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The Temple at LuxorThe Temple of Luxor was built by a number of pharaohs, mostly in the New Kingdom (c.1500 BC). It is ancient Thebes, the massive temple complex at Karnak is located a mile or so downriver. The temples were connected by an avenue of sphinxes which was used in yearly ceremonies. Like Karnak, the focus here was mostly the ram-headed god Amon. Priests of Amon held great political power in the New Kingdom.
The importance of Luxor is underlined by the fact that many pharaohs came to this temple for their coronation, even when their capital was elsewhere.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
-- MODERN LUXOR --
The waters of the Nile being already low, my dahabiya--delayed by
strandings--had not been able to reach Luxor, and we had moored
ourselves as the darkness began to fall at a casual spot on the
"We are quite near," the pilot had told me before departing to make
his evening prayer, "in an hour, tomorrow, we shall be there."
And the gentle night descended upon us in this spot which did not seem
to differ at all from so any others where, for a month past now, we
had moored our boat at hazard to await the daybreak. On the banks was the infinite calm of the desert that is always present,
dominating everything, although scarcely noticed and, as it were,
And this morning, at the rising of the sun, is pure and splendid as
all other mornings. A tint of rosy coral comes gradually to life on
the summit of the Libyan mountains, standing out from the
shadows which were the rearguard of the night.
But my eyes, grown accustomed during the last few weeks to this
glorious spectacle of the dawn, turn themselves, as if by force of
some attraction, towards a strange and quite unusual thing, which,
less than a mile away along the river rises
upright in the midst of the mournful plains.
At first it looks like a
mass of towering rocks, which in this hour of twilight magic have
taken on a pale violet color, and seem almost transparent. And the
sun, scarcely emerged from the desert, lights them in a curious
gradation, and orders their contours with a fringe of fresh rose-
color. And they are not rocks, in fact, for as we look more closely,
they show us lines symmetrical and straight. Not rocks, but
architectural masses, tremendous and superhuman, placed there in
attitudes of quasi-eternal stability. And out of them rise the points
of two obelisks, sharp as the blade of a lance. And then, at once, I
Karnak! Last evening it was hidden in the shadow and I did not know it
was so near. But Karnak assuredly it is, for nothing else in the world
could produce such an apparition. And I salute with a kind of shudder
of respect this unique and sovereign ruin, which had haunted me for
many years, but which until now life had not left me time to visit.
And now for Luxor, which in the epoch of the Pharaohs was a suburb of
the royal town of Thebes, and is still its port. It is there, it seems, where we
must stop our dahabiya in order to proceed to the fabulous place
which the rising sun has just disclosed to us.
And while my boatman intones that song, as old as Egypt
and everlastingly the same, which seems to help men in their
arduous work, he is unfastening the chain that binds us to the
bank. I continue to watch the distant apparition. It emerges gradually
from the light morning mists which, perhaps, made it seem even larger
than it is. The clear light of the ascending sun shows it now in
detail, and reveals it as battered, broken and ruinous in the
midst of a silent plain, on the yellow carpet of the desert. And how
this sun, rising in its clear splendour, seems to crush it with its
youth and stupendous duration.
This same sun had marked its' path countless
centuries of centuries before it saw this
town arise. Thebes was an attempt at magnificence which seemed to
promise for the human pygmies a sufficiently interesting future, but
which, in the event, we have not been able even to equal. And it
proved, too, a thing quite puny and derisory, since here it is laid
low, after having subsisted barely four negligible thousands of years.
The Temple of Luxor from the east
By Vivant Denon, 1800.
Papyrus columns at the Temple of Luxor
Photograph by Henri Bechard.
An hour later we arrive at Luxor, and what a surprise awaits us there!
The thing which dominates the whole town, and may be seen five or six
miles away, is the Winter Palace Hotel, a hasty modern production which has
grown on the border of the Nile during the past year. It is a colossal
Egyptian temple, obviously sham, made of plaster and mud on a framework of
iron. Twice or three times as high as the admirable genuine Pharaonic Temple,
its impudent facade rises, painted a dirty yellow.
monster, it will readily be understood, is sufficient to disfigure
pitiably the whole of the surroundings. The old Arab town, with its
little white houses, its minarets and its palm-trees, might as well
not exist. The famous temple and the forest of heavy columns
admire themselves in vain in the waters of the Nile.
