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Author:Laxman Burdak, IFS (Retd.)

Location Luxor (Ancient Thebes) on the Course of River Nile

Thebes (Ancient Greek: Θῆβαι, Thēbai), known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, was an ancient Egyptian city located east of the Nile about 800 kms south of the Mediterranean. It was the site of present Luxor. People who inhabited the place were called Thebans.

Variants of name

Jat clans


Its ruins lie within the modern Egyptian city of Luxor. Thebes was the main city of the fourth Upper Egyptian nome (Sceptre nome). It was close to Nubia and the eastern desert, with their valuable mineral resources and trade routes. It was a cult center and the wealthiest city of ancient Egypt at its heyday. The site of Thebes includes areas on both the eastern bank of the Nile, where the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand and the city proper situated; and the western bank, where a necropolis of large private and royal cemeteries and funerary complexes can be found.

Thebes was located along the banks of the Nile River in the middle part of Upper Egypt about 800 km from the Delta. It was built largely on the alluvial plains of the Nile Valley which follows a great bend of the Nile. It was used as an overland trade route going to the Red Sea coast.

In the fourth Upper Egyptian nome, Thebes was found to have neighboring towns such as Per-Hathor, Madu, Djerty, Iuny, Sumenu and Imiotru.[1]

Origin of name

The Ancient Egyptians originally knew Thebes as Waset (wꜣs.t), the "City of the Was". A was was the scepter of the pharaohs, a long staff with an animal's head and a forked base.

Thebes is the Latinized form of the Greek Thebai, the hellenized form of the Demotic Egyptian Ta-pe. This was the local name not for the city itself but for the Karnak temple complex on the northern east bank of the city. (Ta-opet in formal Egyptian.) As early as Homer's Iliad,[2] the Greeks distinguished the Egyptian Thebes as Thebes of the Hundred Gates, (Θῆβαι ἑκατόμπυλοι, Thēbai hekatómpyloi) as opposed to the "Thebes of the Seven Gates" (Θῆβαι ἑπτάπυλοι, Thēbai heptapyloi) in Boeotia, Greece.

From the end of the New Kingdom, Thebes was known in Egyptian as Niwt-Imn, the "City of Amun". Amun was the chief of the Theban Triad of gods whose other members were Mut and Khonsu. This name appears in the Bible as the "Nōʼ ʼĀmôn" (נא אמון) of the Book of Nahum[3] and probably also as the "No" (נא) mentioned in Ezekiel[4] and Jeremiah.[5] In the interpretatio graeca, Amun was seen as a form of Zeus. The name was therefore translated into Greek as Diospolis, the "City of Zeus". To distinguish it from the numerous other cities by this name, it was known as the Great Diospolis (μεγάλη Διόσπολις, megálē Dióspolis; Latin: Diospolis Magna). The Greek names came into wider use after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, when the country came to be ruled by the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty.


Thebes was inhabited from around 3200 BC.[6]It was the eponymous capital of Waset, the fourth Upper Egyptian nome. At this time it was still a small trading post while Memphis served as the royal residence of Old Kingdom pharaohs. Although no buildings survive in Thebes older than the portions of the Karnak temple complex, which may date from the Middle Kingdom, the lower part of a statue of Pharaoh Nyuserre of the 5th Dynasty has been found in Karnak. Another statue which was dedicated by the 12th Dynasty king Senusret may have been usurped and re-used, since the statue bears a cartouche of Nyuserre on its belt. Since seven rulers of the 4th to 6th Dynasties appear on the Karnak king list, perhaps at the least there was a temple in the Theban area which dated to the Old Kingdom.[7]

As the site of the Ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, present Luxor has frequently been characterized as the "world's greatest open-air museum", as the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city. Immediately opposite, across the River Nile, lie the monuments, temples and tombs of the West Bank Necropolis, which includes the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. Thousands of tourists from all around the world arrive annually to visit these monuments, contributing greatly to the economy of the modern city.

The city attracted peoples such as the Babylonians, the Mitanni, the Hittites of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), the Canaanites of Ugarit, the Phoenicians of Byblos and Tyre, the Minoans from the island of Crete.[8]

A Hittite prince from Anatolia even came to marry with the widow of Tutankhamun, Ankhesenamun.[9]

The political and military importance of the city, however, faded during the Late Period, with Thebes being replaced as political capital by several cities in Northern Egypt, such as Bubastis, Sais and finally Alexandria.

However, as the city of the god Amon-Ra, Thebes remained the religious capital of Egypt until the Greek period.[10]

The main god of the city was Amon, who was worshipped together with his wife, the Goddess Mut, and their son Khonsu, the God of the moon. With the rise of Thebes as the foremost city of Egypt, the local god Amon rose in importance as well and became linked to the sun god Ra, thus creating the new 'king of gods' Amon-Ra. His great temple, at Karnak just north of Thebes, was the most important temple of Egypt right until the end of antiquity.

Later, the city was attacked by Assyrian emperor Assurbanipal who installed the Libyan prince on the throne, Psamtik I.[11]

The city of Thebes was in ruins and fell in significance. However, Alexander the Great did arrive at the temple of Amun, where the statue of the god was transferred from Karnak during the Opet Festival, the great religious feast.[12]

Thebes remained a site of spirituality up to the Christian era, and attracted numerous Christian monks in the Roman Empire who established monasteries amidst several ancient monuments including the temple of Hatshepsut, now called Deir el-Bahri ("the northern monastery").[13]

Ch.7 Revolt of Thebes (September, B.C. 335) against Alexander

Arrian[14] writes....While these events were occurring, some of the exiles who had been banished from Thebes, coming to the city by night, and being brought in by some of the citizens, in order to effect a change in the government, apprehended and slew outside the Cadmea,[1] Amyntas and Timolaus,[2] two of the men who held that fortress, having no suspicion that any hostile attempt was about to be made. Then entering the public assembly, they incited the Thebans to revolt from Alexander, holding out to them as pretexts the ancient and glorious words, liberty and freedom of speech, and urging them now at last to rid themselves of the heavy yoke of the Macedonians. By stoutly maintaining that Alexander had been killed in Illyria they gained more power in persuading the multitude;[3] for this report was prevalent, and for many reasons it gained credit, both because he had been absent a long time, and because no news had arrived from him. Accordingly, as is usual in such cases, not knowing the facts, each man conjectured what was most pleasing to himself.

When Alexander heard what was being done at Thebes, he thought it was a movement not at all to be slighted, inasmuch as he had for a long time suspected the city of Athens and deemed the audacious action of the Thebans no trivial matter, if the Lacedaemonians, who had long been disaffected in their feelings to him, and the Aetolians and certain other States in the Peloponnese, who were not firm in their allegiance to him, should take part with the Thebans in their revolutionary effort. He therefore led his army through Eordaea and Elimiotis[4] and along the peaks of Stymphaea and Paravaea,[5] and on the seventh day arrived at Pelina[6] in Thessaly. Starting thence, he entered Boeotia on the sixth day; so that the Thebans did not learn that he had passed south of Thermopylae, until he was at Onchestus[7] with the whole of his army. Even then the authors of the revolt asserted that Antipater's army had arrived out of Macedonia, stoutly affirming that Alexander himself was dead, and being very angry with those who announced that it was Alexander himself who was advancing.[8] For they said it must be another Alexander, the son of Aëropus, who was coming.[9] On the following day Alexander set out from Onchestus, and advanced towards the city along the territory consecrated to lolaus;[10] where indeed he encamped, in order to give the Thebans further time to repent of their evil resolutions and to send an embassy to him. But so far were they from showing any sign of wishing to come to an accommodation, that their cavalry and a large body of light-armed infantry sallied forth from the city as far as the camp, and, skirmishing with the Macedonian outposts, slew a few of their men. Alexander hereupon sent forth a party of his light-armed infantry and archers to repel their sortie; and these men repelled them with ease, just as they were approaching the very camp. The next day he took the whole of his army and marched round towards the gate which led to Eleutherae and Attica. But not even then did he assault the wall itself, but encamped not far away from the Cadmea, in order that succour might be at hand to the Macedonians who were occupying that citadel. For the Thebans had blockaded the Cadmea with a double stockade and were guarding it, so that no one from without might be able to give succour to those who were beleagured, and that the garrison might not be able, by making a sally, to do them any injury, when they were attacking the enemy outside. But Alexander remained encamped near the Cadmea, for he still wished rather to come to friendly terms with the Thebans than to come to a contest with them.[11] Then those of the Thebans who knew what was for the best interest of the commonwealth were eager to go out to Alexander and obtain pardon for the commonalty of Thebes for their revolt; but the exiles and those who had summoned them home kept on inciting the populace to war by every means in their power, since they despaired of obtaining for themselves any indulgence from Alexander, especially as some of them were also Boeotarchs.[12] However not even for this did Alexander assault the city.

1. The Cadmea was the Acropolis of Thebes, an oval eminence of no great height, named after Cadmus, the leader of a Phoenician colony, who is said to have founded it. Since the battle of Chaeronea, this citadel had been held by a Macedonian garrison.

