Guide to the Great Pyramids of Giza

The number one thing to see on any trip to Egypt is of course, the Great Pyramids of Giza. The pyramids are located in Giza, a stone’s throw away from Cairo and are easy to visit (although going with a guide is still recommended.)

Contents:

About the Great Pyramids of Giza           

The Giza pyramid complex is composed of 9 pyramids in total. The 3 large pyramids were built in order to house the remains of the deceased pharaohs of Egypt and the smaller pyramids in sets of 3 were built to hold queens/ family members. The pyramid structure was a religious symbol in thought that at the highest point, they would touch the sky. The belief was that the king’s spirit would continue on as a god of the sky and would rise and set with the sun- so being close to the sky was of vast importance. Each pyramid would additionally have at least one mortuary temple built for the pharaoh and used only once to celebrate that king’s life and perform the mummy rituals preparing for afterlife.

Things to see at the pyramids:

The Great pyramid (also known as the pyramid of Khufu)

The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the pyramids. It’s also the oldest, most intact building of the Seven Wonders of the Anicent World. It was the first pyramid to be built and is estimated to have taken 27 years and was completed sometime around 26 BC. The dimensions of the pyramid are a base length of 756.4 ft. (230 m) and height of 481.4 ft. (147m).

The structure of the pyramid

There are 3 chambers known inside the pyramid- a base chamber, the queen’s chamber, and the king’s chamber. The royal chambers contained granite sarcophagus and were located fairly high up within the pyramid structure. The pyramid was built with many different types of rock with the most notable including giant granite blocks quarried from Aswan used for the king’s chamber, and white polished limestone for the outside. It’s estimated to be built from 2.3 million blocks of limestone making the pyramid structure almost entirely filled with stone apart from small shafts and the 3 known chambers.  There’s only a small amount of the white polished limestone left visible along the base of the temple so what is visible now on the outside is NOT what the finished pyramid would have looked like when it was built. (It would have been smooth and polished)

Building the great pyramid:

Other things to note about the great pyramid is that it was estimated to have taken an average of 13,200 laborers to complete this pyramid within 27 years with a peak workforce of 40,000 people at a time. Based on findings in excavated laborer camps near the pyramid, it’s believed the pyramid was not actually built from slave labor, but more of a conscript workforce.

The pyramid was built for King Khufu who ruled during the 4th dynasty of the Old Kingdom. (most other archeological sites in Egypt are from the New Kingdom or younger) Not much is known about Khufu’s reign besides the great pyramid and the only preserved portrait of the king is a small 3-in ivory figurine that was in a temple ruin at Abydos.

The 3 subsidiary pyramids known as the Queen’s pyramids that were also built by Khufu and are still in good shape today.

Going inside the pyramid

A visit to the inside of the Great Temple costs about $20 more per person and you only see plain hallways of stone. If we’d had time we would have considered it just for the experience of entering a pyramid. If you are clausterphobic it is not recommend. Unlike the valley of the kings, the walls are unadorned and the hallways tight, dark, and smelly. So, it’s up to you on how worth it you think it is.

This is the highest you can climb up on the outside of the pyramids and it is right to the entrance of the Great Pyramid if you have tickets to go inside. We didn’t go inside, but we still climbed up there to check out the view from the entrance.

The Pyramid of Khafre

This is the second-tallest and largest of the 3 Ancient Pyramids of Giza. It’s notable for the polished limestone cap that shows what all 3 pyramids would have looked like in their entirety back in the day. It appears from some angles as the largest pyramid due to the ground height it is built on. It was frowned on to build a pyramid taller than your predecessor, so Khafre found a way around this by building a smaller pyramid but on bedrock 33 feet (10m) higher than Khufu’s.

