Ancient Egypt will forever be one of the most mysterious and important civilizations the world has ever seen. Arguably the planet’s first great civilization, the Egyptians laid in stone the foundation for modern society, paving the way in engineering, language & religion. Egyptian history is a long and tumultuous one, from the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3100 BC, through several periods of prosperity and near ruin, to the Roman invasion in 30 BC. With each pharaoh attempting to build on their predecessor’s legacy, Egypt exhibits one of the most impressive collections of ruins. Join me on a 3,000-year journey along the Nile and hear my case for what I consider to be one of the greatest historical road trips on earth.
Contents & Key
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Sprinkled throughout this guide are some of the best historical sites for each period, achievement & area. Keep a list of the ones you find the most fascinating and start planning your nerdy vacation! If you like, click on the icons below to skip to the corresponding chapter (but trust me, read it all!).
A Brief History of Ancient Egypt & Where it was Located
Predynastic Period | Up to 3100 BC
The history of Predynastic Egypt provides important context to the location of the centres you’ll visit so, although almost all of the impressive ruins and relics you’ll see in Egypt far succeed this period, it would be remiss of me to omit. In the same manner as their contemporaries in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia, for millennia small tribes began congregating on the fertile banks of the Nile River, which facilitated irrigation leading to further development of agriculture and, ultimately, the advent of civilization. As society began to progress, these small tribes banded together to form two larger populations; Lower Egypt—based around the Nile Delta, on the banks of the Mediterranean—and Upper Egypt—located further upstream, adjacent to the Red Sea. Of note from this period, look out for Predynastic pottery if you’re in any of the country’s large museums. Among other depictions, boats are prevalent in many of the inscriptions, indicating the importance of the Nile in facilitating transportation and trade.
Early Dynastic Period | 3100 – 2686 BC
The beginning of Egyptian civilization is generally considered to coincide with the consolidation of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is said that King Narmer—who ruled over Upper Egypt at the time—conquered Lower Egypt, setting up the first dynasty. The period between the unification of these states in 3100 BC and the Macedonian invasion in 332 BC is split up into 30 dynasties, hence, it is known as The Dynastic Period and contains most of Egypt’s most beloved ruins and relics. Important to note for chapter 3, two clear centres began to develop during this period: Thebes—modern-day Luxor—became the capital of the upper section of Egypt and Memphis—just south of modern-day Cairo—was created to administer the lower section of the country. Alongside religion, engineering and the written script, which we cover in chapter 2, mining was also rapidly developed during this period, leading to what is dubbed by scholars as “The Age of the Pyramids”.
Measuring 7km long by 1km wide, this sprawling necropolis contains burial sites from the entire Dynastic period making it one of the most historically rich sites in all of Egypt. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Saqqara contains a massive collection of pyramids and tombs, which sit atop an arid plateau with Cairo’s modern-day skyline as its backdrop. Although the pyramids here pale in comparison to those at Giza, as we’ll learn later, Saqqara plays an important role in the development of pyramid building. This necropolis also tends to be a much quieter setting so, if like me, you prefer to avoid the crowds, Saqqara is well worth considering. Perhaps the most famous of the structures at Saqqara, the Pyramid of Djoser—aka the Step Pyramid—was built during the Old Kingdom and is one of the earliest epic stone structures in Egypt. Speaking of which…
Old Kingdom | 2686 – 2181 BC
The first of the three Kingdom periods, this roughly 500-year span covers the 3rd to the 6th dynasties and contains the most famous of all Egyptian ruins: the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. As Egyptian civilization advanced so did the wealth and status of the king and the underlying class structure. Memphis became the administrative capital of Egypt and the nearby limestone plateau of Giza was selected as the location for their most ambitious engineering projects to date. The peak of this period came during the 4th dynasty, when a succession of pyramid-building pharaohs expanded on their predecessors’ work, culminating in the reign of Khufu—2589–2566 BC—who built the 455ft Great Pyramid of Giza. Within a 45 minute drive from Cairo city centre, one could pass by Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur (Although I would recommend stopping at each!) as well as some of the country’s best museums.
If you want to get super nerdy, I would highly recommend visiting the Saqqara Necropolis first, then Dahshur, then Giza! Pyramid construction progressed dramatically over the course of the Old Kingdom; Step pyramids were constructed first—the aforementioned Pyramid of Djoser being the best example—then they really stepped things up (pun intended) with straight, diagonally sided pyramids. There are several examples at the Dahshur Necropolis that not only illustrate this transition but also help tell the most heartwarming father-son story I have ever come across. Ready?
