The highlight of a Nile cruise, of course, is the chance to visit the storied monuments of ancient Egypt. Of all the locations visited by the cruise ships, Luxor is the most splendid, for this city (once known as Thebes) boasts the richest array of archeological sites in Egypt.
The city served as the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom (1567-1085 B.C.E.). The Nile divided Thebes into two distinct halves: the east bank was the City of the Living, where the Temples of Luxor and Karnak greeted the sunrise each day. The west bank was the City of the Dead, the place where the sun set over the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.
The Temples of Luxor and Karnak continue to dominate the city, exuding ruined grandeur with their massive statues, elaborately ornamented walls, and towering pillars designed to showcase the power of the pharaoh. Luxor Temple is located in the downtown within walking distance of where the cruise boats dock. It was constructed for the worship of the god Amon Ra, whose marriage anniversary to his wife, Mut, was celebrated once a year. At its entrance is a huge pylon or monumental gateway constructed by Ramses II, with two huge statues of the king. Two obelisks once stood here as well, though only one remains (the other stands at Concorde Square in Paris).
Three kilometers away is the Temple of Karnak, the largest religious structure ever constructed. Built over eight centuries, the huge complex features a seemingly endless series of courts, halls, statues, and even a sacred lake. At its height around 1200 B.C.E., more than 80,000 priests, laborers, guards, and servants toiled within its walls.
Today, Karnak stands in silent tribute to the might of an empire long extinct. Note the Avenue of Rams that leads into the complex. The animal is associated with the god Amon and symbolizes fertility. Beneath the rams’ heads are small statues of Ramses II. In the complex itself, wander amid the 134 immense columns that comprise the Great Hypostyle Hall, one of the most awe-inspiring rooms in the world.
More treasures await in a barren valley that lies on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor. Here the Valley of the Kings served as the final resting place for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Dozens of royal tombs line the steep sides of this desolate valley, including that of King Tutankhamun, which was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Even the tombs that were raided by grave robbers are still magnificent, their interiors lined with colorful paintings and hieroglyphs. Hidden from view for many centuries, the bold patterns seemed nearly as fresh as when they were originally painted.
Just outside the Valley of the Kings stands another stunning monument, the Temple of Hatshepsut. Carved out of a sheer cliff face, it testifies to the power and influence of one of only a very few female pharaohs in Egyptian history. Built at the base of a sheer cliff, it features a series of ascending stone terraces.