The temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo, both dating back to the Ptolemaic period, are the two most popular landmarks in between Luxor and Aswan. They’re common stops on Nile River cruises, but I made the journey by road, visiting four destinations over the course of a long but rewarding day trip. (Learn more below).
For those with the slightest interest in ancient Egyptian temples, a stop at Edfu is a must. The temple, dedicated to the god Horus, is considered the best-preserved in all of Egypt. And while Kom Ombo may not be in comparable shape, its sunny riverside setting makes it well worth adding to your itinerary.
Edfu: The Temple of Horus
Situated halfway between Luxor and Aswan, Edfu is widely regarded as Egypt’s best-preserved temple. With the exception of the missing color, no imagination is required to picture how this ancient temple originally looked.
Construction on Edfu Temple began in the Ptolemaic era in 237 BC. It was finally finished a couple centuries later in 57 BC, shortly before the Romans took control of Egypt. Therefore, this is one of the few temples in Egypt that was both started and completed by the Ptolemies.
But as with most Egyptian temples built during the Greco-Roman period, a much older temple once existed at the spot, with portions of the enclosure wall dating back to the Old Kingdom.
The Temple of Horus faces south in contrast to most Egyptian temples which face east or west. Notably, the Temple of Hathor at Dendera faces north. Hathor, the cosmic mother, was the consort of Horus, the realized divine principle. And a celebratory procession took place between the two temples at the Egyptian New Year.
Horus was one of ancient Egypt’s most important gods and was worshipped from Predynastic times up until the Roman era. He’s often depicted as a man with a falcon head or sometimes as just a falcon.
Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis, and he was born in the marshes following the death of his father at the hands of Set (learn more here).
Horus would go on to avenge his father and defeat Set, a conflict that lasted around 80 years. There are multiple myths relating to the struggle between Horus and Set, one of which involves Set taking the form of a hippo.
In the myth, Isis intervenes and aids her son, shooting harpoons at Set. But she then takes pity on him and nurses his wounds. Enraged, Horus cuts off his own mother’s head, though she was later revived by the gods.
They later have a boat race with boats made of stone. But Horus’s boat was actually a wooden boat in disguise. After Set’s boat sinks, Horus finally claims the throne after decades of conflict.
Symbolically speaking, Horus represents resurrection and the return to the source. The falcon is an apt symbol for this, as the bird carries its pray toward the sun.
Confusingly, there are various forms of Horus, including Re-Horakhty (Horus on the Horizon), Haroeris (Horus the Elder), Horus Behdety (Horus the Avenger), Horsiesis (Horus son of Isis), and Harpocrates (Horus the Child).
Edfu Temple is consecrated to Horus Behdety, and many of its reliefs detail the battles between Horus and Set.
Entering the Temple
Arriving at the temple grounds, you’ll notice how the mudbrick enclosure wall remains almost fully intact. The purpose of these walls was to symbolically separate the profane from the sacred.
In contrast to the stone temple structures, Egyptian enclosure walls were always built of mudbrick.
Outside the front gate is a mammisi, or birth chapel. These structures became commonplace at temples from the Late Period onward, and they were dedicated to the divine birth of the king.
Here two kings are mentioned: Ptolemy VIII (r. 170-116 BC) and Ptolemy IX (r. 116-107 BC).
Edfu’s outer pylon remains almost perfectly intact. Pylons represented the division of unity into duality (i.e., creation). They also symbolized the rising sun, and therefore resurrection.
This pylon features the typical smiting scenes which symbolized the triumph of light over darkness. And uniquely, by the doorway, are two large granite statue of Horus in falcon form. But as we’ll see shortly, there’s an even more impressive pair within the courtyard.
This is the only fully intact front courtyard in Egypt. It’s flanked by 32 floral columns which were typical of the Ptolemaic era. The reliefs on the walls show the king making offerings to the gods. And in the center of the court, there would’ve once been a sacrificial altar.
But the real highlights here are the granite Horus statues near the doorway. They show Horus wearing the dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Not only did Horus rule over Egypt in popular mythological tales, but he was even listed as an early ruler in multiple historical kings lists!
Exploring the Interior
The doorway in between the falcons leads into a vestibule featuring a dozen floral columns. Much like Dendera’s Hypostyle Hall, the ceiling here conveys astronomical and astrological information.
But it’s been completely blackened due to years of villagers occupying the site and setting fires inside. Unlike at Dendera, Edfu’s ceiling has yet to be repainted.