2. Amyntas was a Macedonian officer, and Timolaus a leading Theban of the Macedonian faction.

3. Cf. Aelian (Varia Historia, xii. 57).

4. These were two provinces in the west of Macedonia.

5. Two divisions of Epirus.

6. A town on the Penēus in Hestiaeotis.

7. A town in Boeotia, on the lake Copais, distant 50 stades north-west of Thebes.

8. It seems from Plutarch, that Alexander was really wounded in the head by a stone, in a battle with the Illyrians.

9. This Alexander was also called Lyncestes, from being a native of Lyncestis, a district of Macedonia. He was an accomplice in Philip's murder, but was pardoned by his successor. He accompanied Alexander the Great into Asia, but was put to death in B.C. 330, for having carried on a treasonable correspondence with Darius. See Arrian, i. 25.

10. The friend and charioteer of Hercules.

11. He sent to demand the surrender of the anti-Macedonian leaders, Phoenix and Prothytes, but offering any other Thebans who came out to him the terms agreed upon in the preceding year. See Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 11); and Diodorus, xvii. 9.

12. The Boeotarchs were the chief magistrates of the Boeotian confederacy, chosen annually by the different States. The number varied from ten to twelve. At the time of the battle of Delium, in the Peloponnesian war, they were eleven in number, two of them being Thebans. See Grote, History of Greece, vol. ii. p. 296.

Ch.8 Fall of Thebes

Arrian[15] writes.... But Ptolemy, son of Lagus, tells us that Perdiccas, who had been posted in the advanced guard of the camp with his own brigade, and was not far from the enemy's stockade, did not wait for the signal from Alexander to commence the battle; but of his own accord was the first to assault the stockade, and, having made a breach in it, fell upon the advanced guard of the Thebans.[1] Amyntas,[2] son of Andromenes, followed Perdiccas, because he had been stationed with him. This general also of his own accord led on his brigade when he saw that Perdiccas had advanced within the stockade. When Alexander saw this, he led on the rest of his army, fearing that unsupported they might be intercepted by the Thebans and be in danger of destruction. He gave instructions to the archers and Agrianians to rush within the stockade, but he still retained the guards and shield-bearing troops outside. Then indeed Perdiccas, after forcing his way within the second stockade, fell there wounded with a dart, and was carried back grievously injured to the camp, where he was with difficulty cured of his wound. However the men of Perdiccas, in company with the archers sent by Alexander, fell upon the Thebans and shut them up in the hollow way leading to the temple of Heracles, and followed them in their retreat as far as the temple itself. The Thebans, having wheeled round, again advanced from that position with a shout, and put the Macedonians to flight. Eurybotas the Cretan, the captain of the archers, fell with about seventy of his men; but the rest fled to the Macedonian guard and the royal shield-bearing troops. Now, when Alexander saw that his own men were in flight, and that the Thebans had broken their ranks in pursuit, he attacked them with his phalanx drawn up in proper order, and drove them back within the gates. The Thebans fled in such a panic that being driven into the city through the gates they had not time to shut them; for the Macedonians, who were close behind the fugitives, rushed with them within the fortifications, inasmuch as the walls were destitute of defenders on account of the numerous pickets in front of them. When the Macedonians had entered the Cadmea, some of them marched out of it, in company with those who held the fortress, into the other part of the city opposite the temple of Amphion,[3] but others crossing along the walls, which were now in the possession of those who had rushed in together with the fugitives, advanced with a run into the market-place. Those of the Thebans who had been drawn up opposite the temple of Amphion stood their ground for a short time; but when the Macedonians under the command of Alexander were seen to be pressing hard upon them in various directions, their cavalry rushed through the city and sallied forth into the plain, and their infantry fled for safety as each man found it possible. Then indeed the Thebans, no longer defending themselves, were slain, not so much by the Macedonians as by the Phocians, Plataeans and other Boeotians,[4] who by indiscriminate slaughter vented their rage against them. Some were even attacked in the houses, having there turned to defend themselves from the enemy, and others were slain as they were supplicating the protection of the gods in the temples; not even the women and children being spared.[5]

1. Arrian says that the attack of the Macedonians upon Thebes was made by Perdiccas, without orders from Alexander; and that the capture was effected in a short time and with no labour on the part of the captors (ch. ix.). But Diodorus says that Alexander ordered and arranged the assault, that the Thebans made a brave and desperate resistance for a long time, and that not only the Boeotian allies, but the Macedonians themselves committed great slaughter of the besieged (Diod. xvii. 11-14). It is probable that Ptolemy, who was Arrian's authority, wished to exonerate Alexander from the guilt of destroying Thebes.

2. Amyntas was one of Alexander's leading officers. He and his brothers were accused of being accomplices in the plot of Philotas, but were acquitted. He was however soon afterwards killed in a skirmish (Arrian, iii. 27).

3. The mythical founder of the walls of Thebes. See Pausanias (ix. 17).

4. The Thebans had incurred the enmity of the other Boeotians by treating them as subjects instead of allies. They had destroyed the restored Plataea, and had been the chief enemies of the Phocians in the Sacred War, which ended in the subjugation of that people by Philip, See Smith's History of Greece, pp. 467, 473, 506.

5. More than 500 Macedonians were killed, while 6,000 Thebans were slain, and 30,000 sold into slavery. See Aelian (Varia Historia, xiii. 7); Diodorus (xvii. 14); Pausanias (viii. 30); Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 11). The sale of the captives realized 440 talents, or about £107,000; and Justin (xi. 4) says that large sums were offered from feelings of hostility towards Thebes on the part of the bidders..

Ch.9 Destruction of Thebes.

Arrian[16] writes.... This was felt by the Greeks to be a general calamity for it struck the rest of the Greeks with no less consternation than it did those who had themselves taken part in the struggle, both on account of the magnitude of the captured city and the celerity of the action, the result of which was in the highest degree contrary to the expectation both of the sufferers and the perpetrators. For the disasters which befell the Athenians in relation to Sicily,[1] though in regard to the number of those who perished they brought no less misfortune to the city, yet, because their army was destroyed far away from their own land, being composed for the most part rather of auxiliary troops than of native Athenians, and because their city itself was left to them intact, so that afterwards they held their own in war even for a long time, though fighting against the Lacedaemonians and their allies, as well as the Great King; these disasters, I say, neither produced in the persons who were themselves involved in the calamity an equal sensation of the misfortune, nor did they cause the other Greeks a similar consternation at the catastrophe. Again, the defeat sustained by the Athenians at Aegospotami[2] was a naval one, and the city received no other humiliation than the demolition of the Long Walls, the surrender of most of her ships, and the loss of supremacy. However, they still retained their hereditary form of government, and not long after recovered their former power to such a degree as not only to build up the Long Walls but to recover the rule of the sea[3] and in their turn to preserve from extreme danger those very Lacedaemonians then so formidable to them, who had come and almost obliterated their city. Moreover, the defeat of the Lacedaemonians at Leuctra and Mantinea filled them with consternation rather by the unexpectedness of the disaster than because of the number of those who perished.[4] And the attack made by the Boeotians and Arcadians under Epaminondas upon the city of Sparta, even this terrified both the Lacedaemonians themselves and those who participated with them in the transactions at that time,[5] rather by the novelty of the sight than by the reality of the danger. The capture of the city of the Plataeans was not a great calamity, by reason of the small number of those who were taken in it; most of the citizens having long before escaped to Athens.[6] Again, the capture of Melus and Scione simply related to insular States, and rather brought disgrace to those who perpetrated the outrages than produced great surprise among the Grecian community as[7] a whole.

But the Thebans having effected their revolt suddenly and without any previous consideration, the capture of the city being brought about in so short a time and without difficulty on the part of the captors, the slaughter, being great, as was natural, from its being made by men of the same race who were glutting their revenge on them for ancient injuries, the complete enslavement of a city which excelled among those in Greece at that time both in power and warlike reputation, all this was attributed not without probability to the avenging wrath of the deity. It seemed as if the Thebans had after a long time suffered this punishment for their betrayal of the Greeks in the Median war,[8] for their seizure of the city of Plataeae during the truce, and for their complete enslavement of it, as well as for the un-Hellenic slaughter of the men who had surrendered to the Lacedaemonians, which had been committed at the instigation of the Thebans; and for the devastation of the territory in which the Greeks had stood in battle-array against the Medes and had repelled danger from Greece; lastly, because by their vote they had tried to ruin the Athenians when a motion was brought forward among the allies of the Lacedaemonians for the "enslavement of Athens.[9] Moreover it was reported that before the disaster many portents were sent from the deity, which indeed at the time were treated with neglect, but afterwards when men called them to remembrance they were compelled to consider that the events which occurred had been long before prognosticated.[10]

The settlement of Theban affairs was entrusted by Alexander to the allies who had taken part in the action. They resolved to occupy the Cadmea with a garrison; to raze the city to the ground; to distribute among themselves all the territory, except what was dedicated to the gods; and to sell into slavery the women and children, and as many of the males as survived, except those who were priests or priestesses, and those who were bound to Philip or Alexander by the ties of hospitality or had been public agents of the Macedonians. It is said that Alexander preserved the house and the descendants of Pindar the poet, out of respect for his memory.[11] In addition to these things, the allies decreed that Orchomenus[12] and Plataeae should be rebuilt and fortified.

1. B.C. 415-413. See Grote's Greece, vol. vii.

2. B.C. 405. See Thucydides (ii. 13); Xenophon (Hellenics, ii. 2).

3. By Conon's victory at Cnidus, B.C. 394.

4. At Leuctra they lost 400 Spartans and 1,000 other Lacedaemonians. See Xen. (Hellen., vi. 4).

5. The Achaeans, Eleans, Athenians, and some of the Arcadians, were allies of Sparta at this crisis, B.C. 369. See Xen. (Hellen., vii. 5) Diodorus (xv. 85).

6. B.C. 426. See Thuc., iii. 52, etc.

7. B.C. 416 and 421. See Thuc., v. 32, 84, etc.

8. These persons must have forgotten that Alexander's predecessor and namesake had served in the army of Xerxes along with the Thebans. See Herodotus vii. 173.

9. Plutarch (Lysander, 15) says that the Theban Erianthus moved that Athens should be destroyed.

10. See Aelian (Varia Historia, xii. 57).

11. Plutarch (Alexander, 13) tells us that Alexander was afterwards sorry for his cruelty to the Thebans. He believed that he had incurred the wrath of Dionysus, the tutelary deity of Thebes, who incited him to kill his friend Clitus, and induced his soldiers to refuse to follow him into the interior of India.

12. Orchomenus was destroyed by the Thebans B.C. 364. See Diod., xv. 79; Demosthenes (Contra Leptimem, p. 489). It was restored by Philip, according to Pausanias, iv. 27.

Chapter xxviii. capture of Oazira.— advance to the rock of Aornus.

Arrian[17] writes....WHEN the men in Bazira heard this news, despairing of their own affairs, they abandoned the city about the middle of the night, and fled to the rock as the other barbarians were doing. For all the inhabitants deserted the cities and began to flee to the rock which is in their land, and is called Aornusi. For stupendous is this rock in this land, about which the current report is, that it was found impregnable even by Heracles, the son of Zeus. I cannot affirm with confidence either way, whether the Theban, Tyrian, or Egyptian Heracles penetrated into India or not; but I am rather inclined to think that he did not penetrate so far for men are wont to magnify the difficulty of all difficult enterprises to such a degree as to assert that they would have been impracticable even to Heracles. Therefore, I am inclined to think, that in regard to this rock the name of Heracles was mentioned simply to add to the marvellous-ness of the tale. The circuit of the rock is said to be about 200 stades (i.e., about twenty-three miles), and its height where it is lowest, eleven stades (i.e., about a mile and a quarter). There was only one ascent, which was artificial and difficult; on the summit of the rock there was abundance of pure water, a spring issuing from the ground, from which the water flowed; and there was also timber, and sufficient good arable land for 1,ooo men to till. When Alexander heard this, he was seized with a vehement desire to capture this mountain also, especially on account of the legend which was current about Heracles. He then made Ora and Massaga fortresses to keep the land in subjection, and fortified the city of Bazira. Hephaestion and Perdiccas also fortified for him another city, named Orobatis, and leaving a garrison in it marched towards the river Indus. When they reached that river they at once began to carry out Alexander’s instructions in regard to bridging it. Alexander then appointed Nicanor, one of the Companions, viceroy of the land on this side the river Indus; and in the first place leading his army towards that river, he brought over on terms of capitulation the city of Peucelaotis, which was situated not far from it. In this city he placed a garrison of Macedonians, under the command of Philip, and then reduced to subjection some other small towns situated near the same river, being accompanied by Cophaeus and Assagetes, the chieftains of the land. Arriving at the city of Embolima, which was situated near the rock Aornus, he left Craterus there with a part of the army, to gather as much corn as possible into the city, as well as all the other things requisite for a long stay, so that making this their base of operations, the Macedonians might be able by a long siege to wear out the men who were holding the rock, supposing it were not captured at the first assault. He then took the bowmen, the Agrianians, and the brigade of Coenus, and selecting the lightest as well as the best-armed men from the rest of the phalanx, with 200 of the Companion cavalry and zoo horse-bowmen, he advanced to the rock. This day he encamped where it appeared to him convenient; but on the morrow he approached a little nearer to the rock, and encamped again.