A teenage boy clutches my arm as I walk through Luxor market.
‘Have a butchers, c’mon, have a butchers!’ he cries, employing rhyming slang and his best cockney accent to lure me in. I pry myself away but the pawing doesn’t stop. Every seller on the street is trying to push his plastic Nefertiti busts on me. Some of my travel companions tell me that as Egyptian cities go, Luxor is pretty tame. Maybe so, but the place is still desperately poor and many of its inhabitants will try anything to extract a buck. This is nothing like the ancient city that, some 3,600 years ago, was at the forefront of civilization. Thebes, as Luxor was formerly known, was famous for its considerable wealth and technological advances. The former Egyptian capital was so splendid that the Greek philosopher Homer reverently described it as ‘the Egyptian treasure-house of countless wealth.’ Today the economy is fuelled by the millions of tourists picking through the 4,000-year-old remnants of what was once a great city.
Much of Luxor’s history is in plain view, or so it would seem. One of the main attractions is Karnak Temple, a 3,600-year-old religious site that covers an area of nearly two square miles. Known as a temple complex, it is actually made up of several temples, chapels and ruins – a site that represents the Egyptian empire at its height. The entrance is marked by a grand alleyway helmed by ram-headed sphinxes, a tribute to the powerful god, Amun-Ra. The whole complex, in fact, is dedicated to Amun-Ra – it was his property. Under Ramses III, considered by many Egyptologists to be the last great pharaoh, one third of the land belonged to the temples of Amun-Ra and, of this, three-quarters belonged to Karnak.
Just the remnants are left now. The ruins speak not only of the rise of Thebes, but of its fall as well. In one spot an Egyptian statue looks like it was sledgehammered into the shape of the cross – a gesture that likely dates back to the 4th century AD, when Constantine the Great installed Christianity and ordered the destruction of pagan temples. I try imagining what this place would have looked like at its height, vibrant with paint and teeming with high priests. But I find it a difficult exercise as I keep tripping over tourists and hawkers (be warned: one of their tricks is to take your photo and ask for money afterwards).
For every fact one can gleam from the visible site there are even more that remain hidden. What is truly fascinating about the city is how much ancient history has been uncovered in the last 30 years. One of the rooms at Luxor Museum – an excellent spot to give context to the otherwise cryptic ruins that define the city – is stuffed with 3,000-year-old statues that were discovered in 1989 underneath Karnak temple. No one knows when they were hidden or why – if it was priests trying to protect them or thieves who had stolen them. Regardless, the statues are in impeccable shape.
The frequency of these discoveries makes one of my travel companions declare, ‘I just want to go out in the desert with a shovel.’ If he did, he just might find something. It seems every few months someone does make a new discovery. Just this year archaeologists found a 3,500-year-old bust of the great female pharaoh Hatshepsut, a woman I can’t help but admire. When her husband (also her half-brother), the pharaoh Thutmose II, died, his oldest son was too young to ascend the throne. Hatshepsut took over and held on to the position for 22 years (to the great irritation of her stepson, the heir apparent, who destroyed her image in the temples with glee when he finally did become pharaoh).
What is truly amazing is that an ancient civilization with so many relics should remain so shrouded in mystery. On a journey through the Valley of Kings, the network of long, winding, underground tombs that housed the mummified remains of pharaohs, our guide tells us that experts still don’t know all the methods ancient embalmers used to preserve bodies. Their techniques were so effective that thousands of years later viewers can form a pretty accurate picture of what that body looked like in life. The same is true of the paint used in religious murals. How on earth did they get the colour to last through until today? It seems there was something entrenched in the ancient Egyptian psyche that rallied against being forgotten. In this pursuit, the tombs were built deep underground to prevent them from being ransacked (a problem rampant with the sarcophagi at the Giza pyramids, our guide tells us). Alas, periods of unrest and civil war led to tomb raids: gold, jewels, statues and even the mummies themselves were stolen.
One of these mummies is on view at the Luxor Museum. The corpse, shrivelled though it may be, actually has several very discernable features. The body in question likely belongs to Ramses I, or at least that’s what most experts believe. He became a respected figure in ancient Egypt, after bringing stability to the country following several years of unrest. His body went missing in the 1800s, and for 140 years his resting place was an oddities museum in Niagara Falls, New York, where he shared floor space with a two-headed calf and a five-legged pig. Emory University bought the pharaoh for US$2 million (Dhs7,000,000) in 1999 and, after discerning his likely identity through CT scans, X-rays, radiocarbon dating and computer imaging, gave him back to the people of Egypt.
One of the few tombs that wasn’t raided at Luxor was the one belonging to King Tutankhamen, aka, King Tut. During his life he wasn’t a particularly significant pharaoh as he died when he was 19 (or so it’s estimated). Before the discovery of his tomb in 1922, Tut was practically forgotten. Unlike the sprawling tombs of longer-serving pharaohs, which are as roomy as a three-bedroom duplex, Tut’s death chamber is as compact as a studio apartment. Our guide tells us this was likely because he didn’t have time to organise the construction of his tomb during his life, and so was given one that was originally slated for a high priest. The only reason it was overlooked by thieves was because it was accidentally buried underneath another tomb, which was then, predictably, robbed.
There’s definitely something chilling about Luxor. It’s the kind of city that gives one perspective. How we live our lives is in many ways an accident of birth, and how we’re remembered afterwards is an accident of death. Greater civilizations have been lost forever under fires, wars, earthquakes and other random casualties of history. That Luxor hasn’t is what makes it so spectacular. It doesn’t merely house relics; the city itself is a relic. And while it may not possess the riches it once had in Homer’s day, Luxor remains a treasure trove, albeit of history in place of gold.
If Egypt had a voice it would be Omar Sharif, the Alexandria-born actor best known for his starring role in Doctor Zhivago. He narrates the nightly sound and light show at Luxor’s Karnak Temple. The show features a recording of his narration, in which he assumes the identity of different pharaohs, using a charmingly outdated flowery language and a magnetic, booming voice. For those that can’t get enough of Omar he also narrates a National Geographic documentary played on rotation at the Luxor Museum. Given the actor is fluent in Arabic, English, Greek and French, and proficient in Italian, Spanish and Turkish, it’s no doubt he finds so much work retelling Egypt’s fascinating history. In his own way, Omar is as much a national treasure as the pyramids.
Need to know
Air Arabia flies direct to Luxor International airport three times per week. Prices start from Dhs1,500 including taxes. Jazeera Airways flies to Luxor through Kuwait. Expect long layovers. Prices start from Dhs1,000 including taxes.
Where to stay
Hilton Luxor Resort & Spa New Karnak, Egypt +20 (0)95 237 4933
Where to eat & drink
Sofra Restaurant and Café (authentic local fare) 90 Sharia Farid St, East Bank, +20 (0)95 235 9752 Silk Road (fine dining) Hilton Luxor Resort & Spa New Karnak, Egypt +20 (0)95 237 4933
Those from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia can pick up a visa at Luxor International airport. All other nationalities may have to get a visa in advance and should call the embassy for requirements. For more, visit www.egypt.visahq.com.