Having taken a bash at a step pyramid, king Sneferu set out to build his very first straight-sided structure but as these first attempts usually are, it was a bit of a disaster. As well as placing his pyramid on soft ground, he failed to correctly calculate the weight distribution of the blocks leading to its unfortunate moniker, the Bent Pyramid. Not one to be easily discouraged, Sneferu set out to build a bigger, better, straighter pyramid and, while I couldn’t verify the dates, it’s possible that his son, Khufu would have accompanied his father to the job site (see where this is going?!). The Red Pyramid was a success and stood at 341 ft with an angle of 43 degrees, sadly, it is also said to be Sneferu’s final resting place. Building upon his father’s work, king Khufu then selected the limestone slab at Giza as the base for his pyramid and successfully executed the greatest engineering project of all time, the Great Pyramid of Giza, which stands at a staggering 481 ft with a 52-degree angle. How proud would you be if you were Sneferu?!
1st Intermediate Period | 2181 – 2055 BC
Every civilization ebbs and flows from periods of economic prosperity to times of hardship and strife; Ancient Egypt is no exception. The lavish lifestyle of the kings is thought to have taken a toll on Egypt’s economy and long periods of drought towards the end of the Old Kingdom ushered in the first of three intermediary periods. Following the collapse of the hierarchy that once ruled the country, each province developed its own governmental structure and social equality actually improved during this time. In similar fashion to the inception of Predynastic Upper and Lower Egypt, two powerhouses began to emerge in their respective halves. Eventually, this culminated in a victory for Thebes, transferring the country’s administrative capital to the site of modern-day Luxor.
Middle Kingdom | 2055 – 1650 BC
A united kingdom meant a unified workforce, which led, once again, to the development of large scale projects and additional efforts being made towards the progression of the arts and engineering. Although Thebes was the main centre during the start of the Middle Kingdom—and thus where you will find most of the famous ruins from this period—the capital was eventually moved back towards modern-day Cairo. It is said that King Amenemhat I—1991-1962 BC—shifted the capital back to the Lower section of Egypt (in the north, I know, it’s super confusing!) to help protect against Asiatic invasions. Having learned a thing or two from their pharaonic brethren in the Old Kingdom, it sounds like the rulers of the Middle Kingdom at least attempted to be more economically inclusive, but alas. The same combination of large scale projects straining the economy and natural disasters—this time flooding in the Nile Delta region—led to the second intermediate period and, once again, the collapse of the ruling class.
Karnak Temple Complex
The second most visited historical site in Egypt, Karnak sits on the western bank of the Nile in downtown Luxor. The size of the complex is vast, with only one of a total four precincts actually open to the public while the others are being restored. It was initially constructed in the Middle Kingdom and was added to, improved on and repaired over time—mostly in the New Kingdom. Each precinct is dedicated to a different god with the largest of the four—and the only one currently open—dedicated to Amun-Re. One of the most renowned parts of this complex is the Great Hypostyle Hall, which was built somewhere between 1290-1224 BC during the 19th Dynasty. It contains over 100 columns covered by a fascinating collection of inscriptions mainly left by Seti I and Ramesses II. Karnak also boasts an open-air museum, which contains reconstructions of what the complex would have looked like in its heyday.
2nd Intermediate Period | 1650 – 1550 BC
Tragically, this second intermediary period was characterised by war with the move to Memphis proving insufficient in stifling invasion. During this period, Ancient Egypt was almost totally annihilated, stuck between Hyksos—meaning “rulers of foreign lands”—in the north and the Kushites in the south. After the northern invasion, the Egyptians retreated back to Thebes where they recouped and fended off attacks from both sides. But, to be fair, things could have been worse. Like the Greeks who followed much later, Hyksos integrated with Egyptian society and are credited with advancements such as the horse and chariot and the terrifying innovation of the composite bow. Eventually, the centre at Thebes mustered up enough strength to not only expel the Hyksos forces from the north but to expand their territory east into the Levant.
