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Thebes, the city of the god Amon, was the capital of Egypt during the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms. With the temples and palaces at Karnak and Luxor, and the necropolises of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, Thebes is a striking testimony to Egyptian civilization at its height.
Source: UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai
Thebes (Ancient Greek: Θῆβαι , Thēbai), known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, was an ancient Egyptian city located along the Nile about 800 kilometers (500 mi) south of the Mediterranean. Its ruins lie within the modern Egyptian city of Luxor. Thebes was the main city of the fourth Upper Egyptian nome (Sceptre nome) and was the capital of Egypt for long periods during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras. It was close to Nubia and the Eastern Desert, with its valuable mineral resources and trade routes. It was a cult center and the most venerated city during many periods of ancient Egyptian history. The site of Thebes includes areas on both the eastern bank of the Nile, where the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand and where the city was situated and the western bank, where a necropolis of large private and royal cemeteries and funerary complexes can be found.
Reason: Towering temples and treasure-filled tombs shine a light on one of history's greatest civilizations.
Ancient Thebes was home to some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world—built to honor the living, the dead, and the divine. The city, known as Waset to ancient Egyptians and as Luxor today, was the capital of Egypt during parts of the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 B.C.) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 B.C.).
Thebes was the city of Amun, whose devotees elevated him among the ranks of ancient deities. Once a relatively local Theban god, he was merged with the god Re and perched atop the entire Egyptian pantheon.
Amun’s city sat astride the Nile in Upper Egypt. On the river’s east side was the city proper and many important temples, including the legendary Karnak complex. Karnak was one of the biggest religious complexes in the world, nearly one mile by half a mile (1.5 kilometers by 800 meters), and even after more than 3,000 years it remains one of the most awe-inspiring.
This was the principal religious site of the New Kingdom, and its monuments are correspondingly enormous—Hatshepsut’s obelisk towers 90 feet (27.5 meters). The massive assemblage of structures, columns, and statuary paid tribute to four different gods.
Karnak was linked to another legendary site, the Luxor Temple, by a grand, 1.9-mile-long (3-kilometer-long) avenue lined with sphinxes.
Luxor Temple, with its soaring columns and statues of Ramses II, is nearly as familiar as the Sphinx or Pyramids at Giza. The primary structure was built during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II, circa 1500 to 1200 B.C., but other rulers from Tutankhamun to Alexander the Great added their own touches over the years.
The temple was dedicated to Amun in his form as a fertility god and was used during the annual Opet Festival of royal renewal. Today it is still a place of worship—the Abu el-Haggag mosque added in the 11th century is still operational today.
On the Nile’s west bank, the dead held sway. It was here that the Egyptians created an extensive necropolis to commemorate the lives of the royal and highborn—and to prepare them for the afterlife.
The Valley of the Kings (actually two distinct valleys) was used to bury royalty during much of the New Kingdom era, from about 1550 to 1070 B.C. Rulers were interred in elaborate underground structures, with chambers and passages decorated with paintings and filled with everything a pharaoh could desire in this world or the next.
The valley is best known for the tomb of Tutankhamun, with its legendary treasures, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Many other royals were buried here but few known tombs remained as unmolested as Tut’s. The Valley of the Kings was heavily looted in the 21st dynasty (1070 to 945 B.C.) and many mummies were removed for safekeeping during this era.
Secreted in the cliffs of a Y-shaped ravine, the Valley of the Queens houses some 90 known tombs of queens, princes, and other notables from the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070). As at other sites, tomb robbing was common and relatively few undisturbed tombs were found here. Yet the necropolises themselves, along with the great temples on the far shore, make Thebes one of the truly great treasures of the ancient world—and the modern one as well.
This large temple complex dates back to the time of ancient Egypt. It is located within the city of Luxor (known as Ancient Thebes) and was built sometime in 1400 BCE. There are several temples within Luxor and the ones visited by tourists often include Temple of Seti I, Temple of Hatshepsut, Temple of Ramesses II, and Temple of Ramesses III.
Luxor Temple is different from other temples from Ancient Thebes since it was not dedicated to a deity or cult god. Instead, it was built to rejuvenate kingship – researchers claim that this might have been the site of crowning some of the kings of Egypt.
Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis (UNESCO/NHK) - History
One of my favourite UNESCO world heritage sites so far has to be Ancient Thebes and the Necropolis. Although now I appear to be following a career in Geography, my passion when I was younger was Egyptology. I studied the subject as part of my undergraduate degree, and took a trip to Luxor in 2005. It was part of this trip that provided the inspiration for my undergraduate dissertation research into tomb decoration in the Valley of the Nobles.
Sunrise over the East bank of Luxor
Thebes was the capital city for Egypt for the Middle and New Kingdoms, and remained the ceremonial centre for many dynasties in Egyptian history. On the East bank, temples are dotted throughout the landscape, while on the West Bank tombs and mortuary temples dominate the landscape.
”Thebes contains the finest relics of the history, art and religion of ancient Egypt, of which it was the capital in its period of greatest splendour. Hundred of sovereigns, from pharaohs to Roman emperors, glorified the city with architecture, obelisks and sculpture. The exaltation of life found expression in the Thebes of the Living, identifiable in the fabulous site of Luxor and Karnak, on the right bank of the Nile, the site of the temples dedicated to the divine triad of Montu, Amon and Mut, while the celebration of death took shape in the Thebes of the Dead.” UNESCO
Some important sites which are to be found here include:
- The temple of Luxor, built by Amenhotep III and Ramesses II, was connected to the great sanctuary of Karnak by a boulevard lined by sphinxes that led to its entrance. The temple sites on athe site of an older sanctuary built by Hatshepsut and deciated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khons.
- The temple complex of Karnak, is spectacular combination of santuaries, kiosks, hypostyle halls and obelisks, dedicated to the Theban gods, and Pharaohs. The site is around 1.5km by 800m meaning there it can take quite some time to explore properly. Built, added to, dismantled, restored, enlarged, and decorated over a period of nearly 1500 years, Karnak was the most important place of worship in Egypt during the height of Theban power was given the name ‘Ipet-Isut’ which literally means ‘The Most Perfect of Places’.
- Temple of Hatshepsut, built into the limestone cliffs, was excavated in 1891. Although the temple was vandalised during the Amarna Period (by the Pharaoh Akhenaten who broke away from the traditional Egyptian religious beliefs to worship the sun god Aten) many of the temples features still remain. Hatshepsut, one of the few (or as many believe, the only) female pharaohs. She ruled as Pharaoh for around 20 years and her reign is considered a time of peace, stability and growth for Egypt. In some reliefs she is shown in the regalia of Pharaoh, including the false beard, while in other scenes she is clearly female.
Deir el-Bahri, Temple of Hatshepsut
- Colossi of Memnon. All that remains of the funerary temple of Amenhotep III (which is thought to have been larger than Karnak),
- The tombs of the pharaohs and nobles, priests and princesses hidden in the mountains forming the great cemeteries of al-Asasif, al-Khokha, Qurnet Mura, Deir al-Medina, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Among the underground tombs of the Valley of Kings.
I was fortunate enough to experience a ride in a hot air balloon over the West Bank at sunrise. Breathtaking views, and such a tranquil ride.
View of the West Bank in Luxor from a hot air balloon
The sites mentioned here are but a few that make up the Ancient Thebes UNESCO site and I would encourage you to explore them in more depth.
City of the Dead – the Necropolis of Thebes
My train rolled into Luxor in the early hours of the morning. I’d been travelling overnight from Cairo and had shared a sleeper cabin with an affable Belgian man. This had dual pleasures – being able to talk to someone in English (hooray for European education systems) and also being able to buy an alcoholic drink in an Islamic country without being furtive. The golden days of train travel are past, but cabin drinking is an unalloyed pleasure.
This being Egypt in summer, it was ridiculously, ludicrously hot. I took refuge in my cheap hotel and collapsed on my bed. I was so confused and dehydrated that it took me half an hour to register that there was an air conditioner in the room. It only seemed to circulate the air gently and make a clattering noise, but I took comfort in the idea that someone had made a token effort to stop this country killing me.
I was pleased I’d arrived. I was here to see some cool stuff.
Luxor is the modern town on the Eastern bank of the Nile. It is built on the site of a vast ruin, covering miles and miles, which used to be Thebes, the capital of the Kingdom of Egypt during most of the New Kingdom period. Thebes is actually a heavily transmuted Greek version of the name of one of the large temples. The Egyptians called the city Waset, which to me sounds like a noise you make clearing your throat. Ancient Egyptian is an unromantic language.
Although the pyramids had long since been constructed, this was actually Egypt’s golden age. It dominated most of the eastern Mediterranean, with a formal empire stretching up into the Levant and cultural influence spreading much further. As you would expect, the ancient city was appropriately grand and some large temple complexes remain. But the stand out sites are on the Western bank, in the direction of the dying (setting) sun – the Valley of the Kings. This is where Tutankhamun and numerous other pharaohs were buried in underground tombs, the fashion for building pyramids having abated.
Once I’d rehydrated with about a gallon of water I set out to explore. In many ways the whole area is one big ancient ruin, but I was keen to see a couple in particular. The Great Temple of Karnak and Luxor Temple are both within the town limits, and both are remarkably huge. Karnak was the main temple for the whole of Egypt for most of its history and for me the most remarkable part is the immense columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall. They’re so Egyptian – simple lumps of stone, but heaved into improbable configurations by an enormous workforce.
Forest of stone Entry to the Karnak temple Columns
Luxor is imposing in its own way, with an immense wall and rows of statues of famous Pharaohs. There has been some debate about the purpose of this temple, but it seems likely that it was dedicated to the soul of the Pharaoh, and may have been where they were crowned. After the decline of the Egyptian Kingdom this site was used successively as a barracks for Roman troops, and later still as a residential quarter.
These temples are grand, but it’s over the river where the real fun started for me. I took a cab across the bridge one morning, which was a mistake due to the unfortunate marriage of the molten vinyl seats and my thighs. It was worth it though. I got to see Ozymandias.
Growing up, my family was the kind of place where one might hear random snippets of poetry being recited at inopportune times. One of these poems was “Ozymandias” by Shelley, a rather dour comment on the ephemerality of power. It refers to the so-called Colossi of Memnon – just the most monstrously huge things to be found in a country full of big pieces of stone. The Colossi are two seated figures made of stone, eighteen metres high, which once formed part of a now-missing temple. They can be seen from miles away and are just sitting there in a field. The pyramids are bigger, but they’re not shaped like people. Astonishing.
Colossi of Memnon
Behind the Colossi lies the Valley of the Kings, the burial site of most of the later Egyptian Pharaohs. This is site of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the only tomb to have been found un-robbed. The Valley is yet another in a series of hot, dry and dusty parts of Egypt, but is surprisingly small given the large number of tombs which have been crammed into it. The location of the Valley is significant, to the West of Thebes proper. Seen from there, the sun setting behind the mountains to the West was symbolic of death, a recurring theme in Egyptian culture. On reflection I’m not surprised that most of the tombs were robbed – it wouldn’t have taken too much exploration to find where the recent digging had taken place.
Village near the Valley of the Kings
Many of the tombs are open to visitors. That surprised me at first, but I guess they’ve been open for a couple of thousand years already. How much more damage can be done by properly corralled tourists? Most of the tombs are surprisingly small, in particular Tutankhamun’s. There’s some suggestion that he died unexpectedly, and that he was buried in a smaller tomb meant for someone else, which explains why his burial goods were piled up haphazardly. There has recently been some speculation that Tutankhamun’s tomb may have a hidden chamber where someone else, possibly Nefertiti, is buried.
I stuck my head into a few more tombs before heading home. Luxor is a monster. The climate is crushing, which makes me wonder why people ever thought it was a good idea to live there. Also, it doesn’t take long to develop a severe case of ruin overload. Any of the major sites within this property would merit World Heritage nomination on their own, and there are a number that I haven’t mentioned. I’d love to go back, but this time I’d take a week and try to let it soak in. I left shellshocked and baffled, and flew to Singapore a few days later.
Sunset over the Nile
Egyptian archaeological sites in UNESCO’s World Heritage List
CAIRO - 18 April 2020: World Heritage Day falls on April 18 every year. It is tailor made to increase awareness about the vitality of cultural heritage and find ways to protect and preserve our heritage.
In 1982 the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) suggested celebrating heritage on April 18, and it was approved by the General Assembly of UNESCO in 1983.
Celebrating World Heritage Day, Egypt Today will give its readers a list of the Egyptian archaeological sites that were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
1-Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
Nubia is a geographic region in the south of Egypt and the north Sudan. A number of important sites are located in the region between Aswan and Abu Simbel, and in 1979, ten were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
These are, from south to north: The temples of Ramesses II in Abu Simbel Amada Wadi Sebua Kalabsha Philae (Island of Agilkia) the ancient granite quarries and unfinished obelisk in Aswan the Islamic Cemetery the ruins of the ancient city of Elephantine the Monastery of St Simeon and the Old and Middle Kingdom tombs in Aswan (the so-called Tombs of the Nobles).
The construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s threatened these monuments with submersion, but they were all saved thanks to the efforts of an International Campaign launched by UNESCO from 1960 to 1980.
2-Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis
The ancient city of Thebes, modern Luxor in the south of Egypt, was one of the most important cities from the Middle Kingdom (c.2055–1650 BC) onwards.
The vast majority of the ancient Egyptian monuments that can still be visited there today were built during the New Kingdom (c.1550–1069 BC), Egypt’s age of empire. Ancient Thebes and its necropolis, or burial areas, were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979.
The monuments that may be seen here are the Karnak temple complex and Luxor Temple on the east bank of the Nile, and those on the west bank include the temple of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu the Ramesseum of Ramesses II Amenhotep III’s Colossi of Memnon the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir al-Bahari the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun was buried the tombs in the Valley of the Queens and the town and tombs of the workmen of the royal tombs in Deir al-Medina.
3-Memphis and its Necropolis
Memphis, near the modern village of Mit Rahina not far from Cairo, and its necropolis were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979.
Said to have been founded by the legendary first king of Egypt Menes in 3100 BC, the ancient city of Memphis was the capital during the Early Dynastic Period (c.3100–2686 BC) and Old Kingdom (c.2686–2181 BC), and continued to be one of the most important cities throughout more than three-thousand years of ancient Egyptian history.
It was a center for the worship of the god Ptah, whose temple was one of the most important places in all of ancient Egypt. It was so important, that the origin of the word “Egypt”, from Greek Aigyptos, comes from the temple’s ancient name, Hikuptah “The Temple of the ka (‘soul’) of Ptah.
The city’s longevity is reflected in the sheer size and number of the many ancient cemeteries in its area. These include, from north to south, Abu Rawash the Giza Plateau, the site of the three world-famous Pyramids of Giza Zawyet al-‘Aryan Abu Ghurab Abusir Saqqara Mit Rahina and Dahshur.
Cairo, the capital of Egypt, was founded in 969 BC by Jawhar al-Siqilli, the general of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu’izz. As the city grew over time, it came to absorb the older capitals that had been founded nearby since the Arab conquest in 20 AH/641 AD, such as al-Fustat.
Modern Cairo thus conceals within it the many sites and monuments of its complex past. The following were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979: Al-Fustat, which includes the Nilometer on Rawdah Island, the Mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the Hanging Church, and the Ben ‘Ezra Synagogue the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the Citadel, the Fatimid nucleus of Cairo and its necropolis al-Imam al-Shaf’i Necropolis al-Sayyidah Nafisah Necropolis and the Qaytbay Necropolis.
Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979, Abu Mena is the site of the ruins of a church, monasteries, houses, workshops, and various public buildings that were built on the tomb of Saint Menas of Alexandria.
It is said that, after his martyrdom in the late 3rd or early 4th century AD, the camel transporting his body through the desert south of Alexandria spontaneously refused to proceed any further.
This was interpreted as a sign from God, and Saint Menas was buried on this spot. This became the site of a miraculous healing spring, and word spread. Already by the late 4th century AD, Abu Mena had already become a very popular center for pilgrimage.
6- Saint Catherine’s Monastery and its surrounding area
On the slopes of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, lies one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the world. It was built by order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527–565 AD) in 548–565 AD. The eponymous Saint Catherine of Alexandria was martyred in the early 4th century AD. The monastery bears her name because its monks discovered her incorrupt body on nearby Mount Saint Catherine in the 9th century AD, where it had been deposited by angels after her martyrdom.
