The ancient city of Thebes, under the Middle and New Kingdoms (12th-21st Dynasties) the magnificent and widely famed capital and religious center of Egypt, extended over the territory of present day Luxor and Karnak and reached out on to the west bank of the Nile and far into the valleys of the Western Desert with its vast necropolises and great mortuary temples.
The history of Thebes during the Old Kingdom is veiled in obscurity. The Egyptian name of the town was Weset or, more shortly, Newt ("the City"), which gave the Biblical No or No-Amon ("City of Amun"). The west bank was known as "the West of Weset". It is not known what led the Greeks to call it Thebai (Thebes), the name of a number of Greek cities; they and the Romans also knew it as Diospolis (the City of Zeus, who was equated with Amun), or more specifically as Diospolis he Megale or Diospolis Magna (Diospolis the Great) to distinguish it from Diospolis Parva (Hiw), some 60mi/100km northeast. Weset was the chief town of a nome and was ruled by its own Princes, whose burial place during the Sixth Dynasty was at Dra Abu el-Naga, on the west bank of the Nile. The town's protective deity was the falcon headed war god Month, who was also worshiped in the neighboring towns of Medu and Hermonthis.
Thebes gained in importance when, during the Middle Kingdom, the Princes of Thebes assumed the dignity of King, and at the same time the god Amun of Karnak, previously of little consequence, rose to a position of central importance. The greatness of Thebes, however, really began under the Early New Kingdom. The struggle against the Hyksos and the unification of Egypt were spearheaded by Thebes, and thereafter the city remained for many centuries the splendid capital of the Pharaohs, into which flowed the immense treasures won from conquered nations in booty or in tribute. Much of this wealth was bestowed on Amun, and the huge temples dedicated to him date from this period. The existing Temple of Epet-esowet at Karnak was enlarged, and the new Temple of Apet-resyet was built at Luxor. The great ones of the kingdom considered it an honor to be priests of Amun; the temple schools flourished; and the Kings offered their richest gifts to the god. Thebes was now renowned throughout the Eastern World, a city of which the Prophet Nahum said that "Ethiopia and Egypt were her strength, and it was infinite" (Nahum 3: 9). Homer, too, refers to "Egyptian Thebes, where the houses are rich in treasures; with a hundred gates, from each of which two hundred warriors sally forth with chariots and horses" (Iliad 9: 381-384; perhaps an interpolation). Later classical writers (Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny, Stephanus of Byzantium) also refer to the great "hundred-gated" city.
The hostility shown to Amun by Amenophis IV / Akhenaten and the temporary transfer of the capital to Tell el-Amarna did little to diminish the splendor of Thebes. Under Horemheb, Sethos I and Ramesses II the images and inscriptions that had been destroyed were restored and the wealth of the temples still further increased. We are told that in the reign of Ramesses III more than two-thirds of the landed property held by the temples of Egypt belonged to Amun and that three-quarters of the gifts lavished on the gods by the King fell to Amun: thus of 113,433 slaves presented to the temples 86,486 went to Amun. The High Priests thus increasingly came to feel themselves to be leading figures in the State, and sometimes even acceded to the throne.
When the capital of the kingdom was transferred to the Delta under the 21st Dynasty, however, the city lost much of its importance. Nevertheless Thebes and much of Upper Egypt long remained a distinct political entity governed by the High Priests of Amun and more or less independent of the Kings reigning in the north. In the seventh C. B.C. the city was plundered by Assyrian armies. The Ethiopian rulers of Egypt made Thebes their capital and honored Amun with temples and inscriptions. The rulers of the 26th Dynasty, however, transferred the capital to Sais. The armies of Cambyses, which advanced into Upper Egypt, appear to have done little or no damage to Thebes. Nectanebo II, one of the native rulers who for a time shook off Persian rule, erected a handsome doorway in the Temple of Month. In the time of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies the city declined, and although the buildings erected in the Ptolemaic period show that it was still held in respect it now had to contend with a dangerous rival in the new capital of Ptolemais founded by Ptolemy I.
When a rebellion broke out in Upper Egypt in the reign of Epiphanes against Macedonian domination Thebes, though now politically and economically weakened, once again achieved independence under native Princes; but the rising was soon repressed, and Thebes was reduced to the status of a provincial town, which gradually broke up into a series of separate villages. Under Ptolemy IX Soter II there was a further rising, which ended when the town was captured after a three year siege; and when it took part in an insurrection against high Roman taxation it was utterly destroyed by the Roman Governor, Cornelius Gallus. Strabo, visiting Egypt in 24-20 B.C., found only a few scattered villages on the site. In the Roman Imperial period Thebes is mentioned only as a place visited by curious tourists, attracted by the temples and the colossi of Memnon.
After the introduction of Christianity and the Edicts of Theodosius many pagan statues were destroyed and many inscriptions obliterated. The Nile, which annually flooded the Temple of Karnak, and saline exudations from the soil wrought much damage. Many tombs were used as dwellings by the local peasants; temples were converted into churches and monasteries; houses were built within the Great Temple of Luxor; and much stone was burned to produce lime.
The main features of interest on the east bank of the Nile-Thebes (East) are the great temples of Luxor and Karnak.
There are many fine tombs on the north side of the Valley of the Kings.
Useful tips: ACCESS to Luxor. By road from Cairo (416mi/670km north) or Aswan (130mi/210km south). Railway station. By air (several flights daily from Cairo and Aswan).