The only surviving wonder of the ancient world, the Pyramids of Giza are probably the most iconic images of Ancient Egypt. Built between 2550 and 2490 BCE by the Pharaohs Khufu, his son Khafre, and grandson Menkaure, they were meant to last an eternity, and have done just that.
However, there are many more treasures hidden in the desert sands along the River Nile. From Luxor to Abu Simbel, there are countless majestic tombs and temples that beckon intrepid travelers to uncover the secrets and mysteries of this ancient civilization.
Though justly famous for their imposing size, the Giza pyramids are far from the oldest of the Ancient Egyptian pyramids. That honor goes to the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara. Built by the Pharaoh Djoser (Zoser), this step pyramid predates those at Giza by more than a century. Before this, pharaohs’ tombs were flat-topped mounds. It was Djoser’s chief architect, Imhotep, who placed these mounds one-on-top-of-the-other, creating the world’s first step pyramid.
The nearby ‘Bent Pyramid’ of Pharaoh Sneferu seems to originate from a transition period between the earlier step pyramids to the later smooth-sided ones. It is also the only Egyptian pyramid to retain its original polished limestone outer casing.
On the Trail of The Pharaohs – Ancient Thebes
A journey up the Nile takes you to what was once the city of Thebes. Then known as Waset, it was the capital of Ancient Egypt and is filled with great temples. The largest of these is Karnak.
Covering over 2 square kilometers, the complex houses many temples, residences, and even a large sacred pool. Constructed over 1500 years by more than 30 different pharaohs, traveling deeper into Karnak is like traveling further and further back in time. Don’t miss the famous Temple of Amun-Ra with its forest of towering columns, covered in colorful hieroglyphics.
Down the avenue of sphinxes lies the other great temple of Thebes, Luxor. Flanked by colossal statues of Ramses II, perhaps the greatest builder in Ancient Egypt, it is dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship, rather than a god or king. Since its construction in 1400 BCE, Luxor Temple has been in constant use as a place of worship by various religions, all of which have left their mark. These include early Christian paintings on the walls and even a precariously built mosque.
Tombs Filled With Treasures
The other draw of Ancient Thebes is its great Necropolis. Both the Valley of the Queens and the more famous Valley of the Kings hide vast treasures within the rocky mountainside. While the pyramids were the tombs of choice for pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, later rulers of the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.) chose to be closer to their capital.
Over 60 of the rock-cut tombs have been discovered, the most celebrated being that of Tutankhamun. However, only 15 tombs are open to the public. Visitors should keep in mind that there is usually an extra fee to enter the tombs themselves. Also, whatever treasures they once possessed have long been stolen by tomb robbers or removed to museums by archeologists.
That being said, the tombs of Nefertari (wife of Ramses II) and Seti I (his father) are truly hidden wonders. They are filled with vivid paintings from the Book of the Dead and other funerary texts, and the ceilings are covered with stars. Seeing them is definitely worth the slightly exorbitant entrance fee of EGP 1000 ($56) per tomb.
The Temples of the Nile
Further up the Nile is the Temple of Edfu. One of the few temples of Ancient Egypt to have an intact roof, it is a cool refuge from the scorching desert. Dedicated to the god Horus, the walls also hide later Christian symbols, much like Luxor.
Across the river stands the double Temple of Kom Ombo. It features two sanctuaries dedicated to Horus and the crocodile god, Sobek. Sacred Nile crocodiles once prowled the temple grounds. The temple’s crocodile museum features over 300 crocodile mummies found there!
Perched on the island of Philae is the Ptolemaic Temple of Isis. Said to be one of the burying-places of Isis’ husband Osiris, it was considered a particularly holy place. It survived as a place of worship even after the arrival of Christianity. But it too was eventually sacked.
On the other side of Lake Nasser sits one of the most spectacular of the Nile temples, Abu Simbel. The twin temples of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari feature imposing statues of the couple. In the 1960s, both Philae and Abu Simbel were relocated block by block to higher ground when they were under threat of being submerged by the Aswan High Dam.
As you can see, most of Ancient Egypt lies along the River Nile, and perhaps the best way to see it all is by taking a cruise up the river that served as the country’s main highway. Follow the path of pharaohs, conquerors, queens, and priests and see all that Egypt has to offer.
It’s also worth hiring a guide with knowledge of Egyptology, as most places have little information displayed on signs on-site. Guides are perhaps the best way to learn the stories of these places and truly immerse yourself in the culture.