Guide to Luxor’s East Bank

When most people think of Egypt, the pyramids and Memphis (the old kingdom capital) come to mind first. Luxor (ancient day Thebes) holds a huge part of story and is not to be missed, from soaring temples constructed through the ages and bright colorful tombs buried beneath the earth- Luxor holds the key to understanding and learning some of the most interesting parts of Egypt’s history.

Luxor Temple

Like 2 sides of a coin, there’s 2 banks of Luxor and they each hold different types of archeological sites and different historical importance. The West Bank, where the sun sets, represents a journey of the dead to the afterlife. This is where you will find mortuary temples (temples created for preparing the kings for burial) and the magnificent tombs that were built to help guide their occupants to a successful here-after.

Information on the East Bank Temples

The East bank is where people live, work, worship… it’s where you’ll find a lot of the temples as the sun rises in the East- this represents life. Among the many temples that were built on the east bank, 2 of the grandest are located in Luxor- Karnak and Luxor temples. Both temples are generally combined in a combo tour and while they are massive, they only take a few hours to visit.

About Karnak Temple

The Karnak temple complex (for a complex it certainly is) is the second largest temple complex in the world. (the first is Angor-wat) It was not built by any single pharoah and was actually contributed to by over 30 known kings of Egypt. Started sometime in the middle kingdom (around 2000 BC), it was mostly developed during the new kingdom but continued development through the Ptolemaic kingdom (305-30 BC).

Its history is wrapped up in the history of Thebes and its changing role as capitol in the ancient world. It’s not designated for any single deity although the largest section is dedicated to Amun-Re. There are 4 sections of the temple, with the other 3 dedicated to the god Montu- a god of war, Mut- a mother goddess known to be the wife of Amun-Re, and Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)- a controversial pharaoh who tried to change the religion of the time to include himself as a god.

The precinct for Amun-Re

This section is the largest and most impressive section of the temple- it’s also thankfully the section that is open to the public. Amun- Re is the chief deity represented here and there are lots of impressive statues and one of the largest obelisks- standing 95 feet (29m) tall in this precinct.

The pylon is also the largest of any temple in Egypt and there is still evidence of how they carved these giant gates with the presence of an unfinished mud hill (slope) that they used to carve the top and slowly remove as they moved down the wall.

The most impressive section however is definitely the hypostyle hall. It was built around the 19th dynasty (1290-1224 BC) primarily by Seti I. The hall encompasses an area of 50,000 sq feet (5,000 m2) with a mind-blowing 134 columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of the columns are 33 feet (10m) tall and the other 12 are 69 feet (21m).

You can probably interpret my feelings on the hypostyle hall from all these photos I took.

The height difference in the columns allowed for a light to come in- a sort of ancient day type of skylight since the entire area had a ceiling when it was built. This was the only area in any temple where we saw active restoration work going on. This is largely due to an event in 1899 where eleven of the columns collapsed in a chain reaction from ground water undermining their foundation. They were restructured in 1902 and similar work continues to strengthen the rest of the columns.

About Luxor Temple

Luxor temple while smaller than Karnak, is similar in that it isn’t designated for a single deity or pharaoh. It’s instead widely believed to have been dedicated to the “rejuvenation of the kingship,” and was used either in reality or just conceptually- as a place where kings of Egypt were crowned. It was built primarily by Amenhotep III in the 18th dynasty (1386-1349 BC) but other parts such as the colonnade were built by the young (famous) king TUT(ankhamun) and Ramesses II.

One of the more interesting parts of this temple is the history of various religions represented throughout. As the temple was buried in sand, other religious built ontop of the solid columns. First part of the temple was converted to a church by the Romans in 395 AD, and then converted to a mosque in 640 (a mosque that is still active and in use today). There’s evidence of Christianity in many temples throughout Egypt (including Karnak) however less records of there being a legitimate church on the site like there are at Luxor.

About our experience

We visited Karnak temple around 3:30 and then Luxor temple right after as part of our Nile Cruise tours. These were probably the busiest sites we visited but that could be due to time of day and just being located in a major, easy to visit city. This also felt like the hottest tour/ day we had but that could be chopped up to the fact that there’s very little breeze from the river and we spent longer at both temples than we did at any of the others.

While both temples were incredible to see in person (especially the height and number of columns in Karnak) you could say we were templed out? By this point in our tour we’d already visited 3 temples that were all unique and impressive in their own way and less crowded… that being said, these are still considered must sees on any trip to Egypt and are easy to combine with the absolutely must do west bank sites.

A final sunset from the cruise ship deck.

