Upper Egypt: 5 Things to See & Do

Southern Egypt is called Upper Egypt because it’s upriver from northern (Lower) Egypt. The Nile is one of the rare rivers that flows northward, from central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea.

Here are our suggestions of 5 things to see or do there:

KARNAK TEMPLE
Over 60 acres of colossal statues, obelisks, relief carvings of pharaonic adventures and pylon after pylon after pylon (10 in total) make up Karnak Temple. The Hypostyle Hall is Karnak’s most famous feature, where the central aisle is lined with 70-foot columns, backed on either side by a forest of 30-foot columns. It’s literally jaw dropping. Relief carvings cover the columns and traces of original paint are not hard to find, especially if you look up.

TEMPLE OF HATSHEPSUT
The mortuary temple of one of Ancient Egypt’s very few female pharaohs is located at the base of towering cliffs at Deir el-Bahri in the Theban necropolis, across the Nile from Luxor. It’s a stunning setting and the temple design is quite different from other Nile Valley temples.

VALLEY OF THE KINGS
A valley deep within the mountains on the west bank of the Nile, across from ancient Thebes (modern Luxor), holds the burial grounds of New Kingdom pharaohs, their families and members of the nobility. To date, over 60 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings. In many of the tombs, walls and ceilings are painted in scenes from the life of the tomb occupant, happy experiences to be carried into the afterlife, as well as prayers and spells. The way to the afterlife was treacherous; and tomb paintings envisioned a successful passage, with the help of various gods.

TEMPLE OF ISIS AT PHILAE
The temple of Isis, also known as Philae Temple, was originally located on Philae Island in the Nile. In the 1960s, Philae Island was largely submerged in the new Lake Nasser reservoir, so the temple was dismantled and moved to higher ground on Agilka Island. Nevertheless, the temple is still known as Philae.

FELUCCA RIDE
We don’t recommend swimming in the Nile. But a quiet sail on a traditional felucca will get you close enough to the water to dip your fingers.

Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Deir el-Medina - Valley of the Kings workers village on the west bank of the Nile, near Luxor

Deir el-Medina – Valley of the Kings workers village on the west bank of the Nile, near Luxor

Deir el-Medina (also known as Valley of the Artisans) is the remains of a village near the Valley of the Kings, where the workers lived – architects, craftsmen and laborers – who designed and built the tombs that would usher their pharaohs to the world beyond.

This was extremely important work; a proper tomb helped ensure the pharaoh’s passage to the afterlife, as important for the people he left behind, his subjects, as it was for him. Although pharaohs were understood to be mortal men (and a very few women), they were believed to be a channel for divine power. Their actions directly affected whether Egypt was blessed or cursed by the gods. If pharaohs successfully entered the afterlife, they became fully divine and continued to represent their people as the sun god Ra and/or the god of the dead, Osiris.

Tomb builders and craftsmen worked in the oven-like insides of mountains by the light of small oil lamps. They carved long corridors and rooms out of solid rock with copper chisels. Rock walls were covered in plaster to make a smooth surface for the tomb paintings. Paints were made mostly from minerals. Blues and greens signified status because they were more expensive to produce.

The Egyptian Royal Cubit was the measurement used by the architects and engineers. It was approximately 52 centimeters, based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. The cubit was subdivided into 7 palms, which were further subdivided into 4 fingers.

Egyptian Royal Cubit rod from the Louvre in Paris

Egyptian Royal Cubit rod from the Louvre in Paris

We know a lot about the architect and foreman of Deir el-Medina during the reigns of Amenhotep II, Tutmose IV and Amenhotep II in the 14th century BCE. His name was Kha and his wife was Meryt. Their exquisite little funerary chapel in the village is beautifully painted with scenes of their everyday life as a kind of prayer for what they hoped to carry into the afterlife. Even better, in 1906 their tomb was discovered in the nearby hills, INTACT. It’s one of the very few Ancient Egyptian tombs discovered that was not robbed of its contents many centuries ago. Kha and Meryt were quite well to do, probably noble, and they packed beautifully crafted objects to serve them in eternity. The contents of the tomb are in the Egyptian Museum in Turin Italy.

small statue of Kha from his tomb, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

small statue of Kha from his tomb, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

Deir el-Medina makes a good contrast to the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings. Clear footprints of the homes and the very human scale of the place, as well as the scenes of everyday life in tomb paintings give a good sense of how average Egyptians lived 3,500 years ago. A number of jewel-like little tombs have been discovered and are open to visitors. Admission tickets generally allow entrance to 3 tombs, which ones will rotate. Extra admission may be required for some tombs and chapels.

wall painting from the tomb of Inerkhau, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Inerkhau, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Pashedu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Pashedu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjeu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjeu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Temple of Hathor from the Ptolemaic period, more than 1,000 years after Kha and Meryt lived in Deir el-Medina

Temple of Hathor from the Ptolemaic period, more than 1,000 years after Kha and Meryt lived in Deir el-Medina

The path used by the workers to travel to work each day is still very usable and takes roughly an hour to walk.