New Kingdom | 1550 – 1069 BC
If there is one lesson we could take away from Ancient Egypt (which we definitely haven’t!) it would be modesty. Unsurprisingly, the New Kingdom brought with it unseen boundaries of wealth, territory and construction, which all came crashing down thanks to opulence and greed. During this period, Egypt extended their land as far north as present-day Turkey, which provided valuable trading opportunities with, among others, the Hittites and the Assyrians. Societal equality also took another giant leap during the New Kingdom with the rule of the first great female pharaoh. Although the Ptolemaic’s Cleopatra is certainly the most famous and the Middle Kingdom’s Sobekneferu being the first—with a short rule of only 4 years—Hatshepsut is celebrated as one of the most successful pharaohs in history and her legacy remains today just northwest of Luxor city-centre. Just over 100 years after Hatshepsut, another of Egypt’s most well-known pharaohs, Tutankhamun also ruled Egypt. King Tut rose to the throne at an astonishing age of 8 or 9 before tragically succumbing to multiple medical disorders at just 18 or 19 years old. His immaculate golden mask can be viewed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
This might be my favourite ruin in all of Egypt. First and foremost it’s setting; this UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in front of spectacular red-limestone cliffs at Deir el-Bahari, which also houses the mortuary temples of several other pharaohs. Before considering its construction, contemplate the precision with which it is built; during the winter solstice sunrise each year, the sun shines through specific parts of the temple illuminating various statues of the gods. This occurs around December 21st/22nd every year and would be incredible to watch, I’m sure. In a drastically different style to a lot of other burial sites in Ancient Egypt, the structure itself is made up of three levels—each reaching almost 100ft in height—accessed by enormous limestone ramps. As you would expect, the decoration of this temple is also incredible and, if you look carefully, depicts the divine birth of a female pharaoh. Deir el-Bahari is very close to Valley of the Kings on the northwestern side of Luxor.
3rd Intermediate Period | 1069 – 664 BC
Here we go again. The New Kingdom is largely thought of as the height of Egyptian Civilization but this affluence would eventually create civil unrest and the allure of Egypt’s riches led to further invasions and the demise of this great kingdom. With the Libyans this time conquering Lower Egypt and the Kushites again attacking from the south, the Egyptians were once more pushed back to Thebes. Eventually, the entire kingdom fell to the Kushites who reclaimed much of the Lower section too and set up the 25th Dynasty of Egypt. This period ends with yet another invasion, this time by the Assyrians who forced the Kushites back into Nubia. With battles to fight on other fronts, Assyrian rule of Egypt diminished and Psamtik I seised control, unifying Egypt in 664 BC with the creation of the 26th dynasty.
Late Period | 664 – 332 BC
This period marks an important turning point in Egyptian history, especially in areas such as architecture and currency; during his 54-year rule, Psamtik I began to develop ties with Greece who were in the process of establishing themselves as the leading power in the Mediterranean. It was during this time that Greek colonies began to appear in Lower Egypt and their influence began to creep into, among other things, Egyptian architecture; Egyptian capitals from this and the succeeding period, in my opinion, are more intricate and more closely resemble their Corinthian counterparts. This seemingly blissful cosmopolitan age was short-lived, however, as the last 200 years of the Late Period was spent battling the Persians—the Achaemenid Empire seized control of Egypt several times in between Egyptian revolt and recapture. This territorial game of tug-of-war was finally squashed in 332 BC by the spectacular conquest of Alexander the Great, who came from Macedon—a kingdom in Ancient Greece—to abolish the entire Persian Empire in one fell swoop.
What makes this example from the Late Period so compelling a story for me, was not its history during ancient times—which is also fascinating—but the rescue project that was undertaken during the 60s by UNESCO to save this important site. Philae is an island on the Nile and was the site of various temples including one dedicated to the ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis. This was the main structure built on the island during the Late Period and the temples there were further expanded during the Ptolemaic Period. Skip ahead to the 1900s and the building of the Aswan Low Dam. As the dam was extended over time, the temple was often partially-submerged in water, this was causing irreparable damage to the colourful inscriptions so it was decided by UNESCO to relocate the whole building. The temple was broken down into 40,000 units and, using photogrammetry, was near-perfectly assembled on a neighbouring island 500m away. Pretty amazing, right? As you’ve probably guessed by the name of the dam, Philae—and its new site on Agilkia Island—is located just south of Aswan at the first cataract of the Nile.
