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Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Luxor: A Step Back in Time

Written by Lydia Horrex
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When I found out I was going to be working for a British tour company, I anticipated traveling to a typical European holiday resort. Images of basic hotels and groups of out-of-control youngsters filled my mind. Let’s face it, this was my first assignment, my plane ticket wasn’t going to say, “Destination: Barbados”. When the job description arrived in the post, I knew my fate for the next six months was sealed. As I nervously opened the letter and read my appointed location, I was unable to be instantly delighted or disappointed; I’d never even heard of the place.

I soon discovered that Luxor was a city in Egypt. However, I still had many unanswered questions. What was there to see in Luxor? What were the locals like? Will I be able to see the pyramids from my bedroom window? With further pre-flight investigating, I learned that Luxor was situated in southern Egypt; about an hour flight from Cairo, and no, the pyramids would not be part of the deal.

LuxorOn my arrival in Luxor I wondered if my plane was in fact a time machine transporting me back one hundred years. Horse-drawn carriages sped down dusty, uneven streets whilst locals clothed in the traditional galabaya dress smoked lazily on a sheesha-pipe by the side of the road. I was yet to learn that Luxor stands as one of the most significant tourist destinations of our time. Not only displaying the largest open-air museum known to man, but reigning as the archaeological centre of the world.

I was surprised to find Luxor wasn’t an all-round-pleaser kind of holiday; it had looked so nice in the brochure. Anyone expecting tanned, exotic waiters carrying chilled Piña Coladas whilst ‘The Beach Boys - Kokomo’ played in the background were in for a shock. After discovering there was no beach, I learnt that Luxor primarily accommodated those who wish to walk upon the great temples, re-trace the foot-steps of the famous Pharaohs, and for some, fulfil that once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation.

My trusty guidebook told me that Luxor had a population of over 440,000 people and was spilt into three main areas. It wasn’t long before I had mastered my way around. The city of Luxor was where I could find the train station, cruise departures, and airport - just in case I needed to make a quick escape. Luxor city also housed the major hotels, restaurants, bazaars, and was my new home. Karnak, a couple miles north was dominated by Karnak Temple, a city in itself. Lastly, across the river, the West Bank was mostly occupied by locals living amongst the famous archaeological sites. LuxorDividing the East and West Bank stood the River Nile, what I had been longing to see. The world’s longest river was obviously a precious and limited resource for the locals. Providing fertility in a desert landscape, it is essential for survival.

I experienced quite a culture shock upon my arrival. I was being rudely awoken at six in the morning by the drone of the chanting mosques, having three cold showers a day to combat the August heat, and just discovered I wouldn’t see a single pork sausage for six months. Things didn’t get any better when I left the hotel. Egyptians seemed to have no qualms about hassling me in the street. I felt like I was their main target. I was bombarded with ‘special offers’ and ‘good prices’ on tacky ornaments of King Tutankhamen. I couldn’t work it out. Surely if they just left people alone they would profit more.

Fortunately I found a bazaar which held plenty of opportunity for some serious souvenir shopping. This busy marketplace located behind Luxor Temple was an Aladdin’s cave of healing spices, smooth silk rugs, and vibrant costume galabayas. It didn’t take too long for me to discover that Egyptians were passionate merchants. As much as hassling tourists in the street seemed illogical, I was beginning to understand. Tourism is their main source of income, it isn’t just a way of life - it’s a fight for survival. Haggling was an alien concept to me but I was willing to give it a go. I had been told a good rule of thumb; aim for a third of the asking price. There was only one way I was going to find out.

LuxorLuckily for me there were some things in Luxor I didn’t have to haggle for. I purchased my ticket and was on my way. It wasn’t quite the great pyramids, but I was still excited to visit my first temple. I gingerly passed the armed guards and followed the crowds down. With every step closer to the temple it seemed to grow even grander. By the time I had reached the entrance I felt like an extra in ‘Honey I shrunk the kids’. Ramses II guarded the temple from his glorious throne. The statue towered above me. I was just about level with Ramses ankle. I quickly snapped out of my trance-like state, there was no time to waste. I had a whole temple to explore.

A short walk from the Temple I was back along the Cornishe, Luxor’s main street. The Cornishe runs alongside the river Nile, and could take me from one end of the city to the other. I followed the path for 15 minutes before I reached Luxor museum. I was interested to find out more about what I had seen that morning. Although it didn’t make much sense to me yet, I knew I was about to witness some of the best artefacts found in excavations of the area.

It was a relief to discover not everything in Luxor was from an ancient time. My job as a holiday representative meant I spent a lot of time in Luxor’s major hotels. My favorite was the immaculately maintained five-star Jollie Ville Movenpick ( This hotel, 2 miles south of the centre, was built on its very own island - Crocodile Island. I was so enticed with the Movenpick, that it would be where I spent my precious day off. I would take advantage of the gym facilities, massage treatments and large infinity pool which gave the illusion of joining the Nile. The hotel even had a small zoo, housing the only crocodile this side of the Aswan dam. With daily activities, a separate children’s pool, and all accommodation on a ground-floor level, it is also seemed an excellent choice for those with children.

As luck would have it, I wasn’t staying at the Jollie Ville Movenpick. I was living at the Luxor Mercure (, situated in the heart of the haggling merchants and bustling souvenir bazaars. My three-star accommodation faced the river Nile, and offered a comfortable stay in a central location. During my time at the Mercure I came across countless repeat guests. Yet it was no real surprise. With a pleasant out-door swimming pool, and lively evening entertainment, the hotel is perfect for those eager to sight-see by day and relax by night.

