Ramses II added temples at Thebes.

The "Egyptian Book Of The Dead" is a western misnomer — the ancient Egyptians had no word for death — they called the earthly departure to the after-life "Westering". 

In Thebes, later called Karnak, and now present day Luxor, the Valley of the Kings is where the pharaohs were entombed in graves carved into the bedrock,  located on the western bank of the Nile, the direction that the sun god Amen set, where Osiris ruled the nightly underworld.

There are two major temple sites in Luxor:  The Luxor Temple, and the Karnak Temple, separated by the recently reopened 2.7 kilometer Avenue of the Sphinxes; after five years of restoration, the hundreds of carved sphinxes once again line the sacerdotal processional boulevard between the two UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The reopened Avenue of the Sphinxes.

Karnak is the largest temple complex in the world.  The farther I walked back into the site, the farther I traveled back into time. Pharaoh Tutmoses II was the first builder at Karnak. A small obelisk is found in the older section.

King Tut.

Only one statue is dedicated to King Tut, almost all others beatify Ramses The Great.  Each succeeding Pharaoh seemed to add something new to Karnak. 

A channel was once cut in front of Karnak back to the Nile, and three months prior to my visit in the spring of 2012, an ancient Roman section was unearthed around the canal. A mosque dating back 900 years seems out of place in the middle of the temple.

Tickets into the temple run about 65 Egyptian pounds.  Water and snacks vendors are located at the entrance, as they probably were thousands of years ago.

The Karnak and Luxor Temples are not churches, the common folk were not allowed in, only the trained Amen priests, a secretive order with their rituals and ceremonies lost to history.   The holiest chamber at the Luxor Temple was the inner sanctum, called "The Holy of the Holies". No one knows the ceremonies performed within.

In 1822 the Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champollion, deciphered the riddles of hieroglyphics and he created the first dictionary of their meanings.  Throughout Egypt many of the glyphs were carved over and over with the same meaning. A glyph with a cartouche (French for bullet) around it was the name of a Pharaoh.  Glyphs are not words, but acronyms, such as FYI (For Your Information); each pictograph spells out a phrase or concept.  

Symbolic bas relief wall carvings.

A giant Pharaoh steps forward

All temple wall carvings are symbolic. A woman always steps forward with her left foot, signifying the right brain of nature and nurture. A man steps forward with the right foot, signifying the left brain of power, science, and warfare. A woman presents her left hand for giving, the man presents his right hand, for taking. An earth bound man was represented always as a snake, but the more powerful woman in the matriarchal society, was always represented as a vulture, which could fly away. A staff is raised, never touching the ground, signifying that the spirit is leaving its earthly boundaries.  The Anubus had a jackal's head on a man's body, and was the first to greet the dearly departed.

Ancient Thebes was built on both sides of the Nile and in its heyday it represented the central period of Egyptian art, with the temples the heart of its nucleus. On a map modern Luxor sprawls mostly along the Nile's eastern bank, the location of the Temples.

The gates to eternal life, Colossi of Memnon,
with the Valley of the Kings behind the ridge.

Just before the bridge over the river to the Valley of the Kings is the Medina Abu Temple and the Colossi of Mamnon, which appears to me to be a symbolic gateway where the mummified Pharaohs passed through to the necropolis on the far side and over a treeless ridge; French archaeologists were undergoing a dig at the site.

Per Amen, or Pa-Amen, were ancient names for Thebes, which was the city especially dedicated to Amen.  The immortal battle-scenes of Ramses II's defeat of the Kheta are commemorated in the wall engravings at Karnak. 

Horus leads a funeral procession across the wall.

Obelisk at the Luxor Temple.

To build such a massive temple of heavy pylons is beyond imagination, and it is believed that the Amen priesthood had a higher consciousness. They believed in 360 senses, rather the modern accepted five.  It is also believed that they concocted a potion of blue lotus flowers and mandrake roots, spiked with opium.  They thought their presence in nature was hooked into the cosmos as one with the stars.  A winged disk is carved above all temple entrances, signifying . . . star ships?

The giant obelisk at the Luxor Temple proclaims, "The Lord of the World, Guardian-Sun of Truth, approved of Ra, has built this edifice in honour of his Father Amen-Ra, and has erected to him these two great obelisks of stone in face of the house of Rameses in the City of Ammon." The second obelisk now soars in Paris, France.

