Historical city travel guide: Thebes, Egypt, 13th century BC
The bustling city of Thebes, which is known to the locals as ‘Waset’, lies around 800 kilometres (500 miles) south of the Mediterranean on the banks of the river Nile. Thebes is the main city of ‘Upper Egypt’, the southern region of the country that extends to Nubia. The Egyptian king (or pharaoh) rules over both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, with both areas defined by the course of the River Nile.
The city has recently been the focus of a significant building programme under the reigning king Ramesses II, with monumental new constructions for the gods. Residential areas, temples, festival sites, government buildings, and industrial areas are found on either side of the Nile, with vast cemeteries in the low hills of the West bank.
When to visit
Thebes is one of the driest and hottest areas in Egypt, and temperatures can be sweltering throughout the summer months. If you have to visit during this time, be prepared for some serious heat! During the Nile flood, which reaches Thebes in July and August, temples can also be inundated and tracks across agricultural areas difficult to navigate. We’d recommend visiting during the cooler winter months to make the most of your trip, but the summer months do have some great festivals so it depends what takes your fancy.
The city of Thebes covers an area of around 93 square kilometres, and walking around the major parts of the city – depending on how hot it is – will be possible since major parts of the city are all located across the East bank of the Nile.
Various desert routes around Thebes are well established, facilitating trade from areas such as the Kharga oasis (around 200 kilometres, or 125 miles, away) in the Western desert where wine is produced (more on that later). There’s also a larger network of routes between towns and villages in the local area. Exploring these more remote sites will require a donkey to traverse the terrain, though it is well worth it to gain a glimpse of marvellous items arriving from far away areas such as Nubia, where many precious materials like gold are found.
The most efficient way to travel is via boat along the Nile. Not only does this provide spectacular views, particularly of the sunset behind the Western burial grounds, but accessible harbours allow for quick and easy ‘hops’ from one side of the Nile to the other.
Where to stay
Thebes is a densely populated city, with the majority of locals living within the town along the East bank of the Nile in mudbrick structures. We’d recommend staying here if you can as these places are all close to the main attractions and the temples being visited and enhanced by the king. Another residential village site on the West bank is also worth a visit, which we’ll learn more about later.
Things to do
Thebes has been transformed by the current pharaoh Ramesses II, with new temples adorned by colossal statues of the king himself and large obelisks inscribed with his name and titles.
Things had not always been so prosperous here – less than 50 years ago under Akhenaten’s (1352–1336 BC) religious revolution, many religious spaces and shrines for the traditional gods were closed, with only new temples to the sun-disc, the Aten, remaining open.
Moving from the East bank where the sun rises to the West bank where the sun sets, there are a number of amazing sights to see:
Karnak and Luxor temples
You can’t visit Thebes without exploring the city’s largest temple sites. They have a rich history, with some parts already many centuries old. Luxor temple’s structure was built by king Amenhotep III who reigned some 100 years ago. He recorded his architectural achievements in a stela from his mortuary temple: ‘It pleased his majesty’s heart to make very great monuments, the likes of which had not existed…’. His structure at Luxor and his enhancements at Karnak include ‘pavements of pure silver’, and pylons and twin towers at each site respectively ‘reaching to the sky’.
Both Karnak and Luxor temple are dedicated to forms of Amun-Ra, the creator god, and both are a constant bustle of sound, sights, and smells. Incense, myrrh and scented oils are regularly used as offerings to the god.
The priesthood responsible for the running of the temples provide a continuous buzz through spoken rituals, the playing of musical instruments, and the regular sound of construction as enhancements and improvements to the temple ordered by the pharaoh.
Though access to the inner spaces of any Egyptian temple is prohibited to anyone other than those in the royal family or high status priests, you may be able to venture into the outer courtyards and admire the beautifully carved and painted reliefs which decorate the high walls of the temples, depicting the kings and the gods.
Colossal statues of Ramesses II and monumental obelisks now frame the entrance. These monuments are visible long before you reach the structure itself, and the Luxor site has also been enhanced with a new courtyard that lengthens the whole complex.
The pharaoh is currently building a huge temple on the opposing West bank of the Nile, and though you may wish to leave the workers to it, the flurry of activity as huge blocks of mudbrick are being lifted, worked on and set into the structure, is a true spectacle to behold. Like the Luxor temple, you will spot this site immediately as there are large statues of the king framing the entrance way.
Chat to a local, and they’ll tell you this temple will be a place for the king’s cult to be celebrated for eternity. It will serve as a place for the populace to pay their respects to the king after he dies rather than visiting his tomb, as access to royal burial sites is strictly prohibited.
Ramesses’ temple does not stand in isolation; in fact, the mortuary temples of many earlier kings are located in this same area. At the foot of the cliffs, the temple of Mentuhotep II, a king from centuries ago, features exquisite reliefs showing military scenes. It’s an opportunity to admire the skills of the local craftsmen, who carve beautifully executed hieroglyphs and relief scenes to decorate the structures, many of which demonstrate the king’s military prowess and defeat of Egypt’s enemies.
The elite tombs
Behind these royal creations and further north, you can explore large cemetery spaces of the elite. It is customary for the Egyptians to honour the dead in their tombs, just as they also pay their respects to the kings of the past.
The tomb of Nebamun and his wife is particularly stunning, with beautifully painted reliefs depicting an elite life of banquets, music and celebrations, which Nebamun must have hoped would continue for eternity. Though it is customary for people to enter these chapel spaces, access to the inner burial areas is strictly prohibited.
The local area
There are many attractive places within the Theban area to experience a sense of Egyptian daily life. Many residential areas lie close to the city’s attractions on the East bank, nearby the necessities such as the markets and the sacred temple spaces. On the West bank behind the temple of Ramesses you’ll find the isolated site of Deir el-Medina which is an interesting place to visit.
The site of Deir el-Medina houses the builders, workmen, and artists who construct the enormous tombs of the pharaohs and their families. It is not a typical village by any means, but it’s great for people-watching and finding out about the lives of those dedicated to creating the funerary spaces of their leaders.
The houses in Deir el-Medina tend to be mudbrick structures, often tightly packed together along narrow alleyways. Should you be lucky enough to be invited into a typical Egyptian home, you will normally encounter a structure with three or four small rooms, and a staircase leading up to a terrace or upper storey. If you’re looking to find your way to a friend’s place, it’s easy as door lintels are painted red and inscribed with the family’s name. The interior walls, painted white, sometimes include images of the gods.
While purchasing of goods such as food, drink, oils, clothing and so on regularly takes place along the riverbanks in Thebes, as Deir el-Medina is not on the river many resources need to be carried in. Fresh water is available at communal wells – which also make great socialising spots – and designated workers known as ‘water carriers’ also provide for the village, so you won’t go thirsty. Another option is to hire a donkey for carrying water and other goods though it’s quite expensive – it costs around 20 deben (a weight unit, usually in metal) to hire a donkey for just a few days. While 1 deben can buy you several loaves of bread, hiring a donkey is not easily affordable for the average workman and could take up almost their entire monthly wages.
The Opet Festival
If you time your trip right, the big religious festivals are wonderful to experience – with great crowds and vibrant celebrations. The Opet festival takes place during the Nile flood season in the summer and can last around 14 days. The most magnificent feature of this festival involves the ritual journey of a bark (or boat) carrying the sacred image of the god Amun from his shrine at Karnak all the way to Luxor temple. This boat was ‘made pure with silver…worked with gold throughout.’ according to the text from Amenhotep III’s temple stela.
Musicians, dancers, and spectators gather to celebrate the journey of the image of Amun-Ra. After various feasts and ritual performances honouring the god, his image returns to Karnak via another ritual journey along the Nile. Luxor is alive with a festive atmosphere throughout this whole event. Ensure that you find a place with the general populace along the riverbanks, as this will give you the best view of the festival proceedings.
Celebrations for local saints
In addition to the gods and the king, Thebans also worship the deified figure of king Amenhotep I, and his mother Ahmose-Nefertari, who lived over 200 years ago.
There are various annual celebrations for Amenhotep I and his mother, which include grand feasts and images of the king ‘appearing’ to the festival goers. You will find that the pleasures of food, drink, and sweet fragrances are important to festival celebrations. Bouquets of flowers are given as offerings, adding sweet smells and bright colour to these joyous occasions.
Theban workshops will provide you with all you could ever desire in terms of local and luxury goods traded from Egypt’s neighbours in Nubia and further afield. After the harvesting season, the Nile is overwhelmed with ships transporting goods to be stored in temple granaries and regular trading vessels that pull up along the riverbanks to sell popular everyday items such as fish.