Exploring the temple of Edfu

If there’s a must see temple in Egypt, I’d say Edfu is it. (Though I do think Philae is up there with the boat views.) It’s famous for being the best preserved cult temple in all of Egypt and was built sometime between 237-57 BC.

How is it the best preserved you might wonder? For starters, it still. Has. A roof. As far as wandering a 2000+ year old building, that’s pretty dang impressive. Edfu also brings the wanderlust in terms of grand scale and its layout. Out of all the temples, this was my favorite to explore.

The location of Edfu

Edfu is located along the Nile closer to Luxor than Aswan and further back from the water’s edge than other temples. From a cruise ship, you need a mode of transportation. Unfortunately there was a time when horse drawn carriages were all the rage and that’s still the principal way of getting to the archeological site.

A note on the horse-drawn carriages

Our tour had already arranged this so we didn’t have much option besides to go in the carriage but had I known before hand I probably would have requested a taxi or something else. The horses that pulled us along were in decent shape but all around us were other carriages pulled by skeleton horses that really, really crushed me to see. It was maybe a 5-10 minute carriage ride to the site and our horseman would be the same one to take us back to the ship.

I’ll also point out that I was concerned for the horses and also our safety. The carriages are not all in great shape and the whole thing was pretty lopsided as our horse pulled us at pretty quick pace through city streets (speed bumps, cobblestones, etc). I spent most of the ride anxious and uncomfortable, and sad. So be up front with your tour company if you’d like to avoid this experience.

*No matter what though plan to tip your carriage driver at least 30-50 EGP for 2 people.

About the Temple of Edfu

This temple is the largest temple dedicated to the god Horus, and his wife Hathor. Horus if you remember from my previous posts, is the son of Isis and Osiris and a large part of the décor in the temple is related to the creation of the world, of good and evil, light and dark.

About the decorations

It is referred to as the temple of revenge with depictions of Horus defeating the evil god Set for killing his father. One of the best depictions of this is Set represented as a hippo being dragged along by boats on the Nile containing Horus and the other gods.

Set represented as a hippo.

Hathor is less represented here except for in some depictions of her travelling from her dedicated temple of Dendera to Edfu to be with Horus once a year in celebration of their marriage. There’s lots of other important reliefs that preserve the language, myth, and religion of the Hellenistic period in Egypt. There’s information about the construction of the temple and a mythical interpretation of this and all other temples seen as the island of creation.

About the structure

There are 2 large pylons (gates) and a massive forecourt before entering the inner (roofed) temple. The inner temple consists of the large columned vestibule with 2 hallways on the side that service the many side rooms dedicated to various gods.

In the back is the sanctuary and shrine dedicated to Horus with a recreated Cedar ship on the altar. There’s also stairs that lead to a view of what would have been the second floor and massive passageways off the side of the inner temple that are interesting to explore.

About our experience

Besides the carriage ride and one very pushy sales man at the entrance to the site, we actually had a pretty positive experience at this temple with very few guys trying to get in our photos or ask for tips. We had a quick 45 minute tour or so where our guide walked us through most of the site pointing out the most significant wall depictions and overall structures within the temple.

Then we had an even quicker 20 minutes to explore on our own (we needed to get to Luxor early enough to see things before they closed) There were so many small rooms used by the priests recording things like recipes for salves and ointments, or rituals related to the gods.

We poked our heads in all the rooms again but my favorite part by far was a staircase that used to lead to a second floor of the temple. After that, the hypostyle room of towering columns and side rooms were very interesting to wander around.

One room has bats living in it that you could see clinging to the ceiling and flying about above your head and with little light from lamps and filtering in from the outside, this temple has adventure written all over it. It is a MUST SEE.

And last but not least, photos from the hypostyle hall. Truly breathtaking and a marvel of a site to explore and uncover for yourself.

Kom Ombo Temple

Kom Ombo is a very unique temple in that it deviates from the standard triangle shape and is symmetrical along the center axis in order to serve as a temple for 2 sets of gods. While we may not have had the best experience getting to and from this temple, once we were there it was one of the most fascinating temples to learn about due to the detailed depictions of the gods and references to early surgery and medical work. It’s one of the newer temples built sometime between 180-47 BC but still incredibly impressive in height and scale.

The location of Kom Ombo

The temple is located RIGHT on the water next to the Nile river almost halfway between Aswan and Luxor. (closer to Aswan) The city surrounding it would have been predominantly a trade city as its portion of river travels between narrow sandstone canyons leaving little flooding planes for farming and agriculture.

*You literally walk from your cruise ship right up to the entrance to the temple in 5 minutes.