The Mortuary and Valley Temples of Khafre

The temples of Khafre’s complex survived much better than Khufu’s. The temple is most notably known for its proximity to the Sphinx although the Spinx itself is not attested to any king. (more on that below) That temple once contained 24 statues of Khafre that are now only represented by depressions in the floor where they used to be. The mortuary temple, although in ruins, has enough remaining to understand the layout. It’s notable for being the first mortuary temple to include all 5 standard elements of later temples: an entrance hall, a columned courtyard, 5 niches for statues, 5 storage chambers, and an inner sanctuary.

The temple is awesome and while we didn’t spend much time exploring there, it’s definitely worth heading in for the best side view of the Sphinx!

Sphinx

The Great Sphinx of Giza is made of limestone facing directly west to east. While there’s no direct documentation linking the Pharoah Khafre with the Sphinx, the plans for his temples surrounding it as well as similarities in the carved face to his statues point to him commissioning the statue. The purpose of the statue is unknown. Our guide told us a theory of there already being a large rock formation there (or even a more ancient statue) that was in the way of Khafre’s temples. Instead of dismantling it, it would be less work to just carve the bedrock stone into a statue itself.

Regardless of the reason, the sphinx is an impressive and legendary site to see in person. It measures 240 feet long (73 m) from paw to tail, and 66 ft. (20 m) high from the base to the top of the head. It’s best seen from the Valley Temple while visiting in there although make sure to capture it head on before entering the temple.

The pyramid of Menkaure

The final pyramid of the 3 main pyramids at Giza is thought to be the tomb of the 4th dynasty pharaoh Menkaure. Like its predecessors, it was constructed of limestone and Aswan granite. However, this pyramid was unfinished and several of the casing blocks are visibly unfinished as well. This pyramid gives great clues at the construction methods used by the old kingdom stone masons.

Panorama Point

The best spot for photos with the pyramids in the background. You’ll want to take your hired car, or if you’re on a tour, wait to be driven out to this spot. It would be an awfully long walk from the main pyramid entrance.

How long do you need for your visit to the pyramids?

To walk around the outside of the pyramids and visit the Sphinx and Mortuary Temple, you only need about 1- 1.5 hours. If you want to take a camel ride, or go inside the pyramid then you will need to add more time. We did a 40 minute camel ride but had less time to visit the temple so we only spent around 2 hours total here.

Is a camel ride worth it?

This is a pretty controversial question and since everyone has different experiences, you may not always get the same answer. Based on our experience, I would say YES (read more below), but know what to expect. Here are the pros and cons based on our experience:

Pros:

  • Some trails and vantage points are just not doable by foot but taking a long camel ride will give you more perspectives of the pyramids
  • Amazing photos in general with the camels
  • A memorable experience

Cons:

  • Like all of Egypt- this experience is prone to scammers and overly zealous tip collectors .
  • Not all camels were in the best of shape.
  • Riding down hill is challenging and camels might not be the most comfortable experience on your body

Read my separate post here for more info on our experience and tips to make the best of your camel ride.

Where to stay for a visit to the Pyramids of Giza?

Steigenberger Pyramids Golf Hotel $50+ – Luxury hotel feel on a budget wallet. The hotel has a pool with pyramid views. Some rooms have pyramid views and others have views of the new museum. Once the new museum is complete, this hotel is across the street in an unbeatable location. We stayed here and sadly only had like 6 hours in the hotel due to late flight in, and early flight out. We didn’t get to enjoy the pool but our room was very comfortable and the breakfast box the hotel provided for our flight was the BEST of our entire trip.

Other hotels of note:

Hayat $30+ Budget friendly and still within walking distance of the pyramids

Marriot Mena house – $200+ – Walking distance to the pyramids, very safe, and VERY nice. Easily the best pool.

Top things to see on Luxor’s West 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.

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 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.

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.

Contents:

Both banks have lots to see and do so this post will focus on the west bank specifically.