Again, the reliefs on the walls are largely ceremonial. But along the wall closest to the entrance, notice the two small chapels. The one to the east was a library which contained a multitude of sacred texts. While the texts are long gone, a list of books was inscribed on the wall.
Interestingly, around five centuries later, the Neoplatonic philosophers compiled a list of sacred texts of Egypt that they were aware of. And it happened to align pretty closely with the list presented here.
The vestibule leads into a Hypostyle Hall consisting of twelve columns. It’s filled with well-done reliefs, largely of the ceremonial variety. Looking closely, you’ll see Horus, Isis and Hathor making numerous appearances.
Two antechambers then lead into the main sanctuary, the most sacred part of the temple. Out of the dozens of temples I visited in Egypt, Edfu is the only one in which I encountered a shrine and solar barque within sanctuary!
With the exception of the Temple of Ptah at Karnak, all other sanctuaries in Egypt are mostly empty.
As archaeologists were surveying the room at the time, I could only peak in from the outside. But I could still clearly see the polished syenite (a type of granite) shrine made by Nectanebo II (360 – 342 BC), the last native ruler of Egypt.
The solar barque, meanwhile, played a major role in religious processions. It was likely transported all the way to Dendera in ancient times. And looking at the wall art around Edfu, you’ll find numerous depictions of men carrying this exact barque.
What’s missing from the sanctuary now is the main effigy of Horus, which was likely made of gold. It would’ve normally been placed in the polished shrine, and then on the solar barque during the religious processions.
As at Dendera, the main sanctuary is surrounded by numerous other sanctuaries on all sides. And also like Dendera, the Temple of Horus features staircases on either side of the temple that lead to the roof. They’re entirely decorated with interesting reliefs, but the rooftop was off-limits during my visit.
And another similarity to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera is the Nut kiosk. Here at Efdu, it’s almost in the exact same location (to the right of the central sanctuary).
The structure features its own little open-air courtyard, while the ceiling is adorned with the outstretched body of the sky goddess.
The Surrounding Reliefs
Before leaving, be sure to walk all around the corridors outside. The narrow spaces in between the shrines and the inner enclosure wall are entirely filled with unique reliefs.
On either side of the outer wall of the vestibule, we can see the popular netting scenes. This scene was commonplace at non-royal tombs of the Old Kingdom.
But instead of a deceased noble netting some birds, here it’s the pharaoh being aided by Khnum, Thoth and Horus. Furthermore, this net contains not just birds but foreign prisoners!
The western corridor, meanwhile, is entirely filled with reliefs depicting the popular Horus myth. The story unfolds along the wall much like a comic book.
Most of the scenes are battle scenes. Look closely and you’ll see Horus battling Set in the form of a hippo, crocodile and oryx. In many of the scenes we can see Isis aiding her son.
Again, when looking at these scenes, we’re reminded of the hippo hunting scenes in much older tombs. While these tomb scenes didn’t feature depictions of gods, they undoubtedly had a deep symbolic significance that would’ve reminded the deceased of the ancient myths.
On a metaphysical level, the battles represent the struggle between spirit (Horus) and matter (Set).
On the right side of the temple, a staircase leads down to a Nilometer, though it was closed during my visit. But don’t worry, as a couple of ancient Nilometers can still be visited at Aswan’s Elephantine Island.
Kom Ombo: The Temple of Sobek
About 48 km south of Edfu is another Greco-Roman temple that’s worth visiting on the journey to or from Aswan. Kom Ombo is in far worse shape, with none of its roofs remaining. But the temple’s open-air atmosphere fits well with its sunny riverside setting.
Kom Ombo is a unique temple, as it’s not just dedicated to one god, but two. The primary gods worshipped here were the crocodile-headed Sobek and Horus. Or more specifically, the particular aspect of Horus known as Haroeris, or Horus the Elder.
To make matters more complex, it’s not just two deities that were worshipped here but two triads. Sobek is worshipped alongside Hathor and Khonsu, a lunar deity that was commonly worshipped in Thebes with Amun and Mut.
Haroeris, on the other hand, is grouped with Tasenetnofret and Panebtawy – obscure deities only mentioned here at Kom Ombo.
Given its dualistic nature, Kom Ombo had two main sanctuaries placed alongside one another. And aisles led from each all the way out to the outer courtyard.
While the original layout is hardly discernable today, the temple remains a pleasure to explore.
As mentioned, the roof is entirely missing. But you can still make out things like a birth chapel, a Hathor chapel and numerous intact floral columns of the Hypostyle Hall.
And all along the walls are plenty of well-preserved reliefs. They largely show the king presenting offerings to Sobek and Horus.