Ptolemaic Period | 332–30 BC
Given their previous ties to Greece and dislike of the Persians, the Egyptians welcomed the Greeks into their country. Alex’s empire was short-lived, however, and upon his death was split up between his generals with Ptolemy I Soter—a companion of Alexander the Great— forming the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt for 275 years. With the country’s capital now moved to Alexandria, Greek Drachma was used as currency and many other Greek customs were integrated into Egyptian society. The Ptolemaic ruling class made many accommodations in an attempt to appease the Egyptian population but inevitably civil unrest began to brew and this turmoil did not go unnoticed by the growing Roman Republic. Quite frankly, the drama that Cleopatra and Mark Antony caused between the Romans and the Egyptians is far beyond the scope of this small paragraph. If I do decide to rant about it, I will come back and leave a link here. To sum up: the Roman’s—realising the importance of Egypt—seized this opportunity, invaded the country and added it to a growing list of provinces of what would become the Roman Empire.
The Temple of Horus at Edfu
Edfu is a city located roughly halfway between Aswan and Luxor; it sits on the western bank of the Nile and contains one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt. Dedicated to Horus—one of the Egyptian gods—the temple was built during the Ptolemaic Period and features a huge flat wall at its entrance, decorated with equally huge inscriptions. The inside of the temple exhibits some of the most interesting architecture from this period—the main courtyard surrounded by large pillars with Greek-influenced Egyptian capitals. Horus served many functions and he was often depicted as a falcon and worshipped as the god of the sky, hence the falcon statues inside the main courtyard and at the entrance. There are also several other Ptolemaic temples—mentioned in Chapter 3 in the Luxor to Aswan section—that are well worth checking out if you’re around Edfu.
What Ancient Egypt is Known For & What to Look Out For
Since the Egyptians played such a pivotal role in the creation and advancement of civilization, this had the potential to be an extremely long list! However, for the sake of brevity, I have reduced their legacy down to three main areas: religion, engineering and inscription, for each of which it is easy to see examples wherever you travel in Egypt. First, understanding the function of religion in Egyptian society provides valuable context to their other legacies. For example, to aid their ascension to the afterlife, a Pharaoh’s tomb was their most important structure and they went to great lengths to ensure its grandiosity. This meant astounding levels of engineering and construction followed by meticulous decoration—including hieroglyphics and art.
Without a doubt, the defining feature of Ancient Egyptian society was religion. Almost all of the famous ruins within this article are in some way related to the beliefs and religious hierarchy created by this ancient civilization. This hierarchy was made up of four entities: the gods, the king, the blessed dead and the general population. At the top of their religion, the gods were based around the way of life and the dependencies of the growing population. For example, each year, the Egyptians would rely on the flooding of the Nile Delta to fertilise the arid land and therefore would pray to Osiris who was one of the gods responsible for bringing these foods. Next in order came the current king—the head of the Egyptian state—who would go to great lengths to ensure they correctly ascended into the afterlife. The “blessed dead” sat higher up the social hierarchy than the general population—beneath the gods and the king—so ensuring this ascension was crucial for each king. It should come as no surprise then that most of the gigantic stone structures you will see were built either as some kind of burial ground or a temple to worship the gods.
Valley of the Kings & The Tomb of Tutankhamun
Valley of the Kings is to Thebes what Giza is to Memphis. It is found within the larger Theban Necropolis alongside The Valley of the Queens and Deir el-Bahri. The site sits beneath Al Qurn, the highest point in the Theban Hills at 420m; this beautiful red-limestone hill looks particularly spectacular as the sun rises from the east. With the age of the pyramids behind them, tomb building had taken a completely different form by the days of the Theban capital; The tombs in the Theban Necropolis are instead cut into the limestone rock and decorated with religious inscriptions of text and images. One of the most recent exciting discoveries at Valley of the Kings was the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 (ok, relatively recent!). The tomb was found well after it had been assumed there were none left and it contained over 5,000 artefacts intended to accompany the young king to the afterlife. The tomb itself is fairly small for a king, however, the treasures unearthed took a decade to catalogue and the general public’s excitement towards the find forever immortalised King Tut as one of Ancient Egypt’s most fascinating characters.
To this day, we are still unable to fully comprehend how the pyramids at Giza were built. That really goes to show—given all our newfangled technology—just how advanced the Egyptians were when it came to engineering and construction. There are several main phases to note. Pyramid construction defined the first of the great kingdoms, with pharaohs progressing from stepped pyramids to smooth diagonal sides, once they made advancements in stonework and mathematics. Then the use of columns became more prevalent in their construction and intricate temples were decorated with gigantic stone sculptures. When staring in awe at some of these epic creations, it’s worth bearing in mind the tools and resources they would have had available at that time. This, in my opinion, makes the ruins of Ancient Egypt all the more awesome.
