By Marie Parsons
The ancient name for the city the Greeks called Thebai was Waset, the Scepter nome, and it was the main city of the fourth Upper Egyptian nome. It was close to Nubia and the eastern desert, with their valuable mineral resources and trade routes. The site of Thebes includes areas on both the eastern bank of the Nile, where the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand, and the western bank, where are the large private and royal cemeteries and funerary complexes.
Waset was little more than a provincial town in the Old Kingdom. Though two brick-built mastaba tombs dating from the 3rd or 4th dynasty have been found in the Theban area, and a small group of tombs have been found dating from the 5th and 6th Dynasties in the area of the necropolis known as el-Khokha, it is not clear if there was an actual Old Kingdom settlement here. The royal residence and tombs, as well as most of the tombs of the court and government nobles at this time, were primarily built at Saqqara near Memphis, closer to the Delta.
No buildings survive in Thebes older than the portions of the Karnak temple complex, which may date from the Middle Kingdom, but the lower part of a statue of King Niuserre of the 5th Dynasty has been found in Karnak. Another statue which was dedicated by King Senwosret of the 12 dynasty may have been usurped and re-used by him, since the statue bears a cartouche of Niuserre on its belt. Since seven rulers of the 4th to 6th Dynasties appear on the Karnak king list, perhaps at the least there was a temple in the Theban area which dated to the Old Kingdom.
According to the current historical record, Thebes did not come into its political strength until the First Intermediate Period. A large number of private inscriptions from this period indicate that the rulers, or provincial governors, or Koptos, Moalla, and Thebes are prominent at this time. One governor named Ankhtifi relates that though he was able to take over the areas of Edfu and others, he was subsequently defeated by forces from Thebes and Koptos.
The Theban rulers were apparently of the family Inyotef, who before long began to write their names in cartouches. The second of this name even called himself the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, though his power didnt extend much further than the general Theban region.
Finally, one ruler named Mentuhotep, meaning Montu is satisfied, took the prenomen of Nebhepetre, and it is he who is credited with once again reuniting all Egypt under one ruler, and beginning the 11th Dynasty, what Egyptologists call the Middle Kingdom. Nebhepetre ruled for 51 years, and built the temple at Deir el-Bahri that most likely served as the inspiration for the later and larger temple built next to it by Hatshepsut in the 18th Dynasty.
Once again Thebes declined politically, as Amenemhat I of the 12th Dynasty decided to move his capital north again to a new site called Itjtawy or Lisht. Although the capital was moved, Thebes took on a new role as the religious center of the nation, as its god Amun was promoted to principal state deity. The oldest remains of a temple dedicated to Amun date to the reign of Senwosret I in the 12th Dynasty. The core of this Middle Kingdom building lay in the heart of the current temple, behind the sanctuary. Its walls were constructed of limestone which were later removed for use elsewhere. So now there is an empty space between the sanctuary and the Festival hall of Tuthmosis III. However, the small so-called "White Chapel" shrine built by Senwosret I has been rebuilt and stands in the Open Air Museum at Karnak.
The peak for Thebes came during the 18th Dynasty. Its temples were the most important and wealthiest in the land, and the tombs on the west bank were among the most luxurious Egypt ever saw. The center of the city during New Kingdom and later times stretched between the two major temples of Karnak and Luxor, along the avenue of sphinxes that connected them. The area is now almost entirely covered by the modern city of Luxor.
During the Third Intermediate Period, the High Priest of Amun formed a counterbalance to the 21st and 22nd Dynasty kings who ruled from the Delta. Theban political influence receded only in the Late Period.
The main part of the town and principal temples were on the east bank. Across the river on the west bank was the necropolis with tombs and mortuary temples, but also the west part of the town. Deir el-Bahri is there, the mortuary temples of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep and Hatshepsut, and the temple of Amun by Tuthmosis III, the Ramesseum of Ramesses II, and other mortuary temples of Seti I at Qurna and Amenhotep III with the Memnon Colossi. Amenhotep III had his palace at el-Malqata there, and in the Ramessid period, Thebes centered north of there, at Medinet Habu.
Most of the temples on the west side of the Nile were royal mortuary temples to maintain the cult of the deceased kings buried in their tombs cut in the cliffs further west. The most important of these temples were at Deir el-Bahri, the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu. The mortuary temple of Seti I stands at Qurna, while only the Memnon Colossi and other fragmentary statuary now mark the site of the enormous temple of Amenhotep III. The temples dedicated to the deities Hathor, Thoth and Isis, all dating from the Graeco-Roman period, were also built in the area.
Temples and Chapels
Temples belonging to Amenhotep I, Amenhotep II, Siptah, the Colonnaded Temple of Ramesses IV, the Ramessid Temple, the Chapel of the White Queen and the private temple of Nebwenenef
Other Temples on the West Bank at Thebes, Part II - Temples of Ramesses IV (mortuary), Amenophis son of Hapu, Tuthmosis II, and the North and South temples at Nag Kom Lolah
Other Temples of the West Bank at Thebes, Part III: The Temples at Deir el-Medina - Temple of Amenhotep I, the Hathor Chapel of Seti I, the Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor, and a small Temple of Amun.
Other Temples of the West Bank at Thebes, Part IV - Mortuary Temple of Tuthmosis III, and the temples of Tuya and Nefertari, Tuthmosis IV, Wadjmose and Siptah and Tausert
The Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek
Thebes in Ancient Egypt by Nigel and Helen Strudwick
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated: June 8th, 2011