Top things to see in Luxor’s west bank

Valley of the Kings

The valley of the kings is made up of at least 63 known tombs with 20 or so belonging to known kings. The tombs are not as grand in scale as the temples and are mostly devoid of any antiquity now- however the art work on the walls is really impressive to see. The colors are all original and almost all the wall space (including the ceilings) is covered. The way the tombs have been preserved against time is really incredible to witness in person, as is walking the steep narrow corridors down into the rock. For more information and photos from our visit, check my valley of the kings post here.

The Mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut

This temple is unlike any of the others you will see on your visit and is widely considered a great architectural wonder of the world. It is cut into the cliffs of Deir el-Bahari (another name used for it) and involves many floors and terrances. It took 15 years to build during the reign of legendary Queen Hatshepsut (which makes this temple worth visiting to honor Hatshepsut alone).

The temple is primarily dedicated to the god Amun (whom Hatshepsut used to legitimize her reign) and includes shrines to 2 other gods – Hathor and Anubis. It is a quick stop taking maybe an hour or so and definitely worth seeing when visiting the other west bank monuments. Read more about this incredible temple in my post here.

Ramesseum

The Ramesseum is a mortuary temple dedicated to Ramesses II. (Same guy that built a LOT of temples during his long reign) This temple doesn’t often make it into a must do for people with shorter itineraries but looks like a great stop and will have less crowds if you’re visiting during the busy season. We didn’t have time on our day tour but we did marvel at the site from the air during our hot air balloon tour.

Colossi of Memnon

The two massive statues are of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep III and greet all visitors on the main road to the west bank of Luxor. They are built from quartzite sandstone which was quarried down river near Cairo and transported 420 miles (675 km) overland to their present site.

They used to stand guard at the entrance to the pharaoh’s massive mortuary temple, which at the time was larger even than the temple of Karnak. The temple is all in ruins however due to being in a major flood plain for the Nile and potential dismembering from successors in the later dynasty’s to build their own temples. They are free to visit and a quick stop.

Hot Air Balloon tour

If you’re visiting Luxor and have a hot air balloon experience on your bucket-list, I can’t recommend this tour enough. There is nothing life being sky bound in the early morning- watching the sunrise over the east bank of the Nile and witnessing the lights of the west bank monuments flicker off. The air is crisp and silent, punctuated only by the jet of hot air filling the balloon and all around you can see other hot air balloons flying on the wind.

You get a birds eye view of so many of the west bank archeological site but on top of that, get to experience the wonder of feeling like you’re part of a balloon festival. Even during the low tourist season, there were around 20 balloons in flight and I just can’t really emphasize how incredible this experience is. For more photos and information from our tour, you can see my post here.

Valley of the Queens – Nefetari’s tomb

The Valley of the Queen’s is where the wives of pharaohs were buried in ancient times since valley of the kings was a more privileged (and too small) of a valley to bury everyone. The main valley contains at least 91 known tombs dating back to the same dynasties as the valley of the kings. We didn’t have time to visit this valley but the main thing to see there is Queen Nefetari’s tomb.

Queen Nefetari is the same queen honored at Abu Simbel’s smaller temple and was a very revered queen of the time. Her tomb is the most expensive tomb you can visit but for good reason. It is the single best preserved tomb and resembles how it would have looked at the time it was built with white plaster and colors all in original condition. If you want to actually get a clear picture of what the colors on the walls looked like, a trip to this elaborate tomb is worth it.

Cost to visit is 1400 EGP ($90 USD) per person.

If you have more time (2 days to see the west bank)

Mortuary Temple of Ramesses  III

Mortuary temples are temples built to honor a pharaoh instead of a god. This temple was built for Ramesses III (who consequently has a beautiful tomb as well in the valley of the kings). It has impressively large pylons (gates) at the entrance and few adventurous corners to explore. It’s best known for inscribed reliefs depicting the king’s defeat of the sea peoples during his reign.

Valley of the Artisans (Deir El-Medina)

These are the tombs of the highly skilled artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the kings. It is an ancient village which gives insight to the lives of the laborers during their work on the elaborate tombs over in the valley of the kings. The tombs here are less extravagant and much smaller but worth the time if you have 2 days.

