Find me a treasure in Luxor, Egypt, that can’t be savored in the open air—I challenge you. In three years of wintering in this city on the banks of the Nile, about 400 miles south of Cairo, I haven’t found one. Luxor is often called an open-air museum, a place where antiquities are as common as mosques, schools, or fruit stands. A visitor could stroll the grounds of Karnak Temple—not to mention Luxor Temple, Valley of the Queens, Valley of the Kings, or the Colossi of Memnon—for days and still find obelisks to marvel at, all while breathing in fresh Sahara Desert air.
Luxor is where I met my husband, and it’s where we now live part-time (when not in Alberta, Canada), in a mud-brick house on the city’s quieter, more rural-feeling West Bank. It’s located on the edge of Medinet Habu Temple, parts of which date to 1500 B.C.E. I joke that we’re basically “glamping in the desert”—never fully inside, because the dust, the donkey braying, and the call to prayer easily find their way in through the corners of our earthen abode. No need to set an alarm clock, since the whoosh of hot-air balloons overhead stirs us awake by sunrise.
Luxor’s prodigious art scene can also be savored outside. Even going to the opera, prepandemic, did not require going indoors: Verdi’s Aida was staged at the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. I vaguely recall the arias and the actors; I more vividly remember the stunning colonnades aglow in the cool desert night.
The city’s most renowned artist, Alaa Awad, is a painter whose neopharaonic murals stretch across buildings on the West Bank. The local gallery that features his work, Luxor Art Gallery, has an outdoor courtyard for workshops and expositions where a visitor might run into him. For Awad, the pandemic has been a quiet but artistically fertile time. “I created so much work,” he told me on a recent call. “I painted portraits of my friends, landscapes of the Nile.” He explained how lockdown catalyzed his art and even varied its mood.
For our Luxor neighbor Mahmoud Salem, a sculptor, this quiet period has held similar promise, offering him time to renovate his studio and create new pieces. “I have good energy in winter; ideas come to me then,” he said. I asked Salem over the phone about new archaeological discoveries such as the “Lost Golden City” with undulating brick walls, close to both our homes. “When I was younger, we would play soccer there,” he said with a laugh, hinting that what Egyptologists call “discoveries” are sometimes already familiar to residents.
Still, I was hungry to know whether I can explore this latest excavation when we return to Egypt in a few weeks. Salem assured me that I’ll catch a glimpse from the street, and I’m reminded why this ancient city—forever surfacing relics of astounding age—is worth a visit any time in history, but especially now, when outside is the best place to breathe in the larger world.