The temples and tombs of Upper Egypt

Since arriving in Luxor a week ago, we have been immersed in ancient Egyptian history, mythology and culture.  Luxor is a bustling city of about a half a million people with an economy heavily reliant on tourism.  Since the revolution in 2011, the annual number of tourists has dropped dramatically with an equally dramatic impact on the locals.  Everywhere we went, we were received warmly and with gratitude that we were visiting the country.  Our tour guides especially thanked us for coming as they have been particularly hit hard by the lack of tourists.  We have felt very comfortable and safe everywhere we have gone.

Our transportation to Luxor was arranged through Roots Camp using their van and driver.  Gone are the days when you need special permission and a security convoy to traverse the desert.  Nowadays, since the revolution, tourists can travel quite freely, but are still restricted to travel during daytime hours, except for the overnight Aswan – Cairo train.

Governmental authorization in the form of the above document is
required whenever transporting tourists.  
There are many checkpoints as you
pass through each village.  Occasionally, but quite rarely, we were stopped and
the above documentation had to be presented.   It is the responsibility of the driver
to ensure he has such documentation in order. 

For our brief stay in Luxor, we selected Nefertiti Hotel, a small, family-run hotel that had great reviews online.  At 175 EGP per night (approximately $25 CAD) including a complete breakfast, we didn’t exactly have high expectations.  What a pleasant surprise when we arrived.  Nefertiti is a simple hotel with clean, modestly decorated, but comfortable rooms with air conditioning and ensuite bathrooms.  A delicious and substantial breakfast is served on the rooftop terrace which offers terrific views of the Nile River and Luxor Temple which is across the street.   The hotel has a restaurant (Al Sahaby Lane Restaurant and Aladin Cafe) and a travel agency (Aladin Tours) as well.  Food was typical Egyptian cuisine and was very tasty.  In fact, we ate all our meals at the restaurant.  We arranged some tours through Aladin Tours and we were very pleased with all the arrangements made, including our very enthusiastic tour guide Hassan.  The best part of this hotel was the people.  From the minute we arrived, we felt like we were visiting family who only had our best interests at heart.  I was really happy we decided to stay in a local hotel rather than one of the large, recognizable chains. Nice to know our tourist dollars were going directly into the pockets of the locals.

An early morning hot air balloon ride over the West Bank area of Luxor was well worth the 350 EGP per person price tag.  Our hotel made all the arrangements including transportation.  We flew with a company called Sindbad and would definitely recommend them. There was barely a breeze as we floated over the fertile land along the Nile. It was such an interesting perspective to look down at the farmland, the desert, some ancient temples and local villages as day broke and the sun  awakened.

The only negative experience we have had thus far has been dealing with the aggressive shopkeepers who persistently try to entice you into their shops by any means possible.  At first we tried to be polite – we would smile and say no thank you, or la shokran in Arabic, but this only seemed to encourage them more.  Some would try to engage you in a conversation – lady, where are you from?  And their favourite joke when you replied Canada would be to say, Ah, Canada Dry.  Ha ha.  We soon realized that answering them made matters worse.  Finally, we found the best way to handle these aggressive vendors was to walk with a purpose, avoid eye contact, not to look at the merchandise, not to speak to them, basically ignore them.  It felt rude at first, but once we saw how effective this was, we saw it as a matter of survival.  It’s too bad they are so aggressive because there were shops I would have liked to visit, but wouldn’t dare to even slow down to take a peek.

Video: The Shopkeeper Obstacle Course

Our 5-day Nile cruise was arranged through Seshat Travel, another local tour agency recommended to us by the managers at Roots Camp.  We honestly weren’t sure what we were signing up for when we purchased the cruise – it was last minute, and we didn’t have much time to do any research about the tour company or the ship.  Well, you can imagine our surprise when we walked onto the Amarco I, a luxurious five star boat, by any standard.  We had a large room, with floor to ceiling picture window, ensuite bathroom with a full bath, and of course air conditioning.  The food was top notch, the service was impeccable and the amenities were great especially the sun deck and pool.  Travelling at just one quarter of its 120 person capacity, and with a staff of 60 there was a 2:1 ratio of staff to guests.  We were treated like royalty.  To top it off, we had our own private guide throughout the full cruise. Mohammed, a trained Egyptologist with a decade of guiding experience, accompanied us to all the sites, managed all the transportation, and showered us with his wealth of knowledge.

Cruising down the Nile between Luxor and Aswan is a very peaceful experience and one I would recommend to anyone visiting Egypt.  The pace is leisurely as the boat is not sailing all the time; afterall, we travelled a mere 200 km.  The Nile River is calm, making for the smoothest sailing imaginable.  You could easily forget you’re on a boat. The first night was spent docked in Luxor and the last night we were docked in Aswan turning our boat into more of a floating hotel.  Each day, we visited significant historic sites.  When we were sailing, we spent most of our time on the upper deck, cooling off in the pool, reading and enjoying the passing scenery: the lush, fertile Nile valley outlined by golden desert hills in the background.  Sunsets were glorious; a golden globe sinking into the West Bank of the Nile each evening.

