Karnak and Luxor
Our first impression of Luxor was overwhelmingly positive. The air was clear, the land green, and Hazel of 'Spirit of the Nile' met us at the airport. She immediately whisked us away to Karnak, where we met our guide, Walid. Groggy as we were after a 3:30 wake-up, we were still able to appreciate both the grandeur of the site and the lack of other tourists. Walid suggested we take 15 minutes to run around and snap pictures before starting our tour, while the temple was still empty. I can't praise Hazel and Walid enough, but little things like this show they really know what they're doing.
Karnak is amazing. Unlike the other temples we visited, it was a true group effort, with construction beginning in the Middle Kingdom and lasting up till the Ptolemaic era. Most of the complex was built during the New Kingdom - the era of the big name pharaohs, such as Ramses II, Hatshepsut, and even Tutankhamen. I say "complex" because the site is actually a group of temples, divided into precincts, only one of which is currently open. (A crane which has been "restoring" one of the other precincts hasn't moved in a decade.) Like most of the temples in Luxor, the first thing you see as you approach is the first pylon, a fortress-like facade with niches for banners. You enter a large courtyard and then head toward the most impressive feature of the temple - the Great Hypostyle Hall. The columns are massive (80' tall) and go on and on - 134 in total.
Hatshepsut, etched out of history by her "wicked" step-son.
A bit of history to understand the purpose of the site... Luxor and Karnak lie on the east bank of the Nile - the living side of Thebes. The two temples are connected by a two-mile long avenue of sphinxes (currently undergoing restoration). The Karnak temple complex honors a triad of gods - Amun, his wife Mut, and their son, Khonsu. Karnak housed sacred boats for each of these gods. During the festival of Opet, the boats would get hauled down the Avenue of the Sphinxes, stopping at temples along the way to pick up offerings. They would be carried into the temple at Luxor, everyone would party, and at the end of the festivities, the boats would be sent floating back down the river to Karnak.
We ended our tour by the greenish sacred lake. As we walked out, the tour buses rolled in. This seemed to happen at pretty much every place we visited in Luxor. I should also mention Karnak had what seemed like a pretty comprehensive little tourist mall on-site, selling postcards, karkade, and galabyas. We bought water when we returned for the light show that evening, and it was overpriced, but the sales pitches were pretty tame after Cairo and downtown Luxor.
Luxor Temple was up next. It paled a little in comparison with Karnak, but is interesting for a couple of reasons. It's right in town, which meant life went on around it (and over it) for about two thousand years. A mosque perches on top of a pharaonic temple right inside the first pylon. During the Roman era, the temple was used as a fortress - toward the back of the site, you can find a arched niche with columns and Coptic frescos. Lots of the reliefs were similar to those at Karnak - pharaohs making offerings, pharaohs smiting their enemies, and the god Min-Amen sporting an erection to symbolize the fertility of the Nile.
Really, I could do a post on the history of Egyptian Graffiti...
We returned to Karnak at night for the Light and Sound show and both forgot to bring cameras. It was pretty cheesy, but perhaps worth it to see the stars over the hypostyle hall.