The architecture of Ancient Egypt has fascinated explorers for thousands of years. By glorifying their achievements, their families, and their gods with magnificent temples, the pharaohs have allowed us to walk in their world long into our modern era. Even in semi-ruinous states, the ability of these structures to capture the imagination is simply unmatched, whether you’re a history buff, photographer, or simply a curious traveler. Magnificent Egyptian temples can be found up and down the country and all along the winding Nile. Here is your comprehensive guide to the best of them.
Before we get started, some general “cheat sheet”-type knowledge that’s helpful for organizing these temples generally: those located in Lower Egypt (which is confusingly the northern part of the country) date back to the time of the Old Kingdom, a period of monastic rule before kings were even known as Pharaohs. This is when the rulers Kufu, Khafre, and Menkaure built the pyramids and Sphinx of Giza. Meanwhile, the structures associated with the most famous Egyptian monarchs like Akenaten, Nefertiti, Ramses the Great, and Tutankhamun can be found in the southern half of the country in Upper Egypt. They made their New Kingdom’s capital at Thebes, located just outside the modern city of Luxor.
Cairo and Lower Egypt
Most travelers’ Egypt itineraries will include Cairo. You can easily reach all the major Old Kingdom sites through tour companies (such as Ramasside) in the capital city, using no more than a half-day to see Giza or the slightly more scattered sites of Saqqara and Dahshur. All of these sites were located within the ancient capital of Memphis and now comprise what is known as the Memphite Necropolis.
The pyramids of Giza are understandably the centerpiece after having captivated travelers and writers since ancient times when Antipater of Sidon, a Greek poet, named the Great Pyramid amongst his Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The pyramid’s commission is attributed to Khufu, a king of Egypt’s fourth dynasty. His contemporaries despised him: accounts from influential historians like Herodotus give an overwhelmingly negative depiction of his character.
Khafra, the King credited with building the second-largest pyramid at Giza, was also described as a cruel despot who ordered potentially tens of thousands of workers to construct his massive mausoleum. The smallest of the three great pyramids is attributed to Menkaure, a more forgiving ruler who is said to have compensated for the suffering wrought by his predecessors with a kinder attitude. He is the only pharaoh of the three to have built accompanying pyramids for his queens, structures that line the south side of his pyramid, and possibly arranged for the building of his daughter’s pyramid to the east.
Other sites within the Memphite Necropolis include Saqqara and Dahshur. The former is home to a unique stepped pyramid similar in design to the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and built by King Djoser. Monuments were added on to it even after Memphis was no longer the capital of the Egyptian kingdom, including a Middle Kingdom pyramid which is now completely in ruins.Those that still stand include the pyramids of Userkaf and Unas, the latter of which is notable for its pioneering use of pyramid texts — inscriptions of spells for the ruler’s afterlife. This practice eventually became a tradition for Egyptian rulers and formed the basis for the Book of the Dead. The very oldest surviving pyramid in Egypt, and possibly the first-ever, is Sneferu’s Red Pyramid at Dahshur.
Luxor and Upper Egypt
The most significant site of Egypt’s New Kingdom is Thebes, the ancient capital where temples for worship, cult practice, and coronation of new rulers were built and still stand opposite a necropolis on the west bank. This includes the famous Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. On the east bank and within the city of Luxor itself are the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor — probably the most iconic symbols of Ancient Egypt outside of Giza. Karnak’s significance as a place of worship for the Theban Triad, a “family” of gods including the supreme Egyptian deity Amun-Ra, is the cause for its monumental size and intricate designs. The chief feature is the Great Hypostyle Hall, a collection of 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. All of them are more than 30 feet tall and bear inscriptions made in honor of Egyptian rulers from Seti I through Ramses III, IV, and VI.