Temple of Seti I

This temple was begun by Seti I and was completed again by Ramesses II after Seti I’s death. It is dedicated to Amun-Re. This is another cool spot to check out if you’re visiting during crowded peak season and want to have a temple more to yourself.

Howard Carter House

Howard Carter lived from 1874-1939 and was a famous English archeologist and Egyptologist. He’s best known for his discovery of the intact tombs of King Tut in 1922. His house on the west bank of Luxor has been preserved and turned into a museum so stepping into it feels like stepping back 100 years into the real life of an archaeologist. If you’re a fan of archeology and learning about how these ancient wonders were discovered- this is a great stop.

And there you have it. I wish we had more time to see more of the West Bank but our already lengthy tour did not plan for it. I definitely think there are some must do’s on this list as with all things in Egypt, you kind of have to be there to really experience the wonder and history. Which places on the west bank are on your list?

Camel Ride at the Giza Pyramids

Is a camel ride worth it?

This is a pretty controversial question and since everyone has different experiences, you may not always get the same answer. Based on our experience, I would say YES (read more below), but know what to expect. Here are the pros and cons based on our experience:

Pros:

  • Some trails and vantage points are just not doable by foot but taking a long camel ride will give you more perspectives of the pyramids
  • Amazing photos in general with the camels
  • A memorable experience

Cons:

  • Like all of Egypt- this experience is prone to scammers and overly zealous tip collectors .
  • Not all camels were in the best of shape.
  • Riding down hill is challenging and camels might not be the most comfortable experience.

Tips for Camel Riding

If you are there with a guide, have them make the arrangements and agreements for you- especially the price and terms of the ride. Even if not with a guide, make sure it is clear how much you will pay AND where you will go before you get on the camel. DO NOT get on a camel thinking it is free or cheap before working out how much to pay.

About our camel ride

After we visited the Great pyramid, we visited panorama point with our guide and got some great photos there. Our guide offered the experience to us and worked out the cost with the local guys so we agreed we wanted to go. We started our camel ride from panorama point and rode all the way down to the Sphinx. It was about 40 minutes with a stop halfway to get a better perspective of the pyramids and more photos.

Cost: 400 EGP each (about $25 USD)

It was just the 2 of us on this ride and we started off with an older guy who lead us a couple hundred yards until a teenage kid took over leading our camels on the one way journey. About half way we stopped to get some photos (the kid did an awesome job of that I will say) and change camels with some that had been making the journey in the opposite direction. It wasn’t really explained to us why we changed camels and unfortunately my second camel’s saddle and gait were less comfortable than the first.

The second part of the ride went downhill – literally

At the halfway stop we also had a random hawker walk up to us popping the tops off soda bottles before he even got to us which was a little uncomfortable since we hadn’t agreed to buy the drinks or even noticed him selling them until he was right in front of us. We insisted to them we didn’t have any money on us to buy the drinks and that our guide had our money at the bottom where he was waiting for us.

This may have resulted in a different kind of fallout where the kid who was walking with us figured he might not get a tip so he actually hopped up on Braden’s camel with him, making Braden ride on the back for almost the entirety of the 2nd part of the ride. (I’m pretty sure they aren’t supposed to do that as he hopped back down just before we rounded the corner to the Sphinx area)

He spent the rest of the ride turning around every 5 seconds asking if “we were happy” and then saying something about a tip or asking where we were from (over and over and over again). He also supposedly was making some jokes to Braden about how many camels I was worth? (I didn’t hear that part) and Braden said the kid’s breath was horrible so needless to say, Braden didn’t have the best camel ride experience.

My experience – it was uncomfortable

For the most part I had a nice experience in contrast since I didn’t have to share my camel. However I struggled more to just stay on and found the downhill walk pretty uncomfortable. If I were to do it again I’d probably ask if there’s a reverse way to ride from the Sphinx back up to Panorama Point or maybe even go on a shorter ride just to that first viewpoint and then ride back up to panorama point.

