The Nile River has been the lifeblood of Egypt for thousands of years. The narrow fertile strip of green on either side of the river lies in stark contrast to the arid desert plains beyond.
Although the flow of this iconic river is now controlled by the Aswan Dam, the annual flooding of the Nile was the real wealth of Ancient Egypt, creating the breadbasket that allowed these complex ancient cultures to develop. Every year the flooding Nile deposited rich silt on the river banks, and this layering of silt has preserved levels of archaeological remains from previous settlements that have been discovered underneath almost every town and village in the valley. Excavations have revealed thousands of tombs, temples and monuments along the banks of the river, and the best places to explore some of these relics are the historic towns of Luxor and Aswan.
Cruises along the mighty Nile River are very popular. Tourists can visit the numerous ancient attractions along the banks and watch as rural Egyptian life slowly passes them by. The sunsets on the river are legendary.
Popular sightseeing stops include the magnificent Abu Simbel temples, built by Ramses II, the Temple of Karnak - still the largest temple complex in the world - and the famous Valley of the Kings. Visitors who aren't keen on a river cruise can easily travel on their own steam to all these incredible places in the Nile Valley.
The main place of worship in Theban times, and built over a period of 1,300 years, the massive Temple of Karnak in Luxor is an incredibly impressive structure. It was known as Ipet-isut, the most select of places, to the ancient Egyptians and it is one of the largest religious buildings ever erected. One of the world's great architectural achievements, the Hypostyle Hall, is filled with immense stone pillars still bearing the engraved and painted inscriptions from the 12th Dynasty, and covers an area of 64,583 square feet (6,000 sq metres). The complex also contains the Avenue of the Sphinxes, the Sacred Lake, and many huge statues, halls, ornate wall murals, obelisks and colonnades.
One of the lesser known attractions of this vast temple complex is the small Temple of Ptah, hidden on the northeastern boundary. It is very special because the room is intact - giving a realistic sense of what the dark temple interior would have felt like in ancient times - and a statue of Sekhmet remains in place, lit up by natural light. The Temple of Karnak can be a bit overwhelming without a guide, or at least a good guide book, so be sure to either hire someone or do your research to fully appreciate the wonders of the place.
The West Bank is an area of limestone hills and valleys riddled with tombs and temples across the river from Luxor. Goats roam freely among the ruins, and the tiny settlements on the slopes provide a splash of colour in an otherwise desert-like barrenness. The 59 foot (18m) high pair of enthroned statues of the Colossi of Memnon are the first things most visitors will see on the West Bank. These are the only remaining structures of the mortuary temple of Amenophis III.
Most travellers come to visit the Valley of the Kings, where the secretive tombs of the Pharaohs were built to immortalise their mummies and treasures for eternity. In an attempt to thwart tomb robbers, traps and deceptions were part of the architectural planning. Dramatic descents, spectacular murals on the passage and chamber walls and a replica of the original sarcophagus at the end of the tunnel create an awe-inspiring atmosphere. There are a number of areas and tombs to explore and highlights include the tombs of Tutankhamun and Ramses II. However, the country's finest tomb, the Tomb of Nefertari, lies in the Valley of the Queens, which has exceptional painted murals. Nefertari's tomb is open to the public after a restoration project. However, only small groups are admitted at a time, and each visitor must pay 1000 Egyptian Pounds (about $56). Also worth a visit is Hatshepsut's Temple, the mortuary temple of Egypt's only female Pharaoh.
The Nubia Museum in Aswan is an excellent introduction to the history and culture of the Nubians. It contains a collection of artefacts from Nubia (the region approximately between Aswan and Khartoum in Sudan) and an exhibition of Nubian culture and crafts. It also portrays the history and people of the Nile Valley from ancient times until the present, and has a hall full of impressive statues and tombstones from the region.
One of the most interesting exhibits is that covering the project of UNESCO to move monuments like Abu Simbel, endangered by the High Dam on Lake Nasser, to higher ground. Visitors can get an idea of what the area looked like before the floods and how much effort was put into preserving this endangered ancient culture. At the Nubia Museum you can see weaponry, pottery, jewellery, statues and the ever-popular mummies. The exhibits are well organised and laid out and have good English labels. The museum is well air-conditioned, making it a popular retreat from the heat of the day. It is also open until late, providing a good option for an evening of culture.
