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Thebes, Egypt

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For the ancient capital of Boeotia, see Thebes, Greece. For other cities called Thebes, see Thebes.
Decorated pillars of the temple at Karnac, Thebes, Egypt. Co Wellcome V0049316.jpg
Pillars of the Hypostyle Hall
Thebes, Egypt is located in Egypt
Thebes, Egypt
Shown within Egypt
Location Luxor, Luxor Governorate, Egypt
Region Upper Egypt
Coordinates 25°43′14″N 32°36′37″E / 25.72056°N 32.61028°E / 25.72056; 32.61028Coordinates: 25°43′14″N 32°36′37″E / 25.72056°N 32.61028°E / 25.72056; 32.61028
Type Settlement
Founded 3200 BC
Official name Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
Type Cultural
Criteria I, III, VI
Designated 1979 (3rd session)
Reference no. 87
Region Arab States

Thebes (Ancient Greek: Θῆβαι, Thēbai), known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, was an ancient Egyptian city located east of the Nile about 800 kilometers (500 mi) south of the Mediterranean. Its ruins lie within the modern Egyptian city of Luxor. Thebes was the main city of the fourth Upper Egyptian nome (Sceptre nome). It was close to Nubia and the eastern desert, with their valuable mineral resources and trade routes. It was a cult center and the wealthiest city of ancient Egypt at its heyday. The site of Thebes includes areas on both the eastern bank of the Nile, where the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand and the city proper situated; and the western bank, where a necropolis of large private and royal cemeteries and funerary complexes can be found.


City of the Scepter[1]
in hieroglyphs
R19 t
in hieroglyphs
t Z1
M24 t
niw.t rs.t
Southern City[2]
in hieroglyphs
O28 nw
Heliopolis of the South[3]
in hieroglyphs

The Ancient Egyptians originally knew Thebes as Waset (wꜣs.t), the "City of the Was". A was was the scepter of the pharaohs, a long staff with an animal's head and a forked base.

Thebes is the Latinized form of the Greek Thebai, the hellenized form of the Demotic Egyptian Ta-pe. This was the local name not for the city itself but for the Karnak temple complex beside the necropolis on the west bank of the river. (Ta-opet in formal Egyptian.) As early as Homer's Iliad,[4] the Greeks distinguished the Egyptian Thebes as Thebes of the Hundred Gates,[n 1] (Θῆβαι ἑκατόμπυλοι, Thēbai hekatómpyloi) as opposed to the "Thebes of the Seven Gates" (Θῆβαι ἑπτάπυλοι, Thēbai heptapyloi) in Boeotia, Greece.[n 2]

From the end of the New Kingdom, Thebes was known in Egyptian as Niwt-Imn, the "City of Amun". Amun was the chief of the Theban Triad of gods whose other members were Mut and Khonsu. This name appears in the Bible as the "Nōʼ ʼĀmôn" (נא אמון) of the Book of Nahum[6] and probably also as the "No" (נא) mentioned in Ezekiel[7] and Jeremiah.[8] In the interpretatio graeca, Amun was seen as a form of Zeus. The name was therefore translated into Greek as Diospolis, the "City of Zeus". To distinguish it from the numerous other cities by this name, it was known as the Great Diospolis (μεγάλη Διόσπολις, megálē Dióspolis; Latin: Diospolis Magna). The Greek names came into wider use after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, when the country came to be ruled by the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty.



Population of Thebes from 2000-900 BC

According to George Modelski, Thebes had about 40,000 inhabitants in 2000 BC (compared to 60,000 in Memphis, the largest city of the world at the time). By 1800 BC, the population of Memphis was down to about 30,000, making Thebes the largest city in Egypt at the time.[9] Historian Ian Morris estimated that by 1500 BC, Thebes may have grown to be the largest city in the world, with a population of about 75,000, a position which it held until about 900 BC, when it was surpassed by Nimrud (among others).[10]


The archaeological remains of Thebes offer a striking testimony to Egyptian civilization at its height. The Greek poet Homer extolled the wealth of Thebes in the Iliad, Book 9 (c. 8th Century BC): "... in Egyptian Thebes the heaps of precious ingots gleam, the hundred-gated Thebes."


Old Kingdom

The Theban Necropolis

Thebes was inhabited from around 3200 BC.[11] It was the eponymous capital of Waset, the fourth Upper Egyptian nome. Although no buildings survive in Thebes older than the portions of the Karnak temple complex, which may date from the Middle Kingdom, the lower part of a statue of Pharaoh Nyuserre of the 5th Dynasty has been found in Karnak. Another statue which was dedicated by the 12th Dynasty king Senusret may have been usurped and re-used, since the statue bears a cartouche of Nyuserre 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.[12]

Middle Kingdom

The Theban rulers were apparently descendants of the prince of Thebes, Intef the Elder. His probable grandson Intef I was the first of the family to claim in life a partial pharaonic titulary, though his power did not extend much further than the general Theban region.

Finally c. 2050 BC, a ruler named Mentuhotep II, whose name means "Montu is satisfied", took the prenomen of Nebhepetre, and it is he who is credited with once again reuniting all Egypt under one ruler, what egyptologists call the Middle Kingdom. He 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.

