One rule you learn very soon in Egypt is: Get Up Early If You Want To Avoid The Tourists. With this in mind, hail a cab before it gets light and take the short drive over to Karnak and one of the great ancient wonders of the world, the Karnak Temple. As it rises up out of the dawn mist, the scale is breathtaking and even in its ruined state, it’s not hard to imagine Pharoahs being carried in splendour through the soaring columns on their way to worship the sun god, Amun.
Every inch of surface seems covered in hieroglyphs and the breaking sun brings the carvings into sharp relief – among the scarabs and sacrifices, look out for the beautifully-proportioned Tutmosis III smiting his Asiatic enemies in an early display of propaganda and scenes of pharaohs hunting in chariots.
When you can tear yourself away, slip out the side gate and take the walk back into the centre of town by following the Avenue of the Sphinxes, an ancient processional path which once stretched for three kilometres and linked Karnak to the more central Luxor Temple, with many of the original sphinx keeping watch at either end of the avenue.
Grab a falafel and a juice from a stand in Luxor’s central square or sit at a roadside table with a strong black coffee and watch the locals play dominoes and backgammon before taking a stroll round the souk area and haggling over an intricate piece of lapis lazuli jewellery. Continue on into the back streets of Luxor for a look at local life, before heading off for afternoon tea in the riverside gardens of the Iberotel, which has a lush garden right on the banks of the Nile – a good spot for watching the lazy pace of river life as it drifts past.
After sundown, make for the imposing Luxor temple. If you’ve resisted the temptation to pop in during the afternoon, you’ll be rewarded with a atmospheric floodlit display of obelisks and mighty statues of the great Rameses II, watching over the temple he built over 3,400 years ago.
Worth the hassle?
Even for a relatively quiet town like Luxor, personal space seems to be an unknown concept. Street vendors and drivers of the famous horse-drawn caleches will try and attract your attention on a continual basis, and a polite “No thank you” is no deterrent at all, however often repeated.
It’s another early start in the dark, as a hot air balloon awaits you on the other side of the Nile. Even for those who hate heights, drifting serenely in the early morning light over the Valley of the Kings is an experience not to be missed.
Back on the ground, it’s time to uncover the mysterious ‘Valley’. On first appearances it looks disappointingly like a gravel quarry, however its wonders are hidden in deep shafts and you must buy your ticket according to how many tombs you wish to enter. The most beautiful are closed for restoration or for the sake of preservation, but the majority remain open to the public. Scenes of murder and death in vivid colours sit alongside fantastical animals, below ceilings etched in gold. Photography is forbidden in the tombs themselves, unless you can find a guard who is prepared to look the other way – in exchange for a little baksheesh, of course!
The most famous tomb in the Valley is Tutankhamen, the boy king. Archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922 – his reported exclamation of “wonderful things!” captured the public imagination and led to a craze for all things Egyptian. The wonderful burial objects are long gone; stolen or scattered around in museums and private collections, but the small tomb retains its fascination, with its frieze of the dark baboons of night and wall paintings of the boy king.
Tutankhamen lies here on display; not so much in state, but pushed to the side in a glass case, covered in a white sheet with only his blackened head and feet showing. His famous gold mask tours the world without him – an undignified end for the young man who lay for thousands of years in what many have called the world’s greatest burial site
On the way back into town, past the pastel-hued artisan community of Deir el-Medina, the mortuary temple of Queen Hapshepsut draws many tourists. Again, the scale is staggering – a multi-layered complex seemingly carved out of the rocks above it, although, sadly, most images of the ambitious Queen were obliterated in acts of vandalism after her death.
After the heat and dust of the tombs, quench your thirst at the Winter Palace Hotel, a Victorian delight reeking of the faded elegance of a bygone age when crowned heads of Europe were in residence and Agatha Christie was writing Death On The Nile.
And it’s the Nile where you’ll round off your two days, gliding into the sunset on a felucca as the lights of Luxor twinkle in the dusk and Egypt fades into darkness, with a promise of more treasures to be discovered on your next visit.
How to get there?
Air Arabia flies direct (three hours) to Luxor from Sharjah twice a week, from just Dhs1,485. Where to stay? The Iberotel offers Nile view rooms from Dhs306 a night (visit www.iberotelegypt.com), or the Winter Palace Hotel at Dhs1,345 per night ( www.sofitel.com)
Egypt is an hour behind the UAE. The Egyptian Pound is 1.4LE to the dhirham. You must have a valid passport for at least six months and it is recommended to get a visa before you travel, however they are available at the airport.