The Egyptian Temples of Karnak and Luxor

The Temple of Karnak, Egypt

Visiting the great pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza easily met my expectations, but I was surprised it was Luxor that left me speechless. Rather than make the eight-hour drive and lose an entire vacation day to a road trip, Adam and I boarded an early morning flight from Cairo to Luxor in the hopes of having a contrasting experience to our day of touring Egypt’s largest city. The differences between the two destinations were striking from the beginning: where Cairo was loud and distractingly busy, overwhelmed by locals and a tourist population that engulfed the primary attractions, Luxor welcomed us with empty streets and quiet. Just a few miles from the airport, our driver stopped the car in the middle of the road (“Don’t worry,” our guide said, “there will be no other cars”—and he was right!). We stepped out into the warm sunshine and gazed out at a long line of carved statues that stretched down a dirt road as far as I could see. “The Avenue of Sphinxes,” our guide announced. Sure enough, although some had stood up to the test of time better than others, that’s exactly what they were: hundreds of sphinx closely watching the path. Dumbfounded, it occurred to me I knew of only Giza’s sphinx; I hadn’t considered that there might be others, let alone in staggering numbers. As we settled back into the car, we also settled into what was quickly becoming an eye-opening and fiercely educational morning.

Luxor Temple, EgyptMany people visit Luxor to see the Valley of the Kings, as we certainly did, but the city is also home to the impressive temples of Karnak and Luxor. We had the chance to visit both, and Adam and I agreed they were the hands-down highlights of our time in Egypt.

If you are considering or planning a trip to Luxor, it’s a great idea to learn about their rich histories before you visit to help understand the context of what you will see. Here is a preview of some of the sights you will see during your experience—including some facts our guides shared and a few they left out!

The Temple of Karnak

The Temple of Karnak is located in present-day Luxor, which was known as Waset to the Ancient Egyptians and Thebes to the Ancient Greeks. More than 40,000 people called the city home, and it served as Egypt’s capital during the Middle and New Kingdoms. Thebes witnessed a number of cultural and religious shifts, and Karnak reflects the centuries of changes when you look at the architecture, the layout, and even the destruction that can still be clearly seen today.

Sphinx statues in Karnak
Sphinx statues in Karnak
Karnak is currently the second largest ancient religious site in the world (smaller than only Cambodia’s Angkor Wat). Many visitors mistakenly believe it is smaller than it is. Only one section, the Precinct of Amun-Ra, is open to tourists. Three other sections—the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the Temple of Amenhotep IV—are also part of Karnak.

Some archaeologists date Karnak more than 3,700 years to the reign of Senusret I, the second pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty. One of the oldest buildings is known as the White Chapel, which was discovered a century ago completely deconstructed with its walls used to build later versions of the temple complex. It has since been reassembled, but its history is more widely reflective of Karnak. Because of the site’s existence through multiple dynasties (30 different pharaohs contributed to Karnak’s ever-changing landscape!), there are many examples of structures that were demolished, recycled into other places based on the pharaoh’s requests and at his or her discretion. Rulers from Hatshepsut to Ramses II to King Tut made their mark on the temple complex, and archaeologists today are working to unscramble the thousands of stone blocks and determine just how many lost structures are hidden in its history.

Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
The Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
One of the most memorable spots at the Temple of Karnak is Hypostyle Hall, which today looks like a large courtyard filled with columns that touch the sky. The columns did not always stand in the open air, though; at one point they held up a roof, which would have made the hall the largest covered building in Ancient Egypt. Designed by Seti I, the columns are 70 feet tall and arranged into 16 rows. Standing beneath them, it’s hard to imagine how the Ancient Egyptians—without modern technology—could have found and placed so many enormous columns. As we discovered, they had a few ancient construction secrets that made building the columns a bit simpler. Constructing and positioning them took careful planning; in order to build them, crews placed foundational blocks where the columns would stand, filled the entire area with sand, and then dragged and layered additional blocks on top. They repeated this to create 20 layers, at which point they dragged the roof beams across the sand and positioned them over the columns. Finally, they removed the sand that filled the space between the columns and smoothed them so they appeared to be single structures. With that, Hypostyle Hall was complete and ready to receive its intended guests—the gods for whom Karnak was dedicated.

Although the columns are nothing short of impressive, they would have been even more stunning during the centuries after they were built. The columns and the roof were once painted in vibrant colors; although the hieroglyphs are still visible today, those carvings once boasted colors that would have been appropriate for such a grand hall for the gods. The hieroglyphs themselves tell unique stories. Egyptologists continue to study the columns for clues about their age and the number of pharaohs who left their mark on them. Some evidence suggests pharaohs would hide their predecessors cartouches, or markings, by smoothing over them and carving their own symbols into the granite—effectively rewriting history to promote their own reigns. These actions contribute to the challenges hiding Karnak’s stories.

This very cool 3-D video shows the towering columns of Hypostyle Hall—take a look and imagine how they might have appeared centuries ago, before time faded their colorful facades.


Festival Hall Obelisks
Obelisk in Karnak
Part of an Obelisk in Karnak
As many as thirteen gold-topped obelisks once dotted the landscape at Karnak. Many have been removed from the site, and some have toppled over, but today the one of the oldest obelisks from the ancient world—the Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut—still stands. The obelisk, which weighs 450 tons, was sourced from extremely durable granite from quarries near Aswan and was expertly transported by boat along the Nile.