And what a crowd of people is here! While, on the contrary, the
opposite bank seems so absolutely desertlike, with its stretches of
golden sand and, on the horizon, its mountains of the color of
glowing embers, which, as we know, are full of mummies.
Poor Luxor! Along the banks is a row of tourist boats which nowadays infest the Nile from Cairo
to the Cataracts. Their whistlings and the vibration of their dynamos
make an intolerable noise. How shall I find a quiet place for my
dahabiya, where the functionaries of Messrs. Cook will not come to
Luxor Temple from the West, by David Roberts, 1838
But this modern quay of Luxor, where I disembark at ten o'clock in the
morning in clear and radiant sunshine, is not without its amusing
In a line with the Winter Palace a number of stalls follow one
another. All those things with which our tourists are wont to array
themselves are on sale there: fans, fly flaps, helmets and blue
spectacles. And, in thousands, photographs of the ruins. And there too
are the toys, the souvenirs of the Sudan: old knives, panther-
skins and gazelle horns. Numbers of Indians even have come to this
improvised fair, bringing their stuffs from Rajputana and Cashmere.
And, above all, there are dealers in mummies, offering for sale
mysteriously shaped coffins, mummy-cloths, gods, scarabs
--and the thousand and one things that this old soil has yielded for
centuries like an inexhaustible mine.
Along the stalls, keeping in the shade of the houses and the scattered
palms, pass representatives of the plutocracy of the world. Dressed by
the same costumiers, bedecked in the same plumes, and with faces
reddened by the same sun, the millionaire daughters of Chicago
merchants elbow their sisters of the old nobility. Pressing among
them impudent young Bedouins pester the fair travelers to mount their
saddled donkeys. And as if they were charged to add to this babel a
note of order, the battalions of Mr. Cook, of both sexes, and always
in a hurry, pass by with long strides.
Beyond the shops, following the line of the quay, there are other
hotels. Less aggressive, all of them, than the Winter Palace, they
have had the discretion not to raise themselves too high, and to cover
their fronts with white chalk in the Arab fashion, even to conceal
themselves in clusters of palm-trees.
And finally there is the colossal temple of Luxor, looking as out of
place now as the poor obelisk which Egypt gave us as a gift, and
which stands today in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
The Entrance of the Temple of Luxor.
The Egyptians had built their houses within and atop the temple.
A mosque that was built in the temple remains today, the houses are gone.
By David Roberts, 1839.
Bordering the Nile, it is a colossal grove of stone, about three
hundred yards in length. In epochs of a magnificence that is now
scarcely conceivable this forest of columns grew high and thick,
rising impetuously at the bidding of Amenophis and the great Ramses.
And how beautiful it must have been even yesterday, dominating in its
superb disarray this surrounding country, vowed for centuries to
neglect and silence!
We reach an iron-barred gate and, to enter, have to show our permit to
the guards. Once inside the immense sanctuary, perhaps we shall find
solitude again. But, alas, under the profaned columns a crowd of
people passes, with Baedekers in their hands, the same people that
one sees here everywhere, the same world as frequents Nice and the
Riviera. And, to crown the mockery, the noise of the dynamos pursues
us even here, for the boats of Messrs. Cook are moored to the bank
Hundreds of columns, columns which are anterior by many centuries to
those of Greece, and represent, in their naïve enormity, the first
conceptions of the human brain. Some are fluted and give the
impression of sheaves of monstrous weeds of Papyrus; others, quite plain and
simple, imitate the stem of the Lotus, and bear as a capital
its strange flower.
Luxor watchfire by Fredrich Perlberg 1901.
Lotus columns at Luxor Temple.
in fact, almost indestructible by reason of its massiveness, has
passed through the hands of diverse masters. Its antiquity was already
legendary in the time of Alexander the Great, on whose behalf a chapel
was added to it. Later on, in the first ages of Christianity, a
corner of the ruins was turned into a church.
