How Did the Ancient Egyptian City of Thebes Become Prominent?

Map of the Major Cities in Ancient Egypt

When ancient Egyptian civilization rose from the Nile River valley, Thebes was not one of the important centers. In fact, Thebes did not become an important city until about 2160 BC, more than 1,000 years after the creation of the Egyptian state. Like many small urban centers in ancient Egypt, Thebes lingered in obscurity until a combination of chance events and the importance of one particular Egyptian god made the city prominent.

Thebes first rose to prominence in Egypt as a center of political resistance during the First Intermediate Period and then again more than 1,000 years later in the Second Intermediate Period. After Egyptian kings from Thebes successfully won military campaigns against their enemies from the north, they made their home city the political and religious capital of Egypt for quite some time.

Thebes also became prominent because it was the cult center of the god Amun, who became the national god of Egypt for most of the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1075 BC). After the New Kingdom collapsed, Thebes retained some of its importance during the Late Period due to its close proximity to Nubia, but it was a shadow of its former glory.

When was Thebes founded in the Middle Kingdom?

Hatshepsut’s (ruled 1473-1458 BC) Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahari, Just West of Thebes

It is not known for sure when Thebes was founded, but by the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC) it was just a minor provincial town. The ancient Egyptians knew Thebes in their own language as Waset, which was symbolized by the Was scepter, or they simply called it Niut, “the City.” The name “Thebes” is actually what the Greeks and then the Romans called it in the first millennium. [1] The modern city of Luxor is situated on top of much of the ancient city, although the vast Karnak Temple is on the northern edge of the city, and the Luxor Temple is in the middle of Luxor. Just to the west of Luxor, across the Nile River, are many more ancient temples and the Valley of the Kings, which the ancient Egyptians considered part of Waset.

Thebes continued to be of little importance in the big picture of Egyptian history until the Old Kingdom collapsed and the country entered what is known as the First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-2055 BC), where the central government in Memphis lost most of its power to regional rulers. The northern city of Heracleopolis became the base for two dynasties, the Ninth and Tenth, which existed for most of the First Intermediate Period. But as a new power base formed in the north, so too did a new dynasty, the Eleventh (c. 2125-2055 BC), come to life in the southern city of Thebes. [2] The third century BC Hellenized Egyptian priest and historian, Manetho, mentioned the Eleventh Dynasty, although he partially conflated it with the Twelfth Dynasty.

“The Eleventh Dynasty consisted of sixteen kings of Diosoplis [or Thebes], who reigned for 43 years. In succession to these, Ammenemês ruled for 16 years. [3]

When Montuhotep II (ruled c. 2055-2004 BC) won the struggle against Heracleopolis he reunified Upper and Lower Egypt, establishing the Middle Kingdom (c 2055-1650 BC) in the process. Although the Middle Kingdom is often overlooked, as it came after the great pyramid builders of the Old Kingdom and the empire builders of the New Kingdom, it was nonetheless an impressive era in terms of art, architecture, and literature. Montuhotep II made Thebes the capital of his dynasty and immediately began building in and around the city by constructing some of the first structures in the immense Karnak Temple and building a large temple across the Nile near the modern village of Deir el-Bahari. [4] Although the later Middle Kingdom kings moved the capital north to Lisht, Montuhotep II helped make Thebes a bustling city that would not lose its importance even in tough times.

Why was Thebes unimportant in the Early New Kingdom?

The Valley of the Kings

Around 1650 BC central authority collapsed again in Egypt, ushering in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC). Once more, rival power centers developed in the north and south, but in the Second Intermediate Period the northern power center was based in the Delta city of Avaris, which was ruled by a foreign people from the Levant known as the Hyksos. Thebes retained its cultural and political importance throughout the Second Intermediate Period, with at least one native political dynasty – the Seventeenth Dynasty – making the city their capital.

The native rulers in Thebes were actually relegated to a politically insignificant position whereby they only controlled the area around the city: the Nubians to their south at that time were at a powerful point in their history, while the Hyksos controlled the entire Delta and much of Lower Egypt. [5] But the native Egyptians of Thebes were not willing to let their land be controlled by foreigners, so Seqenenra Tao (reigned c. 1560 BC) led the charge against the Hyksos and when he fell in battle his son and successor, Kamose (ruled c. 1555-1550 BC), finished the mission. A stela from the era commemorates Kamose’s victory.

“The mighty king in Thebes, Kamose, given life, forever, was the beneficent king. It was [Re] himself [who made him] king and who assigned him strength in truth. His majesty spoke in his palace to the council of nobles who were in his retinue: ‘Let me understand what this strength of mine is for! (One) prince is in Avaris, another is in Nubia, and (here) I sit associated with an Asiatic and a Nubian! Each man has his slice of this Egypt, dividing up the land with me. I cannot pass by him as far as Memphis, the waters of Egypt, (but), behold, he has Hermopolis. No man can settle down, being despoiled by the imposts of the Asiatics. I will grapple with him, that I may cut open his belly! My wish is to save Egypt and to smite the Asiatics!’” [6]

Once the Hyksos were vanquished from Egypt, Ahmose I (ruled c. 1550-1525 BC) became the king, ushering in the Eighteenth Dynasty and the New Kingdom. Ahmose also made Thebes his political capital, which was followed by his direct predecessors, primarily Hatshepsut (reigned c. 1473-1458 BC), Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), and Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1352), who all made Thebes at least their part-time home and added significant additions to the Karnak Temple. [7]

In addition to construction at the Karnak Temple, the kings of the early New Kingdom also began the tradition of being interred in the Valley of the Kings, which is located about three miles west of Thebes. [8] By the time Akhenaten (ruled c. 1352-1336 BC) came to power, Thebes had eclipsed Memphis as the greatest city in Egypt, but the new king had other ideas about where and how to rule. When Akhenaten moved the royal court to the newly built city of Aketataen/Amarna, Thebes was relegated to the second status for a few years.

