If the Great Pyramids at Giza are the most dramatic sight in Egypt, Luxor must be the most beautiful. Set on east bank of the Nile, the ancient city of Luxor looks across to that rarity here in the endless, near-level desert - a majestic chain of mountains - amongst which many of the greatest kings and queens were buried, and against whose dramatic backdrop the mighty series of West Bank temples were built.
The modern name Luxor comes from the Arabic 'el qasr', meaning a castle or fortified camp, deriving in its turn from the Roman word 'castrum' found in so many English place names such as Lancaster, Leicester and Chester. To the Greeks, the city was Thebes, and it was mentioned by Homer in his 'Iliad', probably written down some 500 years after the city became the country's capital. The Ancient Egyptians knew it as 'Waset', or simply 'The City'. Whatever the name, all who knew the place recognised it for a wonder of the world.
At the time of the Pyramids' construction it was little more than a small village. Amid the anarchy of the First Intermediate Period, Thebes emerged as the dominant force in Upper Egypt, and eventually led the move to re-unite the country. This pattern was repeated during the dark years of the Second Intermediate Period: first Thebes consolidated its local power, and then drove out the Hyksos invaders and established its hegemony over all Egypt. In doing so, it ushered in not only its the most glorious period for the city itself, but for the nation and its empire too.
That glory was the result of the endeavours of an almost unbroken series of strong kings - and one queen - whose ambitions and power created the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, and the greatest architectural achievements for a millennium. The empire has gone, long ago, but the temples and monuments remain to astound even the most jaded modern tourist.
The antiquities of Luxor are divided into those of the East Bank - the land of the rising sun and the living - and those of the West Bank - the land of the setting sun, the dead, and hence the natural choice for funerary complexes. The East Bank has not one but two huge temples, the first at Luxor itself, and the second to the north at Karnak. They were the principal sites for the state rituals associated with the god Amun, the main deity in the Theban pantheon, and one whose theological dominance rose with the city. With him rose too the power of his priests - the more the kings glorified his name with grandiose buildings and offerings, the more the priesthood was able to tighten its grip on the country. Less than a century after the death of Ramses II, the priests of Amun owned about ten percent of Egypt. The power and independence of the king had been fatally weakened.
Although massive enough, the Temple of Luxor is much smaller than that of Karnak, and easier for mere mortals to grasp. An avenue of sphinxes leads to the first pylon, or gate, of the temple. In front stood originally four flagstaffs and six colossal figures of Ramses II, of which two survive. The towering walls of the pylon are covered with a depiction of the Battle of Kadesh, the central event of the reign of Ramses II, together with an extensive epic poem describing the events and singing the king's praises. Both the relief and the description are found in a number of other locations, and will be discussed further below.
The first pylon gives on to a number of open courts, all aligned except for the first, which sits oddly skewed. Each is surrounded by a variety of pillars derived from local plants and trees, such as those with the characteristic lotus-bud or palm-leaf capitals. At the end of these courts are the antechambers and sanctuary. Throughout the temple, the walls are covered with carvings and inscriptions giving us valuable insights into the history and religious ceremonies of the time.
The greater part of the temple of Luxor was built by Amenophis III, who was largely responsible for introducing a taste for the gigantic which characterises the architecture and sculpture of this period. That love finds its greatest expression in the Temple of Karnak, about one mile north of Luxor, and intimately connected with the earlier temple there through annual rituals, of which the most important was probably the Feast of Opet celebrating the journey of the god Amun of Karnak to his harem at Luxor, a visit symbolising the renewal of the country through the procreative force of the Nile's inundation.
The temple at Karnak was added to by many pharaohs, over a period of nearly 1300 years - far longer than any Christian cathedral's similar accretion of new elements. The manner of doing so was typically Egyptian: since each pharaoh, being greater than his or her predecessor, wished to surpass their works, it was necessary for each addition to be larger and more impressive than what already stood. The result is the curious effect of the mightiest pylons leading to smaller ones, until finally the inner sanctum is the smallest of all - the reverse of western traditions of building to a final climax. The Egyptian approach also accorded well with their desire to secrete their god at the innermost heart of their shrine.
The temple of Amun at Karnak literally beggars description - numerous guide-books notwithstanding. Like the Great Pyramids, it must simply be experienced in all its immensity and grandeur amid its splendid site near the Nile. To give some idea of scale, it is worth noting that the main hypostyle hall - a covered hall of 134 columns - has an area of 66,000 square feet - larger than both St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London combined. It was erected by Seti I around 1300 BC, and covered with decorations and enormous reliefs by his son Ramses II.
Other notable features of a site so crammed with incident that every stone seems to have bear the imprint of some historic event, or of some notable personage, include a magnificent obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut, the tallest completed obelisk remaining in Egypt - one taller now stands in Rome - and the Wall of Records of her son, Tuthmosis III. This undistinguished-looking list of victories is of interest today because buried among all its details - of tribes and tributes and the temple's tithe - is a mention of the original Battle of Megiddo - better known to us as Armageddon. Through battles such as these, insignificant perhaps to those that won them, but amplified along the echoing passage of time, Tuthmosis began the conscious construction of an empire of foreign peoples acknowledging his overlordship - yet another first for that remarkable Egyptian nation.