The mention of Egypt brings images of the towering Pyramids of Giza to mind. While pyramids are a great start to an Egyptian vacation, they certainly shouldn’t be the end of your historical excursions. The country is home to one of the most ancient civilizations in the world and is teeming with incredible temples and tombs that relay tales from centuries ago. This post covers a list of 10 must-see monuments in Egypt besides the pyramids.
These monuments were created to appease the Gods and underscore the power of Pharaohs. But I was most impressed by the ingenuity, artistic abilities, perseverance, and dedication of the people who brought these grand visions to life.
Egypt’s archeological treasures are as dynamic as they are ancient. Just three months ago, the excavations near Saqqara led to the discovery of five new tombs and burials. Earlier in 2020, several colored human coffins were also discovered in 2,500-year-old wells near Saqqara. Last year saw the unearthing of a 3,000-year-old city near Luxor offering rare insights into Egyptian life from that time. So definitely be on the lookout for any other excavation sites opening up at the time of your visit alongside the following must-see monuments in Egypt.
1. Temples at Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is the site of two temples overlooking Lake Nasser and is worth the long drive it takes to get here. The drive is a unique experience of passing through desert dunes in the inky darkness of the night and watching the landscape slowly transform under the sun’s rays.
The biggest temple of the two is of Ramases II, carved out of the mountain between 1274 and 1244 BC. The smaller one is of his favorite queen Nefertari and the goddess Hathor whom she personifies. There are four towering statues of Ramases II, two on each side at the entrance of the grand temple. One statue’s head and torso lie on the ground near its feet due to an earthquake. There are several smaller statues near his legs, but none of them are taller than his knees. They are of his chief wife Nefertari, queen mother, the first two sons, and the first six daughters.
In time, the temple was covered in sand and lay forgotten for several centuries. It was only in 1813 that Jean-Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist, found the top of the main temple. He shared this finding with Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni who succeeded in digging out an entry inside in 1871.
The inside of the temple has a dimly lit path lined with four large Osiride statues of Ramses II on each side. There are several side chambers and the back wall is lined with four seated figures one of Ramases alongside three gods cut out of the rock. The alignment of this temple is such that twice every year the sun’s rays penetrate the inner sanctuary and illuminate everything inside except the statue of God Ptah.
This temple is a marvel not just due to its original grandeur but also due to the fact that it wasn’t always in its current location. The rising water of the Nile was threatening to submerge these monuments after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. In 1964, a team of archaeologists, engineers, and workers from several nations worked on a plan to save these monuments under UNESCO. They cut the temple into more than 2000 huge blocks weighing 10-40 tonnes each, numbered them, and reassembled them in this new location, about two hundred meters back from the river on higher ground over a period of just above four years.
2. Karnak Temple Complex
The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor is overpowering and massive in its scale. Unlike other sites, it is not a single temple or even a twin temple structure. It is a seemingly unending collection of temples, obelisks, and pylons spread over 1.24 sq miles and created over a period of 1500 years. Almost every dynasty since the Middle Kingdom has left its distinctive mark on these structures by adding, removing, or restoring parts of the complex.
The main structure of the complex is the Temple of Amun, the God of air, who became the King of deities during the Middle Kingdom (2030 to 1650 B.C.) and a nationally worshipped God in the New Kingdom. The sight of more than 100 towering stone columns reaching out to the open sky in the Great Hypostyle Hall is an image that will forever remain etched in your memory. These symbolize a papyrus swamp and are etched with hieroglyphs and images of pharaohs.
The tallest obelisk in Egypt – Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut at 98 feet carved out of a single piece of granite, the upper shaft of the other obelisk in this pair, the small chamber of the sacred sanctuary at the core of the temple where God Amun resided, an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, and statues of Ramses II are a few of the other highlights that you will see during your stroll at Karnak.
3. Luxor Temple
The Luxor Temple in the center of the city is less complex and expansive than the Karnak Temple Complex but very striking nonetheless. The layout here follows a similar pattern of moving back in time as we venture deeper into the temple.
The pylon or monumental gate is marked by two massive seated statues and one standing statue of Ramses II, half of the collective six that once fronted this entrance. A tall pink granite obelisk with hieroglyphs stands just ahead of the statues on one side of the entrance. The other side is the empty foundation of the second obelisk in this pair that stands in Paris.
