More than five thousand years of history is compressed along a narrow band of territory on either side of the Nile, and the relics of ancient Egypt are uniquely well preserved. One can’t hope to see it all, even with many trips. Fortunately, many travel packages exist to focus on a particular area. One choice would be a cruise between Luxor and Aswan.
Modern Luxor is built atop ancient Thebes (or Waset), and while much of Egypt’s imperial capital is now buried underneath modern settlement, two major temple complexes testify to the glory of Egypt at its height: the temples of Karnak and Luxor. Both are primarily dedicated to Amun, the last leading god of the Egyptian pantheon. Karnak also boasts secondary temples dedicated to Amun’s wife Mut and their son, Khonsu, as well as a temple dedicated to Montu, the war god that had originally been the god of Thebes.
Much has been lost due to the reuse of stone, but these great edifices remain breathtaking sights. Massive pylons, precise rows of columns, and picturesque artwork abound. Freed from the roofs that they were supporting, the dense rows of pillars truly look like the riverside reeds that they were meant to represent. Nearly every pharaoh who ruled during the New Kingdom contributed to these temples.
On the other side of the Nile from Luxor are the great funerary complexes of Thebes, the Valley of the Kings and the adjacent Valley of the Queens. The tombs of many of Egypt’s greatest rulers, such as Thutmosis III, Amunhotep III, Rameses II and Rameses III are here, as well as that of King Tut. Great queens like Nefertari as well as favored courtiers like Yuya and Thuyu (King Tut’s nonroyal grandparents) are also nearby.
Resting in the shadow of a mountain that resembles a pyramid, these tombs remain inspirational. Gradual damage to the wall decorations caused by decades of tourists, however, have led to a limitation of access to many of these tombs. Other sites of equal importance are close by, however. The ruins of Deir el-Medina, the town manned by those who built the tombs, are very important historically and well worth a visit. Also in this area are such marvels as the Colossi of Memnon (colossal statues of Amunhotep III), the Ramesseum, and Deir el-Bahri, the mortuary temple of the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut.
Less famous, but perhaps more important historically, is Kom el-Ahmar further south. This is the site of ancient Nekhen (Hieraconpolis), Narmer’s home base as he unified Egypt for the first time. Major predynastic and early dynastic discoveries have been made here; perhaps most important is the foundation of Egypt’s earliest known temple, one dedicated to Horus.
Roughly midway between Luxor and Aswan is Edfu, the site of another temple dedicated to Horus. This massive edifice, however, comes from the other end of Egyptian history, having been built by the Ptolemies and finished only a few years before the arrival of Julius Caesar. Here is one of the last vestiges of Egypt’s grandeur.
Like Luxor, Aswan is surrounded by numerous important sites; at Aswan, however, is a much wider range, from early dynastic settlements to the last functioning Egyptian temple. Mainland Aswan boasts a couple of temples from the Greek and Roman periods, and just outside of the town are quarries from which many of the monuments throughout Egypt were carved. Several remnants remain onsite, such as an incomplete obelisk, statue and sarcophagus.
In the ancient world, settlement was primarily on the island of Elephantine. In addition to several small temples, there is a Third Dynasty pyramid. One of the island’s major attractions is a Nilometer, a stairway leading down into the river and used to measure its depth at the height of the annual flood. This Nilometer is at least as old as the Eighteenth Dynasty, and is likely even older, but it was refurbished under Roman rule and was used even in the Islamic period.
The keystone of such a trip should be a visit to the Temple of Isis on another island, Agilkia. Originally built on Philae Island, it was moved to Agilkia to protect it from the flooding caused by the Aswan High Dam. Philae Temple was the last pagan temple to remain open in Egypt, surviving until well into the sixth century AD. It is here that Egyptian hieroglyphs were carved for the last time, more than three and a half thousand years after they were invented.
Agnese, Giorgio and Re, Maurizio: Ancient Egypt: Art and Archaeology of the Land of the Pharaohs, 2004
Baines, John and Malek, Jaromir: Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Revised ed., 2000
Wilkinson, Richard H: The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, 2000
© 2010, 2013. All rights reserved.