The stately courtyard approach to the Luxor Temple was constructed by Pharaoh Amenhoten III, 150 years before Ramses II.  Other courtyards and edifices and sanctuaries were constructed by Shabaka (Sabaco), Ptolemy Philopater, and Alexander the Younger. My guide Yousef, pointed out Alexander The Great's graffiti on the wall.

Columns at the Luxor Temple.

Another name for Thebes, and probably the one most in use during its power, was Uas.  From over 1,200 years, between  the reigns of Amenhotep III and Alexander Ægus, various kings added their stylistic imprints to the temple complexes.

Hall of Amenhotep at Luxor Temple.

The sculptures that lined the Hall of Amenhotep at the Luxor Temple were probably never eclipsed anywhere else in Egypt, except for the columns, plinths, and carved bas-relief pylons, at the Hypostyle Hall of Seti the First (father of Ramses II) at Karnak.  I could only look up and around and be humbled.

The columns seemed to have sprouted like mushrooms after a summer shower, right out of the desert sand. The light radiated through and around the columns, and shadows coiled like snakes away from the bright light.  I traced the carved names and emblems with my finger tips, like reading a book in Braille. Stone lotus flower lips blossomed over the column heads' edges, which once were painted in glorious colors.

The bright central avenue at the Karnak Temple.

The central avenue is half in light and half in a penumbra underworld, a symbolic art work that was once roofed over with lintels and a double row of still-in-place clerestory windows that allowed shafts of light to play about the Hall of Pillars, built under the direction of Pharaonic architect Bak-en-Khonsu. He had inscribed at Karnak: "He made the sacred edifice in the upper gate of the Abode of Amen & He erected obelisks of granite. He made golden flagstaffs. He added very, very great colonnades."

The Pharaoh and his Queen.

The Luxor Temple is within walking distance of the Nile cruise ships berthed at the Grand Corniche.  Set up your luxurious Nile Mirage cruise like I did with Great Safaris who also can plan your entire Egypt adventure itinerary, including tickets to the Temples at Luxor.  Your cruise also includes a tour of the Valley of Kings.  Because Great Safaris is heavily invested in tourism in Egypt you are assured the best care and guiding.  In fact, I took an off-the-beaten track road trip with their representative, Mansour. 

We visited the Habu Temple and the Valley of the Workers, Queen Hatseptchuf's magnificent funerary temple, and made a photo op-stop of the home of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered King Tut's tomb in 1922. 

Queen Hatshepsut's monumental funerary temple.

Mansour speaks Russian, Italian, Arabic, and English, and he invited me home for tea with his uncle.  Great Safaris also set me up on a private tour to the new Luxor Museum, which shouldn't be missed, but it is not on the scheduled itinerary, so ask for it specifically.  Other side trips included felucca sailing and a visit to an alabaster factory.

The Habu Temple.

Great Safaris utilized only the best accommodations, such as the five star Sonesta Hotel which has its own felucca pier. The hotel has its own late night cafe, and that evening room service delivered two beautiful souvenir alabaster Easter eggs.

I took the Great Safaris' group tour to the Valley of the Kings with my private, professional Egyptologist, Abdul, who accompanied me throughout the Mirage cruise to Aswan.  Abdul quickly became a friend, and he set up all the Valley of the Kings tickets for the Three Kings Tomb Tour. (The King Tut and Ramses VI tomb tours tickets are extra, at about 100 Egyptian pounds each.) 

Beautiful colors at Queen Hatshepsut's Temple.

If you visit Egypt you must visit Tut who is still resting peacefully in the cool underground. His tomb was smaller than most, and a band of monkeys impish peeked out from the walls.  All of Tut's treasures are in the Cairo Museum, which represents the Old Kingdom, while the Luxor Museum artifacts are mostly from the New Kingdom.  Photos and videos are strictly forbidden anywhere in the Valley of Kings.

I must also note the exceptional services of Great Safaris' representatives Tony and Michael for setting up aspects of my adventures in Luxor. I recommend you visit Luxor 2-3 days prior to your cruises to see all the sites. Visit Great Safaris at www.greatsafaris.com

Yousef has guided for 50 years at the Luxor Temple.

The temples at Themes were ancient secret doorways that reached beyond our modern known senses — the altered states of the priest cult had moved beyond conscious problem solving. There were no schools back then, but they made the impossible possible, and to prove it, the temples at Thebes are sentinels of wonderment from the past. Read more Great Safaris Egyptian adventures in Jetsetters Magazine

— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.