Photograph by Michael Hughes, laif/Redux
Site: Ancient Thebes With Its Necropolis
Year Designated: 1979
Reason: Towering temples and treasure-filled tombs shine a light on one of history's greatest civilizations.
* * *
Ancient Thebes was home to some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world—built to honor the living, the dead, and the divine. The city, known as Waset to ancient Egyptians and as Luxor today, was the capital of Egypt during parts of the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 B.C.) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 B.C.).
Thebes was the city of Amun, whose devotees elevated him among the ranks of ancient deities. Once a relatively local Theban god, he was merged with the god Re and perched atop the entire Egyptian pantheon.
Amun’s city sat astride the Nile in Upper Egypt. On the river’s east side was the city proper and many important temples, including the legendary Karnak complex. Karnak was one of the biggest religious complexes in the world, nearly one mile by half a mile (1.5 kilometers by 800 meters), and even after more than 3,000 years it remains one of the most awe-inspiring.
This was the principal religious site of the New Kingdom, and its monuments are correspondingly enormous—Hatshepsut’s obelisk towers 90 feet (27.5 meters). The massive assemblage of structures, columns, and statuary paid tribute to four different gods.
Karnak was linked to another legendary site, the Luxor Temple, by a grand, 1.9-mile-long (3-kilometer-long) avenue lined with sphinxes.
Luxor Temple, with its soaring columns and statues of Ramses II, is nearly as familiar as the Sphinx or Pyramids at Giza. The primary structure was built during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II, circa 1500 to 1200 B.C., but other rulers from Tutankhamun to Alexander the Great added their own touches over the years.
The temple was dedicated to Amun in his form as a fertility god and was used during the annual Opet Festival of royal renewal. Today it is still a place of worship—the Abu el-Haggag mosque added in the 11th century is still operational today.
On the Nile’s west bank, the dead held sway. It was here that the Egyptians created an extensive necropolis to commemorate the lives of the royal and highborn—and to prepare them for the afterlife.
The Valley of the Kings (actually two distinct valleys) was used to bury royalty during much of the New Kingdom era, from about 1550 to 1070 B.C. Rulers were interred in elaborate underground structures, with chambers and passages decorated with paintings and filled with everything a pharaoh could desire in this world or the next.
The valley is best known for the tomb of Tutankhamun, with its legendary treasures, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Many other royals were buried here but few known tombs remained as unmolested as Tut’s. The Valley of the Kings was heavily looted in the 21st dynasty (1070 to 945 B.C.) and many mummies were removed for safekeeping during this era.
Secreted in the cliffs of a Y-shaped ravine, the Valley of the Queens houses some 90 known tombs of queens, princes, and other notables from the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070). As at other sites, tomb robbing was common and relatively few undisturbed tombs were found here. Yet the necropolises themselves, along with the great temples on the far shore, make Thebes one of the truly great treasures of the ancient world—and the modern one as well.
How to Get There
Luxor is serviced by an international airport, by train, by regular bus service, and even by Nile cruise ships.
When to Visit
Summer in this area is simply scorching. Winter has a far more favorable climate for exploring the sites. At any time of year it’s likely best to explore in the morning and evening hours.
How to Visit
Take your time. Scholars have spent careers exploring Luxor—you won’t have time to see it all and might miss the forest for the trees if you try. Leave time for relaxation in the style only Luxor can provide—like a sunset felucca cruise on the Nile.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!