While the Luxor Temple itself is younger than Karnak, dating back to around 1400 B.C., it has been used as a religious site by the Egyptians, Romans, and eventually Muslims up until the present day. This makes it the oldest standing structure in the world that is still used for one of its original purposes. However, Luxor was not used to glorify Egyptian gods. Instead, it was used to celebrate the divinity of the Egyptian ruler, who was believed to possess an immortal spirit called the ka that granted him or her dominion over the dead. It is possible that new Pharaohs were coronated here to represent their divinity alongside Amun-Ra as his son — even Alexander the Great claimed to have been crowned here after conquering Egypt.
Located across the Nile, the Theban Necropolis houses the remains of New Kingdom rulers in grandiose settings. These temples were no longer built in conjunction with pyramids and instead became significant artistic and architectural structures in their own right. The most significant examples belonging are the Ramesseum, the temple of Hatshepsut, and the gargantuan Medinet Habu. At about 75,000 square feet, it rivals Karnak Temple for sheer size and is laden with decorative reliefs throughout. Despite being known as the Valley of the Kings, there was no gender distinction for the title of Pharaoh — Hatshepsut was only one of several women to rule Egypt as the Pharaoh, and her impressive, unique tomb speaks to the volume of her achievements. Many of the temples here were built at the very height of royal Egypt’s success, from the times of the eighteenth dynasty (featuring Tutankhamun and Nefertiti) to the twentieth (of Ramses III).
The Ramesseum is the burial place of Ramses II, generally considered by Egyptologiststo be the most powerful Egyptian ruler of all time. The temple has been documented by everyone from ancient Greeks to researchers under Napoleon Bonaparte, who shared in their wonder at the imposing statues with inscriptions proclaiming the ruler’s might. Also known as Ozymandias, Ramses’ huge likeness still lies in the “colossal wreck” that inspired the famous poem. His wife, Nefertari, was buried in a similarly magnificent tomb, the largest such structure in the nearby Valley of the Queens. Her tomb, QV66, glorifies the queen in resplendent drawings but bears no reference to her husband. While it is a costly $60 to enter the tomb, its pristine condition makes it more like paying to step back in time altogether.
Other major archaeological sites can be found along the Nile above and below Luxor, including the temple of Ramses the Great’s father, Seti I at Abydos. The ruins of this ancient city are about 60 miles west of Qena and share ground with one of the oldest known sites in Egyptian history at Umm el-Qa’ab — rulers of the first dynasty were buried here as far back as 3100 B.C. Qena is just across the Nile from the Dendera temple complex, a comparatively newer site dating to the time of Cleopatra and the ensuing Roman period in Egypt. It is most famous for its large zodiac, depicting an alignment of the five planets known to Egyptians in 50 B.C. and is now in residence at Paris’ Louvre. South of Luxor at Aswan is the island site of Philae, where one can take a boat ride to the impressive Temple of Isis.
Finally, the massive temples of Abu Simbel, another monument to Ramses II and Nefertari, are located near the southern tip of Lake Nasser and the Egyptian border with Sudan. The Great Temple here, dedicated to four gods and the deified spirit of Ramses himself, depicts stories from the great Pharaoh’s time. It also memorializes his family with statues alongside his own, four colossi — 66 feet in height each. The smaller temple, built for the goddess Hathor and Queen Nefertari, is remarkable for two reasons: it was only the second time an Egyptian Pharaoh dedicated a temple to his queen, and still the only time that a pharaoh and queen’s likeness stand at the same size. Typically, the statues of queens and consorts never exceeded a pharaoh’s knees in height.
Whatever your destination in Egypt, the scale and depth of the history around you is immense, immersive, and so ambitious that it seems unfathomable. Different rulers in various eras worshipped a number of gods, had several capital cities, and built monuments in many architectural styles , but the common themes more than justify the modern world’s fascination with ancient Egypt. Death was seen as a passageway to another life, rulers lived as gods among men, and immortalizing one’s achievements was painstakingly imperative for the projection of power on into eternity. The temples that stand today reveal just one intoxicating piece of a world far beyond modern comprehension.
Interested in the best way to cover Egypt’s historical sites? Check out a Nile River cruise!