The grandeur of ancient Thebes

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 28 May 2024

Nevine El-Aref explores the rich history of Thebes and the work being done to offer a glimpse of its ancient Egyptian grandeur in a series of articles on Egypt’s World Heritage Sites 

Luxor temple


The ancient city of Thebes, known today as Luxor, stands as a testament to the grandeur and glory of ancient Egypt. 

Nestled along the banks of the River Nile, Thebes was once the thriving capital of Egypt during the ancient Egyptian Middle and New Kingdoms, serving as a cultural, political, and religious hub.

 Its wealth of archaeological treasures has earned it a place among the most significant historical sites in the world. Today, it is famed not only for its majestic temples but also for its sprawling necropolis, which continues to captivate archaeologists, historians, and tourists alike.

As a striking testimony to ancient Egyptian civilisation at its height, Thebes was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Within its boundaries, the site encompasses key attributes that convey its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), presenting an ensemble of unique splendour in excellent condition. 

The perfection of ancient building techniques has ensured the monuments’ resilience against natural forces over time. Despite the inevitable wear and tear, they still exhibit their beauty and convey immense artistic and historic value, preserving all the features that directly and tangibly link them to religious events and the evolution of burial practices through various periods. 

The challenges of history have caused significant damage, but ongoing restoration and conservation efforts are successfully addressing these issues, enhancing both the stability and the clarity of the monuments, tombs, and pyramids on the site.

The monumental and archaeological complex of Thebes, with its temples, tombs, royal palaces, villages of artisans and artists, inscriptions, and countless figurative representations, stands as a material testament to the history of Egyptian civilisation from the Middle Kingdom to the early Christian era. 

These elements are invaluable both aesthetically and documentarily. Furthermore, the texts and paintings provide vital information about the people and cultures of neighbouring regions, including Nubia, the country of Punt, Libya, Syria, and the Hittite and Aegean civilisations.

Thebes rose to prominence around 2040 BCE during the Middle Kingdom. It reached its zenith during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), becoming a focal point of worship for the god Amun-Re. The city’s architectural marvels include the vast Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple Complex, which remains the largest religious building ever constructed, on the east bank of the Nile.

On the west of the Nile lies the necropolis, a vast burial ground for Pharaohs, nobles, and elite members of society. This City of the Dead includes the famed Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, with some of the most distinguished tombs belonging to King Sety I, King Tutankhamun, and Queen Nefertari.

Other tombs are scattered across the desert landscape, the most distinguished being in the Al-Asasif Necropolis that contains top officials’ tombs and the Deir Al-Medina Necropolis, which houses the tombs of workers and artisans. It also has scores of temples, and a multitude of houses, villages, shrines, and work stations.

Despite their enduring beauty, the monuments of Thebes face numerous threats. Natural factors like erosion, rising groundwater levels, and seismic activity continually wear down the ancient structures. Human activities, including tourism and urban development, also pose significant risks. The sheer number of visitors, while economically beneficial, can lead to physical damage and increased humidity within the tombs, accelerating their deterioration.

The impact of climate change has exacerbated these challenges. Extreme weather conditions, such as heavy rains and intense heat, contribute to the gradual decay of the monuments. The changing environment requires adaptive conservation strategies to mitigate these effects.

In response to these challenges, a concerted effort involving the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the local authorities, international organisations, and academic institutions is underway to preserve Thebes’ heritage. Several initiatives aimed at safeguarding the site are underway, notably to ensure that it does not suffer more from rising underground water levels.

But it is still under pressure from the risks of flooding, uncontrolled tourism, recreation, major infrastructure, urban development projects, as well as housing and agricultural encroachment.


PROJECTS: The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has undertaken numerous comprehensive maintenance, conservation, and rehabilitation projects across each area of the site. 

These initiatives involve all major stakeholders, including the local community, in the management of the site. The interventions adhere to international restoration principles, respecting the legibility of the structures and the principle of reversibility.

The site of Ancient Thebes and its necropolis encompass 12 major archaeological sites, presenting a significant challenge in developing a unified management plan that includes conservation, future planning, visitor management, and capacity development. Creating an effective and comprehensive management system that involves all key stakeholders at both the national and local levels is essential.

Currently, a comprehensive management plan for the entire property is in development. Work is being done to modify the boundary of the site to include the Avenue of Sphinxes, ensuring that all attributes are encompassed within its boundaries.

Comprehensive restoration projects are being carried out to stabilise and conserve key structures, among them is the awe-inspiring Karnak Temple where the Great Hypostyle Hall stands like a forest of 134 towering columns adorned with intricate hieroglyphs and depictions of deities that have weathered the sands of time for millennia. 

