Thebes: City of a Hundred Gates
The over- 4,000-year- old Thebes was a glorious city in the ancient East and one of the world's ancient capitals.
In his epic poem The Iliad, Homer famously described the city of Thebes as a having “a hundred gates.” The ancient Thebes was situated about 670 kilometres (km) south of Cairo on the bank of the River Nile. The city served as the capital of Egypt's Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom from 2040–1085 BC and was one of the country's main cities during ancient Egypt's heyday. With a history of more than 4,000 years, Thebes was a glorious city in the ancient East and one of the world's ancient capitals. Babylon and Nineveh situated on the Tigris and Euphrates were other grand cities at the time. After thousands of years, other civilisations and structures from the same era have now disappeared. Remains of Thebes' temples and tombs still stand by the River Nile. In 1979, Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A Glorious Palatial City
The ancient, mysterious Thebes was a microcosm of ancient Egypt. First built during the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC) of ancient Greece, the city was a commercial station on the waterway from Upper Egypt (southern Egypt) to
the Sinai Peninsula and a stop on the land route from Upper Egypt to Nubia, which gradually developed into the country's commercial hub. From the 10th Dynasty (2130–2040 BC), Thebes became increasingly powerful. Mentuhotep
II led his troops to conquer the south and north of Egypt, thereby uniting the country and being crowned as King of both Upper and Lower Egypt, and founding the 11th Dynasty. Mentuhotep II then made Thebes his capital and named its local patron deity, Amun, a national deity and “King of Gods.”
From then on, numerous construction projects were launched in Thebes, and the city became a holy site in ancient Egypt. Around 2,000 BC, Amenemhet I, founder of the 12th Dynasty, moved the capital to Lisht near Memphis. Structures commemorating the deity Amun continued to be built in Thebes though. During the 13th Dynasty, the capital was moved again, this time to Tanis. From 1790–1600 BC, the Hyksos, a nomadic tribe from Asia, began to invade northern Egypt. The tribe managed to win many battles using their iron weapons and horsedrawn chariots. They founded the 15th and 16th dynasties and ruled northern Egypt for a century from Avaris to the east of Nile. At this time, Thebes underwent its first period of decline.
In 1600 BC, the last two kings of Thebes in the 17th Dynasty united to resist the Hyksos' rule. Ahmose
I (reign: 1570–1546 BC) united the South and then moved northwards, forcing the Hyksos out of Egypt. With the establishment of the 18th Dynasty, Egypt entered its New Kingdom period (1567–1085 BC) and the pharaohs chose Thebes to be the country's religious and political centre. The rulers waged a series of wars, plundering huge amounts of wealth and taking prisoners, and turned Thebes into one of the most magnificent cities in the world at that time. They constructed grand temples and palaces in the east of Thebes for the god Amun and themselves and built numerous gorgeous tombs in the west of the city, among which, the most famous are the tombs of the pharaohs Ramesses II and Tutankhamun.
In 1341 BC, Pharoah Horemheb founded the 19th Dynasty (1341–1200 BC) and fought battles with the Hittites in a war that lasted 16 years. Finally, Ramesses II and the King of the Hittites signed a peace treaty that ended the war. By then, Egypt had expanded to form a large empire, stretching to Syria in the north, the Fourth Cataract of the Nile to the south, and spanning North Africa and West Asia.
Ramesses III (reign: 1198–1166 BC) of the 20th Dynasty defeated the Aryans who had invaded Egypt in 1211 BC, and protected Egyptian civilisation from being destroyed. In 1085 BC, the 21st Dynasty was established, indicating the end of the New Kingdom era.
Following the 21st Dynasty, conflicts among Egypt's ruling classes intensified. Phoenicians, a people from the Mediterranean Sea, began invading Egypt and the New Kingdom declined, as did Thebes. In 663 BC, Assyrian troops invaded Egypt and burnt and plundered Thebes. In the first century BC, Egyptians launched a series of revolts that lasted three years, with Thebes as the centre. The revolts were eventually put down and Thebes was destroyed. In 27 BC, the city was completely turned to rubble in an earthquake.
