Karnak as well, with construction beginning around 1390 B.C. by Amenhotep III and later additions by Kings Tut and Rameses II.
Two seated statues of Rameses II along with four standing statues guard the entrance to Luxor Temple. An 80-foot-tall obelisk towers in front of them. A second obelisk that once stood beside it was later given to France and now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Merv directed us to various sites inside the temple and then gave us time on our own. I found myself comparing and contrasting Luxor and Karnak. Both had such incredible scale that the details sort of fell away as I was taking everything in. Luxor’s Hypostyle Hall had fewer columns – 32 instead of 134. There was a shrine to Alexander the Great. And there were religious sites coexisting in a place where ancient gods had been worshipped. A Christian church was once located inside the temple, and a mosque is still in use today.
It was getting close to sunset by the time we returned to the Hilton. Herb and I checked into our room with the promised Nile view and headed out to the balcony to take in the infamous river. We would be leaving again soon for a shopping trip with Merv and a visit to the Luxor Museum. And then finally, at the end of this incredible day that had begun early in the morning in Safaga, it would be time for dinner.
Welcome to Egypt, indeed!