Click here to see our tours to Egypt. Deir el-Medina can be added to fully private programs. Touring from Nile cruises may not include the site.

Nile Cruise Diary – Day 1

This morning we flew from Cairo to Luxor for a 4-night Nile cruise. Flight time was exactly one hour.

Luxor airport is pretty low-key. We had our bags and were on our way within about 15 minutes of landing. The drive from the airport to the center of Luxor, where our boat was docked, is less than 5 miles.

Although some of the cruise boats were double parked so cruisers had to walk through a boat or two to reach their vessel, we were lucky to find ours parked right alongside the dock. We were cruising on the deluxe 5-star Amarco, in a junior suite.

our cruise boat

our cruise boat

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Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt

Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt

The capital of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt (approximately 1550-1070 BCE) was Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Upper Egypt, about 300 miles south of Cairo. Southern Egypt is called Upper Egypt because it’s upriver from northern (Lower) Egypt. The Nile is one of the rare rivers that flows northward, from central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. The 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties ruled during the New Kingdom.
It was the golden age of ancient Egypt, with expanded territory and increased political stability, wealth and power. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom used the resources they might otherwise spend on warring to build massive temples, colossal statues and obelisks. They also began to hide their tombs rather than advertise them with pyramids.

A valley deep within the mountains on the west bank of the Nile across from Thebes was chosen as the burial grounds of New Kingdom pharaohs, their families and members of the nobility. In general, burial places were located on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun “died” each day and temples on the east bank, where the sun rose. To date, 62 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, ranging in size from a single chamber to sprawling networks of passageways with over 100 chambers.

Ancient Egyptians believed they would live on after death in an idealized version of the life they had known. They were buried with all the furnishings and fixtures of their life because they would need them. (That is, if they made it through the rigorous tests of character that led from death to the afterlife, but that’s a subject for another post.) Tomb robbing was quite an industry in those days. In the New Kingdom period, even common people took their worldly goods to the grave but, of course, the pharaoh had the best goods of all and royal tombs were hunted with singular focus by smart and daring thieves. The remoteness of the Valley of Kings was part of its security system. As a further precaution, the tombs were cut deep into the mountains and then constructed in complicated layouts, with the valuables stashed in the deepest, most out-of-the-way crevice. Despite all that, very few tombs survived unmolested into the modern age and most were pillaged within a few years of being sealed.

The tomb of Tutankhamun is the most famous intact tomb discovered. King Tut’s tomb can be visited in the Valley of the Kings and the tomb treasures can be seen at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

Not all tombs in the Valley of the Kings are open to visitors and those that are open rotate to protect them from the impact of the thousands of tourists that come through every day. Admission tickets include three tombs. The admission to King Tut’s tomb is not included in the general admission to the Valley of the Kings.

What you’ll find in the tombs are intricately painted corridors and rooms. Walls and ceilings are covered in scenes from the life of the pharaoh, happy experiences that he would like to carry with him into the afterlife, as well as prayers and spells to help ensure that he reached his destination. The way to the afterlife was treacherous and tomb paintings envisioned a successful passage, with the help of various gods.

Click here to see tours to Egypt that include a visit to the Valley of the Kings.

Mummification Museum, Luxor, Egypt

a cat mummy at Luxor's Mummification Museum

a cat mummy at Luxor’s Mummification Museum

For those interested in mummies and/or ancient Egyptian religion, the Mummification Museum in Luxor is well worth a visit. Most of the mummies on display are animals (currently there is just one human mummy), which gives insight into the reverence ancient Egyptians held for animals. The museum is dedicated to the process of mummification and the belief system behind it. Exhibits are well organized and include beautiful examples of mummification tools, sarcophagi and canopic jars, which held organs removed from the embalmed body. Thirty to forty minutes is plenty of time to see everything and leave with a good understanding of ancient Egyptian mummification. The museum is right on the Nile Corniche in the center of Luxor, just north of the Luxor Temple.