The view of the temple we had from our room on the cruise ship. We fell asleep on the way for a nap and woke up this view.

About Kom Ombo

The first and more interesting god the temple is dedicated to is Sobek, the god of fertility and creator of the world (local belief). Sobek is depicted as a crocodile and was a more localized religion. He was worshipped greatly by the surrounding area and over 300 crocodile mummies have so far been found in nearby tombs.

The art depictions within the temples court yard depict Sobek with the other prevalent gods of the time which leads to the other half of the temple which is dedicated to Horus to tie into the universal beliefs of the time.  

Interesting Temple advancements

Some cool things in the temple included a voice amplifier that a priest could speak into and be heard throughout the large temple complex. This was thought to be included here as at the time of this temple being built, religions and beliefs had begun to wane so priests spoke into the amplifier to make it seem as though the gods themselves were speaking to those in the temple.

There are several small rooms along the back section of the temple and a hallway which is thought to depict early medicine and surgery with many medical instruments like forceps, scalpels, scissors, and dilators. There’s also a section on child birth involving the numerous gods of fertility. This gives a light to the temple that not only did people come to worship gods but some came to be cured of ailments and viewed the temple as sacred for healing.

The Crocodile Museum

The crocodile museum is a cool little museum included with your ticket and within the Kom Ombo temple complex. It’s home to several mummified Nile river crocodiles that were discovered in the region. The museum is small and will only take a few minutes to check out on your way back. Don’t miss it.

Our experience at Kom Ombo

While overall we were very impressed and had a great time taking photos within Kom Ombo we were simply overwhelmed by the shop sellers outside of this temple. (It was the worst we visited) The temple itself is magnificent and we had probably 1.5 hours of guided tour and wandering within its walls just before sunset. Despite the overzealous hawkers, I’d still consider it a must see and the truth is in the photos. (Apologies in advance for the extreme photo dump)

Beware the shopkeepers

From the second we stepped off the cruise ship for the 5 minute walk to the temple entrance we each had 4 different people in our face trying to sell us stuff like jewelry and scarves. Even once we were in the temple complex they were calling after us until we were out of sight.

Then as we were leaving, we had the same people hounding us to buy stuff for the longer walk back to the ship. I had sellers grabbing my arms and pull me into see their shop stands no matter how many times I said no I didn’t want anything. Eventually I pressure bought a dress and they still hounded us all the way back to the ship- draping scarves and necklaces on us that we just had to let drop to the ground or they’d not take it back.

Needless to say we heaved a huge sigh of relief once we were back on the boat.

Nothing is free

Within the temple walls we also had the usual guys trying to get tips for being in photos but otherwise we avoided them and they took the hint we didn’t want to deal with them quicker than the shop guys did. All in all, it was an incredible temple and I loved being there close to sunset but we left with a rather sour taste of the overall experience.

Sailing away from Kom Ombo

The view of Kom Ombo as we left port. Those other 2 ships would leave shortly after us.

*This was all made up for by a very peaceful sunset sailing on from Kom Ombo to our morning destination of Edfu. The sun set around 6:30 PM and dinner was at 7:30 so we had plenty of time to enjoy the bird song, evening prayers sounding off in cities along the river, and people watching as locals finished their working day fishing or swimming in the river as we floated by. I STRONGLY recommend going to the top deck of your boat when sailing out of Kom Ombo to marvel at its position on the river and enjoy the scenery.

Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel is two incredible rock-cut temples with beautiful inscriptions, multiple rooms, and iconic sitting statues of the pharaoh who “built” them guarding the entrance. While it maybe a bit of a trek to get to, it was pretty unlike anything else we saw on our trip to Egypt.

Instead of columns in the vestibule of the temple, there are giant carved statues and long short roofed rooms branching off the sides. The small amount of light let in is reminiscent of adventure movies like the Mummy and the closest comparison to walking into the hillside of a mountain is the Valley of the Kings. (which is usually just one single hallway and not as grand- albeit very beautiful)

Where is Abu Simbel?

Located a lengthy 3.5 hour drive from Aswan, Egypt- Abu Simbel sits just a few miles north of the border with Sudan and right next to Lake Nasser.* Like Philae temple, Abu Simbel would have been lost completely with the construction of the High Dam and filling of Lake Nasser. It now rests near the lake shore about 200 feet (65 m) higher and 650 feet (200m)back from its original position. It is carved into an artificial hillside made just for the temples.

*Abu Simbel does have a small airfield and layovers are possible when flying from Cairo to Aswan or back. This is a pretty costly way of seeing the temples though.