Why did Thebes play an important role in Ancient Egyptian Religion?

The Karnak Temple in Thebes
The Ramesseum on the West Bank of Thebes

Akhenaten’s attempts to change Egypt’s religion and culture were short-lived, because once his successor Tutankhamun (reigned c. 1336-1327 BC) came to the throne he returned the kingdom to its orthodox religion, which meant that Thebes would once again become prominent. A text discovered in the Hypostyle Hall of the Karnak Temple describes how Tutankhamun restored the Amun priests in Thebes to their prior position and endowed their temples with generous gifts.

“He gave more than what had existed before, surpassing what had been done since the time of the ancestors: he installed lay priests and higher clergy from among the children of the officials of their cities, each one being the “son-of-a-man” whose name was known; he multiplied their [offering tables], silver, copper, and bronze, there being no limit to [anything]; he filled their workrooms with male and female slaves from the tribute of His Person’s capturing. All [the possessions] pf the temples and cities [were increased] twice, thrice, fourfold, consisting of silver, gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise, every precious stone, as well as royal linen, white linen, fine linen, moringa oil, gum, fat, [ . . .], incense, aromatics, and myrrh, without a limit to any good thing.” [9]

The Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties, known collectively by modern scholars as the “Ramesside Period,” brought much of Egypt’s political focus back to Memphis, but Thebes continued to play an important religious role. Ramesses II (ruled c. 1279-1213) built and added to several impressive monuments throughout the Thebes region during his long rule. The Nineteenth Dynasty king added the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple and had his mortuary temple, today is known as the Ramesseum, built on the west bank of the Nile River. [10] The warrior pharaoh is also known for his additions to what is known today as the Luxor Temple in central Thebes.

Construction of the Luxor Temple began during the rule of Amenhotep III, but it was largely completed by Ramesses II. Ramesses II constructed a pylon and a courtyard on the north end, with six colossal statues built to stand guard. The Luxor Temple served as the national shrine for the cult of the divine king, making it and Thebes a major attraction in the New Kingdom. [11]

Most of the Ramesside kings left some mark at Thebes, and even those who left few visible signs of their reigns were buried in the Valley of the Kings. The most impressive builder in the city after Ramesses II, though, was Ramesses III (reigned 1184-1153 BC). Although Ramesses III took the same name as his illustrious forebearer, he was of no direct relation; but he did emulate Ramesses II’s propensity to build in and around Thebes. Ramesses III’s most impressive monumental gift to the Thebes region was the construction of the massive temple known today as Medinet Habu, which was the last great temple of the New Kingdom. Medinet Habu served as the cult complex of Ramesses III, but there was also a chapel on the grounds that honored Ramesses II. Perhaps as a sign of the decreasing stability of the Egyptian state at the time, Medinet Habu doubled as a fortress. [12]

Who was the Egyptian God Amun?

As Thebes rose to prominence in the New Kingdom, so too did the god Amun. Amun was the Ancient Egyptian God of the sun and air. A powerful cult was built around the worship Amun that increased the power of Thebes in Ancient Egypt.[13] Although Amun was one of the earliest Egyptian gods associated with Thebes, he did not become prominent until the Eighteenth Dynasty. A new professional priesthood developed at Thebes during this time, and as Thebes grew in importance so too did Amun, and vice versa. [14]

When Akhenaten moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna, he also divested much of the funding for the Amun cult, but by the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty Amun’s cult was endowed with even more funding and estates, making him a universal and national god. [15] As long as Amun remained the primary Egyptian god, Thebes was assured to have a place of primacy.

Conclusion

Thebes continued to be an important city during the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC), as the Amun priesthood remained powerful. After the Nubians conquered Egypt in 728 BC it retained some importance, but when the Saite kings took over and moved the capital to Sais, Thebes quickly became a backwater. Thebes’ glory years may have been a distant memory in the first millennium BC, but from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom through much of the New Kingdom Thebes was an important political center and arguably the most important religious city in Egypt.


References

  1. Shaw, Ian, and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), pgs. 287-7
  2. Grajetzki, Wolfram. The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. (London: Duckworth, 2009), p. 8
  3. Manetho. Aegyptiaca. Translated by W. G. Waddell. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Fr. 32
  4. Grajetzki, p. 23
  5. Morkot, Robert. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. (London: The Rubicon Press, 2000), pgs. 65-68
  6. Pritchard, James B, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Third Edition. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pgs. 23-3
  7. Shaw and Nicholson, p. 148
  8. Shaw and Nicholson, pgs. 299-300
  9. Murnane, William J. trans and ed. Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), pgs. 213-14
  10. Shaw and Nicholson, p. 148; pgs. 242-4
  11. Haeny, Gerhard. “New Kingdom ‘Mortuary Temples’ and ‘Mansions of Millions of Years.’” In Temples of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Byron E. Shaffer. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), pgs. 147-57
  12. Haeny, pgs. 107-9
  13. Mark, J. J. (2016, July 29). Amun. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from Ancient History Encyclopedia
  14. Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 159
  15. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 206