The Great Court of Ramses II lies further ahead surrounded by double rows of columns with bud-shaped tops. The stones are replete with reliefs of military victories and offerings to the gods by the Pharoah. In an interesting juxtaposition, there is a 14th-century mosque dedicated to the local sheikh Abu al-Haggag on the temple grounds.
4. Colossi of Memnon
The two giant statues of Colossi of Memnon rise almost 60 feet against the backdrop of the mountains on the West Bank. Your eyes take in not just the size of these faceless relics depicting a seated Amenhotep III, but also the vast emptiness around them. These statues are the last remains of Amenhotep III’s memorial temple, the largest temple ever built in Egypt, believed to be even larger than Karnak.
Each of the statues was cut out from a single block of stone and survived, unlike the rest of the temple. The temple was built primarily using mud brick which resulted in its dissolution with the Nile floods year after year. Some of the stones and statues were used by other pharaohs later for their own monuments.
The reason I’d still recommend stopping here during your West Bank visit is the stark contrast this empty space offers. Equipped with an appreciation of the scale of the Karnak Temple, you can imagine how big this temple must have been. The gigantic monolithic statue of Amenhotep III, his wife Tiy, and their three daughters that you might recall seeing in the Egyptian Museum’s central court is originally from this temple. So also is a stele that describes the temple elaborately decorated in gold and silver.
5. Valley of the Kings
Valley of the Kings on the West Bank is home to 63 royal tombs from the 1550 – 1069 BC period of the New Kingdom. The ancient Egyptians preferred to live on the eastern bank in the direction of the rising sun and buried their dead on the western side in the direction of the setting sun, signifying the afterlife.
Mummified rulers are buried in the deep tunnels of these mountains with all the necessary possessions for the afterlife. When pyramids started attracting thieves, pharaohs switched from using the attractive and elaborate pyramid structure to this relatively hidden and safer tomb structure nestled deep in the mountains.
The tombs usually follow a similar structure of a long passageway leading to the burial chamber with a stone sarcophagus. The walls are replete with hieroglyphs and scenes from the ancient Egyptian world. Some of the paintings especially in the burial chambers are well-preserved and colorful.
The tombs of Ramses IV in Kings Valley 2 and Tutankhamun in Kings Valley 62 are two of the most popular tombs in the valley. If you’ve visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo earlier in your trip, you will recall the golden coffin, mask, and other relics discovered in Tutankhamun’s almost intact tomb in 1922. Tutankhamun’s actual mummy lies nearby in a climate-controlled glass box.
6. Temple of Queen Hatshepsut
Queen Hatshepsut is the most famous female Pharoah in a world that was dominated by male leadership. She first ruled with her stepchild after the death of her husband before declaring herself as Pharoah. Her 15-year rule from 1473 BC to 1458 BC is known as a time of peace and stability in Egypt.
The multi-tiered temple blends beautifully with the surrounding ochre-colored mountains. The large court provides the perfect entrance as you realize the massive scale of this wide temple with every approaching step. A wide ramp with stairs in the center leads to the two upper terraces. These terraces offer the best views of the surrounding mountains that underscore the natural beauty of Egypt.
On the upper terrace, you can see several statues of Hatshepsut dressed as a male complete with a beard signaling royalty. There are also several colorful and notable reliefs on the walls of the chapels and colonnades inside the temple depicting scenes of the queen’s divine birth, land expeditions, and a cow licking Hatshepsut’s hand, among others.
7. Temple of Horus
The first thing that catches your eye at the temple of Horus in Edfu is the large, intact pylon or gateway carved with sizeable reliefs and hieroglyphs. This temple, dedicated to Horus or the falcon God, is of special significance as it is the most intact of Egyptian temples. This is one of the latest temples in the lengthy timeline of Egyptian history. It was also built above the level of the Nile, thereby protecting it from damage in floods.
This follows the familiar temple structures of large, open courts in the front followed by halls and chambers leading to a core sanctuary. Two granite statues of Horus as falcons stand guard at the entrance. Beyond that lies the court of offerings with 32 columns lining it on three sides. Observe the variety of capitals or crowning members at the top of each column.
Two hypostyle halls lie ahead including a temple library for ritual texts and a laboratory to brew and store perfumes and incense recipes. The reliefs in this temple offer valuable insights into temple rituals by the priests and battle reenactment scenes. Deeper still lies the sanctuary of Horus which contains the polished granite shrine which once held the golden statue of the falcon god.
The temple of Kom Ombo is unique in its dual dedication to the Gods Sobek and Haroeris. Sobek is the local crocodile god and Haroeris is the sky god whose eyes are the sun and the moon.