The two temples of Abu Simbel - the Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor (the Sun God), dedicated to his wife Nefertari - were cut out of the sandstone cliffs more than 3,000 years ago. Not only are these ancient temples among the most magnificent in the world, but their removal and reconstruction are recorded as an impressive engineering feat. The temples were relocated, very successfully, during the construction of the High Dam on Lake Nasser in the 1960s. The monuments were threatened with submersion, and after an appeal by UNESCO, in co-operation with the Egyptian Government, they were dismantled and reassembled exactly as before, about 197 feet (60m) higher up.
The intimidating sight that first greets the visitor at Abu Simbel is that of the four colossal statues guarding the entrance to the Grand Hall of the Temple of Ramses. The interior is highly decorated with relief paintings and is supported by eight statues of Ramses acting as giant pillars. Leading off the hall are painted sanctuaries and chambers. The Temple of Hathor is smaller and simpler, also with statues guarding the entrance and a manifestation of the Sun God portrayed above. It is aligned in such a way that the sun's rays reach inside to illuminate the statues of Amun-Re, Ramses II, and Re-Horakhty twice a year. The statue of Ptah, a god of the underworld, remains in shadow. The temples are considered to be the grandest and most spectacular monuments built during the reign of Ramses II.
The Sun Festival at Abu Simbel takes place twice a year, in February and October, in celebration of Ramses II's birthday. When Ramses II built his temple he carefully positioned it so that on his birthday and the date of his ascension to the throne (the day he became a god to the ancient Egyptians) the inner sanctum would be lit up by the rising sun, which would gradually illuminate the statues of the sun gods, Ramses, Ra and Amun, while the god of darkness, Ptah, remains in shadow.
The Temple of Abu Simbel was moved upstream in the 1960s due to the flooding of the area and this relocation has meant that the impressive beam of sunlight illuminates the inner sanctum of the temple a day later than Ramses intended but this by no means detracts from the profundity of the experience. Before sunrise the temple becomes packed with people waiting to witness the spectacular show. The celebrations outside the temple are also worth experiencing and include music, dancing, markets, and food and drink stalls. If you want to see this ancient marvel you must aim to arrive at Abu Simbel long before dawn.
The cradle of ancient Egyptian burial sites, the attractions of the Nile Valley are legendary and can't fail to impress. The amount of epic things to see and do in Luxor and Aswan can be quite overwhelming. Be sure to stock up on sun cream and water because the majority of the attractions in the Nile Valley are exposed to the sun and sightseeing can be a hot and thirsty business.
The world-famous Temple of Karnak in Luxor, built over a period of 1,300 years, is still one of the architectural wonders of the world and one of the biggest religious buildings ever erected. It is one of the most popular attractions in Egypt and will astound visitors. It is not, however, the only temple complex of note in the area. The Temple of Medinat Habu, mortuary temple of Ramses III, is second in size only to Karnak and features incredibly well-preserved wall carvings. The vivid colours painted onto ceilings, columns and walls are still clearly visible which makes the place feel alive and gives an amazingly authentic understanding of how it must have looked and felt 4,000 years ago. Abu Simbel, which includes the mortuary temple of Ramses II, is also a must-see. Twice annually, in February and October, the rising sun illuminates the inner sanctum of the temple, just as Ramses II decreed it should. Abu Simbel is humbling in its age and enduring magnificence.
The West Bank, an area strewn with ancient tombs and temples carved into the limestone hills of the desert, can occupy visitors for days. Highlights include the Colossi of Memnon, and the tombs of Tutankhamun and Ramses II in the Valley of the Kings. Don't miss the Valley of the Artisans (Deir el-Medina) which is just south of the Valley of the Queens and was once inhabited by the craftsmen and artists who worked on the nearby royal tombs. It is often called the Workmen's Village and you can still stroll around the remains of the buildings where these talented people lived and worked, as well as explore a number of remarkably preserved tombs.
There are two great museums in the Nile Valley. Aswan's Nubia Museum is the ideal place to get a grasp of the rich Nubian culture and history, as well as some context for the ancient treasures of the area in general. The Luxor Museum houses an impressive collection of artefacts from the valley.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination