But Thebes was not just rich in natural resources. What made Thebes the capital city of Egypt in the New Kingdom was its people: independent, spirited, militarily talented, and increasingly devoted to a local god called Amen, whose cult encouraged those attributes. Little more than a village of mudbrick huts in the Old Kingdom, by the New Kingdom Thebes had become the richest, most powerful city in the ancient world, home to the largest religious structures and most spectacular tombs and palaces ever built.
The banks of the River Nile at Thebes are broad, extending more than three kilometers to the east and west. Every year in summer, the Nile rose and overflowed its banks, covering the river valley with twenty to thirty centimeters (eight to twelve inches) of water for about six weeks in August and September. That water carried nutrient-rich silts that settled as the flood waters slowed, each year leaving behind another millimeter of fresh, rich soil and carrying away accumulated salts. As the waters receded, seed was sown broadcast across the freshly-irrigated fields and three to six months later crops were ready to harvest. Little wonder that ancient Greek visitors spoke in awe of this landscape and were convinced that the gods had blessed the Egyptians beyond all humankind. Nowhere in the ancient world did agriculture seem so easy as in Egypt.
The rich Nile floodplain produced abundant fruits and vegetables, but their variety was fairly limited. Emmer and barley were the principal grains and were used for making bread and beer. (For reasons still unclear, wheat did not appear until Graeco-Roman times.) Leeks, onions, and garlic were grown, as were lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, lettuce, and from the late New Kingdom, olives. Dates, figs, sycomore figs, pomegranates, various melons, sesame and safflower (for oil), and a few herbs and spices were raised. Grapes were made into several varieties of wine. (Red wine was the favorite drink of the Old Kingdom, white wine the favorite of the New Kingdom.) The only sweetener available was honey. Cattle were raised for milk and meat; sheep, goats, rabbits, and pigs were common, and the available fowl included ducks, geese, pigeons, and quail, but not chicken. Fishing and fowling, frequently depicted in tomb paintings, supplemented domesticated food sources. Flax was grown for the making of linen and gardens devoted to flowers were common at almost all social levels. Many foods that we take for granted, such as the potato, tomato, maize, citrus fruits, and sugar, were unknown and, indeed, would not be introduced into Egypt for several thousand years. Rice and water buffalo were unknown until about the fourteenth century A.D.
Agriculture came to Egypt from the ancient Near East around 5000 B.C., first appearing around the Fayyum, then moving southward, reaching the Theban area about a thousand years later. We know little about its subsequent development there until the New Kingdom. Then, Thebes provides us with a wonderful collection of texts and tomb paintings detailing many aspects of the agricultural cycle. For example, we have been able to track commodity prices through the Rameside period; the mechanics of land tenure and crop yields; and the shipping, storage, and redistribution of foodstuffs. Tomb paintings such as those in the tomb of Nakht (TT 52), show the techniques of ploughing, sowing, irrigating, harvesting, threshing, and storing of crops.
As long as the Nile flood was neither too low nor too high, crops grew in abundance, often producing sizeable surpluses. The summer flood pattern that typified dynastic times was established by about 12,000 B.C. But during the next millennia, “Wild Niles” flooded the valley with several meters of water in some years and barely a centimeter or two in others. In dynastic times, elaborate efforts were made to track and predict the Nile flood, and Nilometers were built at various places along the river to monitor its rise. Such information was crucial: several times in dynastic history floods were insufficient to grow adequate crops and the result was famine. At other times, high Niles wreaked havoc, destroying dikes, canals, and villages. In the reign of Rameses III, for example, a series of low Niles brought several years of social and economic chaos.
The annual deposition of Nile silts was heaviest along the banks of the river, less so as the waters moved nearer to the desert edge. The result was that the Nile Valley gradually took on a convex cross-section. Levees along the river were the logical site for building settlements since the higher land there was usually safe from flooding and unsuitable for growing crops. Over time, however, as the mud-brick villages built here or on small mounds within the flood plain were abandoned or destroyed by high floods, settlements were eventually buried deep beneath layers of silt. That is why archaeologists even today know relatively little about the domestic architecture of ancient Egypt and so much about its funerary and religious architecture. Tombs, meant to last for eternity, were cut in stone in dry desert wadis where their preservation could be assured. Temples, built of stone but requiring regular accessibility, were erected on desert lands near the edge of the cultivation. They generally have survived, too, although their numerous outbuildings, usually constructed of mudbrick, have not.
Great limestone cliffs rose near the edge of the cultivable fields on the west bank at Thebes, and it was into those hills that both royal and private tombs were dug. But limestone was not used for the building of temples. They were constructed of sandstone which had to be dragged from quarries such as Jabal al-Silsila, 140 kilometers south. Granite from Aswan, basalt from the Red Sea Hills, and alabaster from the Western Desert were also transported to Thebes for the construction of doorways, lintels, obelisks, and statuary. The deserts were also a source of stone for jewelry and inlays, and produced turquoise, gold, jasper, galena, malachite, emerald, amethyst, and lapis lazuli, among others.
Egyptians were keen observers of their natural world and regularly depicted it in their tomb paintings. Lying in northeast Africa, at the crossroads of several different natural areas, Egypt has always been richly populated with many species of animals. It is largely from the meticulous paintings of nature we find in Theban private tombs that we can reconstruct the natural environment of New Kingdom Thebes in such detail. Egyptian artists, who presumably worked from a kind of artist’s guidebook, took great pains to clearly represent species and even sub-species of plants and animals. For example, paintings of kingfishers carefully distinguished Alcedo atthis from Ceryle rudis. The special features of the White Pelican are drawn differently from those of a Dalmatian Pelican. Such accuracy is also to be seen in representations of Nile fish, wild and domesticated animals, flowers, grasses, and trees.
The Nile Valley today is still a beautiful and magical place, and one should take the time to enjoy its many attributes. Few things are quite as pleasant as sailing at sunrise along the west bank of the river. There, especially in the autumn during the annual southward migration, dozens of species of birds can be seen, from herons and pelicans to bee-eaters and sunbirds. It is not unusual on a November evening to see flocks of a thousand birds or more flying low across the fields, searching for a place to spend the night.
Walking, or riding on horses, camels or donkeys through West Bank fields is equally rewarding, especially on cool winter afternoons. The crops are different today than in ancient times, of course, and sugar cane and wheat predominate, but the overall experience is nearly the same. All is quiet except for the call of a bird or the distant braying of a donkey; clean, fresh air carries the faint aroma of basil; tiny puffs of dust rise from a nearby path as an unattended donkey trots along the familiar route home. Palm trees and the tops of distant hills rise above the fields and wisps of smoke rise from village bread ovens. A stroll along the footpaths that crisscross the broad fields and lead to small mudbrick villages is an experience to be savored.
Much of the West Bank still retains a bucolic flavor, although new buildings of red brick and concrete, satellite dishes, tourist shops, and paved roads are springing up along the Nile and farther west at the desert edge. In another five or ten years, the character of the West Bank will have disappeared and one will have to travel outside Luxor’s tourist zone to enjoy rural Egypt. Such changes have already overtaken the East Bank. Luxor today is a bustling, noisy city, filled with tourist hotels, gaudy bazaars, and coffee shops that blast pop music into crowded streets. Children shout, determined to sell cheap trinkets to tourists. Two statistics tell the story: thirty years ago, Luxor had two paved streets; today they are all paved. Twenty years ago, Luxor boasted only five taxis; today there are hundreds.
We know little about the layout of the Nile floodplain at Thebes in the New Kingdom. It is possible to trace the boundaries of several natural irrigation basins, but the location of villages, paths, and canals is largely conjectural. Among the few archaeological features known in the cultivation, the southernmost is Birkat Habu, a huge artificial harbor dug in the reign of Amenhetep III for the celebration of his first and second sed-festivals. To its north, also within the cultivation, lay that king’s memorial temple, its first pylon fronted by the famous Colossi of Memnon. At the northern end of the Theban Necropolis lay an ancient village called Khefet-her-nebes and, adjacent to it, the memorial temple of Sety I. Artificial canals ran through the fields, connecting small harbors dug before the many memorial temples built here.
The desert on the West Bank is another matter. Not only do we have the remains of ancient structures, we also have found an ancient papyrus that lists in geographical order the temples and houses that were built along the edge of the cultivation. From such data, we are able to divide the West Bank into several archaeological zones.
Adjacent to the cultivable land, a low, sand-covered strip of desert extends from the northern end of the necropolis to the southern. It varies in width from only a few meters (about 10 feet) to nearly three kilometers (1.8 miles). At the northern end lies an area called al-Tarif, site of several hundred Old and Middle Kingdom tombs. To its south, immediately adjacent to modern cultivation, lies a string of memorial temples, starting with that of Sety I and continuing southward with those of Amenhetep I and Ahmes-Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Thutmes III, Merenptah-Siptah, Amenhetep II, Rameses II, a son of Thutmes I, Thutmes IV, Merenptah, Rameses IV, Amenhetep son of Hapu, Thutmes II, Ay, Tutankhamen, Horemheb, and Rameses III. The Dynasty 18 palace of Amenhetep III is located at the southern end, and nearby stand the Ptolemaic temple at Qasr al-’Ajuz and the Roman temple at Dayr al-Shalwit, which mark the southern end of the Theban Necropolis.
Several small hills lie scattered within this low desert area, each of them pockmarked with the entrances to numerous small tombs known generally as the Tombs of the Nobles, or private tombs. A few date to the Old and Middle Kingdom but most are from the New Kingdom. They number in the hundreds, but only a few have been cleared or opened to the public. At the northern end of the necropolis is Dira’ Abu al-Naja whose tombs are primarily of Rameside date. Near the road to Dayr al-Bahari stands al-’Asasif, housing about forty tombs, and al-Khokha, with about sixty. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qurna is a long, narrow hill with close to a hundred tombs. Qurnat Murai, beside the road into Dayr al-Madina, has seventeen.
Behind these small hills stand the sheer cliffs of the Theban mountain. At their base stand several memorial temples, the best known of which are the three at Dayr al-Bahari belonging to Mentuhetep I, Thutmes III, and Hatshepsut.
Within the Theban hills proper, small wadis were used for the burials of Egypt’s New Kingdom royal families and the workers responsible for digging and decorating their tombs. The workmen lived and were buried in Dayr al-Madina. To its south lies the Valley of the Queens and, between those two sites, the so-called Valley of the Dolmen. Several Coptic monasteries were also built in this area. The Valley of the Kings, actually two valleys, the East and the West, lies farther north and west, at the base of the highest point in the Theban hills, called al-Qurn or “The Horn.” Many other areas on the West Bank are home to archaeological monuments, but most remain unstudied, unpublished, and inaccessible to tourists.
On the East Bank of the Nile lie the major temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor, as well as the ancient city of Thebes, now buried beneath the modern city of Luxor.
Most tourists to Thebes spend only one day on the East Bank and one day on the West Bank. But the sites here are so numerous and of such interest that, if at all possible, more time should be devoted to both sides of the Nile. At the very least, on the West Bank one should see tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a selection of the tombs of the nobles, Dayr al-Bahari, and Madinet Habu. The number of monuments to be visited in each of these areas can be extended to fill all available time, and to the list can be added the Valley of the Queens, Dayr al-Madina, the Ramesseum, and the temple of Sety I. On the East Bank, Karnak alone deserves a full day or, better, two mornings, and one should spend a couple of hours in Luxor Temple and the Luxor Museum of Ancient Art. A day spent walking through West Bank fields and villages, stopping often for tea and conversation, or hiking over the Theban Hills to admire the spectacular view, can all be high points of a visit here.
From" The Illustrated Guide to Luxor" by kent R.Weeks ,published by the American University in Cairo Press. Copyright © 2005 White Star S.p.a