Even on the ship we were harassed by vendors in row boats.
They would align themselves with each passing ship and
then throw a rope to attach themselves to the ship.
Once secure, they would yell “hello” over and over again
until people looked over from above.  They then proceeded
to show the clothing they had for sale, very cheap, very cheap.
I have no idea how they completed the transaction as it
didn’t appear to me that anybody was buying anything. 

Over the course of a week, we have visited a total of fourteen sites in or around Luxor and Aswan, as follows:  Dandara Temple, Abydos Temple, Workers Tombs, Noblemen Tombs, Habu Temple, Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, The Valley of the Kings (three tombs), Valley of the Queens (Queen Haptushput’s Temple), Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo Temple, The Unfinished Obelisk, The High Dam, and Philae Temple.

These temples are mind-boggling in their grandeur, their size, and their decoration. We pondered how these ancient civilizations accomplished such magnificent engineering feats.  The burial tombs were incredible from the modest yet highly decorative and very colorful workers’ tombs, to the grandiose tombs of the kings.  What a privilege to walk through the remains of ancient civilizations.

Dandara Temple:  One of the best preserved temples in Egypt, dedicated to the god Hathor.

On the way to Dandara, this was a common scene
in the small, agricultural villages.

Very few tourists were at the temple the day we visited.
This temple is a couple of hours north of Luxor and therefore
not as easily accessible.  We hired a private guide and car for the day.  

This temple is renowned for its colorful decorations still intact after
so many centuries.  The ceiling at the entrance  has been partially restored
showing to the left 
what it looked like before being cleaned. 

Abydos Temple:  This temple, dedicated to Seti I, is famous for a chronological listing in the form of cartouches of most of the Egyptian pharoahs from Menes until Ramesses I, Seti’s father.

Our guide, Hassan (hired through Aladin Tours) passionately
shared  his knowledge with us.  It was a lot to take in!

Deir el-Medina: Commonly referred to as the “workers tombs”, this is an ancient village which was home to the hundreds of artisans and their families who worked on the tombs in the neighbouring Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties.  The chief workers were buried here in elaborately decorated tombs.  Our guide was not permitted into the tombs with us.  Instead, a local brought us down and described some of the pictures that decorated the walls of the tomb.

Entrance into one of the worker’s tombs.

Video: Inside the worker’s tomb

Noblemen’s Tombs:  Located close to the workers’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile, these were burial places of some of the powerful courtiers and persons of importance of ancient times.  The tomb we visited reminded me of a small temple; it was highly decorated but the colours were not as vibrant as those found in the workers’ tombs.

Habu Temple:  Located on the West Bank, close to the Valley of the Kings, this was the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, during the New Kingdom period.  Mortuary temples were designed to commemorate the reign of the pharaoh for and by whom it was built.

Karnak Temple:  This was our first site as part of our cruise itinerary, with our new guide, Mohammed.  This vast complex is located right in Luxor, on the East Bank, about 3 km from the Luxor Temple.  It is reputed to be one of the largest ancient religious sites in the world and the second most visited site in Egypt, next to the pyramids in Giza.

Luxor Temple:  Also on the East Bank, this temple is located in the middle of Luxor.  Remnants of the sphynx avenue are still visible.  This was a 3 km ceremonial route lined with sphynx statutes  connecting Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple.  The government has plans to restore the entire boulevard, but first must relocate many businesses that exist on top of the ancient site.

The Valley of the Kings (three tombs):  For nearly 500 years, between the 16h and 11th centuries, tombs were constructed for the Pharoahs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom.  Recent discoveries in 2005 and 2008 of new chambers and tombs brings the total number of tombs to 63.  This was the principal burial place of major royal figures. The tombs vary in size but all are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology giving insight into the beliefs about the after life and the funerary rituals during that time.  Over the centuries all the tombs have been opened and robbed, but you still get a sense of the grandeur, opulence and power of the Pharoahs.  Unfortunately, cameras were strictly forbidden and had to be left in the car, much to our disappointment.  Below is a shot from the parking lot, showing the natural forming pyramid shape under which the tombs were dug.

Hatchepsut’s Temple:  This was a mortuary temple of Queen Hatchepsut, one of the most successful female Pharoahs in Egyptian history.  Hatshepsut’s reign was much longer and prosperous than other female Pharoahs.  She is known for her work establishing international trading networks as well as her many building projects.  This temple is also located on the West Bank close to the Valley of the Kings.

Temple of Edfu:  This relatively new temple dating back to the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BCE was dedicated to the falcon god Horus.  The inscriptions on its walls provide important information on language, myth and religion during the Greco-Roman period in ancient Egypt.  The temple is located in the city of Edfu.

Our transportation to the Temple of Edfu.  Below are scenes
from Edfu City as we travelled by horse and carriage to the temple. 