During the 12th Dynasty, Amenemhat I shifted the seat of power to the north to Itjtawy. Thebes continued to thrive as a religious center as the local god Amun was increasingly becoming prominent throughout Egypt. The oldest remains of a temple dedicated to Amun date to the reign of Senusret I in the 12th Dynasty.[12] Thebes became the capital of a divided Egypt towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, when the Memphis based 13th Dynasty fled Lower and Middle Egypt during or shortly after Merneferre Ay's reign c. 1700 BC. At the same time, Lower Egypt was under domination by the 14th Dynasty whose seat of power was Avaris. This situation lasted for approximately 50 years with Thebes passing under the control of 16th Dynasty c. 1650 BC.

Hyksos Period

Theban princes firmly established domain over their immediate region when Asiatic peoples called Hyksos ruled the Delta during the Second Intermediate Period (1657-1549 BC). The Thebans and the Hyksos formed an agreement of a peaceful concurrent rule between them. The Hyksos were able sail upstream past Thebes and some Nile cataracts to trade with the Nubians and the Thebans brought their herds to the Delta without adversaries. The status quo continued until Hyksos ruler Apophis insulted Seqenenre Tao of Thebes. Soon the armies of Thebes marched on the Hyksos-ruled lands. Tao died in battle and his son Kamose took charge of the campaign. After his death in battle, his brother Ahmose I continued till he captured Avaris, the Hyksos capital. Ahmose I drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and the Levant and reclaimed the lands formerly ruled by them.[13]

New Kingdom and height of Thebes

Ahmose I founded a new age for a unified Egypt with Thebes as its capital. The city remained as capital during most of the 18th Dynasty (New Kingdom). With Egypt stabilized again, religion and religious centers flourished and none more so than Thebes. For instance, Amenhotep III (reigned 1388–50 BC), poured much of his vast wealth from foreign tribute into the temples of Amun.[14] The Theban god Amun became a principal state deity and every building project sought to outdo the last in proclaiming the glory Amun and the pharaohs themselves.[15]

Queen Hatshepsut (reigned 1479-1458 BC) built a Red Sea fleet to facilitate trade between Thebes' Red Sea port of Elim, modern Quasir, and Elat at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba and the land of Punt. The Thutmosids of the 18th Dynasty also lavished their wealth on Thebes.

For a brief period in the reign of Amenhotep III's son Akhenaten (1351–1334 BC), Thebes fell on evil times; the city was abandoned by the court, and the worship of Amun was proscribed. The capital was moved to the new city of Amarna (Akhetaten), midway between Thebes and Memphis. After his death, his son Tutankhamun made a return to Memphis,[16] but renewed interest in building projects which produced even more glorious temples and shrines.[14]

With the 19th Dynasty the seat of government moved to the Delta. Thebes maintained its revenues and prestige through the reigns of Seti I (1290–1279 BC) and Ramesses II (1279–1213 BC), who still resided for part of every year in Thebes.[14] Ramesses II carried out extensive building projects in the city which include the completion of the Hypostyle Hall of Karnak temple, expansion of the Luxor temple, and construction of the Ramesseum, his grand mortuary temple. Egypt and Thebes reached an overwhelming state of prosperity during his reign.[17]

Remnants of the Ramesseum

The city continued to be well-kept in the early 20th Dynasty. The Great Harris Papyrus states that Ramesses III (reigned 1187–56) donated 86,486 slaves and vast estates to the temples of Amun. Ramesses III received tributes from all subject peoples including the Sea Peoples and Meshwesh Lbyans. Egypt as a whole, however, was experiencing financial problems, that even reached Thebes' village of Deir el-Medina. In the 25th year of his reign, workers in Deir el-Medina began striking for pay and there arose a general unrest of all social classes. Consequently, an unsuccessful harem revolt led to the deaths of many, including Theban officials and women.[18]

Under the later Ramessids, Thebes began to decline; the government fell, it seems, into grave economic difficulties. During the reign of Ramesses IX (1129–1111 BC), about 1114 BC, a series of investigations into the plundering of royal tombs in the necropolis of western Thebes uncovered proof of corruption in high places, following an accusation made by the mayor of the east bank against his colleague on the west. The plundered royal mummies were moved from place to place and at last deposited by the priests of Amun in a tomb-shaft in Deir el-Bahri and in the tomb of Amenhotep II. (The finding of these two hiding places in 1881 and 1898, respectively, was one of the great events of modern archaeological discovery.) Such maladministration in Thebes led to unrest.[14]

Third Intermediate Period

Control of local affairs tended to come more and more into the hands of the High Priests of Amun, that 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. Intermarriage and adoption strengthened the ties between them, daughters of the Tanite kings being installed as God’s Wife of Amun at Thebes, where they wielded greater power. Theban political influence receded only in the Late Period.[12]

A column of Taharqa restored to full height

By around 750 BC, the Kushites (Nubians) are growing their influence over Thebes and Upper Egypt. Kush, the former colony of Egypt became an empire in itself. In 721 BC, King Shabaka of the Kushites defeated the combined forces of Osorkon IV (22nd Dynasty), Peftjauawybast (23rd Dynasty) Bakenranef (24th Dynasty) and reunified Egypt yet again. Taharqa finished some significant building projects at Thebes before the Assyrians came and took over Egypt.