The Positives (of our experience)

I know that sounds like a whole lot of negatives, but I do want to be real by presenting what actually is a decent experience compared to other people who get scammed out of the same amount of money to just sit on a camel for a quick photo or 2 minute ride.

The views of the pyramids from the back of a camel are just something you have to experience for yourself; I don’t think there’s a substitute. I loved the views we got from the path we took and it was SO cool looking out across the sands, seeing other people on camels or horses look absolutely tiny in front of the massive pyramids. It was really just unreal and crossed one of my last major Egypt bucket-list activities off my list.

If you’re considering going on a camel ride during your visit, I hope this experience sheds some light on what it is like so you can deem whether it is worth it to you or not. We would absolutely make the same choice again and deem this experience worth it. (we just might not want to hop on camels for another ride again for a while)

Guide to Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple

This temple is unlike any of the others you will see on your visit and is widely considered a great architectural wonder of the world. It is cut into the cliffs of Deir el-Bahari (another name used for it) and involves many floors and terraces.

About Queen Hatshepsut

Queen Hatshepsut is somewhat a controversial character with some legends depicting her as good, and others… power hungry. She came to power through somewhat dubious, albeit justified means. She had perfect blood lines, being both a daughter, sister, and wife of a king and a great knowledge of religion to establish herself as wife of the god Amun. She was the chief wife of Thutmose II and when he died- became a joint ruler with her step son Thutmose III (who was only 2 at the time). This is where the controversy begins.

She assumed the position of pharaoh and sent her step son away from the capital to be raised. Some reports claim she sent Thutmose III away for safety until he was old enough to assume the throne himself. Others claim that even once he was old enough, instead of being allowed back to the capital he was sent on military campaigns while Queen Hatshepsut maintained the exalted position of Pharaoh.

This second option seems the most likely to be true as there are records of Thutmose III’s military campaigns and evidence of Thutmose III’s great displeasure with his step mom. Once she died, her step son either destroyed or replaced many of her religious depictions with himself both at this temple and others she had contributed to.

Regardless of her motivations, her reign was largely successful and she is regarded as one of the first major female players in history. She established new trade routes and became one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt. Her reign is not known in total length but is estimated to be around 20 years. (a very successful reign for the time)

About the mortuary temple

The temple is primarily dedicated to the god Amun (whom Hatshepsut used to legitimize her reign) although it includes shrines to 2 other gods.

The shrine to Hathor

Hathor is venerated on the left side of the temple with a small portico containing scenes of Hathor being fed by Hathsepsut and 4 columns with Hathor capitals. This then leads into 2 hypostyle halls- one contains 12 columns and the second contains 16 columns. Beyond these is a vestibule containing a sanctuary depicting Hathor with Hatshepsut – who represented herself as a reincarnation of the goddess.

The shrine to Anubis

One the right side is a smaller shrine to the god Anubis. It contains a hypostyle hall with 12 columns and 2 small rooms that end in a small niche. The images throughout the hypostyle are very interesting depicting multiple offerings to the god Anubis and a large relief showing Anubis escorting Hathshepsut to the shrine. The depictions on this side still have a lot of the original color.

The final shrine at the top level is of course to the chief god Amun. We didn’t spend as much time up there as the top level is crawling with people wanting to show you something or be in your photo (for “tips”) but it is quite the experience just walking the ramp up to that top level of the temple and looking out.

Time needed to visit Hatshepsut’s Temple

It really doesn’t take very long to visit making it a great add on to the Valley of the Kings. To walk around the whole area, it is maybe 30 minutes – 1.5 hours depending on if you go with a guide or not. We spent around 1 hour.

Cost for Hatshepsut’s Temple

The cost was included in our tour but if you are interested in visiting on your own here are the costs:

140 EGP adult/ 70 EGP student

Cameras and phones are free! No flash allowed however.

Our experience

Overall I would definitely consider this temple a must do if you’re in the area since it is an easy place to visit with other West Bank attractions. Would it entice me to travel all the way to Egypt? Probably not but if you’re already there for all the other amazing places, definitely check this one out since it really is UNLIKE the other places we saw.

Hot Air Ballooning in Luxor

One of the most serious bucket list activities I’ve had on my list forever is hot air ballooning. It’s up there with the usual: sky diving, climbing such and such mountain, paragliding (now checked off in NZ) and other wild adventures. I’ll be honest I actually had no idea ballooning was a popular thing to do in Luxor and it wasn’t even on our radar until the day before when our tour guide mentioned it as an add on experience. When I thought of taking a ride soaring over Luxor with sunrise on the Nile river slowly lighting up the monuments of the west bank including the valley of the kings we couldn’t turn the experience down.

*It’s also a pretty mild price compared to similar experiences in the US.

About our experience

Pickup was ungodly early at 3:15 and we needed to have all our luggage ready to go and checkout of the cruise ship. We met our tour manager for the morning who escorted us via van to pick up another group for the morning, and then on to a boat that would ferry us from the east bank of Luxor to the west bank.

Once at the boat we “signed in” and were given tea or coffee and small cookie while we waited for clearance from the river police to cross the Nile. This took almost an hour but we learned about landing positions for the balloon (very important safety info) and could see monuments on the west bank hill lit up nicely.

We also learned the layout of the basket which has 4 sections around one with the pilot in the middle. There would be 15 of us in total on our balloon– 2 families each that had 2 kids, another group of 4, the pilot, and then Braden and myself.

The airfield

Once we had clearance to cross, it was a short boat ride to the other side, followed by another van that took us to the airfield. The airfield was pretty mindblowing and pretty indescribable unless you’ve visited other balloon festivals. So many giant air balloons filling up and expanding toward the sky at once. It was still dark so the light from the jets was even more stark and the roar was almost deafening amidst the silence of the early morning. We were lead to our specified balloon and instructed to get in while the balloon was almost full height and still on the ground.

In the air

Then there was a couple adrenaline filled moments as the ground team started releasing the ropes and the balloon began to drift upward above other balloons still filling and below still others that took off earlier. All around there was silence apart from the sound of the hot air jet punctuating the air as we drifted high and higher. It. Was. Magical.

Our pilot began to point out the significant monuments we were flying over including the windy path that snakes through the tombs in the valley of the kings, the stunning mortuary temple of queen Hatshepsut (right photo above), and the temple called Ramesseum (in honor of Ramesses II)(left photo above).

Slowly our pilot would turn us about so we could get the best view of everything in the valley and watch as the sun rose above the horizon of the Nile and the lights of the memorials flickered off. We were in the air over 40 minutes, taking in all the beauty you can only experience during flight. Between the sights of the other balloons too far away to hear over the sound of our own jet, silently lighting up as they drifted around us, and the cooler crisp air of the high altitude, it was an experience to remember.

Landing

After our specified time in the air, we made our way over the many agriculture fields of the west bank passing houses and canals. Our pilot steered us as close as he could to the edge of a field close to a road and the grounds crew came along to help pull us down and guide us into a good landing spot. While the description of landing earlier in the morning was a little scary, it was surprisingly easy and no cameras were harmed in the landing of the great balloon.

We waited around while the ground crew got everything brought down and got our certificates of flight. We tipped both the grounds crew and the pilot and were then ushered into a different van to meet up with the rest of our tour. (There were, of course, kids running around while things were packed up asking for money so that is where the peaceful experience ends).

Afterward

The new van brought us and one other group from our flight to a café on the west bank to wait for our cruise ship tour guide and tour friends to meet up with us. We had around 15 minutes to have a coffee, dig in to our breakfasts packed from the cruise, and use the bathroom before we were ready to venture groundside- to the tombs and monuments of the west bank in Luxor.

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.