Moving the temples

The salvage of the temples began in 1964 by a skilled team of archeologists, engineers, and very skilled heavy equipment operators. The entire site was carefully cut into large blocks of up to 30 tons (averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted, and reassembled in the new location. The hillside that the temple is now built into is a steel dome and the shape/ rooms/ and artwork in the rooms were all placed exactly as they had been before.

We didn’t try as hard to notice seams in the Philae Temple but I will admit we were looking for them at Abu Simbel and didn’t find a single one. They pieced it back together so perfectly, it is really incredible to see and witness in person for the engineering feat alone. There’s even a small visitor center dedicated to what was accomplished in moving the temples and it’s a great spot to check out on your way back to meet your guide.

About Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel has some interesting politics associated with it. The construction was ordered by King Ramesses II (or the great) in 1264 BC in order to cement his reign with the Nubians that lived in southern Egypt. It depicts him as a god, specifically in line with the gods the Nubians worshipped at the time and further sought to unify the northern and southern kingdoms of Egypt. The smaller of the 2 temples is designated for his chief queen- the famous Nefertari who was a chief diplomatic figure at the time in addition to being the chief wife.

Photo taken in the hypostyle hall of the small temple

The Great Temple

The four colossal 65 foot (20m) statues are depictions of Ramesses II seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. The temple is dedicated to the highest gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, and the deified Ramesses himself.  

The layout of the temple is triangular and similar to other temples with the largest room at the front which gradually gets smaller as you get to the inner sanctuary. The first room has 8 impressive statues of… you guessed it, King Ramesses II again.

I loved this incredible room called the hypostyle hall – the statues are of the king linking him to the god Osiris (the husband of Isis who we learned about at Philae temple)- he is the god of fertility, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, and resurrection. The reliefs around this room depict the many successful military campaigns that Ramesses waged against the Hittites (modern day Syria) and the Nubians.  

The second pillared hall is smaller and has four pillars decorated with scenes of offerings to the gods- this room includes more depictions of the beautiful queen Nefetari.

The sanctuary

Following this room is one of the most interesting parts of these temple and that is the inner sanctuary. Most other temples had a single altar that would support a cedar wood boat used for offerings to the gods of the temple. This sanctuary however has 4 statues depicting the 4 gods the temple is dedicated to.

The 4 statues are also in alignment with solar activity and on only a couple dates a year, the sunrise will penetrate from the front of the temple to the back to illuminate the 3 statues on the right- King Ramesses II, Amun, and Ra-Horakhty. The god on the far left, Ptah, who is the god of darkness and connected with the realm of the dead, remains in the dark during these solar events.

Apart from the impressive central rooms, there are many rooms branching off the side with incredible reliefs and hieroglyphics depicting information that would be used by the priests of the temple such as rituals, recipes for various balms and salves, and the like.

The smaller temple

The small temple is dedicated to Queen Nefetari and the goddess Hathor. The entrance is flanked by 6 statues (33fet or 10 m high) and depict the king and then the queen by his side. Interestingly this was only the 2nd temple ever built in honor of a queen in Egypt’s history, and the queen was made to be the same height at the king instead of only knee height which was the norm. This definitely puts some perspective on how important Queen Nefetari was in Egypt’s history.

Once inside the temple, there is a hall supported by 6 pillars which are decorated with scenes of the queen playing the sistrum instrument with the gods Horus, Hathor, Isis, and others. The top of the pillars have the face of Hathor (the easiest goddess to recognize as she is usually represented with a human face and cow ears) who is the goddess of music, dance, joy, beauty and love, motherhood, and also the sky consort (wife) for both Horus (son of Isis and Osiris if you remember) and the sun god Ra.

The majority of this temple is decorated with depictions of sacred offerings from the king and queen to the various gods and the inner sanctum/ sanctuary is the more standard altar like other temples.

It’s an impressive temple, but not really as mind blowing as the greater temple.

Our experience at Abu Simbel and why it should be on your list

Both facades are incredibly iconic and combined with the towering statues and art work within the tombs, these temples should definitely be on your list to visit. We had a very early morning start for our trip, leaving our hotel in Aswan at 4:30 AM to make the 3.5 hour drive out there. The drive really doesn’t showcase anything but desert in all directions so we mostly just relaxed and picked at our breakfast boxes we got from the hotel.

Once we arrived, our guide told us about what we would see inside and walked to the front of the great temple with us but then left us to explore both temples on our own for an hour or so. (Guides aren’t allowed in the temples) We wandered around trying to identify the art depictions that our guide told us about and the general significance. It was REALLY hot and this is maybe one of the longer walks around so once we finished looking at the temples, we didn’t waste much time in walking back to meet our guide.

