Luxor is receiving a massive facelift in preparation for the launch of a major campaign promoting the city as the world’s greatest open-air museum. It is hoped that the celebrations marking the launch of the campaign will focus the world’s attention on Luxor’s awe-inspiring Theban monuments, the dazzling Nile, the charming traditional market and horse-drawn carriages, and host of other tourist attractions.
The centrepiece of the launch will be a re-enactment of the ancient Egyptian Opet festival, which is being resurrected with a contemporary twist.
The serenity of Karnak and Luxor temples has been disturbed by workers installing lights, extending cables, erecting wooden stages and fixing backdrops for the festivities.
Conservators and archaeologists, armed with brushes, sticks, trowels, sieves, hand-held blowers and buckets, stand on scaffolding brushing accumulated debris from the temples’ columns and walls, revealing long concealed colours.
Some are sifting the sands along the Avenue of Sphinxes where huge banners are being installed, ready to host an exhibition of archive photographs, the majority taken in the 19th century, documenting the history of the excavation of Luxor and Karnak temples and the major discoveries that occurred during the process, and illustrating finds connected to the royal kings and queens who participated in the construction of the avenue and the ancient festival.
“Excavation work on the Great Processional Path, known as the Avenue of Sphinxes, began seriously in 1949 when Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Ghoneim unearthed the first eight ram-headed statues,” explained Mahmoud Mabrouk, advisor to the minister of tourism and antiquities. Ghoneim’s pioneering work was then taken up by other archaeologists who plotted the course of the ceremonial way.
Beyond the archaeological sites, workers are busy in streets and squares upgrading Luxor’s infrastructure. New street lighting is being installed, squares are being tidied up, shop fronts polished and streets repaved. The whole city has become a hive of activity. A promenade along the Nile has been constructed, major streets and squares are being newly landscaped, and information boards erected to inform pedestrians of the ancient sites past which they are walking.
While the date of the launch is shrouded in secrecy, a source at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that the upcoming celebrations will include a modern riff on the Opet festival and showcase all of Luxor’s attractions, from traditional felucca rides and luxury cruises on the Nile to hot air balloons over the Valleys of the Kings and Nobles, and performances of traditional music.
Zahi Hawass, former minister of antiquities, said that during the annual Opet festival ancient Egyptian priests would process from Karnak to Luxor along the Avenue of Sphinxes carrying a wooden barque holding the shrine of the Theban triad of deities, Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu, in a celebration intended to recreate their marriage. The ritual was held annually from the New Kingdom onwards.
The rituals associated with the Opet festival, pointed out Hawass, are detailed in Luxor Temple where “inscriptions reveal many features of the feast, including music, dance, military marches, the presentation of offerings, and horse shows.”
Hangovers from the ancient festival can still be witnessed in Luxor, not least in the celebration of Moulid Sidi Abul-Haggag. Abul-Haggag was a 13th-century Sufi sheikh whose mosque was built next to a Coptic church, both of which lie within the confines of Luxor Temple.
The magnificent Avenue of Sphinxes, along which priests and Pharaohs once walked in procession, connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak. Many of the 1,350 sphinxes, human heads with the bodies of lions, that once lined the avenue have been restored.
The 2,700-metre-long avenue was built during the reign of the 13th-Dynasty Pharaoh Nectanebo I. It replaced an earlier processional way, as queen Hatshepsut recorded on the walls of her red chapel in Karnak Temple. Hatshepsut built six chapels dedicated to the god Amun-Re on the route of the avenue during her reign.
The avenue was originally lined with sphinxes with ram rather than human heads, sitting on sandstone plinths opposite one another along the course of the ceremonial route. Over the centuries the avenue was lost. Some of the sphinxes were destroyed, and the road eventually obliterated beneath sand on which, in may areas, random housing was built.
Within the framework of plans to restore the city’s ancient Egyptian monuments and develop the entire Luxor governorate into an open-air museum, work began on uncovering the lost sections of the avenue. The sphinxes were restored, and while the attempt to restore the ceremonial way was very much a stop-start affair, contingent on the political upheavals of recent years, work is now complete and visitors to Luxor can explore most of the sacred route.
Mustafa Al-Saghir, director general of Karnak Temple, revealed that excavations carried out along the avenue had unearthed not only fragments of the sphinxes but many other objects. A wall dating to the Roman Period was found, together with the foundations of Roman buildings and workshops for the manufacture of clay pots, amulets and statues. A number of bas reliefs were uncovered, as were pots for plants which, in the New Kingdom, were placed between the statues. Wine presses from Roman times were also discovered, and the excavations, said Al-Saghir, had revealed much about “the economic and social life of the residents of Thebes”.
Restoration work at Karnak’s Great Hypostyle Hall is now complete, with many of the intricate bas reliefs showing traces of their original painting. The open court of Karnak has been developed and visitor facilities upgraded with new sunshades, seats and signage. Both Karnak and Luxor temples also boast new lighting systems.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly