Yet while Thebes was sinking into mediocrity, its conquerors treated it as a great city and tried to preserve and embellish it. The Kushites particularly, having assimilated the culture of Egypt and become fanatical adherents of Amon, sought to reinspire Theban culture and safeguard the city from collapse. The kings of the 26th Dynasty built lesser temples to Amon and bestowed their wealth, what remained of it, upon him. The invading army of Cambyses, though striking as far as Upper Egypt, actually did very little damage to the city. The rule of the Ptolemies is noted for its architectural activity and the Greeks conscientiously endeavoured to add to the splendour of national buildings after a priest had told Alexander that he was the son of Amon and should revere him. The Romans too repaired ruins and built temples in the traditional style, each retaining something of the earlier grandeur. But it was a losing battle. The past was not to be recaptured. Thebes could hardly hide its well-earned wrinkles and a time-weathered quality lay over the metropolis.
With the advent of the divine religions came systematic destruction. It happened first in the tombs and shrines where the early Christians hid. Later the ‘pagan’ statues were uprooted, sacred sanctuaries mutilated, attempts made to topple obelisks and colossi and obliterate forever the visages of the ‘heathen gods’. Akhenaten’s acts were half-hearted dabblings when compared with this wholesale destruction. The city weakened and crumbled till it was no more than a collection of villages.
At last, as though wishing to protect what remained, the dry desert winds blew a mantle of sand over the dead city. Particle settled firmly onto particle, layer upon layer, until once lofty colonnades were half submerged in a sea of sand. Between the elaborately decorated capitals childrens’ playgrounds sprang up. Mud dwellings were built by peasants alongside sculptured wall and column. Dovecots were erected on architrave and pylon. Ancient Thebes was gone. ‘Luxor’ was born: its name being derived from the Arabic El- Oksor, ‘the palaces’.
Still the destruction went on. Slabs from the monuments with their invaluable inscriptions were torn down or reduced to lime. Wind and sun ate into the facades. And the Nile, rising and falling with the annual flood, continued to play its part in causing irreparable harm to the treasures of Amon.
It was left to the modern archeologists, who began to filter southwards before the turn of the 19th century, to excavate and interpret for us the golden era of Egypt’s history.
Napoleon Bonaparte unlocked the door to the past. His 1798 expedition to Egypt, while militarily disappointing in its failure to wrench political power from the British, remains significant for its impressive archeological research and for the establishment of the Institut d’Egypte in Cairo. In fact it was to the Institut that the famous Rosetta Stone, discovered by soldiers digging a trench near the fortress of St. Julian at Rosetta, was sent. This stone was quickly recognised as some sort of decree written in three scripts and thus a possible key to the understanding of the ‘picture language’ which had been lost since the days of the Roman occupation. The bottom text was in Greek. At the top of the stone was the sacred Egyptian symbol writing’, understood only by the priests, and in between the two was the popular script which was understood by the masses. However, the texts had to wait a full twenty years, until 1822, to be deciphered. The French scholar Jean François Champollion who worked on them for ten years finally established that, far from the hieroglyphics being symbols as was supposed, each picture actually represented a phonetic sound which, combined, spelled out words, t 011 compiled a dictionary of the lost language. It is thanks to him that we have an insight into the ancient religion, the manners and the customs of a people of long ago and, above all, into the complex political institutions of a civilization that endured for five thousand years.
For many years excavation was dominated by the French. Loret was responsible for discovering the tombs of Thutmose III, Amenhotep II and Ramses I. Belzoni excavated the tomb that surpasses all others in size and artistic execution, that of Seti I. In 1820 he said that in his opinion there were no more tombs to be found in the Valley of the Kings. The French also gave Egypt Mariette, who revealed the delicately carved reliefs of Queen Hatshepsut’s voyage to the Land of Punt, and Maspero, who was in charge of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities for many years.
As early as 1844 German expeditions were making such important finds as the tombs of Ramses II and Merneptah. Then in 1881 Emil Brugsch, following a local rumour, discovered the ‘cache’ or ‘shaft’ at Deir el Bahri, containing a hoard of mummies of some of Egypt’s most important Pharaohs, hidden there for safety from tomb-robbers by the priests of the 21st Dynasty. This fantastic discovery started an avalanche of interest in Egyptology. England’s Flinders Petrie worked with his teams in the mortuary temples for many years. Italy’s Professor Schiaparelli excavated enthusiastically in the Valley of the Queens, and T. M. Davis, the wealthy American who excavated on the necropolis, said in 1912 what Belzoni had said before him, that the Valley of the Kings was now exhausted. Then came Howard Carter and the most extraordinary discovery of all: the almost intact tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered in 1Q22.
Among the most significant recent discoveries was the unearthing of the foundations of one of the long-sought sites of Akhenaten’s sun temples. It was excavated to the east of the great temple of Amon at Karnak. With today’s modern techniques, perhaps we shall find that the revelations of ancient Egypt have only just begun. Certainly we are becoming more aware of the ancient Egyptian predilection for scientific accuracy: on the inner surface of the ear of an animal probably a hyena depicted in a tomb at Dra Abu el Naga, are three ovals. It has been suggested that these are feeding ticks, and that they are probably the adults of a common parasite in the Nile Valley, known as the brown dog-tick.
As we show in our concluding chapter, work continues today on both sides of the Nile at Luxor.