The Giza Pyramid Complex
Of the 7 wonders of the ancient world—a list curated by the Greeks—only one remains, the Great Pyramid of Giza. At 481 ft, this structure stood as the tallest building in the world for almost 4,000 years—until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in England in 1311. It has been assumed for many years that the Egyptians used a series of ramps to haul the enormously heavy blocks up the side of the pyramid but this is difficult to prove for sure. Estimates range from 10-20 years in total construction time and one study suggested that there could have been a workforce of up to 40,000 people all working at once. The interior of the structure contains a series of passages and chambers including a Robber’s Tunnel, which acts as the tourist entrance. The Pyramid is part of the larger Giza Necropolis, which contains 2 other large pyramids and the Great Sphinx—covered in Chapter 3.
One of the reasons we’ve been able to decipher so much of Egypt’s history is the inscriptions left behind in their tombs, temples and other structures. It’s also worth bearing in mind how revolutionary writing was during this period; the spoken word was much more advanced at this point and it was the Egyptians who led the way in developing a written script for the purpose of communication and record-keeping. The first and most recognised of these scripts was the Hieroglyphic script, which contained around 1,000 characters. Their written language developed over time into Hieratic, Demotic & Coptic scripts which were progressively similar to modern-day scripts with which are much easier to write long-form content. There have been several breakthroughs in deciphering the exact meaning of each of these scripts, not least of which is the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone
Perhaps not the best example to use in a travel guide to Egypt—as it rests in the British Museum—the Rosetta Stone is an important part of Egyptian history nonetheless and is one of the reasons we understand hieroglyphics as well as we do. The stone dates back to the Ptolemaic Period and is inscribed with a decree from Ptolemy V Epiphanes. Ptolemaic Egypt was an amalgamation of Greek and Egyptian society and not all Greeks spoke Egyptian and vice versa. Therefore, the stone was inscribed in three different languages: hieroglyphic and Demotic script for the Egyptians, and an Ancient Greek script for, well, the Greeks! Thanks to this direct translation, we were able to decipher more of the hieroglyphic characters, which enabled us to better understand the inscriptions at many of the famous sites around Egypt.
The Best Places to See Ruins of Ancient Egypt
Not only would it be a total cliche to put Cairo at the top of this list! I would also argue that Luxor exhibits much greater influence and importance when considering all of Ancient Egyptian history. From the end of the 1st Intermediate Period to the end of the New Kingdom, Ancient Thebes was the cornerstone and last bastion of Egyptian civilization. Aside from its downtown temples, Luxor is home to the aforementioned Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, all of which are just across the Nile on the eastern side of the city. Luxor also has an International Airport, making it logistically easy to visit and its close proximity to other top sites such as the Dendera Temple Complex make it hard to place below Cairo as the best place to see Ancient Egyptian ruins.
There are two great temple complexes in downtown Luxor, the already covered Karnak Temple Complex and this one, Luxor Temple. They sit around 3 km apart on the east bank of the Nile—Luxor Museum is right in the middle, also on the east bank—so it would be a real shame to visit one without the other. In contrast to many of the other temples from Ancient Egypt, Luxor Temple wasn’t dedicated to a specific god, instead, it was used as a coronation complex where new kings would officially ascend to the throne. There are several points of interest not least of which is the architecture; Luxor Temple has some very unique columns exhibiting ribbed shafts and capitals, the likes of which I have not noticed before in Egypt. The Avenue of Sphinxes—a walkway lined with Sphinx statues—leads up to the temple entrance where you can also see the Obelisk of Ramses II. In similar fashion to the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, the religious use of the temple has changed many times over its 3400-year history; the temple was first turned into a church by the Romans and is now used as a mosque, making it the oldest “active” building in the world i.e. not being used solely for touristic purposes.
