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  • Brian Johnson

Egypt: Luxor, Karnak, Valley of the Kings, and Deir el-Bahari


Today got off to an exciting start. Our driver was supposed to pick us up from the Steigenberger Pyramids Hotel at 8 am for about an hour drive to the Cairo airport for a 10:25 flight to Luxor. He apparently arrived promptly at 8 am, at the Steigenberger Tahrir in downtown Cairo. After some frantic phone calls we straightened everything out, in a manner of speaking. He got to us just after 9 am for a mad dash drive across Cairo to the airport on the far side. We made it about 10 am, met our Egyptian travel agent with our tickets, he rushed us through security and to the desk to get our boarding passes, and we made it to the gate just before they boarded us on a bus to drive out to the plane, which was, thankfully a few minutes late in departing. Boy am I glad I booked this part of the trip through an Egyptian travel agency. I joked to Lynn that it was St. Christopher throwing us a warning shot across the bow to remind us he was looking out for us through grace and not to take his patronage for granted.

By the time we arrived in Luxor we were back on track. Our contact and driver were waiting for us and drove us to the river where we boarded a small boat to take us to our Dahabiya moored on the other side, where a pleasant surprise was awaiting us. Wow! Just wow! Through a lucky combination of circumstances there was only one other couple booked on the whole boat, and they hadn’t boarded yet. Six empty cabins. AND a private tour guide the whole way! A master’s trained Egyptologist specializing in Hieroglyphics. Since the other couple was German, and had made separate arrangements, we have him literally to ourselves for the next six days. And yes, that is a hot tub you see in the photo. Our cabin below deck was nice too. There are literally more crew than passengers, including an Egyptian chef.

After an amazing lunch for just us and our tour guide, a small boat took us back across to the east bank of the Nile where we met our driver and set off for Karnak Temple, the largest in the world. Or perhaps more accurately, the Karnak Temple Complex. Construction of this major religious center began about 2000 BCE and continued for over 1,500 years. Around 30 pharaohs are believed to have contributed to the construction and the site now comprises a vast array of temples, chapels, pylons and obelisks.  I wish I could share a tenth of the knowledge our guide imparted, but for that you’ll need to make an appointment.

Our tour continued at Luxor Temple. Constructed about 1400 BCE, it was somewhat unique in that it was not dedicated to a cult god or deified pharaoh but to the strengthening of the royal establishment within the ancient Egyptian religion, and many pharaohs were crowned there.

In the Ptolemaic period it was used as a religious center for various Greco-Roman religions and in the early Christian period part of the site was converted to a chapel. About 1400 years ago a mosque was built on the site, on the sand and accumulated rubble of centuries. For over a thousand years most of the remaining the site lay buried in sand before excavation began in the late nineteenth century, continuing to this day. When excavations began the mosque was allowed to remain, and has been in continuous use to this day, so that the site be said to have housed four major religions over its long history, and has been in continuous use as a religious center for 3,400 years. We happened to be there at sundown when the Muslim call to prayer rang out from the minaret and it was a wonderful experience. It gave me goosebumps.

After the Luxor Temple we headed back to Karnak to catch the sound and light show. As the crow flies it’s only a mile and a half between the two sites, and at one time they were connected by a causeway lined with hundreds of sphinxes on both sides. Today they are in process of excavating and restoring the entire avenue, but we were able to see one end of it and get a sense of its grandeur. The light show was amazing, even if the narrative was a little kitschy. You start on one side of the complex and advance to different stages across the site to experience the show. The site employee who escorts the crowd through the space happens to be a neighbor of our tour guide, who had asked him to watch out for us. At every stage he pointed out the best vantage point for the best experience. We felt very special. It made the experience amazing, much like the rest of the trip so far.


Today was a beautiful day to be alive, and visit the city of the dead. Our driver picked us up boat side at 7 am and we headed off with our guide to see the Valley of the Kings. The sunrise hot air balloon tours over Luxor were just descending as we passed. I had offered this up to Lynn as an option several times in the process, but her responses had ranged from no (might have been “Expletive No!”) to “I’ll do it if you really want to…(but I might hold it over you for a long time.) She felt this way from the outset, but I made the mistake several months of also showing her a YouTube video my friend Omar had sent me about a fiery balloon crash over Luxor. I must say it was a pretty spectacular flame out. Anyway, not normally being a sunrise kind of guy to begin with, and happy wife, happy life and all that, we had opted out.

