The temples of Thebes

Luxor Travel Blog

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Last night we had drinks in Luxor, horse races until 1am for me (Michelle came in about 4am). I find drinking games unpleasant, people end up drinking more than they want to, people pressure them too much, and they dominate the conversation. I left bored and sobering up.

This morning though was one of the most magical of my travels. We started in the Temple of Karnak. Karnak was built over 2000 years, starting from the Middle Kingdom (c1965 BCE) to the New Kingdom and Graeco-Roman periods. I had expected maybe a pile of rubble, some ruins, but instead I found the most incredible intact temple.

Karnak was unbelievable, probably the most amazing historical site I have ever seen, humbling to my sense of time and place. The temple complex is rare in the number of different ages represented, as it was added to over thousands of years, building up to a complex 1.2km2 in size. Entering the site was a row of ram-headed sphinxes (dedicated to the god Amun (originally god of the winds and the air, a minor local god, made Egypt’s national god in the New Kingdom and identified with Re, the sun god, and his consort Mut and son the moon god Khons). I was blown away by the size of the entrance, a wall 20 metres high, carved with beautiful hieroglyphics, still perfect after thousands of years. I was admiring the intricate carvings of dragonflies and birds and the small statues and temples to minor kings for ten minutes before I looked straight ahead and saw a gate through the wall with a row of awe-inspiring columns.

The columns I had seen were from the Great Hypostyle Hall, the largest in the world. The hall was of a staggering size, with 134 columns, each 26 metres tall and ten metres in circumference. The columns, so fat at the bottom, rose up gracefully, representing the papyrus stem, and supporting a row of stone beams which used to support a ceiling for what must have been the largest room in the world for thousands of years. The hall was built by King Seti I (1313-1292 BCE) and was completed by his sone Rameses II (1292-1225 BCE) during the New Kingdom. The hall was staggering in size, before considering the age, and the enormous amount of work and skill that would have gone into plastering every surface of the hall, and carving beautiful images into the stucco. Where the stone is protected from sunlight the images still retain their colour, showing what a vibrant place the temple must have been when new.

Outside the hall were more small temples, dedicated to various gods and pharoahs, including the only Pharonic Queen, whose image was carved out by her step-son (upset at being kept waiting for the throne), and whose obelisk was encircled by stone to prevent it being seen. We learnt about Pharonic politics, the counting system (like Roman numerals) and offerings, and saw the sacred pond (representing the waters of chaos from which creation arose, and where priests bathed three times a day). Michelle and I walked through the site in wonder, then found a small niche, thousands of years old, to curl up in an savour the history of the site.

Linking Karnak temple to Luxor temple was a 3km row of sphinxes, still intact under the houses and sands that conceal them. Luxor was also amazing, a smaller version of Karnak. Luxor was started in the Middle Kingdo c2055 BCE, with most built by the New Kingdom Pharaoh Amenhotep III. It was extended by Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE), and when Alexander the Great conquered he built new additions to the temple, showing he worshipped the Egyptian gods (3320323 BCE). At the front of the temple was the massive giant seated Ramesses II, with obelisks and a naked Nefertari (his chief wife) clinging to his leg). The temple included an enormous hypostyle hall, as tall as Karnak but smaller in area, with only 34 columns (each representing a bunch of papyrus rather than a single stem).

It was hard to believe just how old the temples were. When Luxor was discovered by Islamic conquerors 1000 years ago, the temples were mostly under the sands. They found the ceilings, and used them as foundations for their buildings. They built a now ancient mosque on top, with the removal of the sands, the door to the mosque now stands 20m high. With the sands removed, the temple shows other signs of its age. In places the Roman changes to the temple are still in place - where the Romans plastered over the carvings and painted frescos, however these were not as permanent as the original stucco, and have mostly faded. There is also graffiti carved into the ruins from ancient Greek explorers, discovering the site two thousand years ago. A site so old that even graffiti written on it two thousand years later is historical...

Leaving Luxor we drove through the Eastern desert, in a police-escorted convoy to Hurghada. Stopping off at the time points, little kids with baby camels or goats came out to the bus offering to pose for photos. I gave one five pounds ($1.10) and he beamed for the next ten minutes :) Now I am across the road from the hotel after a dinner and a few drinks. Everyone else has gone to the beach party.

vances says:
I'm impressed with all the history you present --- if I ever plan a trip to Egypt I will print this out!
Posted on: Jan 19, 2008
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photo by: LadyMaja