Colossi of Memnon
This pair of gigantic sandstone statues sit in the Theban Necropolis facing east towards the rising sun. They were built somewhere around 1350 BC and are the remaining legacy of pharaoh Amenhotep III. The statues were once part of an equally gigantic temple complex, which, in its day, would have dwarfed that of Karnak. Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of flooding, erosion and earthquakes, little remains of the temple and the two damaged statues are all that stand. The figures represent Amenhotep III himself in a seated position with two smaller sculptures on the side of his legs depicting his wife, Tiye and his mother, Mutemwiya. The building blocks for these statues are said to be from Cairo and—being too heavy to transport by boat—would have been transported almost 700km overland, making these incredible statues all the more mesmerising.
A close second, Cairo and its surrounding area contains by far the best ruins of the Old Kingdom; the three most important necropolises from this period—Giza, Saqqara and Dahshur—are all within 40km of the city centre. In addition to these burial sites, there several fantastic museums. Being Egypt’s modern-day capital, Cairo has a lot more to offer than just pyramids and museums; of note, both the Mosque of Muhammad Ali and the Khan el-Khalili bazaar are well worth checking out. The capital is served by the Cairo International Airport—the second busiest airport in Africa—and also boasts the Cairo Metro, making it one of the easiest cities to visit on the continent.
Great Sphinx of Giza
Similar to a Lamassu in Persian mythology or a Meduza in Russian folklore, a Sphinx is a mythical creature, half-human half-beast. In the case of a Sphinx, the creature usually exhibits the body of a lion and the head of a human, although this can vary somewhat. Unlike the pyramids, which were built using blocks from the limestone slab at Giza, the Sphinx is carved directly from this bedrock and therefore sits much lower than the Great Pyramids. This monumental sculpture was built in the Old Kingdom during the reign of Khafre—2558–2532 BC—whose head it is thought to be depicted atop the statue. Khafre also built the second-largest pyramid at Giza, which is an interesting thought; perhaps this smaller structure was a gesture of respect to his father, Khufu—who built the Great Pyramid the generation before (This is just my supposition, I have no idea if this is actually the case!).
Having covered all of the city’s necropolises in previous chapters, there aren’t a lot of epic structures left to discuss for Cairo, however, one thing this historic capital city does have is a collection of the world’s best museums. First and foremost, at the time of writing in 2021, construction of the world’s largest archaeological museum—The Grand Egyptian Museum—is nearing completion at the Giza Necropolis; this colossal structure cost almost $1 billion to build—actual figure $795 million—and will supersede the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in downtown Cairo. There are also two other museums I could find that might be of interest to you: The Coptic Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of Egyptian Christian artefacts and The Museum of Islamic Art is also considered one of the best in the world for its respective religion—whether you’re interested in religion or not, the dedication to their deities and therefore the intricacy of their art would be impossible to ignore.
Cairo to Luxor
Each of the following examples is not that far from Luxor itself, however, the concept I’m trying to sell you on here is perhaps the greatest nerdy road-trip of all time! If you follow the Nile, the distance from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo to the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor is just over 650 km; let’s assume you make one stop, this is easily done in a couple of days. We’ll cover the next two sections of this road trip after these examples but rest assured, I have carefully thought this through and I am convinced this is the best way to see all of the sights of Ancient Egypt!
Not just a single site, the name Abydos refers to an ancient city and one of the pivotal archaeological discoveries in Egypt. One of the most important discoveries at this site was found on the wall of the Temple of Seti I and is known as the Abydos King List. This table contains the names of 76 kings—in chronological order, of course—which helped Egyptologists piece together the history of Ancient Egypt. Interestingly, Tutankhamen was not included on this list, presumably because Seti I considered his reign illegitimate. Abydos was one of the most important cities in Upper Egypt and, being heavily fortified to protect against invasion, also contains a fort built by King Khasekhemwy around 2700 BC. If you’re driving from Cairo, you will pass Abydos as you’re nearing Luxor but don’t forget to stop at the following site too.
Dendera Temple Complex
One of the largest temple complexes in Egypt, this 40 square km complex is enclosed by a large mud-brick wall, which features two large gateways built by the Romans, Domitian and Trajan. Although the site was in use before 2000 BC, most of the ruins are from the Ptolemaic Period. Hathor Temple is the main temple; construction was started towards the end of Ptolemaic rule and finished during the Roman occupation. Similar to its contemporary in Karnak, Dendera’s Hathor Temple contains a great Hypostyle Hall (and a mini one too!), the ceiling of which is nothing short of breathtaking. This ceiling underwent significant restoration to remove hundreds of years worth of soot and revealed some of the most intricate and beautifully coloured relief in all of Egypt; this artwork is visible in the photo above and also the main image for this article.
