Ancient Thebes: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we will explore the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. As one of the primary cities of ancient Egypt, Thebes saw several periods of growth and decline in its history, and it featured an enormous necropolis, now a UNESCO world heritage site.

What's in a Name?

As the old proverb goes, history is often written by the victors. In the case of the ancient Egyptian city of Wase, history was not written by its conquerors, but by the cultural giants across the Mediterranean ocean. For despite Wase being a political and cultural center of ancient Egypt for thousands of years, most modern historians and researchers know Wase by the name it was given by much later generations of Ptolemaic Greeks: Thebes.

Early Beginnings

Indeed, Thebes was known to most ancient Egyptians as Wase, meaning 'City of the Scepter' in ancient Egyptian. The city was dedicated to the Egyptian god, Amon, so it was also at times known as Nowe, meaning 'City of Amon.'

Regardless of nomenclature, Thebes likely coalesced from several surrounding villages sometime early in the third millennium B.C. or late in the fourth. Its earliest explicit mentions are in writings and hieroglyphics of the fourth dynasty in the twenty-seventh and twenty-sixth centuries B.C., though the earliest monuments which survive in Thebes date to the eleventh dynasty of Egypt, 2134-1991 B.C. The city was almost entirely built on the east bank of the Nile, with the west bank reserved for an enormous necropolis (cemetery), likely due to its relation to the city and the setting of the sun.

Height of Prosperity

It was during the eleventh dynasty and the founding of the Middle Kingdom that Thebes emerged from a relatively unknown, southern Egyptian city on the banks of the Nile into an important metropolis. With Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt reunited under the first king of the eleventh dynasty, Mentuhotep I, Thebes was made the Egyptian capital. Though the Twelfth Dynasty rulers moved the capital north, back into Lower Egypt, the city remained a cultural center and a recipient of royal wealth in the form of building projects. Large, lavish temples were constructed to Amon in the city, usually at royal expense.

In the second intermediate period, when Egypt was invaded and parts were controlled by the Hyksos people, Thebes experienced a tumultuous period of nearly complete autonomy in its own affairs. It was only when the Eighteenth Dynasty rulers reunited Egypt and again made Thebes the capital that the city saw its most prosperous times.

As these rulers expanded the Egyptian Empire to its greatest lengths, the city experienced a similar regrowth and period of unprecedented wealth. Having a home within the city's walls was a sign of wealth, and local potentates competed with each other through commissioning various building projects, from their homes to religious buildings to mortuary temples on the Nile's west bank. Many of the tombs and temples which still stand today were built in between the rule of Amenhotep III, which began in 1390 B.C., and the rule of Rameses III, which ended in 1156 B.C.

Decline and Sacking

The city's wealth and the empire as a whole were never as rich or powerful after the rule of Rameses III. The high priests of Amon, who had always been a fixture in the city, slowly gained power and prestige at the expense of the pharaohs and local rulers. Corruption and mismanagement further weakened the government in the eyes of the people, and by the rule of Rameses XI (1190-1075 B.C.), the high priests had effective control of the city.

Though the city was still the wealthiest metropolis in the region and likely in Upper Egypt, Thebes was no longer the capital or principal city of Egypt, with the pharaoh now residing in Tanis. The city's decline was punctuated in 663 B.C., when an invading Assyrian army under the emperor Assurbanipal sacked the city.

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