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published on 02 September 2009
Avenue of the Sphinxes, Thebes (sdhaddow)

Thebes was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom and is located approximately 650km south of modern Cairo. The Egyptian name of the city was 'niwt' (The City) and 'niwt-rst' (The Southern City) and the designation 'Thebes’ comes from the Greek word for the city, Thebai. The city was originally known as Uast or Waset and was built on a flat plain. With the rise of the cult of the god Amon the city rose to prominence, and by the 8th century BCE the Greek poet Homer would write famously of Thebes in his Iliad, “…in Egyptian Thebes the heaps of precious ingots gleam, the hundred-gated Thebes” and the Greeks would refer to the city as Diospolis Magna ('The Great City of the Gods').

In the time of the Old Kingdom the city was a minor trading post which was controlled by local clans. The Theban princes of the region waged war with one another for supremacy and to unite the land under one rule. Mentuhotep II (2061-2010 BCE) finally prevailed and stabilized the region so that the city could develop.

Thebes gained in status during the Second Intermediate Period (1640-1532 BCE) when the Theban princes stood against the mysterious Hyksos rulers of the Delta region. The Thebans and the Hyksos abided by a truce which forbade hostilities but did not guarantee any amicable relations between the two. The Hyksos would sail past Thebes to trade with the Nubians to the south and the Thebans would ignore them until the Hyksos ruler Apophis insulted Ta’O of Thebes in 1560 BCE and the truce was broken. The Theban armies marched on the Hyksos cities. When Ta’O died in battle his son Kamose took command of the armies and pushed back the Hyksos forces. After his death in battle, his brother Ahmose I took charge and captured the city of Avaris, the Hyksos capital. Ahmose I drove the Hyksos out of Egypt (and even out of Palestine) and reclaimed the lands formerly ruled by them.

With Egypt stabilized again, religion and religious centers flourished and none more so than Thebes. 

With Egypt stabilized again, religion and religious centers flourished and none more so than Thebes. The shrines, temples, public buildings and terraces of Thebes were unsurpassed for their beauty and splendor. It was written that all other cities were judged 'after the pattern of Thebes’. The great god Amon was worshiped at Thebes and every building project sought to out-do the last in proclaiming the glory of this god. The Tuthmosids of the 18th Dynasty (1550-1307 BCE) lavished their wealth on Thebes and made it the the Egyptian capital. During the reign of Akhenaten, however (1353-1335 BCE) with his proclamation of the 'one true god, Aten’, Thebes was abandoned for El-Amarna. After his death there was a return to Thebes and a renewed interest in building projects which produced even more glorious temples and shrines. The western shore of Thebes became a vast and beautiful necropolis and the mortuary complexes at Deir-El Bahri (like the one of Queen Hatshepsut) were awe-inspiring in their symmetry and grandeur.

The Ramessids moved the capital to a new site at Avaris where they built a grand palace, but Thebes was not forgotten. The continued worship of the popular god Amon guaranteed Thebes a special place in the hearts of the Egyptians and, as the site of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and the temples of Karnak and Luxor, Thebes remains a vital link to ancient Egyptian culture today.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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