Luxor to Aswan
What do you think? This road trip is sounding pretty epic, right? Having sampled the sites in Cairo, enjoyed a relaxing 700 km drive along the Nile and marvelled at the wonders in Luxor, this next stretch of road is only 225 km, which is easily done in one day. Some of the best remains from the Ptolemaic Kingdom outside of Alexandria lie along this stretch of road, including the following examples and the Temple of Horus at Edfu—mentioned in Chapter One.
Temple of Khnum
To appreciate the significance of this temple we must first look at the deity to which it is dedicated: Khnum was the god of the source of the Nile. Given how integral the Nile was—and still is—to Egyptian society, it’s easy to see why this god was held in such high esteem. The temple was started during the Ptolemaic Period but also contains some of the latest sets of hieroglyphics, inscribed during Roman times. The architecture of this temple is fascinating, its gigantic red-sandstone roof is supported by rows of inscribed columns topped by Egyptian capitals. The temple is part of the larger Letopolis archaeological site—an ancient Egyptian city—however, many of the accompanying ruins are buried underneath modern-day buildings. Esna has a rich history and is also home to medieval ruins from the days of the Ottoman Empire, which are definitely worth checking out while you’re there.
Temple of Kom Ombo
Now, this is the kind of temple I would have been proud to build! Perfectly symmetrical, the complex is made up of two sections, each dedicated to a separate god. Unfortunately, much of the temple has been eroded away and it’s in much worse condition than those at Edfu and Esna. Nonetheless, the temple still exhibits some of the classic columns from this period, this time, I would argue, with a more interesting variation of capitals (but no less symmetrical!). If you’re stopping in Kom Ombo—just after Edfu, around an hour north of Aswan—be sure to check out the crocodile museum, which displays around 20 mummified crocodiles alongside some other interesting artefacts.
Aswan & Further South
Aswan is positioned at the first cataract of the Nile, a shallow stretch of water filled with islands, which now sits downstream from the two Aswan dams. In addition to Philae—covered in Chapter One—this industrious city is home to Elephantine, another famous archaeological island in the middle of the Nile, which features several structures including another temple dedicated to Khnum. The cataract also contains a Botanical Garden and a nature reserve and is one of the most beautiful stretches of this iconic river.
I need to confess something; I started my research for this section trying to work out why Obelix—the loveable chunky sidekick to Asterix in the French cartoon series—was named after a tall skinny stone monument: he’s not. Evidently, not only are Obelix and Obelisk spelt differently but they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Anyhoo… As we’ve discovered, an Obelisk is a tall 4-sided stone pillar that tapers towards the top and is finished with a pyramid-like point. These monuments were referred to as “tekhenu” in Egyptian times and are decorated with inscriptions. The largest obelisk in history was commissioned by the pharaoh Hatshepsut but the project was abandoned once cracks started to appear in the granite from which it was being chiselled. The Unfinished Obelisk sits on the south side of the city and offers an interesting insight into how these monuments would have been constructed during ancient times.
The Nubian Monuments
The previously discussed rescue mission of the temple and artefacts from Philae was part of a larger project—the UNESCO Nubian Salvage Campaign—to save what is commonly referred to as the Nubian Monuments. This collection of monuments stretches from Aswan in the north down to the Abu Simbel Temples near the Sudanese border. Admittedly, it’s a long way to drive to reach these temples but the fact that UNESCO added the whole collection of monuments to their world heritage list in 1979 does make the almost 300 km drive a little more appealing. The temples were originally carved out of a lower section of the mountainside during the reign of Ramesses the Great; they now rest—perfectly assembled—65 meters higher on the mountainside, a feat as impressive as the temples themselves. Nice work, UNESCO!
Honourable Mention: Alexandria
If I’ve managed to convince you of this once-in-a-lifetime road trip, consider this beautiful seaside city an optional extra. Alexandria was the capital from which the Ptolemaic pharaohs ruled, however, having already explored a significant portion of their legacy between Luxor to Aswan, I would consider Alexandria a bonus if you have the time. An important port city on the north coast of Egypt, all of the famous ruins here are from the Ptolemaic Period and beyond. Be sure to check out the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which commemorates the Library of Alexandria—lost during antiquity—and Pompey’s Pillar, which was created in dedication to Diocletian—the Roman Emperor from 284 to 305 AD.