Egypt’s tourism capital had lost its lustre - but now Luxor is undergoing a mega facelift that will see it return to its glory days as one of the greatest cities of the ancient world
Once upon a time, Thebes was one of the ancient world’s greatest cities, capital of Egypt and renowned for the richness of its royal houses and many spectacular temples. It was the City of the 100 Gates, the City of Palaces and the Mysterious City. In Arabic, it was al-Uqsur, meaning ‘fortified’.
Today, we know it as Luxor, the world’s greatest open-air museum. For though the Ancient Egyptian civilisation may have disappeared, the country is blessed with evidence aplenty of its glory days, including magnificent tombs with painted walls, and monumental temples carved with mysterious symbols and images.
Around 900km south of Cairo, Luxor is home to some of the best sights, including the famous Valley of the Kings and the tombs of the pharaohs, Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, Hapshetsut’s Mortuary Temple, the vast twin statues known as the Colossi of Memnon and, of course, the great River Nile. For many years, the town has also been the starting point for classic week-long Nile cruises, sailing south to Aswan and back, stopping off for excursions to other famous ancient sites on the way. So, not surprisingly, Luxor has never had much of a problem attracting visitors.
But then holidaymakers started to be lured to other parts of Egypt, particularly the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada. More, and better, hotels were built to cater for increasing numbers of sun, sea and sand seekers. In addition, whole new areas with purpose-built resorts arrived, such as El Gouna, Taba Heights and, more recently, Port Ghalib. A sunshine holiday in Egypt was – and still is – excellent value for money, with top-class hotels and facilities.
There are no Ancient Egyptian sites on the Red Sea, so tourists had to travel to Luxor, for a day trip or as part of a twin-centre holiday, if they wanted to do some sightseeing. By then, the town didn’t compare well with those twinkling new resorts. Luxor looked like the ugly sister – but at least she had all the treasures.
But now, it’s Luxor’s time in the limelight, and the metamorphosis has begun. Governor of Luxor, Dr Samir Farag, is spearheading a huge programme of work that will see the town transformed. There’s already a sparkling new airport, railway station and souk. The square in front of Karnak Temple, once a car park, is now a big beautiful plaza, with new shops, cafes and restaurants starting to open.
One of Luxor’s most ambitious plans – to recreate the ancient 2.7km Avenue of Sphinxes marked with ram’s head statues, linking Karnak with Luxor Temple – is well underway, too. Again, it will be lined with new shops and other features.
Controversially, some of the town’s dismal narrow streets and their derelict buildings are being cleared away, too. The Corniche, the busy road running parallel to the Nile, is to be doubled in width and transformed into a restaurant-lined avenue. All this, along with the tidying up of access to sites and improvement of facilities, has already visibly changed Luxor.
But there are two other developments that are probably the most significant for UK tourists. Firstly, dozens of new hotels are to be built, all-in-all representing a huge 50 per cent increase in the number of beds over the next three years, with two tourist areas created. New top-class hotels include the Hilton Luxor
– officially labelled a remodel, it’s been taken right back to the plaster, and the new version is super-chic, with a world-class spa and even spa suites, a first for Luxor. There's also a brand-new Four Seasons
on the way in central Luxor, overlooking the Nile.
Established hotels are reinventing themselves, too. The world-famous pink Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor
is undergoing a major remodel and extension with its ugly tower sister, the New Winter Palace taken down (carefully, as it’s so close to Luxor Temple). And the Sonesta St George Hotel Luxor
, already a popular five-star hotel, has added three deluxe floors.
The other revolution is taking place on the Nile. Already, the experience has gone upmarket, with the arrival of deluxe boats such as the Oberoi Zahra and Sonesta St George. The ultra glamorous, brand-new Royal Viking, offered by UK specialist tour operator Discover Egypt, arrived recently, too, offering the ultimate Nile cruise.
Boats of different styles are emerging, including Discover Egypt’s unique yacht-style, boutique vessel, Alexander the Great. And Bales Worldwide is one of few operators now offering dahabiyyas, small, traditional wooden vessels with just a handful of cabins.
At present, there are so many cruise boats, they often have to line up next to each other, five or six abreast, by the Corniche. This means passengers have a lot of walking to do even before they set foot in the town. Coaches full of tourists clog up the road, too. But the plan is to move all the boats out of the centre to a new area with more room, thus allowing better views from the Corniche over the Nile to the West Bank, mountainous desert that includes the Valley of the Kings.
Just so you can’t miss it, the desert will be lit-up at night, too. And, you never know, maybe a fanfare, too - to commemorate the return of the City of Palaces.