At The Valley of the Kings we visited 5 tombs, in order: Ramses VII, Ramses IV, Ramses II, Seti I, and some dude named Tutankhamen. For almost 500 hundred years, starting about 1600 BCE, the valley was the burial site for the pharaohs and nobles of the New Kingdom. The site is still being excavated, but the latest finds brings the number of known tombs to 63, and there are believed to be at least 60 more to be discovered. The tombs are scattered throughout a large valley and cut into the surrounding rock and range from small chambers to elaborate complexes with long shafts and multiple chambers. The ones we visited were all elaborately decorated, other than the Tut guy’s, with images of various gods and scenes from various ancient Egyptian books, the Book of the Dead being just one. The scene of the Final Judgement featured prominently throughout. Some of you may be familiar with the story of your heart getting weighed against a feather. What they don’t tell you is that you have to truthfully answer a series of questions first, and if in the end your heart outweighs the feather, it gets eaten by the god of the dead. Cause to pause.

I found it interesting that they, the ancient Egyptians, kept a record of the burials, but not a map, so that there are a number of instances where the burial shaft of one pharaoh ran into the existing shaft of a previous pharaoh, and the digging crews simply sealed the old shaft back up and headed off in a different direction, leaving a honeycomb of shafts and chambers. The Ramses tombs were all beautiful and very interesting, especially with the background given by our guide, but the Seti I was by far the most special. It was huge and elaborately decorated throughout, and many of the colors, even after thousands of years, remained as vibrant as ever.  The experience was enhanced because we had it to ourselves, other than a sort of attendant who is present in all the tombs to oversee the crowds. Only a handful of tombs are open on any one day, to minimize damage to the tombs, and three are included with the modest entrance fee to the site. Tut’s is an extra $15 special ticket, and Seti’s is the other special ticket at $35, but we’ve come this far, and I had read about Seti’s tomb and knew it was the bomb. Turns out almost everyone pays for Tut and almost no one pays for Seti, even though it’s like comparing a wooden chapel to a cathedral. The attendant even let us in to areas that were blocked off. This had happened before, curiously enough. Got picked out of a crowd and asked if I wanted to see something special. And spreading a little baksheesh always helps, if you know what I mean.

Tut’s tomb was smaller and plainer than the others, even though it held a lot of treasure. They theorize that he died suddenly at a young age and had to be buried quickly in an unfinished tomb originally meant for his vizier. There have been various theories about how he died, including assassination, accident and illness. Our guide shared with us that recent DNA research on the mummy indicates he likely died of malaria. Don’t say I never taught you anything. Tut’s tomb is unique among all others in that even though all the artifacts have been removed, it is the only one which still contains the sarcophagus and mummy. Lynn has always had a fascination with Tut, a Tut Nut, so to speak, so to have her picture taken with his mummy was a real thrill. Our guide gave us his height in centimeters and when I did the conversion it turns out they are the same height. Go figure.

After leaving The Valley of the Kings our guide took us to the alabaster factory where the rock is still cut and crafted according to traditional methods that have essentially remained the same for thousands of years. Lynn made friends with one of the artists that our guide introduced us to. He was a very nice man and treated us to some delicious homemade falafel his wife had made. He even showed Lynn how they grind the stone by hand to make the alabaster. We got a number of souvenirs and small gifts, and one very special piece, and spent our lunch money. We ended up getting the special friends discount. I think he makes a lot of special friends. Before we left he gave us several small carved scarabs, which are thought to bring good luck. Apparently they got a bad rap in the Mummy movies. Who knows, a couple of you reading this may even get a little good luck souvenir from Egypt…

Our next stop was the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, although that term is not quite accurate. Queens were the wives of pharaohs, but when her husband died she became regent and eventually assumed the throne as pharaoh in her own right in 1473 BCE, becoming one of only seven women to rule Egypt throughout its long history. Lynn’s a big fan, as she figures sisters have to stick together. Hatshepsut’s three level mortuary temple sits in a breathtaking setting at the base of a sheer limestone cliff and contains some beautiful decoration, although after she died her vindictive bastard stepson tried to erase or deface all images of her. As always our guide gave us the inside scoop as we toured the site.

Upon leaving the temple our guide took us to see the fairly recently excavated tomb of Ramose, which had some amazingly detailed engravings and some beautifully colored figures. He also explained the process of the wall art, from laying out a grid pattern to sketching the figures to etching the final product. The tomb had not been fully completed and contained examples of all the stages of creation. Then to complete the chain of instruction he took us to visit an old man who practiced the ancient art of etching and engraving. His workshop was filled with stone tablets etched with scenes and figures from ancient temples and tombs, and he showed us a little how he produced his pieces. His work really was exquisite, and before we left I couldn’t resist splurging on a lovely little piece. Then we made a quick stop to see the Colossi of Memnon, a couple of 60 foot high seated figures of Amenhotep III sitting out on the desert plain, before heading back to our Dahabiya for departure upriver.

We spent a leisurely afternoon sailing up the Nile before anchoring on the west bank about dark, a little short of the Esna Lock. The elevation of the Nile changes at this point and boats have to go through a lock system, so we made anchor a little short so we could get an early start to go through early in the morning. Tomorrow promises to be another exciting day.

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