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History of Luxor (Thebes)

Waset, as it was then known, was for the ancient Egyptians of the 2nd and the 1st millennia BCE, "the city" par excellence. To its visitors, the town was almost the center of their known world. The palatial district, Deba — a name subsequently altered by Greek visitors into Thebai, whence Thebes — enjoyed an unprecedented high position of luxury, imperial authority, knowledge and wisdom, religious and political supremacy, artistic work and grandiose plans. Several of these plans never came to be true, like the golden obelisk of Hatshepsut, but who says that mankind ceased to dream?

Rising to political power only in the middle of the second millennium before Christ, Thebes became the synonym of extravagant wealth, probably collected by the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom in their expeditions to the south in the vast land of Kush in the area of today's northern Sudan, and to the north in Canaan, Phoenicia, and Syria. Tuthmosis III was the first Pharaoh to reach the then faraway Euphrates in Mesopotamia. In those days, no other city in the world could match Waset in military power or beauty. Much of the palatial or residential areas of the city have not been excavated, but there is every reason to believe that a sublime beauty was to be found there: ancient Egyptian pictures of houses, gardens, fields, palaces and feasts offer a furtive glimpse of this paradise-on-the-Nile. There was a love for nature, piety and serene thought; everything took place under the auspices of the Trinity of Ancient Egyptian mythology: Amun, Mut and Montu -- a family whose last and youngest member was usually confused or identified with Khonsu, the Moon. Quite paradoxically, Amun was considered a political god, and did not offer much for a debate in metaphysics. And yet, on the other side of the river, the supreme masters of Kemet — the "Black", as Egypt was then called — consecrated a large portion of their treasures in hope of expensive trips in the afterlife.

A broad array of visitors came here: the Babylonians, the Mitanni, the Hittites of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), the Canaanites of Ugarit, the Phoenicians of Byblos and Tyre, the Minoans from the island of Crete, the Greeks of Mycenae. One Hittite prince even came to marry with the widow of Tutankhamun, the notorious Ankhesenamun -- who wrote a letter to the Hittite king and urging him to send her someone, being unsure about the intentions of Ay, the high priest of Amun, since he intended to ascend to the throne of Thebes himself through such a marriage.

Then, after the victory of Ramses III over the Sea Peoples, a very slow decay characterized Thebes in times of division of Egypt; even then, despite its limited political power, Thebes had an edge over all the rest: an immense past and a legendary, radiant name that only Babylon could claim to match. Wenamun, the priest of Amun, moved from Thebes to Byblos, around 1075 BCE, and found it strange that Zakar Baal, King of Byblos, did not comply with his request for valuable cedar wood -- necessary for the construction of the holy boat of Amun -- and did not fear when hearing the name of the past glories. No rich tombs were to be hewn in the western mountains any more, but rather, the whole city was to be considered as a mausoleum, and was therefore venerated as such.

Then came the invaders; Assurbanipal was the first and only to attack and destroy Thebes. Doing so, he acted friendly to Egypt, kicking out the Kushite Taharqa, who was put on the throne of Egypt by the priesthood of Thebes. The Assyrian emperor installed Psammetichus, the Libyan prince, who was his ally, at the throne of Egypt. Ruined, Thebes did not forfeit any part of its importance; rather it was integrated into a wholly commercial network of land, fluvial, desert and maritime routes that were established by the Persian conquerors who wished to link the parts of their vast empire in a definite way.

Then, Thebes remained always the ultimate destination, although the intention was not political alliance but historical veneration, admiration and commemoration. Even in these times of decay, the Greek historian Herodotus was able to speak of the One Hundred Gates of Thebes. Were they entrances to a vast palace or temple, doors of a fortress (that we know it never existed), or perhaps schools of initiation in the mysteries of Kemet, of Egypt?

Alexander the Great also came to venerate, and had an extension built, at the famous temple of Amun, where the statue of the god was transferred from Karnak during the Opet Festival, the great religious feast. Thebes, in advanced decay, never ceased to vibrate with the aspirations of rebels against the Ptolemaic and the Roman rulers; and the rulers of Meroe in Sudan, who had built so many pyramids in those days, supported these rebels in a reminiscence of the Taharqa days!

At the twilight of Antiquity, the Roman Emperor Germanicus had an exclusive and extensive itinerary in the ruins of Thebes, where he was initiated into the great mysteries of the glorious past by one of the very last few priests, who were still versant in hieroglyphics. From that moment on, the grandeur of Thebes was to be intercepted spiritually, rather than seen by open eyes. The spirit of Thebes sent a special convocation to Christian monks, who found it interesting to set their monasteries amidst several ancient monuments. That is why the temple of Hatshepsut is now called Deir el-Bahri ("the northern monastery"). And the Eastern Roman armies that were stationed here had their barracks next to the temple of the Opet feast. When the Arabs first came, they called the area "the camps", al Uqsur. This was the last contribution to the history of the area's names. It was destined to remain intact until the Europeans came to rediscover the magnificence of the yet-untold story of Waset.


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