Faced with the challenge of preserving this history, a team of dedicated archaeologists and restorers embarked on a monumental journey to breathe new life into the Great Hypostyle Hall in 2021.

The project began with meticulous planning and extensive research. Scholars delved into ancient texts, examined intricate hieroglyphs, and studied the structural integrity of the hall. Every stone tells the story of the passage of time, and the restoration team sought to honour the craftsmanship of the original builders by revealing the original vividly coloured decorations while incorporating scientific techniques adhering to international conservation standards and protocols to ensure the longevity of their work.

The restoration not only preserves the structural integrity of the Hall, but also unveils layers of historical interventions by various Pharaohs. The Great Hypostyle Hall thus stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship and the ongoing efforts to safeguard this invaluable cultural treasure.

For the first time, visitors to Karnak’s Great Hypostyle Hall will be able to admire the original inscriptions on its columns after decades of their being concealed by accumulated dust, smoke, and bird deposits,” said Director-General of the Karnak Temples Mustafa Al-Saghir.

He explained that the project was carried out in three phases and also involved documenting and studying the hall’s inscriptions, which provide valuable information about the history and religion of ancient Egypt. 

To enhance the tourist experience at the Karnak Temples, other activities have been undertaken, among them the re-erection of Hatshepsut’s Obelisk after restoration. The obelisk had lain for decades beside the Sacred Lake inside the temples.

It is carved from granite and was originally erected at the Karnak Temples, but a destructive earthquake in antiquity caused it to collapse on top of the debris accumulated on the Hall built by Queen Hatshepsut’s father King Thutmosis I. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, French Egyptologist George Legrain removed the upper part of the obelisk and laid it down beside the artificial Sacred Lake inside the Temple Complex. 

The obelisk is 11 metres tall and weighs 90 tons. It is decorated with scenes depicting Queen Hatshepsut and her relationship with the god Amun as well as showing his different names and titles.

A replica of the Karnak King List has been also installed in its original location at the southwest corner of the Akh-Menu Hall at the Karnak Temples. The original is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris and was taken there in 1843. Comprising the names of 61 ancient Egyptian kings, the List was composed during the reign of the 18th-Dynasty King Thutmosis III to celebrate his ancestry since the founder of the Fourth Dynasty King Snefru.

Although only the names of 39 kings are legible, the list is invaluable because it includes the names of many First and Second Intermediate Period kings not mentioned elsewhere.

The open-air museum in the northwest corner of the Karnak Temples has also received a facelift as part of the restoration work, and the site as a whole has been improved by installing new seats, sunshades, and signage to provide visitors with information and directions. Paving tiles that had gone missing over past decades have been replaced, and there is improved mobility for disabled people. 

New artefacts have been added to the open-air museum to enrich its displays. Among them are objects from the reigns of King Akhenaten, King Shabaka and others that date back to the Late Period. It brings together a magnificent collection of monuments scattered during archaeological excavations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As it was impossible to replace the objects in their original locations, the open-air museum was established in 1937 to preserve the architectural elements found. Its collection includes the red quartzite Red Chapel from the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the shrine of King Tuthmosis III, columns from the reign of King Thutmose IV, two alabaster chapels belonging to kings Thutmose I and Thutmose II, and a large Talatat limestone wall from the reign of King Akhenaten.

It also features a collection of ancient Egyptian slabs as well as remains of portico and architectural elements from different edifices that once graced the temples.


ICONIC ELEMENTS: One of the most iconic features of Karnak is the Avenue of Sphinxes, a processional pathway connecting the Karnak to the Luxor Temple. 

Lined with imposing sphinx statues, this sacred avenue was once used for grand religious processions and ceremonies. Today, it has been restored, providing a distinguished experience to visitors. Walking along this ancient path evokes a sense of reverence, transporting visitors back in time to a period when the temples were the epicentre of religious and political life in Egypt.

A project to enhance both the Luxor and Karnak Temples and make them more accessible to people with disabilities has been carried out by the ministry in partnership with Egyptian NGO the Helm Foundation, which specialises in promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life. 

The project has enhanced access by building accessible wooden trails and providing information labels and brochures in Braille for the visually impaired, as well as videos. The toilets have been renovated and equipped to suit special-needs visitors, according to international standards.

Restoration work has also been carried out on the Luxor Temple, as the missing colossi of King Ramses II that once decorated its first pylon has been assembled, restored, and re-erected in the original location.

The statues were destroyed in an earthquake that hit the country in antiquity. Egyptologist Mohamed Abdel-Qader, who uncovered the blocks of the colossi under the Temple’s facade between 1958 and 1960, was able to collect all the blocks and pieces of the colossi and put them on a wooden base in its original location to ensure its protection.

