Introduction to Luxor
The Luxor region was first settled by man in Prehistoric times, and many stone-age flint tools have been found in the desert cliffs surrounding the modern town. Predynastic settlements were established on the fringes of the western desert around the area of Qurna on the West Bank, and during the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom, Thebes became an integral part of Egypt. Thebes is the Greek name for the town, called in ancient Egyptian, Waset and in classical times, Diospolis Magna.
The real Theban rise to power came towards the end of the 21st century BC. At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom after a period of strife and the collapse of centralised government, Dynasty XI Princes of Thebes became rulers of the country for a time, with control over politics, religion and administration and uniting Egypt from the First Cataract near Aswan to the Mediterranean coast. There was another period of decline during what we call the Second Intermediate Period, which was dominated by Hyksos invaders from Western Asia. It was the Theban rulers who were successful in expelling the Hyksos kings and once more re-uniting the country.
The seat of power remained at Thebes during Dynasties XVIII, XIX and XX under Tuthmoside and Rameside kings, and the local god Amun became the chief deity of all the land. Thebes was at the height of glory during the New Kingdom, and many splendid temples were built to honour Amun, his consort Mut and their son, Khonsu. This was an age of opulence when Egypt was politically very stable. In addition to building the temples, the New Kingdom pharaohs and their officials chose to be buried in the Theban hills of the West Bank. The Valley of the Kings is perhaps the most well-known site in Upper Egypt with vast and magnificent tombs of the pharaohs dug deep into the rock at the edge of the western desert.
The flourishing of these massive building works in which so many pharaohs tell of their history and the worship of their god Amun, also produced very high standards of arts and crafts. A community of expert workmen, sculptors, artists, architects and scribes, lived in the west bank village of Deir el-Medina and practised skills unparalleled elsewhere in the Nile Valley.
On the east bank, the main monuments are Karnak and Luxor Temples – built over the reigns of many kings. Newly crowned pharaohs often dismantled monuments built by their ancestors, constructing their own with re-used blocks or over-carving reliefs in their own name. This often makes the identification of buildings confusing, but by piecing together the myriad inscriptions Egyptologists have been able to provide a wealth of information on the history and administration of Egypt and especially Thebes, from the Old Kingdom to the Roman conquest.
The glory of Thebes lasted until the town was sacked by Assyrian invaders during the Nubian Dynasty XXV, after which time it was never quite the same again. It was subsequently ruled by Saites, Persians, Greeks and Romans, who each left their mark. We can see the remains of the ancient city in its monuments on both the east and west banks of the Nile and the wonderful collection of artwork in the Luxor Museum.
Luxor rose to prominence in modern times at the end of the nineteenth century when it was part of the ‘grand tour’. Archaeologists were discovering many wonders in this ancient land and wealthy European and American visitors flocked to Luxor as the first tourists.
Today the modern town of Luxor has the rich façade of tourism and this is where a large proportion of Egyptian income comes from. But behind the restored monuments, the rows of cruise ships and coaches along the Corniche and the vibrant tourist bazaars, is the Thebes of ancient times. The way of life is little changed in the scruffy back streets of the town and the alleyways of the villages on the West Bank where the population ekes out a living from the land and the river.
The Theban people are friendly and welcoming, their customs and hospitalities have remained the same for hundreds of years and it is easy to forget that most of them rely in some way on tourism for their livelihood. If you bother to scratch the modern veneer, you will find that the spirit of ancient Thebes is still very much alive in Luxor. It is this spirit that makes visitors want to return and return again!
How to get there
Luxor can be reached by air from anywhere in the world. Alternatively the quickest way to travel to Luxor from inside Egypt is on an internal flight from most other Egyptian airports. There is a very good rail service from Cairo to Aswan, twice daily, and visitors are encouraged to use the comfortable ‘tourist’ trains run by a private company Wagon Lits, which offers sleeper compartments for an overnight journey. This train stops at all the major towns and is inexpensive.