The monastery, which was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2002, encompasses multiple structures, the most important of which is the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ the Savior, which itself contains nine smaller churches.
One of these is the Church of the Burning Bush, from which God spoke to the prophet Moses. Saint Catherine’s Monastery also includes ten other churches, the monks’ accommodations, a refectory, an olive press, ossuaries, a Fatimid mosque from the 12th century AD, and a library that boasts rare books and 6,000 manuscripts.
What is a UNESCO World Heritage site?
While some people plan entire trips around World Heritage sites, not everyone is familiar with what this designation actually means.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.
The means for accomplishing this was established in the form of an international treaty adopted by UNESCO in 1972.
This agreement lays out a program and process for protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage, defined as:
- Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value.
- Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value.
Sites included on the World Heritage list are to be of universal value, meaning they are of more than local interest. All sites are nominated by the national government of the country in which they are located, with the final selection made by an international committee.
Although it didn’t take its current form until 1972, the UNESCO World Heritage program was triggered by construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt in 1959. That’s when UNESCO launched an international campaign to accelerate research in areas that faced flooding due to the dam’s construction. This work included moving the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae to higher locations.
The UNESCO World Heritage website has all of the documentation (scanned PDFs of original typed documents) on Egypt’s World Heritage sites and a lot of poorly labeled photographs. Until recently, it had great descriptions of each site, the site’s history, and the importance of the site’s various components. That “Brief Synthesis” section was removed from the Egyptian pages this spring. Unless that information reappears, the best source of comprehensible information on World Heritage sites in Egypt seems to be the one the African World Heritage Sites website – which doesn’t have a great index.
(The removal of the “Brief Synthesis” section seems unique to the Egyptian pages.)
In-depth information on the UNESCO World Heritage program can be found by following links on UNESCO’s World Heritage page. However, for a more basic description of the program, check the National Park Service’s Quick Guide to the World Heritage Program in the United States. Although explicitly tied to the USA’s process, it includes a good general description of the UNESCO program, criteria, and process as they apply to all countries.
You can cruise up and down the Nile in many ways. As a matter of fact it is quite an industry these days and I heard that over 600 vessels have a permit to operate on the river. Have I known better in advance, I would rather have embarked on a felucca for a couple of days even though I must admit that the luxury of the Mövenpick Nile Cruiser was quite enjoyable after all.
Working our way up the river, passing and visiting the temples of Edfu and Kom Obo my cruiser finally reached Luxor where I had decided to stay for a couple of days. I started with a visit to the valley of the Queens, which is less visited than the Kings and a better place to study the hieroglyphs and carvings in the ancient tombs. The graves of the valley of the Kings are of slightly larger proportions and despite the hordes of tourists it is quite exciting to enter the tomb of Ramses II and the other, since long gone, royalties of Egypt. I recommend you to skip Tutankhamen’s grave. It is very small and really nothing to see. The exhibition in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on the other hand, is the place to go in this case.
The temple of Luxor and Karnak is an absolute must. If Luxor is impressing, Karnak is enormous and top of the pops when it comes to Egyptian temples and I read somewhere that over 80.000 people where working on the temple site in it’s heydays.
If you don’t want to do the full-fledged tour of Egypt, Luxor is the place to stay for a couple of days and indulge yourself in the ancient life of the pharaohs. I promise you it will be much rewarding.
Archaeology in Thebes
In 1979, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated the entire Thebes area a World Heritage Site. This included the city of Luxor, Karnak, The Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings. A World Heritage Site is defined as any site that has outstanding universal value in an effort to preserve global cultural treasures.
Recently, a Spanish-Italian archaeological team discovered an ancient reproduction of the Tomb of Osiris. The tomb is believed to date back to the 25th dynasty (760-656 BC). The tomb consists of a hall supported by five pillars and a nearly 30 foot long staircase shaft that attached chamber to chamber. The tomb has reliefs of demons holding knives which are meant to protect the dead.
Watch the video: Ancient City of Ping Yao UNESCO NHK jjAb8vmiocI