Wow Place #96: Luxor, Egypt

The overwhelming impression you receive when visiting the temples of Karnak and Luxor (in Luxor, Egypt) is, “Are these movie sets? They certainly can’t be real.” It’s almost impossible to believe that these amazing, well-preserved, 3,500-year-old temples are actually the real deal. Surely these statues and obelisks towering above me must be left-over props from Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra!

To wander through Karnak and Luxor is to gawk in wonderment. Yeah sure, the temple rooves fell down ages ago. The walls are crumbling and incomplete. The pharaoh statues have lost a nose or two. What piques the imagination, however, is not what has deteriorated but how much is actually still intact. A series of Sphinxes stare down at you from lofty perches. Solemn gods 20 feet tall dare you to walk between them. Stony colonnades the size of redwoods create an austere forest, blocking out the sunlight. And at night, when the whole shebang is lit up, it’s like attending a big movie debut of yesteryear outside Hollywood’s old Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

The trick with ancient sites like these is to get there early, before the crowds. Only then can you wander around freely, noticing the carved hieroglyphics that might have been done yesterday, letting your mind imagine back to 1,400 BC, with you arriving here to make a sacrifice to Isis, or to watch the coronation of Alexander the Great.

I’ve visited a lot of ruins in the world. Most of them are pretty dilapidated. The Temples of Karnak and Luxor are special – both for their size and their superlative condition. They don’t look real, but that’s part of the fun.