Late Period

In 667 BC, attacked by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal's army, Taharqa abandoned Lower Egypt and fled to Thebes. After his death three years later his nephew (or cousin) Tantamani seized Thebes, invaded Lower Egypt and laid siege to Memphis, but abandoned his attempts to conquer the country in 663 BC and retreated southwards. The Assyrians pursued him and took Thebes, whose name was added to a long list of cities plundered and destroyed by the Assyrians:

Relief in Hathor temple, Deir el-Medina (built during the Ptolemaic Dynasty)

"This city, the whole of it, I conquered it with the help of Ashur and Ishtar. Silver, gold, precious stones, all the wealth of the palace, rich cloth, precious linen, great horses, supervising men and women, two obelisks of splendid electrum, weighing 2500 talents, the doors of temples I tore from their bases and carried them off to Assyria. With this weighty booty I left Thebes. Against Egypt and Kush I have lifted my spear and shown my power. With full hands I have returned to Nineveh, in good health."

Thebes never regained its former political significance, but it remained an important religious centre. Assyrians installed Psamtik I (664-610 BC), who ascended to Thebes in 656 BC and brought about the adoption of his own daughter, Nitocris I, as heiress to God's Wife of Amun there. In 525 BC, Persian Cambyses II invaded Egypt and became pharaoh.

The good relationship of the Thebans with the central power in the North ended when the native Egyptian pharaohs were finally replaced by Greek kings. Thebes became a center for dissent. Towards the end of the third century BC Horwennefer (Hugronaphor), possibly of Nubian origin, led a revolt against the Ptolemies in Upper Egypt. His successor Ankhmakis, held large parts of Upper Egypt until 185 BC. This revolt was supported by the Theban priesthood. After the suppression of the revolt in 185 BC, Ptolemy V, in need of the support of the priesthood, forgave them.

Half a century later the Thebans rose again, elevating Harsiese to the throne in 132 BC. Harsiese, having helped himself to the funds of the royal bank at Thebes, fled the following year. In 91 BC another revolt broke out. In the following years the Thebes was subdued and the city turned into rubble. Building did not come to an abrupt stop, but the city continued to decline. In the first century AD, Strabo described Thebes as having been abandoned.[19]


In 1979, the ruins of ancient Thebes were classified by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site. The two great templesLuxor Temple and Karnak—and the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are among the great achievements of ancient Egypt.


  1. ^ Also rendered as Hundred-Gated Thebes.
  2. ^ Pausanias records that owing to its "connection" with the Egyptian city, the Boeotian Thebes also had an idol and temple of Amun from the 5th century BC.[5]


  1. ^ Adolf Erman, Hermann Grapow: Wörterbuch der ägyptischer Sprache. akademie Verlag, Berlin, 1971. p.259
  2. ^ Wörterbuch, p.211
  3. ^ Wörterbuch, pp.54,479
  4. ^ Iliad, IV.406 & IX.383.
  5. ^ Description of Greece, IX.16 §1.
  6. ^ Nahum 3:8.
  7. ^ Ezekiel 30:14–16.
  8. ^ Jeremiah 46:25.
  9. ^ George Modelski, "Cities of the Ancient World: An Inventory (−3500 to −1200)"; see also list of largest cities throughout history.
  10. ^ Ian Morris, "Social Development"; see also list of largest cities throughout history.
  11. ^ Karnak (Thebes), Egypt. Retrieved on 2013-07-29.
  12. ^ a b c Egypt: Thebes, A Feature Tour Egypt Story. Retrieved on 2016-02-06.
  13. ^ Margaret Bunson, "Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt"
  14. ^ a b c d Dorman, P. (2015). "Thebes|Ancient city, Egypt". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-02-07, from
  15. ^ Mark, J. (2009). "Thebes". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-06, from
  16. ^ J. van Dijk: ''The Amarna Period and the later New Kingdom, in: I. Shaw: The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford 2000, ISBN 0-19-815034-2, p. 290
  17. ^ Egypt: Ramses the Great, The Pharaoh Who Made Peace with his Enemies And the First Peace Treaty in History. Retrieved on 2016-02-06.
  18. ^ RAMESSES III: THE LAST GREAT PHARAOH. Retrieved on 2016-02-06.
  19. ^ The fall of Thebes to the Assyrians and its decline thereafter. Retrieved on 2016-02-06.

External links

Preceded by
Capital of Egypt
2060 BC – c. 1980 BC
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Capital of Upper Egypt
c. 1700 BC – c. 1550 BC
Succeeded by
Thebes as capital of united Egypt
Preceded by
Capital of Egypt
c. 1550 BC – c. 1353 BC
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Capital of Egypt
c. 1332 BC – 1085 BC
Succeeded by