I was keen to visit Karnak Temple, and not just because it was featured in the James Bond film, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. I’d been told that this gigantic complex was built and further contributed to over a period of 1200 years. I was curious to see just how big it was. The first thing I noticed about the temple was the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes which led the way to the entrance. Secondly, the sheer size to which everything had been built. I thought the pylons at Luxor temple were impressive, but these were twice the size. Once inside the complex, I was amazed by the structure and order, let alone the dynamics of how such a sanctuary was built. The size of the complex covered 200 acres, that’s enough space to fit 15 great pyramids. My reliable guide Ahmed was trying to explain the meaning of the carved symbols on the pylons, but it just wasn’t sinking in. I was told that a sound and light show would be performed later that evening, so I was definitely returning to hear more around the story surrounding the temple.

If I didn’t already feel like I was a thousand miles away from home, the sights of Luxor’s roads were a sure reminder. I can only describe them as a chaotic network of intertwining tourist coaches, push bikes, run-down taxis, motor bikes, and caliche drivers. I certainly found some novel ways to get from place to place. The quickest and easiest way to get to any destination was Luxor’s signature blue and white Peugeot taxi. I could get anywhere, any speed, at any time. There seemed to be more taxis in Luxor than there were Egyptians, but at least they got me to work on time.

LuxorIt was the day I had been waiting for. The time was 4.45 am and a long day lay ahead. I was wide awake and ready to go. I left my hotel at this ungodly hour and headed for the Cornishe. I was catching a fulucca boat and would be having my first taste of life on the West Bank. The fulucca man helped me on to his small boat and made sure I was comfortable. It was still dark and the tired faces of the group confirmed this was not a normal waking hour. LuxorThe fulucca man offered us either an awakening coffee or a refreshing karkadeh. I thankfully drank the karkadeh, a combination of dried hibiscus flower and sweet sugar.

The fulucca ride only took 15 minutes. From the Nile bank we were transported to an open field were I would be taking-off on my first hot air balloon ride. As I was lifted up into the basket I felt the intense heat from the flame which roared above me; I was about to see Luxor from a birds-eye view. LuxorIt didn’t surprise me that this novel way of seeing Luxor was popular among tourists. As dawn approached, I could clearly see where the lush green vegetated farmland met the dry arid dessert. We floated over Queen Hatsheput’s temple and headed towards a residential area. Clusters of two-storey mud-huts lay side by side between crop fields and famous temples. As we flew over the houses I could see astonished looks from my fellow passengers. As I looked down I saw locals waving to us from the comfort of their beds. No one had mentioned the locals slept on their roofs!




After an exciting start to the day I was off to explore the rest of the West Bank by foot. I had been told that visiting the tombs of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs without a guide was like watching TV with the sound turned off. I didn’t want to miss anything so I booked with an organized group tour, costing in the region of $60. The morning was spent visiting the final resting place of the Ancient Egyptian royalty; The Valley of the Kings. My pass allowed me into 6 of the 62 tombs. Our guide Ali informed us of the different tombs and where they were located, which were the most adventurous, and most importantly, which still displayed the most vibrant colours. Ali then explained how the treasures found at the Valley of the Kings had given invaluable evidence to the life of the Ancient Egyptians. He showed us pictures from excavations in the area and told us the story of Howard Carter’s amazing discovery. Lastly, he pointed us in the direction of Luxor’s best love site, the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamun.

LuxorA short drive from The Valley of the Kings stood Queen Hatshepsut’s modern looking temple. The afternoon heat was piercing down and we stayed cool in the air-conditioned coach whilst our guide told us about Queen Hatsheput’s dramatic life. I found the temple quite different to those which I had previously seen. Set within the mountains the temple had been constructed with great pylons, statues, and wide open-spaced terraces. As I stood at the top of the terrace I took a moment to enjoy the superb views which headed back over the East Bank.

At first I was nervous by Luxor’s horse-drawn carriages, haggling merchants, and sheesha-smoking locals, but I soon learnt that this is what makes Luxor so unique; you actually feel like you have stepped back in time. I may not have experienced the golden beaches, exotic waiters, or chilled Piña Coladas, but I did get to learn a whole lot about Egyptian culture, history, and lifestyle. I also visited Egypt’s top tourist destinations, including the great pyramids.Cairo

Some Travel Tips:

· You can arrive in Luxor by train or road from Cairo, as well as domestic and international flights. Luxor is an excellent base from which to explore all that southern Egypt has to offer. Cruise boats depart daily heading up the Nile towards the city of Aswan. Usually taking about a week most cruises will stop at the temples of Esna, Edfu, and Kom-Ombo along the way.

· If you are searching for budget accommodation, Luxor offers many cheap hotels offering the same standard as that of a hostel.

· Taxi prices around Luxor are cheap. US $6 will get you anywhere along the East Bank. A trip to the West Bank will be around $14, and to hire for the whole day, approximately $40. With all transportation you will have to haggle for a price.

· A great way to get to know the city better is to hire a caliche (horse and carriage). Hiring a caliche will cost in the region of $10 an hour. Your caliche driver will be more than happy to show you where his whole family lives, teach you a little about Luxor’s past, and end the tour at his cousin’s jewellery store.

©Lydia Horrex

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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