In AD 395, as the Roman Empire was divided into Eastern and Western Empires, Egypt became a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. On April 6, AD 641, Arab troops defeated Byzantine armies stationed at Memphis in the Nile Delta, and ancient Egypt became a province of the Arab Empire. Arabians built tents and houses outside Memphis, making it the new capital of Egypt and naming it Fustat, meaning “City of Tents.” When the Arabs arrived at Thebes, Egypt's ancient capital, they saw the grand temples inside and outside the city that were as tall as palaces. They called this city Luxor (“City of Palaces”), which is the name still used today.
Visitors to the site of Thebes will first notice the temples of Luxor and Karnak and the tombs of the pharaohs among the ancient buildings. Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was situated in the West where the sun sets. For this reason, Thebes was divided into two sections: The Real World on the east bank of the River Nile, where the temples and residential communities were situated, and the Underworld on the west of the Nile, where the Valley of the Kings, Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and Colossi of Memnon are located.
Karnak Temple Complex: ‘Karnak Open Air Museum’
The Karnak Temple Complex is also known as the Temple of Amun and Ra after the two sun gods of ancient Egypt who were later united into one, “AmunRa,” the chief of the Egyptian gods. The Karnak Temple Complex is a vast site and the largest of its kind in the history of ancient Egypt. The complex is also home to some of the most ancient,
exquisite and greatest collections of art treasures anywhere in the world, housed in the Karnak Open Air Museum. The temple is 336 metres (m) long and 110 m wide, covering a total area of 32 hectares and is where the film Death on the Nile was shot. The complex consists of three precincts for Amun, Mut and Montu, each of which is surrounded by brick walls. Construction of the complex began in 2000 BC during the 13th Dynasty and the site was expanded during the following 10 dynasties over 2,000 years, with more than 50 emperors participating in its construction.
A line of ram-headed sphinx statues, constructed by Ramesses II during the 19th Dynasty, line the entrance to the Karnak Temple. Also known as “crosphinxes,” these 80 ram-headed stone sphinx statues lead visitors into the temple. The sphinx was a symbol of power and dignity, and the ram head represented the deity Amun, as it was his favourite animal. The unity of sphinx and ram therefore symbolised the supreme power of the gods. In order to gain Amun's protection, pharaohs had small statues of themselves placed beneath the heads of the crosphinx statues lining the entrance.
Stepping into the temple, one first notices the 8-m-tall statue of Ramesses II, with a small statue of his wife Nefertari standing on his feet. After passing through two gates, one arrives at the Great Hypostyle Hall which is 103 m wide and 53 m deep. Known as the “wonder of the art world,” the hall was constructed between the 19th Dynasty (1302–1290 BC) and 20th Dynasty (1290–1224 BC), and covers an area of 5,000 square metres (sq.m). The roof, has now fallen. It was 25 m above the ground and supported by 134 columns, each 21 m tall with a diameter of 4 m. A further 12 central columns in the middle of the hall were even taller, each 23 m in height. The columns are inscribed with reliefs and hieroglyphics, and the tops of the columns are delicately presented in the shape of lotus or papyrus flowers. Marvelous reliefs and epigraphs were also inscribed on the walls, recording the relations between the pharaohs and the gods.
The Karnak Temple has six gates, the first of which is 44 m high and 113 m wide. Passing through the hall, one can see two obelisks. The taller one was built for Queen Hatshepsut (reign: 1486–1468 BC), is 30 m tall and weighs 320 tonnes. Hatshepsut was the only female pharaoh in ancient Egypt, serving as queen alongside her husband Thutmose II. She ended Egypt's wars with foreign countries, re-established trade with neighbouring countries and contributed to the country's prosperity during the 18th Dynasty as ancient Egypt entered a period of affluence.
Luxor Temple: ‘The Southern Sanctuary’
Luxor Temple is situated 2 km south of Karnak Temple and is known in Egyptian as Ipet Resyt, meaning “Southern Sanctuary.” Built in 1400 BC, it was dedicated to the Theban Triad: Amun, the Sun God; Mut, the Mother of the Gods; and Khons, the God of the Moon. The temple was the focal point of the Opet Festival during the New Kingdom Period and its scale was second only to Karnak Temple, however its structures were equally as magnificent.
