Thebes

Definition

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

Thebes was known in ancient Egypt as Wase or Wo'se (the city) and Usast or Waset (the southern city) and was the capital of the country during the period of the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE). It was built on either side of the Nile River with the main city on the east bank and the vast necropolis on the west. The Greeks referred to it as `Thebai', the name by which it is remembered. The city covered 36 square miles (93 square km) and is located approximately 419 miles (675km) south of modern Cairo. Thebes and its surrounding area features some of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt such as Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and Karnak.

The city was founded in 3200 BCE, came to prominence with the rise of the cult of the god Amon 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'). During the Amarna Period (1353-1336 BCE) Thebes was the world's largest city with a population at around 80,000 people. At this same time, Akhenaten moved the capital from Thebes to his custom-built city of Akhetaten to dramatically separate his reign from his predecessors; his son, Tutankhamun, returned the capital to Thebes once he took the throne. Thebes continued as an important cult center and place of pilgrimage throughout Egypt's history, even after the capital was moved to Avaris during the Ramessid Period. 

Early Thebes

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.

New Kingdom


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.

Amarna Period

During the reign of Akhenaten, however (1353-1335 BCE) with his proclamation of the 'one true god, Aten’, Thebes was abandoned for El-Amarna and the new city of Akhetaten. 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.

Legacy

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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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 3200 BCE
    Thebes is prominent religious center dedicated to the worship of Amon.
  • c. 2061 BCE - c. 2010 BCE
    Life of Theban noble Mentuhotep II of Thebes.
  • 2055 BCE
    Mentuhotep II conquers rival princes, unites Egypt with Thebes as capital.
  • c. 1345 BCE - c. 1346 BCE
    Tutankhamun returns capital to Thebes.
  • c. 1344 BCE
    Akhenaten moves capital of Egypt from Thebes to Akhetaten, his custom-built city.
  • 666 BCE
    Thebes sacked by Assyrians under Ashurbanipal.
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