Temple of Kom Ombo:  Located in the city of Kom Ombo, this temple had an unusual double design: two of everything (entrance, courts, halls, sanctuaries) which were dedicated to two sets of gods.

The Unfinished Obelisk:  In a stone quarry just outside of the city of Aswan lies a huge obelisk that is nearly one third larger than any ancient Egyptian obelisk ever erected.  If it had been finished, it would have measured 42 m around and weighed nearly 1,200 tons.  Seeing the obelisk lying on its side, chiselled out of a bed of granite makes one wonder how these ancient civilizations managed such super human feats.  How did they cut these mammoth stones and then transport them many kilometres away?  While there are many theories, the answers to these questions remain mysteries to this day.

The High Dam:  When the Low Dam, built in 1902 almost overflowed in 1946, the British administration decided a second dam should be built 7 km upriver. At the height of the cold war, Egypt decided to partner with the USSR, and the High Dam was built between 1960 and 1970.  This dam provides the ability to control floods, provide water for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity, in fact, it supplies 60% of the nation’s electricity needs.

Philae Temple:  When the High Dam was built, the dam flooded a large area, causing the relocation of over 100,000 people and submerged archaeological sites.  One of these sites, Philae Temple, was completely dismantled and relocated to a nearby island as part of a UNESCO project.

Shops on the way to the boat to Philae Temple.

Chris getting hassled by a vendor.

View from the boat on the way to Philae Temple.

After fourteen sites, we are officially “templed” out.  Maybe you are too after reading this post :) Time for a little break in Aswan where we are spending the weekend before heading north to Cairo by train on Monday.

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8 Responses
  1. Jeannot says:

    Wow, guys you are doing amazing!!! Love all the info and the fantastic pictures!!
    I wanted to let you know that you are missed here, we talk about you guys a lot
    and tomorrow is Thanksgiving and we’re even thinking more about you.
    Tonite, I’m preparing some of the meal for tomorrow and I was listening to Ashokan Farewell with Tim on my mind and also listened to some country that Larry would have listened to, I miss him lots too!! I’m so proud of you Chris & Christina for taking this challenge and I’m sure it’s not always easy! I saw you funny Bucket video!! pretty darn poopy funny!! Love you very much!! Jeanne

  2. RoseAnn says:

    Thank you for sharing. Just imagine this was all unearthed. It’s mind boggling. Your writings are much more interesting and enjoyable than the books we have read. Good luck in Cairo, and love the pyramids.

  3. Felipe Giza Man says:

    Hey!! Taking your advice here at the city….!
    Salutes!!

    • christina says:

      That’s great, glad we could help. We met a couple of Canadian girls at the Giza Pyramids yesterday who are heading your way too and offered them the same advice. If you see them at Nefretiti, tell them we say hi…..such a small world when you’re travelling :) We’ve landed in an amazing place in Dahab and now we’re thinking of staying here for a week or maybe even longer.

  4. Jennifer Wells says:

    We are continuing to follow your journey – you provide the best travel information and the photos are wonderful. Where are you going next?
    Jenny and Tony (Aust).

    • christina says:

      Hi Jenny,

      Just sent you an email a little while ago. We’re on our way to Jordan and then on to Israel, something we just decided to do a few days ago. Figure we’re so close, it would be a shame to miss it. After that, who knows! Hope all is going well with you guys Down Under.
      Christina

  5. Maureen Parry Smith says:

    Hi Chris and Christina, Sorry about the delay,no excuse really but very tired whilst having my treatment which lasted a full month and finished on my 80th birthday!I’m fine now Mand determined to beat the beast!
    My goodness,what a great life you are having in Egypt.I’ve just read right through your experiences there and now of course you have moved on further east! Gosh! Egypt a place like no other,so full of contrasts,the Pyramids of Gaza, the Valley of Kings and the huge Temples with their exquisite engravings and coloured decorating.I could go on for ever! Downtown Cairo,old and new must have been exciting too.Your adventures into the desert and tackling those Arab tribesmen was very brave of you both,arguing,shouting etc landed up laughing in the end, no doubt.Pity about the filthy train to,bed bugs,but that’s all part of being in an Arab country and adds to the exciting contrasts!But then what a lovely surprise you had when you arrived at your homely hotel in Luxor.Great flying over
    Luxor. And the Nile and Nile cruise. You certainly treated yourselves.Good!!! Love Mo xxx

    • christina says:

      Hi Aunt Maureen,
      So nice to hear from you.Belated Happy 80th Birthday to you! Egypt has been an amazing experience and we’re not done yet. We’ve settled into a little resort town called Dahab, on the south west side of the Sinai Peninsula. We love it here – the sun always shines, its hot but not unbearable, always a nice breeze off the sea to cool you off. It’s quiet and laid back. A nice change of pace from all the sightseeing we’ve been doing and the chaos of Cairo.
      I’m so glad you got through your treatments and you’re feeling good. You are one feisty lady. I love your “just get on with it” attitude. You’re an inspiration to me!
      Take care,
      with love, Christina