Thebes

A city with many names, Thebes was known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset or simply Niwt, ‘The City’. The Greeks called it Thebai and its modern name Luxor comes from the Arabic al-Uqsur, ‘The Castles’. Compared to Memphis, its period of prominence as an important urban centre was relatively limited. It owed its status to history repeating itself: Theban local rulers brought an end to both the First and Second Intermediate Periods and subsequently embellished their home town with monuments, impressively in the Middle Kingdom and spectacularly in the New Kingdom.

There is perhaps more for the modern visitor to see at Thebes than at any other archaeological site in the world, but the dazzling array of astonishing temples and tombs does not really give much of a sense of what the city of Thebes, as a living community, actually looked like. Although New Kingdom scribes referred to Thebes being called Niwt since it was ‘the model for every city’, it is difficult to know to what extent Thebes was a typical city of the New Kingdom or indeed of any other period, since so much of downtown Thebes in the 18th and 19th Dynasties was probably built around and between the major East Bank temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor – then subsumed beneath the modern town.

Reconstruction of the East Bank at Thebes in the New Kingdom, looking from Luxor Temple (bottom) towards Karnak along the processional road of the Opet festival. The extent of the settlement around the temples and road is speculative. © J-CL. Golvin, Errance Editions.

The temple of Medinet Habu, looking south. This important West Bank temple was not simply the mortuary monument of Ramesses III, but also an important administrative centre in the late New Kingdom and the core of the town of Maiunehes. Heidi Grassley © Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.

An overview of the main archaeological remains at Thebes illustrates the dominance of monumental temple-buildings in terms of surviving structures, with the location and extent of most of the domestic settlement a matter for conjecture. Steven Snape.

However, despite the impression given today that the city of Thebes consisted almost entirely of royal monuments and private tombs, there are a number of important pieces of information from the New Kingdom that have helped us to understand key elements in Egyptian urban design of the period. The four most significant conclusions we can derive from these are:

1 The monumental ‘skeleton’ of a city is often the core of its built environment, and the ‘home’ of its patron god. Karnak temple as the house of Amun-Re (and his divine family) and the paved road of the processional route to Luxor temple provided the spine of the East Bank city of Thebes. An extension of this monumental skeleton on the West Bank included the royal mortuary temples of which the best known are those of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, Amenhotep III at Kom el-Hetan, Ramesses II (the ‘Ramesseum’) and Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. Of course the royal burial site of the Valley of the Kings also formed an important part of the monumental aspect of Thebes, although not one that would have been accessible, or even visible, to the vast majority of the city’s population.

2 Where space allowed, the different elements could spread out over a wide area, with agricultural land or even the Nile itself between those different elements. The distribution of existing clusters of buildings from Thebes, especially on the West Bank, makes this clear, especially as recorded in the house census centred on the town of Maiunehes.

3 However, despite the city being widely spread, individual groups of houses and communities were often tightly packed together within an enclosing wall. The outstanding example of this is the workers’ village at Deir el-Medina.

4 The impetus for much of the building activity in major centres – ‘royal cities’ – came from the king. This is best illustrated in temple construction, but also in the sometimes extensive palace complexes they built. That at Malkata, built by Amenhotep III on the West Bank at Thebes is one of the best examples of what is effectively a town within a city.

Thebes may not be the place where we can most clearly see what a great ancient Egyptian city looked like in totality – for that we must go to the briefly occupied Amarna – but it has provided us with a great deal of evidence to help us understand a number of major components that went to make up Egyptian cities and towns; this then enables us to see that, in its core features, Amarna does not seem to be unusual as a large urban centre of the New Kingdom – a very important factor given that we rely so much on its evidence to understand ancient Egyptian urban life.

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