These temples are immensely popular and can get really crowded during peak tourist season but one of the perks of going in summer is the lack of crowds and it really wasn’t that busy. We took a couple minutes to view the small museum on how they moved the temples and use the bathroom on our way back to the van and were on the road heading to Aswan by 10AM.

Exploring Philae Temple

One of my favorite archeological sites in Egypt both for its beauty and its relative peace was Philae Temple. It also made for an amazing introductory temple before visiting the others down river as it introduced us to the key gods we’d be coming to know through their worship sites. Before I get into that though let’s go over the basics.

How to visit Philae Temple

This temple is located on an island… That’s right completely surrounded by water and only accessible by boat. (magic right?) Although it’s one of the key sites to see in Aswan, on a hot summer day we shared it with only one other group. Following our tour of the unfinished Obelisk and the Aswan high dam, we hopped in a boat from the visitor center and had magnificent views of the temple on the approach. The boat man waits for you while you visit the temple and you return with the same boat. (Don’t forget to tip your boatman!)

About Philae Temple:

Religious importance

First stop on your tour will be in the forecourt of the temple with 2 sets of columns on either side and the second pylon (or entryway) appearing magnificently in front of you. Here is where we stopped to discuss the story of Isis, to whom this temple was originally built and dedicated too. Isis was considered the “divine mother” of the pharaoh and major player in helping guide souls to the afterlife as she helped guide her husband Osiris. Our guide told a long story of how Osiris (the husband of Isis) was brothers with the evil god, Set, who was jealous and slayed Osiris 2 times. Each time Isis recovered the body of Osiris and resurrected him and the 2 of them eventually begat their son god- Horus (who is one of the more recognizable gods as he is usually represented with a hawk head).

Isis was around for a long time as she transformed just from the wife of Osiris and absorbed traits of other goddesses to become one of the major goddesses worshipped not just by Egyptians but by Nubians and Greeks. Under Greek influence she encompassed all feminine divine powers in the world. In total she was a worshipped goddess from at least 2686 BCE when she is first mentioned in the old kingdom, up until the rise of Christianity in Egypt in the fourth-sixth centuries AD.

Buildings and structures

There’s 2 impressive, main gates or pylons when entering the temple. The second is the more photo-worthy of the 2 as it leads from the main courtyard into the vestibule of the inner temple. On it are depictions of the king presenting garland to the gods Horus and Nephthys on the right and incense to Osiris, Isis, and Horus on the left.

The left side of the pylon. Notice the bodies are all etched out- this damage was done during the Coptic (Christian) ruling of Egypt during the Byzantine Empire.

Once in inside the inner temple, you enter the vestibule which is supported by 8, impressively tall columns. This rooms was actually unfinished in its reliefs but there are still some interesting depictions of the god of the Nile and the soul of Osiris.

Continuing straight into the temple, there’s a number of antechambers flanked by dark side chambers that you pass through before reaching the Holy of Holies: the sanctuary of Isis.

Outside of the inner temple there’s a few structures completed during the Roman timeline of ruling Greece that include a gateway for Hadrian (Emperor Hadrian seemed to enjoy having his own special gateways if you’ve been to other Roman sites), a small temple to the goddess Hathor (or Aphrodite is the Greek goddess equivalent), and another small temple (referred to as Trajan’s kiosk) that would’ve served as the main entrance to the Philae Temple complex when it was an active religious site.

About the location of Philae Temple

One of my absolute favorite things about this temple was that it sits on an island completely surrounded by the beautiful clear water of the Nile river. Interestingly, the entire temple complex used to reside on a different island. The original island was covered and half submerged the temple most of the year once the first low dam of Aswan was built turn of the 1900s. When the high dam was built, the entire structure was threatened to be submerged completely. Since the temple became a UNESCO heritage site, each stone was painstakingly moved block by block and rebuilt as it was on a neighboring island.

About our experience

We were there around 3 PM on a Thursday and enjoyed the site mostly to ourselves and consequently had the most peaceful experience we’d have on our whole trip.

After walking through all of the buildings with our guide, he set us loose for about 30 minutes to wander and take it in ourselves. We loved experiencing the empty dark antechambers around the inner sanctum and wandering amidst the towering columns in the vestibule. Since it was so hot, even the inside of the temple in the shade was toasty. After wandering the temple, it felt amazing sitting in the shade of the palm trees with the cool breeze coming off the Nile while we absorbed the ancient spirit of this place.