The structure of the temple reflects this duality. It is composed of two symmetrical halves dedicated to each God along the central axis. The western side is dedicated to Haroeris and the eastern belongs to Sobek. There is a court in the front with a double altar. Further ahead are the two consecutive, shared hypostyle halls with 10 columns in each. These lead to three inner antechambers culminating in the sanctuaries of Sobek and Haroeris.
There are a couple of notable attractions even outside the temple walls. There are ruins of an ancient well that supplied water to the temple, the remains of a birth house or mammisi, plus an intriguing attraction related to the crocodile God Sobek. You might have expected human mummies in Egypt, but here, you will also get to witness animal mummies. A small museum room here is filled with mummified sacred crocodiles and their clay coffins dug out from a nearby cemetery.
9. Temple of Isis
Isis is the Egyptian god of fertility, the first daughter of the God of the earth (Geb) and the Goddess of the sky (Nut). Her powers extend through the entire cycle of life as the goddess of motherhood, protector, magic, death, healing, and rebirth.
In an interesting turn of events, her temple also went through a period of breakdown and rebirth. The Temple of Isis on Philae island was going to suffer the same fate as Abu Simbel of being submerged underwater after the completion of the High Dam. UNESCO intervened and the temple complex was moved stone by stone and reconstructed on the higher ground of nearby Agilkia Island between 1972 and 1980.
The boat landing drops you at the oldest part of the Philae temple complex. From here you pass the Kiosk of Nactenebo and the outer temple court with colonnades on both sides. The towering first pylon catches your eye much before you reach it. It is adorned with life-size reliefs of the Pharoah Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysus fighting enemies. Beyond that lies a mammisi or birth house, a second pylon, hypostyle hall finally leading to the inner sanctuary of Isis.
The most striking feature on the island is the Kiosk of Trajan which translates to Pharoh’s Bed. It is an unfinished pavilion with fourteen majestic columns near the shore. The earliest remains on this island are from 380 to 362 BC and several additions were made over the next 500 years. The island offers amazing photo opportunities during golden hour as the drowning sunlight accentuates the reliefs on the pylon and silhouettes of columns.
10. The High Dam
The Nile has been Egypt’s lifeline for centuries but it has also been a source of distress at times with its annual flooding. When the old Aswan Dam was unable to contain the swelling of the river, Egypt’s modern-day construction was undertaken to build the new Aswan High Dam and one of the largest artificial lakes in the world – Lake Nasser.
The dam was built between 1960 and 1971 after several political, logistical, and engineering challenges. The dam has come with its set of important benefits but also some drawbacks. The flooding is certainly under control, the power supply has doubled and cultivable land has increased drastically but the flow of silt which increases fertility is impacted.
The two-and-a-quarter-mile-long dam which was constructed by about 35,000 workers is a great quick trip from Aswan. There is also a lotus-shaped monument nearby symbolizing Soviet-Egyptian friendship since Soviet funding and expertise were key to building the dam.
That concludes my roundup of 10 must-see monuments in Egypt besides the pyramids. As I revisited my memories of Egypt while writing this blog post, I was once again awestruck by the scale and significance of what my eyes have witnessed. But keep in mind that all your future museum visits in your hometown or another country will pale in comparison once you’ve been to Egypt. The experience of viewing history through glass containers in enclosed spaces will lose its appeal once you’ve walked among the outdoor temple complexes and gazed at intricately carved hieroglyphs.
I am personally a big fan of indie travel but Egypt is one destination where I made an exception of signing up for a multi-day tour and I’m so glad I did. The best way to explore these monuments is with an Egyptologist guide who can take you deeper into the world of this ancient civilization. They will be sure to point out the big and small details, explain the meaning of carvings and symbols, and answer all your questions which will add so much more depth to your visit.
A guided cruise along the Nile with stops in Luxor, Aswan, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Esna will allow you to see all the above attractions easily. You can also make a base in the larger towns like Luxor and Aswan and use them as jumping points to explore the nearby attractions. My husband and I had booked a trip including the Nile Cruise with Ramasside and had the good fortune of meeting our incredible Egyptologist guide Elsayed Ibrahim. By the end of our trip, it felt like we were traveling with a dear friend. He now runs his own company Wow Tours Egypt which I’d highly recommend you to check out (this is not a paid advertisement, just genuine appreciation).
Let me know in the comments below if you’d like to head to Egypt and have any questions. Which of these attractions are you most excited to visit?