Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Today's Place to Daydream About: Thebes, Egypt

Thebes – the name conjures up ancient Egypt for me like no other. It was not the greatest city of Egypt or the oldest, but its temples have a unity of shape and theme that makes them seem to stand for the whole of that vast epoch, for after all the ancient Egyptian kingdom lasted for a longer time than all the centuries since its end.

Thebes began as a temple complex on the east bank of the Nile, in the city today known as Luxor. Thebes is a Greek rendering of its name, which in ancient Egyptian was ipet resyt, "the southern sanctuary." From before 3000 BC it was a center for the worship of the god Amun, and it was sometimes known as Pa-Amun. The Hebrew prophets referred to it several times under the name of No-Amon.

The glory days of Thebes came under the New Kingdom (c.1570-c.1069 BCE), when it served as the kingdom's capital. Here ruled some of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs: Amenhotep III, Thutmose I, Hatshepsut, Seti I, Ramesses II -- Ramses in the old style -- Akhenaten, Tutankhamun.  The place goes by several names, so let me clarify: Luxor is the modern city, Thebes the ancient city, Karnak the great temple complex at its center.

It is these temples with their lotus capitals that most mean "Egypt"  to me, not the pyramids.

These temples were vastly wealthy. One pharaoh, Ramesses III, gifted them with estates worked by 86,000 slaves.

Plan of the main temple complex and reconstruction by J.C. Golvin. At its peak around 1400 BC the place had 80,000 inhabitants and may have been the largest city in the world.

On the opposite bank of the Nile is the great necropolis known as the Valley of the Kings.

There are so many spectacular tombs and paintings that no one gets a chance to see them  all.

The city declined after the end of the New Kingdom and it was savagely sacked by the Assyrians under Ashurbanipal in 666 BC. By Roman times it was mostly a ruin.

Luxor was visited by tourists in Hellenistic and Roman times, but the business really got going when steamers began ascending the Nile from Cairo in the 1840s.

Thomas Cook got his start as a travel agent leading tours to Egypt; this is one, shown at Karnak. It is true that Egypt is a political disaster and terrorism a problem, but surely the troubles you would face now are less than those faced by travelers in the 1890s. So go. And if you can't go, send your imagination there, and walk among the temples and the tombs with me.

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