No coins are used in Egypt so there’s no currency exchange to worry about, but items are regularly traded – for instance a cow for a jar of oil – so on each visit you should be able to find something new.
Tourists should copy veteran market visitors and ensure that they double check the products carefully before purchasing – an eagle-eyed buyer of sweet-smelling honey used for divine offerings or for ointment may test the jar to ensure it is not congealed, and baskets with coarse coiling should be inspected for their robustness. For any damaged or faulty items, the sellers are expected to provide alternatives or replacements so you can buy with confidence.
Production of wonderful goods can all be found at the market, with skilled craftsmen from well-established workshops whose work is high in demand all across Egypt. The painstaking production of fine jewellery and items of precious metals, as well as the dirt and dust of the potter’s kilns used to create all kinds of pottery creates a lively (and loud), unforgettable atmosphere.
Egyptians value the importance of preparing for the afterlife, therefore items for their tombs such as coffins, shabtis, and papyri are valuable possessions. They are often inscribed with magical texts to ensure that they reach the afterlife. Thebes is renowned as a place for the production of funerary goods. Many sellers will wish to show you such items and it’s worth bearing in mind their value and the need to politely decline if you are not interested. If you can pay a good price, you may find a willing craftsman to customize such objects for you to your own personal tastes and styles – you may even dictate your own inscription.
Food and drink
A wide variety of culinary goods can also be purchased at the markets or bartered from neighbours, with items available from elsewhere in Egypt and further afield. Grain and barley are staples in the Egyptian diet – bread from emmer wheat and barley is produced in abundance, and you will spot many cylindrical clay ovens baking fresh bread that can be purchased from the street. Make sure to try some sweetened bread, usually made with figs, dates, or honey, for a particularly tasty treat!
Fruit and vegetables such as figs, dates, celery, garlic, and lentils are also readily available to buy as street-food as well as luxury imported goods such as olive oil. Meat including geese and duck, ox and goat are readily available as well as fish, and would typically be roasted or boiled. However, you won’t often find these being consumed every day but more likely to be reserved for special occasions. You may also spot locals buying food as offerings for their ancestors.
Beer is consumed daily in Thebes, produced with barley or emmer, and this is a far more nutritious form of beer than you may expect as the grain content is high in protein. It is common practice for manual labourers to receive part of their payment in beer and other foodstuffs like grain. In addition to being an essential for festivals and celebrations, Egyptian beer is so highly regarded that you may even find it being used to barter for other goods at the marketplace. You can find out how to make Egyptian beer here.
Wine (exclusively red wine), is a more of a luxury and is often reserved for special occasions or events, such as banquets and festivals. Wine production takes place primarily in the north (Lower Egypt), but also the western oases such as Kharga, and storage vessels record the location and year of production so you’ll be able to select from a wide range to try.
Things to know
Visitors to the city shouldn’t feel too out of place. A great number of foreigners have settled in Thebes and throughout Egypt as a result of Ramesses II’s conquests, but long before this inhabitants from areas such as Nubia had been an active part of the Egyptian economy and society. If you fancy staying in Thebes after your visit, several career options for non-Egyptians are open to you – Syrian peoples are included within temple administrative records as holding important government positions as recorded in the papyrus below.
You will see that for the Egyptians, worship of the gods and reverence for the deceased takes precedence in their architecture, their markets, and their homes. Many locals you meet will have names that incorporate the name of a deity, and in local’s letters to one another the gods are usually evoked through sayings such as: ‘In life, prosperity, and health in the favour of Amun-Ra!’.
Many funerary texts also provide beautiful illustrations of their gods, often connected to their desire to reach the afterlife.
Visitors from abroad are more than welcome, however observing the local practices and piety to the gods will be important during your visit, including obeying the rules about not entering the prohibited spaces of the tombs and temples. Policing of the sacred sites and necropolis areas ensures that tombs remain undisturbed, though there are legal procedures in place should any tombs be found to have been robbed.
Though most jobs within Egyptian society are held by men, women are able to go out in public and engage in business on their own. Women can also own and sell property without a male representative.
If mingling with government officials such as the vizier, the highest official serving under the Egyptian king, or the Medjay (the local police force), all crucial workers who maintain the peace within Thebes and ensure that everything runs smoothly, it wouldn’t hurt to pay a compliment or two to the king.
If you’ve enjoyed your trip to ancient Thebes, you can travel back in time to other historical cities covered in this series of blog posts. Visit Athens, Rome, Nineveh or Edo here.