The tourists, like the flies, enter at certain
times of the day, which it suffices to know. Soon the tourists begin to
depart, for the lunch bell calls them to the neighboring tables
d'hotel. The hour of midday will find me here alone and while I wait till they shall be gone, I occupy myself in
following the bas-reliefs which are displayed for a length of more
than a hundred yards along the base of the walls. It is one long row
of people moving in their thousands all in the same direction--the
ritual procession of the God Amun.
With the care which characterised
the Egyptians to draw everything from life so as to render it eternal,
there are represented here the smallest details of a day of festival
three or four thousand years ago. And how like it is to a holiday of
the people of today! Along the route of the procession are ranged
jugglers and sellers of drinks and fruits, and acrobats who walk
on their hands and twist themselves into all kinds of contortions.
the procession itself was evidently of a magnificence such as we no
longer know. The number of musicians and priests, of
emblems and banners, is quite bewildering. The God Amun himself came
by water, on the river, in his golden barge with its raised prow,
followed by the barques of all the other gods and goddesses of his
heaven. The reddish stone, carved with minute care, tells me all this,
as it has already told it to so many generations, so that I seem
almost to see it.
And now everybody has gone: the colonnades are empty and the noise of
the dynamos has ceased. Mid-day approaches with its torpor. The whole
temple seems to be ablaze with rays, and I watch the clear-cut shadows
cast by this forest of stone gradually shortening on the ground. The
sun, which just now shone, all smiles and gaiety, upon the quay of the
new town amid the uproar of the stall-keepers, the donkey drivers and
the cosmopolitan passengers, casts here a sullen, impassive and
Meanwhile the shadows shorten-- just as they do
every day beneath this sky which is never overcast. Just as they have
done for five and thirty centuries, these columns, these friezes and
this temple itself, like a mysterious and solemn sundial, record
patiently on the ground the slow passing of the hours. Verily for us this unbroken continuity of the sun of Egypt
has more of melancholy even than the changing, overcast skies of our
And now, at last, the temple is restored to solitude and all noise in the neighborhood has ceased.
An avenue bordered by very high columns leads me to a place
shut in and almost solitary, where is massed an assembly of colossi.
Two, who, if they were standing, would be quite ten yards (9 meters) in height,
are seated on thrones on either side of the entrance. The others,
ranged on the three sides of the courtyard, stand upright behind
colonnades, but look as if they were about to issue thence and to
stride rapidly towards me. Some broken and battered, have lost their
faces and preserve only their intimidating attitude. Those that remain
intact open their eyes
wide and smile.
This was formerly the principal entrance, and the office of these
colossi was to welcome the multitudes. But now the gates of honor
flanked by obelisks of red granite, are obstructed by a litter of
enormous ruins. And the courtyard has become a place voluntarily
closed, where nothing of the outside world is any longer to be seen.
In moments of silence, one can abstract oneself from all the
neighboring modern things, and forget the hour, the day, the century
even, in the midst of these gigantic figures, whose smile disdains the
flight of ages. The stones within which we are surrounded shut out everything save the point of an old
neighboring minaret which shows now against the blue of the sky. It is a
humble graft of Islam which grew here among the ruins some centuries
ago, when the ruins themselves had already existed for three
thousand years. A little mosque built on a mass of debris, which it
now protects with its inviolability. How many treasures and relics and
documents are hidden and guarded by this mosque of the peristyle! For
none would dare to dig in the ground within its sacred walls.
Artwork: (L) David Roberts, 1838, (R) Vivant Denon, 1808.
(Left) Thoth, scribe of the gods. (Right) the goddess Seshat, mistress of divine books. These two carvings were found on the back of a large statue of Pharaoh Ramses II at Luxor.
Photographs from EgyptArchive.
Full length Seshat photo (Below) by Karen Green, CreativeCommons.
Gradually the silence of the temple becomes profound. And if the
shortened shadows betray the hour of noon, there is nothing to tell to
what millennium that hour belongs. The silences and middays like
this, which have passed before the eyes of these giants ambushed in
their colonnades--who could count them?
High above us, lost in the incandescent blue, soar the birds of Luxor. They were there in the times of the Pharaohs, displaying in the
air identical plumages, uttering the same cries. The beasts and
plants, in the course of time, have varied less than men, and remain
unchanged in the smallest details.
