A hundred or more stone rams line the approach to the temple. As we walked through the entrance I tried to imagine Karnak in its heyday, the columns and pillars painted, filled with people, and the Pharaoh presiding over his subjects.
There is one standout reason to visit Luxor – the temple at Karnak.
The place may be mostly ruins but the scale of the temple is still impressive, the Hypostyle Hall being the stand-out. Photos cannot do the Hall justice; the columns are too tall and the area too large. Many of the hieroglyphs can still be seen where the outer layer of the stone has not worn away. The effect of them all, painted and immaculate, must have been breathtaking.
We spent two days in Luxor and also managed to see the Colossi at Memnon and the Valley of the Kings. Here, just over the hill from ancient Thebes, the tombs are strictly restricted; you are allowed to visit only 3 or so at a time and taking photos is forbidden. The artwork inside is exquisite. We had a guide who recommended the best open tombs, which close periodically to avoid damage from too many visitors.
Other than Karnak, the most memorable thing we did in Luxor was to take a hot air balloon trip at sunrise. Above the city, the life-giving effect of the Nile is starkly clear; as soon as the irrigation channels stop, the land turns to desert immediately. We did not visit the temple of Hatshepsut, though we saw it from the balloon. Needless to say, if you are visiting Egypt, Luxor is a must.
After a couple of days touring the ancient wonders of Luxor, we moved on to Alexandria. What a relief to be by the sea; Alexandria was considerably cooler than the rest of the country. The sea breeze was actually refreshing.
We had only a day and a half here, which was enough. Poor Alexandria had a tough act to follow and its attractions could not match the Valley of the Kings and Karnak temples. We viewed a curious aquarium with tanks bearing legends such as “Some kind of fish from the Red Sea” and strange dioramas; were not wowed by the Roman ruins (although the catacombs were a fun place for a game of hide and seek) and whilst the modern architecture of the library was impressive, we were bemused as to why there was a Death Star outside.
We found pleasure in Alexandria elsewhere. A wonderful cake and Turkish coffee shop was discovered near the centre. The pastries and sweets, beautifully displayed and even more delicious, could have been found in Paris and had prices to match (we managed to squeeze in a return visit before we left). We spent a lovely evening sitting by the scenic Corniche smoking a water pipe and drinking more coffee, looking out on the colourful fishing boats and watching the Egyptian tourists bathe in the sea, boys and men in swimming trunks and women still wrapped in their long robes.
Our hotel was also memorable; set on the upper floors of an old colonial building, the reception area was dark, slightly musty, and contained many decrepit, stuffed animals which gave the hotel a distinctly spooky air. The ancient lift broke with us between floors, but fortunately we were able to prise open the doors and squeeze through the gap to land in the lobby, as help was not forthcoming. On returning to the hotel for the night, and unwilling to risk the apparently fixed lift, we followed a trail of blood up the stairs which led into the doors of rooms below ours. We wondered if some awful accident had happened and so reported it to the hotel receptionist. The mystery was solved when we were assured that the floor below held a hospital.
Initially a disappointment, Alexandria was in fact not a bad stop in our itinerary. The comparatively cool air and the colonial buildings were a contrast to our previous destinations. We were also in danger of ancient wonder fatigue and this stop added variety. We didn’t see many westerners here; many bypass Alexandria and head straight for the beach resorts on the Sinai peninsula, which is where we headed next.
Click here to read about Mt Sinai and Dahab, on the shores of the Red Sea.