Far down the Nile River from Cairo is the ancient Egyptian temple city of Thebes and Luxor. Modern visitors will find three ancient temple areas in the modern city of Luxor: Luxor Temple, the temples of Karnak, and the complex of Thebes across the Nile River. The site is so ancient (2000 bce) that even Romans and Greeks visited here as tourists, amazed at the monuments and temples they found in the desert.
Thebes was a small state until one of its princes united the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt into one, ushering in a period of 250 years of prosperity. After a century of foreign occupation, the New Kingdom (1550–1150 bce) emerged with its capital at Thebes as one of the great powers of the age. The capital city was embellished with grandiose temples worthy of the majesty of the pharaohs, the greatest being Karnak. The temple complex of Karnak, dedicated to Amun, was the center of his worship, and that of his wife Mut and their son Khons. Each of them had a precinct, or area, in the temple complex, although the greatest and largest belonged to Amun. There was also a precinct for Montu, the falcon-headed local god. The temple complex is huge, covering a site almost a mile by two miles. Massive size is a characteristic of ancient Egyptian monuments, and active construction went on over a period of 900 years, with each pharaoh leaving a new temple, shrine, or pylon (monumental gateway). Through several dynasties, each pharaoh added to the complex, leaving detailed hieroglyphic inscriptions across every surface of its buildings. There are more than twenty-five temples and chapels in the complex, including separate shrines for the three boats that took the statues of the gods on their annual trip on the flooding Nile. Sanctuaries, obelisks, and groups of columns all feature accounts of the heroic deeds of the sponsoring pharaoh. Pharaoh Tuthmose III (r. 1479–1425 bce) built a Wall of Records celebrating his achievements and conquests, all in the name and for the glory of Amun.
Early in this period, Tuthmose I (r. 1506–1495? bce) built a tomb for himself in what was to become the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile. His daughter, Hatshepsut (r. 1479–1458 bce), a rare female pharaoh, built a grand funeral temple for her last resting place. The royal tombs were among the most important religious monuments in the kingdom, where dead pharaohs were often revered as gods. One pharaoh, Akhenaton (r. 1380–1362 bce), with his beautiful wife Nefertiti, abandoned the traditional worship of Amun, the god of Thebes, and took up the worship of Aten, the Sun God. He built a temple to Aten at Karnak and moved to a new capital. After his death, the Theban priests destroyed all signs of sun worship, including the temple that defiled Karnak, and the religious center returned to Thebes.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring sight at Karnak is the Great Hypostyle, a hall filled with 134 enormous pillars, the highest seventy feet, and each about forty-five feet around. One is overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the entire complex. It must have impressed every visitor, Egyptian and foreign alike, with the majesty of the god who inspired it and was the state deity. In the complex was also a Sacred Lake, more than a hundred yards long, used by the priests for purification rites before conducting ceremonies in the temples. At one time there was also a processional Sacred Way, flanked by rows of sphinxes, that stretched the two miles from Karnak to Luxor Temple.
Luxor Temple was also dedicated to Amun, a creator god often fused with the sun god Ra into one, Amun Ra. Each year, to ensure the flooding of the Nile that was necessary to national prosperity, the statues of Amun, Mut (goddess of war), and Khons (the moon god) were sailed down the river to Karnak for a great festival. Luxor Temple is quite large and once housed a village within its walls. It has several pylons that are themselves some seventy yards long. The first pylon is more than seventy feet high, fronted by massive statues and several obelisks. There are several open areas, once used for various forms of worship but now empty. Later inclusions are a shrine to Alexander the Great, a Roman sanctuary, and an Islamic shrine to a thirteenth-century holy man. One shrine is the Birth Room, with wall paintings showing one pharaoh's claim to have been fathered by Amun, and therefore of divine descent.
The West Bank was a vast City of the Dead, a necropolis where funeral cults were practiced. The great (and not-so-great) were buried in majestic monuments, cliff tombs, or ordinary mausoleums. Many funeral temples of the pharaohs were simply places for this cult, while the body was placed in a secret and sumptuous tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The queens were buried in the Valley of the Queens. Each tomb has a long shaft, some more than a hundred yards long, symbolic of entering the underworld and leading to a burial chamber. The walls were painted with themes from various books of the dead. The sun god Ra was believed to cross the valley each night, where the dead could enter his ship if they knew the right magic texts, which were part of the wall decorations. After judgment and victory over the powers of death, the pharaoh could enter into eternal life with Amun Ra.
Most impressive is the tomb of Hatshepsut, set into the cliffs of the mountains. She herself was a divine king and wore a false beard as a pharaonic sign. A hundred-foot-wide causeway leads to the temple, with three terraced courtyards, all covered with sculptured reliefs. Most of the carvings of the queen herself were obliterated by her stepson and successor, who hated her for the way she treated him while he was heir. There are a hundred tombs in the Valley of the Nobles and seventy-five in the Valley of the Queens, not to mention several temple complexes, individual shrines, and many chapels. The cult of death and the lifelong preparation for the afterlife were the focus of Egyptian religion, and the West Bank tombs and sanctuaries are mute testimony to this obsession. Unfortunately, despite the best security of the age, few burial sites escaped the grave robbers.
Quite aside from the ancient pharaonic monuments is a much more recent one in the town. The mausoleum of El Mekashtash honors a tenth-century Muslim saint who left a Coptic monastery and abandoned Christianity to convert to Islam. It is a popular Muslim pilgrimage site for the region.
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