Two imposing huge stone statues of Ramesses II and an obelisk stand at the entrance. Originally there were two obelisks here, however, the one on the right was given to the King of France, Louis Philippe I, by Muhammad Ali Pasha (1768–1849) who is widely considered to be the “Father of Modern Egypt.” This single obelisk now stands on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Besides the pyramids, obelisks are the other distinctive symbol of ancient Egyptian civilisation. Obelisks were usually carved out of granite and weighed several hundred tons, inscribed with hieroglyphics on its four sides and then erected at the entrance to temples. Pharaohs used obelisks to worship the Sun God, demonstrate their majesty and as displays of victory. Most of Egypt's obelisks were taken overseas and are now scattered across other countries, with there once having been as many as 13 in Rome. However, today there are still five standing in Egypt. Four are in Luxor and one in Cairo.
The Luxor Temple contained a hypostyle courtyard, hall, side palace and 14 magnificent 16-m-high columns standing at the northern entrance. During the 13th century BC, the pharaoh Ramesses II had a courtyard constructed outside the temple, with statues of pharaohs placed among the columns. Ramesses II also had a gate built, with a
relief depicting grand festive scenes and his battles in Syria. A small chapel is to the east of the hall, the walls of which are carved with reliefs portraying the imaginary wedding between a queen and Amun, and the birth of a prince.
It is amazing to think that a mosque was built on the columns in the front of the temple. The whole temple was buried by sand from the River Nile. Locals built the mosque without knowing there was a temple underground. When the temple was excavated, the current scene was formed.
Valley of the Kings
A valley that stands on the west bank of the Nile was the burial place for more than 60 Egyptian pharaohs and is therefore known as the “Valley of the Kings.” Kings during the Egyptian New Kingdom period had their tombs built there in order to prevent them from being robbed. The tombs were built into the mountains, with some of the pharaohs' burial chambers being up to 100 m below ground. Routes between the tombs were winding, with chambers on both sides; and colourful murals with text are seen on the walls and vaulted ceilings portraying the ancient gods as well as scenes of farming, hunting and joyful dancing in court. Murals from tombs of aristocrats are especially well preserved and are of high historical value as they give clues to the beliefs and lives of ancient Egyptians.
It was said that Thutmose II, a pharaoh during the 18th Dynasty, chose this beautiful and tranquil valley to construct his tomb in 1500 BC. This started the tradition whereby pharaohs constructed their tombs underground to prevent them from being robbed. Many pharaohs followed suit and so the valley became the burial place for pharaohs and members of the nobility during the 17th–20th dynasties.
The tomb of Seti I, a pharaoh during the 19th Dynasty, is the largest in the valley. It stretches 210 m from its entrance to the innermost chamber and is situated at a vertical depth of 45 m underground. The subterranean tomb was excavated forming a huge rock cave, with gorgeous murals on the walls and ceilings. Entrances to the tombs were generally constructed halfway up a mountain and there were passages leading to the inside. The patterns and hieroglyphics on the corridor walls remain recognisable to this day.
Of the 64 pharaohs' tombs that have been discovered, almost all of them had been robbed. Today, six are open to the public, among which, the tomb of Tutankhamun is the only one which had not been plundered. This tomb was discovered by British archeologist Howard Carter in 1922 at the bottom of a cave, above which many other tombs were constructed. This, along with the fact that thatched cottages had been built by locals atop it, meant that this tomb was very well preserved.
The shape and structure of Tutankhamun's tomb was similar to others and it is composed of a passage, antechamber, burial chamber, storage chamber and treasury. The 34-sq.m antechamber is the largest of the rooms. In the burial chamber, there are murals depicting religious activities and a burial scene, as well as an exterior wood coffin which was more than four floors high. Inside the exterior coffin was a smaller inner coffin carved out of a single piece of quartz rock. The inner coffin was further divided into three layers: Tutankhamun's mummy was placed in the innermost layer and his head was covered with a gold mask. The discoveries from the tomb, including exquisite funeral objects such as furniture, statues, weapons and chariots, are housed at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.
The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the Colossi of Memnon on the west bank of the Nile are well worth visiting. The temple is an ancient structure built into the cliffside, blending in with the natural scenery. It is considered to be one of the greatest structures in ancient Egypt, its construction having taken more than 10 years. The Colossi of Memnon are a pair of 18-m-tall stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III which used to stand guard in front of a temple to Amenhotep. The temple is now ruined, however, leaving only the statues standing in the desert. The statues' resemblance to the warrior Memnon from Greek mythology led to people calling them the “Statues of Memnon.” Cracks emerged on statues following an earthquake during Roman reign. In AD 200, they were repaired by decree of the Roman emperor.
The ancient city of Luxor in Egypt
Colossi of Memnon