But who was Sobek, and what was his significance? Sobek was an ancient deity most commonly worshipped in Aswan and around the Fayoum Oasis.
In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were both feared and revered, with many losing their lives to them every year. Yet in places like Aswan, people kept (and still keep) the creatures as pets.
Crocodiles, as mentioned above, are an animal commonly associated with Set. But Sobek was seen as a benevolent god, as there can be no resurrection without death. And no sunrise either. As such, Sobek was commonly worshipped alongside prominent solar deities.
The Egyptians’ attitude toward crocodiles, then, reveals the complex nature of their religion. Instead of a simplistic ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy, both the positive and negative aspects of nature were acknowledged and respected.
Heading toward the main shrine area, you’ll find that the inner sanctuaries have been completely destroyed. Only remnants of the granite altars remain.
But one of the main highlights of Kom Ombo is a relief in the area just behind the ruined sanctuaries.
Back here you’ll find a relief of Roman Emperor Trajan kneeling before Imhotep and two goddesses. Yes, this is the same Imhotep who designed the Step Pyramid of Djoser over 2,000 years before Kom Ombo was built!
Imhotep was one of the only non-royal mortals to have been deified in ancient Egypt. And he was especially popular in the Greco-Roman period, during which the architect/priest/doctor was worshipped as a healing god.
The offerings behind the goddesses appear to be medical instruments, which goes along with Imhotep’s role as a healer. This carving has garnered much attention from scholars researching Egyptian medical practices.
Some items appear to be surgical instruments, though others argue that these may not be medical-related items at all.
Outside, on the Nile side of the temple, is an impressive well which supposedly once housed sacred crocodiles. Given how even today, one can visit a coffee shop with a live crocodile in Aswan’s Nubian Village, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine the creatures roaming around here in ancient times!
Before leaving, be sure to check out the Crocodile Museum just next to the temple. It’s a small but well-done museum entirely dedicated to Sobek worship.
Not only does it contain Sobek-related artifacts from the Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and Ptolemaic era, but there’s also a slew of mummified crocodiles on display!
Entry is included with the temple ticket, though only cellphone photography is allowed.
Kom Ombo was my last stop before arriving in the city of Aswan. While at the temple, I met a local man who invited me for a coffee, giving me a taste of the famous Aswan hospitality I’d encounter repeatedly during my stay in the region.
As mentioned above, I visited four sites on my journey from Luxor to Aswan: Esna, El Kab, Edfu and Kom Ombo. Before my trip I’d read various accounts of people visiting Edfu and Kom Ombo on the way, but not all four.
Thinking it would be impossible to see all four sites on the same day, I’d originally set a day aside to see Esna and El Kab on their own before returning to Luxor. But a local travel agent advised me that this was unnecessary.
And now having done it, I can confirm that seeing all four sites is easily done while still getting to explore the temples at a relaxed pace.
Another interesting site to see on the way is the sandstone quarry of Gebel el-Silsila, though I thought it might be pushing things to add it to my itinerary. But looking back, there still would’ve been enough time.
I was staying on the west bank of Luxor, and I arranged the trip through a company called Classic Tour Services. Everything went smoothly and I’d recommend them to anyone staying on the west bank.
With the four destinations included, I paid around $150. The price only included a driver and no guide. I was able to take my time at each location, while the driver dropped me off at my Aswan hotel at the end of the day.
In Luxor, the east and west banks of the Nile River couldn’t be more different. The east is the bustling city center where most of the hotels and restaurants are located. This is where you’ll find the train station and the Luxor Museum. And of course, Karnak and Luxor Temples.
The west bank is much quieter and less developed. But overall, the west bank has more tourist attractions. Not only are all the tombs here, but there are plenty of mortuary temples to visit as well. While you can see everything on the east bank in a single day, you’ll need two or three full days to explore everything on the west bank.
That’s why I recommend staying on the west bank. And as the area gradually develops, there are a lot more hotels to choose from nowadays.
Overall, the west bank is pretty spread out. But if you stay close to the ferry port, you’ll get the best of both worlds. Not only will you get a head start on visiting the west bank attractions each morning, but getting to the east side and back will be easy as well.
To really make the most of your time in Luxor, I recommend staying on the west bank, getting the Luxor Pass (see above) and renting a bicycle. You can rent a bicycle for the day from numerous west bank shops at somewhere between 30 – 50 EGP.
I stayed at a place called Sunflower Guest House which was right by the ferry port. The rooms were spacious and clean and I had no issues with my stay. But after my arrival, I discovered that there are plenty of other accommodation options right nearby.