The Luxor Temple was primarily built by Amenhotep III and later expanded by Ramses II and is a masterpiece of ancient architecture. Its grand colonnades and towering obelisks reflect the artistic and architectural advancements of the time. Meanwhile, the Karnak Temple, with its massive Hypostyle Hall, numerous chapels, and Sacred Lake, provides a glimpse into the religious practices and ceremonial grandeur of ancient Egypt.

Restoration work at the necropolis has been carried out in several tombs in both the Valleys of Kings and the Valley of the Queens, as well as at Al-Asasif and Deir Al-Medina, to consolidate the walls and strengthen paintings and reliefs. A rotation system has been implemented in visiting the tombs and signage installed to enhance the visitor experience.

The northern and southern rooms of the god Amun Re located on the Upper Terrace of the Hatshepsut Temple in Deir Al-Bahari on the West Bank are now open to visitors after their restoration. The newly opened rooms flank the main sanctuary of Amun-Re, which was opened to the public in 2017. 

The restoration was carried out by conservators, architects, structural engineers, and Egyptologists from the Polish-Egyptian archaeological and conservation expedition.

As indicated by the themes of the restored wall decorations, the southern room was probably used to store aromatic substances and linen robes used during rituals. The walls of the northern room, of unknown function, depict the offering of sacrifices to Amun-Re by Queen Hatshepsut and her ward King Thutmose III and some of the rituals they performed, such as running with an oar. 

When Thutmose III ascended to the throne after a period of co-regency, Hatshepsut was removed from the decorations of the Temple. The least prominent place behind the doors, a figure of engineer Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s most eminent courtier, is depicted along with an inscription explaining that the queen allowed his name to be engraved in all the rooms of her Temple. But only in these two rooms is he shown standing rather than kneeling, which may suggest a special function.


DISCOVERIES: Major discoveries made in the necropolis have always made the headlines, with the most recent being the Asasif Cachette. This ground-breaking discovery, one of the most important for a century, consists of a collection of 30 intact, intricately painted, and sealed wooden coffins. They are exceptionally beautiful and feature vivid coloured scenes.

The coffins still house their mummies, which belong to a group of 23rd and 22nd-Dynasty priests and five priestesses of the deities Amun and Khonsu, along with two children. CT scans carried out on three of the mummies of a woman, a man, and a child have revealed that they are in very good condition. The woman died at the age of 35, while the man died in his 50s, and the child died when he was 10 years old.

The scans show that the mummy of the child has two golden bracelets in his hands. More scientific studies will be carried out on the mummies, as well as DNA analysis, in order to discover their lineage and links with each other.

This is the first cachette of coffins to be uncovered in Luxor since the end of the 19th century. Other cachettes found in the area include those of the royal mummies at Deir Al-Bahari, discovered in 1881, and of King Amenhotep II’s coffin, unveiled in 1898. A cachette of priests’ coffins in the Bab Al-Gussess area was also unearthed in 1891.

The largest staff tomb was uncovered in the Draa Abul-Naga area on the West Bank and is a type of rock-hewn tomb used during the 11th Dynasty. The tomb belonged to a holder of the king’s funerary cones named Shedsu-Djehuty.  It has painted walls with scenes depicting the deceased before the gods and scenes showing daily life, the fabrication of wooden boats, hunting and fishing. 

Pots and ushabti figurines made of faience, clay, and wood were also unearthed, as were canopic jars and an anthropoid cartonnage sarcophagus. The discovery of this tomb may change the archaeological map of the site as well as provide a new understanding of the architecture of individual tombs in the Draa Abul-Naga Necropolis.

An industrial zone for the fabrication of funerary collections was uncovered in the Valley of the Monkeys on the West Bank this year. The discovery was made by an Egyptian team led by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who described it as unique in the area. The zone contains an oven used for clay products and a water storage tank used by workmen. A scarab ring and hundreds of inlay beads and golden objects used to decorate royal coffins were also discovered at the site. 

Preserving such ancient sites is a significant challenge. Both natural and human factors threaten the integrity of the structures and artworks. Efforts by the Egyptian government and international organisations are ongoing to protect and restore the tombs and temples. Advanced technologies, such as laser scanning and 3D modelling, are being employed to document and preserve these irreplaceable cultural treasures.

Thebes and its necropolis stand as a monumental record of ancient Egyptian civilisation. The temples and tombs of this historic city continue to inspire awe and wonder, offering a profound connection to a civilisation that flourished thousands of years ago. As efforts to preserve these sites continue, Thebes will remain a beacon of human heritage, illuminating the achievements and mysteries of ancient Egypt for generations to come.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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