On the site of the present-day town of Luxor stood the ancient city that the Greeks called Thebes and which was described in Homer’s Iliad as the “city of a hundred gates”. Later the Arabs described it as ‘el-Uqsur’ or ‘city of palaces’ from which it gets its current name.
The town and the surrounding limestone hills had been settled for many centuries but during the Old Kingdom (2616-2181 BC) it was little more than a small provincial town called Waset. It first assumed importance under Menutuhotep II who reunited Egypt and made it his capital, but it was during the 18th-20th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1567-1085 BC) that Thebes really reached its zenith. Except for the brief reign of Akhenaten (1379-1362 BC), it was the capital of an Egyptian Empire that stretched from Palestine to Nubia for nearly 500 years, and at its peak the population reached almost one million. Besides being the site of the largest and greatest concentration of monuments in the world it was, for the ancient Egyptians, the prototype for all future cities.
When the capital later shifted elsewhere it remained a vibrant city and the focus for the worship of Amun (‘the Supreme Creator’). Although there is no obvious connection with the Greek city of Thebes the name was subsequently given to the city by the Greeks. It was a shadow of its former self during the Ptolemaic (323-30 BC) and Roman (30 BC-AD 640) periods but, unlike ancient Memphis to the south of Cairo, it was never abandoned and it became an important Christian settlement. In the Luxor region a number of temples became Coptic monasteries. For example, at both Deir El-Medina and Deir El-Bahri Egyptian monuments were taken over and converted for Christian use.
After the Muslim conquest in AD 640, the town continued to decline and it was not until the beginning of the 19th century, during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, that its historical importance began to be recognized. The display of some of its treasures in Paris’s Louvre museum sparked off considerable interest from the world’s archaeologists – who continue to make important discoveries almost 200 years later. Since 1869, when Thomas Cook took his first party of travellers to Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal, Luxor has become the foremost tourist destination in Upper Egypt. Today, although it has become an important administrative town, the economic livelihood of Luxor is (as the sudden collapse in business during the 1990/91 Gulf war and as the mass exodus of thousands of tourists in November 1997 demonstrated) almost totally dependent on the tourist industry.Modern-day Luxor is undergoing a transformation, as the current governor has initiated a series of radical schemes in an effort to expose more of the ancient past and to make the most of the monuments. Some of these initiatives are regretted by locals and tourists alike, as the organic nature of the city is being altered and many homes lost as the layers of buildings are stripped back. Not only has Sharia Al-Mahatta been widened to allow a view of Luxor Temple on arrival at the station, but the gritty old souk has been sanitized and is now strictly a tourist bazaar. The village of Old Gurna on the West Bank used to delight the eye on the approach to Thebes, with its colourful hajj paintings on buildings clustering below the ridge. Now the majority of houses are being demolished, only the oldest and most attractive will be kept as a model of how life was in Old Gurna, to enable proper excavation of the Tombs of the Nobles and protect them from water drainage from the village. Further long-term plans, which will take 10-20 years to complete, include the relocation of all the cruise boats to a new mooring beyond the bridge 7 km to the south (not many people will complain about this one), to protect Luxor Temple from pollution. Already in full-swing is an ambitious scheme to reconnect Luxor and Karnak temples via the Avenue of the Sphinxes, which involves demolishing every building and home that stands in the way. What will happen to any mosques that have grown up over the ancient passage is still being debated, but the cathedral is going and a replacement being constructed to the east of town. Probably every person you meet in Luxor will have a tale to tell about their parents, uncle or daughter-in-law being re-homed as a consequence and the inadequate compensation they have been paid.
Best Time To Go
Best time to visitTourist season extends from October to March, peaking around Christmas and the New Year, when the weather is sunny and sublime. Most monuments and museums are open 0600-1800 in winter, 0500-1900 in summer, take note that offices will stop selling tickets 45 minutes or one hour before closing times. In the thick of summer, it’s best to visit tombs and temples in the early morning hours, although the heat of the mid-afternoon, if you can bear it, does wonders to drive away the hordes of tourists and touts.
Getting aroundLuxor is small enough to be explored on foot (depending on how you tolerate the heat and the hassle), large enough to feel like there’s always something happening and full enough to need a week to really see it; but with so much to see, a visit can be overwhelming. But besides the ubiquitous hustle that can make even the most rugged traveller weary, Luxor is a comfortable place, easy to get around and impossible to get lost in with the Nile as a marker. Most of the main hotels, shops, tour offices, museums and temples are adjacent to the river on the eastern side. Most budget hotels are scattered around the souk or along Sharia Televizion, south of Sharia Al-Mahatta. Karnak temple is about 2 km north of town. Access to the West Bank is provided by public ferries and private hire motorboats or feluccas along the Corniche. There is also a bridge, 7 km from town that gives access to West Bank-bound vehicles.
Ins and outs
Luxor is 676 km south of Cairo, 65 km south of Qena and 223 km north of Aswan. The airport is 7 km east of the town centre. Visas are on sale just before passport control. From the airport, a taxi to the town centre should cost E£30-40. The airport is not well connected by public transport so taxis are unquestionably the easiest way to go. The new bus terminal is also a fair trek out, and taxis from here demand E£30 for a ride into the centre or there are microbuses into town for 40 pt. Arrival at the train station is easier as it’s in the middle of Luxor and it’s possible to walk to most hotels, or if you’re hauling a lot of luggage you can take a calèche (horse-drawn carriage) or taxi anywhere in town for E£10.
WarningBear in mind that as tourism sustains the bulk of the city’s economy, the hustle and hassle in Luxor is among the most intense in the country. Expect to be bombarded by horse-drawn carriages, felucca captains, souvenir peddlers and hotel touts. And expect to be ripped off at least once. Hotel touts congregate to meet all tourist trains coming in, making arrival at the station quite stressful. It is best to know exactly where you’re going before arriving. You may be told your hotel of choice has closed, is full, or the price has changed. These tales are unlikely to be true, as the accommodation situation doesn’t ever change that much in Luxor. If a driver tries to take you to his brother’s hotel instead, adamantly insist to be dropped where you want to go and don’t pay until you get there. Try to inform yourself about fair prices and the games people play, and remember that everyone is just trying to make a living. With a bit of patience and a sense of humour, you’ll come to find that behind the frenzy lie a warm, welcoming people.
Stay In Touch
There are numerous banks and 5-star hotels in Luxor with ATMs. Banks are generally open Sun-Thu 0830-1400 and 1700-1800.
Passport Office: Sharia Khalid Ibn El-Walid, opposite Hotel Isis, T095-238 0885, visas extended, Sat-Thu, 0800-1500, come around 0900 to get a visa processed same day.
Cafés are popping up all over the place. The going rate at present is around E£5-10 per hr.
Hospital: General Hospital, Corniche El-Nil, T095-237 2025. Luxor International Hospital, Sharia Televizion, T095-238 7192-4, best in town. Pharmacy: Maged Pharmacy, 24 hr, Sharia Aly Ibn Abi Taleb, T095-237 0524, will deliver.
Post officeMain post office (Sat-Thu 0800-2000) is on Sharia El-Mahata on the way to the railway station. There’s also an branch next to the tourist office on the Corniche. Hotels sell stamps.