Each of the colossi around me is standing there proudly with one leg
advanced as if for a march, heavy and sure, which nothing should
withstand. He grasps passionately in his clenched fist a kind of buckled cross (Ank), which in Egypt was the symbol
of eternal life. And this is what the decision of their movement
symbolises: confident all of them in this poor bauble which they hold
in their hand, they cross with a triumphant step the threshold of
death. . . .
Map and ground plan of the Temple of Luxor
by Vivant Denon, 1800.
The western Obelisk near the first Pylon
is now at the Place de la Concorde in Paris
The three similar giants, little damaged in the course of their long
existence, who align the eastern side of this courtyard strewn with
blocks, represent, as indeed do all the others, that same Ramses II,
whose effigy was multiplied so extravagantly at Thebes and Memphis.
But these three have preserved a powerful and impetuous life. They
might have been carved and polished yesterday. Between the monstrous
reddish pillars, they look like white apparitions issuing from their
embrasure of columns and advancing together like soldiers on
The sun at this moment falls perpendicularly on their
heads and strange headgear, details their everlasting smile, and then
sheds itself on their shoulders and their naked torso, exaggerating
their athletic muscles. Each holding in his hand the symbolical cross,
the three giants rush forward with a formidable stride, heads raised,
smiling, in a radiant march into eternity.
Suddenly a rumbling noise begins to make the air tremble; the
dynamos of the Agencies have been put in motion, and ladies in green
spectacles arrive, a charming throng, with guidebooks and cameras. The
tourists, in short, are come out of their hotels, at the same hour as
the flies awake. And the midday peace of Luxor has come to an end.
Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
Papyrus columns at the Temple of Luxor.
Screens and tools used in excavation can be seen.
Photograph by Francis Frith, c.1865.
The Excavation of Luxor
Excerpted from A Thousand Miles Up the Nile
by Amelia B. Edwards, 1877
Professor Maspero, during the two last years of his official rule as successor to the late Mariette Pasha, did for this magnificent relic of Pharaonic times what his predecessor did for the more recent temple of Edfu. The difficulties of carrying out this great undertaking were so large as to appear at the first sight almost insurmountable. The fellâheen refused at first to sell their houses. Mustapha Aga asked the exorbitant price of £3,000 for his consular residence, built as it was between the columns of Horemheb, facing the river. For no pecuniary consideration whatever was it possible to purchase the right of pulling down the mosque in the first great courtyard of the temple.
After twelve months of negotiation, the fellâheen were at last bought out on fair terms. Each proprietor received a stated price for his dwelling and a piece of land elsewhere upon which to build another. Some thirty families were thus got rid of, about eight or ten only refusing to leave at any price. The work of demolition was begun in 1885. In 1886, the few families yet lingering in the ruins followed the example of the rest. In the course of that season the temple was cleared from end to end, only the little native mosque being left standing within the precincts, and Mustapha Aga’s house on the side next the landing place.
Professor Maspero’s resignation followed in 1887, since then the work has been carried on by his successor, M. Grébaut, with the result that in place of a crowded, sordid, unintelligible labyrinth of mud huts, yards, stables, alleys and dung-heaps, a noble temple now marshals its avenues of columns and uplifts its sculptured architraves along the crest of the ridge which here rises high above the eastern bank of the Nile.
Some of those columns, now that they are cleared down to the level of the original pavement, measure fifty-seven feet in the shaft. In the courtyard built by Rameses II, which measures one hundred and ninety feet by one hundred and seventy, a series of beautiful colossal statues of that Pharaoh in highly polished red granite have been discovered. Some were yet standing in situ, having been built into the walls of the mud structures and imbedded (for who shall say how many centuries?) in a sepulcher of ignoble clay. Last of all, Mustapha Aga, the kindly and popular old British consul, whose hospitality will long be remembered by English travelers, died about twelve months since. The house in which he entertained so many English visitors, and upon which he set so high a value, is even now in course of demolition.
Excerpted from A Thousand Miles Up the Nile
by Amelia B. Edwards, 1877
A modern view of Luxor Temple
Photograph from EgyptArchive.
Additional images on this page by David Roberts.
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