Obelisks are popular around the world—our favorite, of course, is the Washington Monument in Washington, DC—and it’s interesting to stand before the structures that inspired similarly-shaped memorials around the world.


The Temple of Luxor

Not far from Karnak, the Temple of Luxor looms large as a reminder that Ancient Egypt is ever-present. Standing in front of the Temple of Luxor, looking past the two seated statues of Ramses II that flank the entrance, I considered how close we were to both the modern city of Luxor (just a few hundred yards to our left) and Egypt’s lifeblood, the Nile (just a few hundred yards to our right).

The Temple of Luxor
The Temple of Luxor
Luxor does not boast the same depth that Karnak does; Karnak is significantly older and was impacted by many pharaohs, whereas Luxor reflects just a few of Ancient Egypt’s leaders. Amenhotep III began construction on the Temple of Luxor, and Tutankhamen, Horemheb, and Ramses II all contributed to it development. Where Luxor flourishes is in its preservation. Karnak struggled with so many kings and queens erasing and rewriting history, and some portions of the temple complex look like a construction site. The Temple of Luxor is one of the best-preserved ancient sites in the world, and much of it still exists as it did centuries ago.

Luxor’s entrance was once much grander; where today only two seated statues and a single obelisk guard the temple, two obelisks and six statues would have welcomed locals and gods who visited the palace. Two large courtyards with tall papyrus columns distinguish the temple, with one courtyard dedicated to Amenhotep III and another to Ramses II. Like Karnak, Luxor boasts its own Hypostyle Hall, although it appears a bit less grand in appearance. Only 32 columns stand in a space that is much smaller than what we saw at Karnak.

The Temple of Luxor has always been used as a place of worship, and evidence of various groups is present even today. Part of Luxor was converted into a Coptic Christian church, and we were surprised to see some distinctly Christian paintings in a corner of the hall. The Abu Haggag Mosque was built directly on top of some of the ruins and intrudes on the courtyard for Ramses II.

Connecting Karnak and Luxor: The Avenue of the Sphinxes
The Avenue of the Sphinxes
The Avenue of the Sphinxes
The Temples of Karnak and Luxor are just a couple of miles apart, and it’s not surprising that they were both physically and ritually linked. We didn’t realize it when we arrived, but the Avenue of the Sphinxes—the lengthy row of statues we saw just after arriving in Luxor—extends more than two miles between the two temples. Sphinxes were believed to bring protection to pharaohs, and the road lined with them was built as part of a very important ceremony: the Festival of Opet.

Rebirth was a major theme in Ancient Egypt. As we learned during our time in Giza and in Luxor at the Valley of the Kings, Ancient Egyptian society was preoccupied with preparing for a successful transition to the afterlife. The annual Festival of Opet connected the theme by ceremoniously parading the statue of god Amun-Re from Karnak along the Avenue of the Sphinxes to the Temple of Luxor, where it was reunited with Luxor’s statue of Amun-Re. Additionally, the Festival of Opet was used to renew the pharoah’s power. Pharaohs were considered to be the sons and daughters of the gods themselves, which made them demi-gods. Serving as a kind of coronation ceremony, the Festival of Opet reconfirmed the king or queen.

Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon
Though slightly closer to the Valley of the Kings, a visit to the Temples of Karnak and Luxor will place you within a short drive of another sight worth seeing—the Colossi of Memnon. Twin statues of Amenhotep III stand at the entrance to what was once his temple. The temple was built on the banks of the Nile River, which in time eroded and eventually collapsed the structure. The Colossi of Memnon still rise 60 feet high, and even with nothing to guard they are impressive in their enormity.

A legend that has lost some popularity says one of the Memnon would “sing” around dawn each day, making a sound described as the string of a lyre breaking or a whistle. The sound has not been reliably heard in centuries, but it was said that those who heard it would be given good luck. We didn’t hear the sound when we visited (long after dawn), but we both felt lucky we had the chance to stand next to them and admire some of the tallest statues we have ever seen.

Where to Stay in Luxor

Although we enjoyed our hotel in Luxor, we both joked about how different it was from the other Luxor hotel we know of, the famous Luxor in Las Vegas that is shaped like a pyramid and has a large sphinx outside its doors. We stayed at the Iberotel Luxor, a great choice for its proximity to the Temple of Luxor (just a two-minute drive down the road). The friendly staff gave us welcome drinks to sip while we checked in, and our room was comfortable with an incredible view of the Nile River from our private balcony (which seemed to be a standard feature in most rooms). I was particularly impressed by the Internet speed; I was able to connect to a 90-minute video call from my room (working on vacation is a must sometimes!), and the call didn’t drop once. When we checked out early the next morning to drive to Aswan, we were given breakfast boxes that contained enough food for two meals—a really nice end to a good stay.

More Information:

Are you looking for more hotel options for your trip to Luxor and Karnak? Here are a few more deals to consider.

Enjoy Karnak and Luxor!

We still talk about how surprised we were by our afternoon visiting the Egyptian temples of Karnak and Luxor. Each temple uniquely contributes to the history and even modern-day existence of Luxor, and we both developed an even stronger appreciation for what Ancient Egyptian civilizations were able to achieve without the benefit of modern technology.

If your travels take you through Luxor, the temples you will visit will not disappoint! Leave a comment below and let us know if you have visited before and have tips or facts to share!


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The Egyptian Temples of Karnak and Luxor in One Day