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The key to it all is Karnak Temple on the east bank, one of the world's largest and most spectacular religious compounds. I arrive at 6am, to avoid the crowds and to see the towering columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall in the early light. As the sun catches the carvings and inscriptions, I imagine the pharaohs and animal-headed gods restored to life.

The last resting place of the pharaohs, the Valley of the Kings, is tucked into the west-bank hills. Hardly a land of the dead these days, it is full of human life queueing to enter the tombs. The paintings are worth the wait, the long walls filled with spells and incantations to ensure the kings' safe passage to eternity. At the nearby Nobles Tombs, I linger over images from the lives of high-ranking officials. They serve as an introduction to everyday life in ancient Egypt, the walls filled with scenes showing how statues were carved, cattle slaughtered, wine made, pleasures taken.

As the day draws to an end and the light softens, I walk around the temple of Medinet Habu. Built 3,000 years ago by Pharaoh Ramses III, this is now one of the country's most beautiful ruins. The Theban Hills tower behind, a kite wheels overhead, and the weight of the past lifts.

Further information

  • Mohamed Rehim (00 20 10 085 2180) is one of Luxor's most inspired English-speaking guides
  • For more information on the west bank monuments, visit thebanmappingproject.com

Dahab: Best for beaches and sea life

The east Sinai coastline is a harshly beautiful place. Inland, there are the barren hills of the Sinai desert, brilliant in the morning light, mauve and coral by sunset. Ahead, there is the Red Sea and, across the waves, the shimmering shore of Saudi Arabia. Thirty years ago, Dahab ('gold' in Arabic) was an empty beach above a curving shoreline. Bedouin landed lobster and fish; their huts offered the only roof over a visitor's head. The area is now full of hotels and beach bars, but Dahab retains elements of its past: the bays are still sandy and quiet, the desert backdrop still pristine, the seascapes still unspoilt.

'One of the great things about Dahab,' says scuba-instructor April McCormack, 'is that you don't have to take a boat or be an expert diver to enjoy the views. You can still get up close to the coral and the fish.' I try it and within minutes, I am face-to-face with angels and puffers, the reef beyond them red, violet and pink. It is a world of gentle motion silence. At nightfall, the town remains mellow, with none of the noise and neon that's to be found further south in Sharm el-Sheikh - there is far greater satisfaction to be had in listening to the sound of the waves fall on the shore.

Further information

  • Poseidon Divers runs a half-day Try Dive course (£40; poseidondivers.com)

Sinai Peninsula: Best for biblical scenery

St Catherine's Monastery sits in the heart of the Sinai desert, on the site where God is said to have spoken to Moses from a burning bush. Above it looms Mount Sinai, known locally as Gebel Musa, where Musa (Moses) is believed to have received the Ten Commandments. Each night, hundreds - even thousands - of people scramble up a steep, rocky path to the mountaintop to wait for the sunrise. As the range of peaks turns from black to red and then gold, the crowd begin to pray.

With the sun bright in the sky, I descend the mountain and head to St Catherine's. From the moment I bow my head to enter its low-slung gate, the feeling of sanctity is inescapable. Everyone whispers out of respect for the age of the place - the Byzantine Empress Helen commissioned the first building here in the 4th century - but also not to disturb the Greek Orthodox monks. Silence is impossible in the gallery, where visitors gasp over some of the world's oldest and most beautiful icons. Even the monk who guards them feels the need to talk. 'To understand the wonder of this place,' he explains, 'you need to be alone.'

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