On the west bank of the Nile at Luxor in the area located between king Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu and king Amenhotep III’s temple at Memnon, archaeologists armoured with hats and gloves were digging in the sand searching for king Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple.
But after a year of excavation, they stumbled upon what is believed to be a lost golden city from the reign of the 18th-Dynasty king Amenhotep III, father of the monotheistic king Akhenaten.
It was to this site that the international and local media flocked last Saturday, astonished at the news of the uncovering of this ancient city that is still in a good state of preservation, with almost complete walls and rooms filled with the tools of daily life.
The newly excavated city was a hive of activity last weekend as workers carefully carried out ancient pots and showed off the human and animal remains that had been unearthed within the remains of the city’s curved brick walls and rudimentary streets.
“This large city that was formerly lost was connected with the god Atun and king Amenhotep III,” former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass, the leader of the excavation team, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He described the discovery as “amazing” because it tells for the first time the life story of the ancient Egyptian people. “We know a lot about the tombs, temples, and afterlife rituals of the ancient Egyptians, but the discovery of this lost city now reveals for the first time the secrets of their lives during the golden age of ancient Egypt,” Hawass said.
Three major districts had been found inside the city, he added, including an administrative settlement, a residential area, and an industrial district where workshops for drying meat and factories for clothes and sandals and crafting amulets and small statues were found.
Called the “Rise of Aten”, the city was founded by one of the greatest rulers of Egypt, king Amenhotep III, the ninth king of the 18th Dynasty, and it was active during the king’s co-regency with his son, the monotheistic king Akhenaten. The city continued to be used by king Amenhotep III’s grandson Tutankhamun and his successor king Ay.
Hawass said that one of the recent finds was of a vessel containing two gallons of dried or boiled meat (about 10kg), which had a valuable inscription on it reading “year 37, dressed meat for the third Heb Sed festival from the slaughterhouse of the stockyard of Kha made by the butcher luwy.
“This valuable information not only gives us the names of two people that lived and worked in the city, but also confirms that the city was active at the time of king Amnehotep III’s co-regency with his son Akhenaten,” he said.
One year after the pot was made, the city was apparently abandoned and the capital relocated to Amarna. “But was it? And why? And was the city repopulated again when Tutankhamun returned to Thebes,” Hawass asked. “Only further excavations of the area will reveal what truly happened 3,500 years ago.”
“Many foreign missions have searched for this city and never found it. We began our work searching for the mortuary temple of Tutankhamun, because the temples of both kings Horemheb and Ay were found in this area,” Hawass pointed out.
He explained that the city’s streets were flanked by houses, some of whose walls were up to three metres high. The city probably extended to the west to the famous Deir Al-Medina site.
“The archaeological layers have lain untouched for thousands of years, left by the ancient residents as if it were yesterday,” Hawass told the Weekly.
Upon its discovery, he added, the first goal of the mission was to date the city. Hieroglyphic inscriptions found on the clay caps of wine vessels helped, as did uncovered rings, scarabs, coloured pottery vessels, and mud bricks bearing seals of king Amenhotep III’s cartouche.
In the southern part of the city, the mission found a bakery and a cooking and food preparation area complete with ovens and storage pottery. The large size of this area showed that the kitchen was catering to a very large number of workers and employees.
PLAN OF THE CITY: The second, and partly still uncovered, area of the city was originally the administrative and residential district, with larger and well-arranged units.
This area is fenced in by a zigzag wall, with only one access point leading to internal corridors and residential areas. “The single entrance makes us think it was some sort of security point, with the ability to control entry and exit to enclosed areas,” Hawass said, adding that zigzag walls are one of the rare architectural elements in ancient Egyptian architecture, mainly used towards the end of the 18th Dynasty.
The industrial area is divided into two sections: the first was for the production of the mudbricks used to build temples and annexes. The bricks have seals bearing the cartouche of king Amenhotep III. The second contains a large number of casting moulds for the production of amulets and delicate decorative elements. This is further evidence of the extensive activity in the city to produce decorations for both temples and tombs.
All over the excavated areas, the mission has found instruments used in industrial activities like spinning and weaving. Metal and glass-making slag has also been unearthed, but the main area of such activity has yet to be discovered.
Two unusual burials of a cow or a bull were found inside one of the rooms. Investigations are underway to determine the nature and purpose of this practice. Even more remarkably, the burial of a person found with his arms outstretched to his side and the remains of a rope wrapped around his knees was found.
“The location and position of this skeleton is rather odd, and more investigations are in progress,” Hawass said.
To the north of the settlement, a large cemetery has been uncovered, the extent of which has yet to be determined. So far, the mission has discovered a group of rock-cut tombs of different sizes that can be reached through stairs carved into the rock. This is a common feature of tomb construction in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Nobles.
Excavation work continues, and the mission expects to uncover untouched tombs filled with treasures. This will also allow archaeologists access to the original activity layers of the city, uncovering important information that will change history and give us a unique insight into Tutankhamun’s famous family.
Betsy Brian, a professor of Egyptology at John Hopkins University in the US, described the discovery as exceptional in scale and organisation.
She believes that it is certainly as important as the finding of a royal tomb. “There’s no indication that I am aware of that this town section had been found before, although clearly it represents a new part of an enormous royal city that we can appreciate far more now,” she said.
She added that the discovery of the Lost City will not only give us a rare glimpse into the life of the ancient Egyptians at the time when the empire was at its wealthiest, but will also help us to understand one of history’s greatest mysteries: why Akhenaten and Nefetiti decided to move to Amarna.
Brian said that the newly industrial town filled a well-known gap between the Malkata Palace and the Temple of Kom Al-Hettan at Memnon. It demonstrates that the size of this royal city was indeed similar to Amarna and represents a clear precedent for the coming city of Akhenaten.
“I saw nothing there or in storage that suggests a date continuing past the departure of Akhenaten for Amarna. The far later burials are clearly just the reuse of an abandoned town area convenient for use. The aten has been found, living in truth. This deserves all our appreciation as a discovery that will feed research for some time to come,” Brian said.
“There are industrial sectors, all specifically divided by sinusoidal walls and discrete by function. Ovens and kilns abound. There are stamped bricks in large numbers with the clay source next to them.”
José Galan, head of a Spanish archaeological mission near the Valley of the Kings, described the discovery as “fantastic”, adding that it shed light on the life of the ancient Egyptians as all discoveries up to now had been related to temples and tombs, religious life and funerary habits, and little had been known about settlements and how the ancient Egyptians lived.
Hannah Pethen, a British archaeologist and honorary fellow of the University of Liverpool, told the US network NBC that the discovery was a landmark in the understanding of the region.
The newly discovered city is now one of three sites from around the same period — the others are the Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu and Amenhotep III’s temple at Memnon — and its key role may be in confirming that things found there were common across the empire.
“This is really the major settlement on the west bank of the Nile from this period, so it’s going to be directly associated with the tombs and cemeteries there, and so we’re adding to our understanding of that landscape. We have tombs, temples, and now we have quite a big city,” Pethen said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly