Heart of Egypt’s Golden Age


‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.


At Thebes, Egyptians created a city at the limit of human understanding; a city outside time where, paradoxically, immortal pharaohs were born and then later buried. The nation’s craftsmen cleared a ‘sacred land’ of gold and painted stone, where the akhu(‘illuminated spirits’) of the long-departed are forever present. Here the Creator, Amun (‘the hidden one’), and ‘his son of his belly’, the Pharaoh, would ‘sweeten their hearts’. The city’s temples, palaces, cemeteries and avenues, as we know them today in modern Luxor, took two thousand years to imagine and build. Spelled out, still, in giant hieroglyphs across massive walls of limestone and granite is the irreducible story of how Amun’s will revealed itself in human affairs. For unknown reasons, classical writers called this city after ‘seven-gated Thebes’ in Greece, but its Egyptian name was Wāse ('place of authority'), while its inhabitants simply called it Nō, ‘the City’. At its height, during the 13th century BC, one poet sang ‘Wāse is the pattern for every city’, which is why ‘all others are called after her true name’.

Thebes entered history late in the 3rd millennium BC, as the capital of the fourth district of Upper Egypt. The great chief of nearby Edfu sailed a hostile fleet there around 2100 BC, and reported an unexceptional scatter of farms, forts and tombs. In population, Thebes was already dwarfed by the national capital at Memphis, nearly 700 km (400 miles) to the north, and even at its height probably numbered no more than 30,000 inhabitants in a nation of up to 3 million.

The rise to national prominence took place amid civil war, when the city’s governors installed themselves as the 11th dynasty of pharaohs, in opposition to the established monarchy at Memphis. Their reasons are unclear and to their enemies they were usurpers, but they portrayed themselves as defenders of the nation’s values during a century of chaos and confusion – Theban martial bravado was usually laced with self-righteousness and calls for Egyptian ethnic purity. The most celebrated of their number, Montjuhotep II (c. 2010–1960 BC), prosecuted this war to a bloody final victory, and for the next fifteen hundred years Theban values, Theban gods and, indeed, Thebans themselves were at the heart of Egyptian life.

The tombs of the 11th dynasty kings are clustered on the West Bank of the Nile around a natural amphitheatre at Deir el-Bahri, directly across the river from Amun’s great temple at Karnak. These two sites mark one of two axes that defined the extent of ancient Thebes – from sunrise behind Karnak to sunset beyond Deir el-Bahri. Hidden even in the warmth and illumination of the Egyptian sun, Amun was worshipped at Karnak inside a darkened shrine called Ipe Isu, ‘most special of places’. Throughout two thousand years the estate of Amun at Karnak alone would grow to cover at least 100 ha (250 acres – more than twice the size of the Vatican State), including temples for Amun’s consort, Mut, their son, Khons, and other gods. Once each year, during the Dry-season, the little wooden statue of Amun left Ipe Isu and sailed to Deir el-Bahri to spend the dark night in one of the shrines made for each of the kings who had gone before, and there celebrate the fusion of the god’s immortal spirit with the king’s mortal body. This was the Perfect Festival of the Valley, when Theban families would trek to their own forefathers’ tombs to feast and make offerings.

The Valley of the Kings, screened from the Nile valley by the undulating western hills, was integral to the greatness of Thebes. ‘The Great and Noble Cemetery’, to use its ancient name, was the burial place of the most powerful rulers on earth for four centuries from the mid-1400s BC.

© Kenneth Garrett.

The counterpoint to the Valley Festival was the Festival of Ope, held over many days during the Flood-season. Bright-painted statues of Amun and statues of former kings sailed southwards on the river or were carried 5 km (3 miles) along the second defining axis of Thebes: a festival avenue from Ipe Isu in the north to the southern edge of the city. At the south was Luxor temple, or Ope Rasi (‘the southern harim’), which by the 14th century BC had become as grand as Karnak. Food and beer were distributed to crowds gathered around the processional route, while folk vied to place a question before the god’s statue in the hope of a response, positive or negative (indicated by the statue approaching or walking away from the questioner). Such oracles became a typical means of resolving matters as mundane as property disputes. At the crux of the festival, the king proceeded alone to the shrine to be with Amun, who spoke to him ‘in the way that a father talks to his son’.

The entrance to Luxor Temple was intended more for festival processions than for the congregation of worshippers. The temple’s decoration projects Amun’s authority into the world in the form of the reigning pharaoh.

© Kenneth Garrett.

Thebes’ heyday was the New Kingdom (c. 1539–1069 BC), when the city was at the centre of a world of Egyptian ideas, and Amun was venerated from the gebels of Nubia and the shores of Punt to the mountains of Lebanon. The burial of Pharaoh was the emotional heart of the entire nation’s faith and, from the reign of Thutmose III (c. 1479–1425 BC), almost every New Kingdom pharaoh was laid to rest in a vast gash in the desert beyond Deir el-Bahri, known to us as the Valley of the Kings. The royal tomb walls still carry epic scenes of the soul’s journey through darkness and void to attain duat, ‘the state of adoration’. Their vivid colours and delicate reliefs belie the painstaking skill with which generations of Thebans cut these enduring visions of spiritual awakening into the local fractured, shaley limestone.

Hatshepsut’s celebrated temple (15th century BC) at Deir el-Bahri is modelled on the adjacent tomb of Montjuhotep II. Both buildings arrange the traditional elements of a royal temple vertically to solve a local problem – limited space among Thebes’ hills.

© Kenneth Garrett.

Such commitment was the work not of slaves but of prosperous, educated craftsmen. Most of what lay beyond the estates and temples of Amun has now disappeared beneath modern Luxor, but the village of the royal tomb builders at Deir el-Medina was situated in the desert and hastily abandoned when the Valley of the Kings was eventually closed. As a result, streets and houses still stand, while letters and documents were left behind in such numbers that they record the best understood community in the ancient world. In the 13th century BC, there were up to 80 extended households in the village, with dozens more in the vicinity, and the palace supplied all their food and textile needs from the temple-stores. The first room in each house had a shrine for the family’s ancestors, which could then be screened to accommodate the birth of the next generation.

Removing a colossal head of Ramesses II (c. 1279–1210 BC) for transport to London. In the New Kingdom a line of temples built to worship Amun in the form of each successive king stretched southwards from Deir el-Bahri, including the Ramesseum shown here.

The Art Archive.

One evening at dusk, in the Flood-season around 1111 BC, the governor of Thebes, Paser, was confronted in the street by a rowdy crowd of workmen, chanting because they had just been vindicated of charges of tomb-robbery. ‘Would you gloat over me at the door of my own house?’, he barked at them, ‘What you have made today is not just chanting, it is your downfall you have made.’ Oh, but they said, the tombs in the Valley are safe, to which the governor is reported to have replied, ‘What you have done is far from what you have said.’ So began a drawn out and ignominious final act in the Valley’s story. The last king was laid to rest there at the end of the 11th century BC, and the final curtain fell around 961 BC when the priests of Amun shut the whole Valley down and removed the bodies of Thutmose III and his successors to a secret tomb at Deir el-Bahri, where they lay hidden until modern times. Later pharaohs were buried far from Thebes, and without the royal burials the city lost some of its lustre and wealth, although not its spiritual authority within Egypt. The festivals went on, the tombs of local magnates grew ever larger, and the city was still run by priests enacting Amun’s oracles.

Likewise, kings and governors throughout Egypt and Nubia still vied to have their daughters chosen as the God’s Wife of Amun – an office that continued to bring prosperity and influence in this life and the next, so that by the 9th century BC Thebes had become a playground for the ambitions of kings from elsewhere. Then, in a brutal moment, the city’s greatness all but ended as it had begun – in violence. In 664 BC Ashurbanipal of Assyria and his armies sought to lay low the whole Egyptian nation by ripping out its heart and sacking Thebes. Afterwards, the Old Testament prophet Nahum used the event to warn his own people, ‘Art thou better than populous Nō … her young children also were dashed in pieces at the top of all the streets: and they cast lots for her honourable men, and all her great men were bound in chains.’

Building on the colossal scale of the pharaohs continued for centuries more in the estates of Amun at Thebes, but usually now on behalf of rulers from Persia, Macedon or Rome. Luxor Temple eventually became a Roman military headquarters, and the West Bank of the Nile here was a magnet for tourists already in classical times. Occasionally, Thebes did become a focus for uprisings against foreign rule, and the worship of Amun survived the groundswell of Christianity much longer in his own city than in the countryside around. In time local monks and priests came to reuse the pagan shrines as Christian foundations; as well as people like Franke who, around AD 650–700, ran a factory for religious writing in the tomb of Amenope, a Theban who had been a vizier of Egypt some two thousand years earlier.

Even today the grandeur of Thebes echoes in the Arabic name Luxor, or ‘the Palaces’, while a vestige of the Festival of Ope persists in the feast of the Muslim holy man Abu el-Hajjaj, during which model boats ‘sail’ from Luxor Temple. Nevertheless, when the day came for archaeology, Thebes lay buried under 2 m (6½ ft) of Nile mud. In AD 1862 one early explorer of the city, Alexander Rhind, noted wistfully that, ‘rich harvests now wave over its buried wreck’.

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