On the heels of Egypt’s latest globally televised cultural spectacle in Luxor for the opening of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, John dives into the history and significance of Egypt’s newest open-air monument to re-pen to the public.
For more travel advice on trips to and around Egypt, check out all the other episodes of the Egypt Travel Podcast. And please feel welcome to go to www.EgyptElite.com for help planning your trip to Egypt, and we’ll be delighted to help you make it a reality.
Episode 31 Transcript
Hey, everybody. And marhaban bikum to another episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast. In this 31st episode of the show, we’re going to continue on the new theme of weaving both some ancient history and modern culture into the feed.
Don’t worry though. I’ve still got lots of fresh, new, and highly practical travel advice episodes coming your way too. But for this episode, I want to give you a little background on something both ancient and current.
You may have heard something in the news not long ago about the unveiling of the Avenue of the Sphinxes in Luxor. And although this was very much a major news event in Egypt, the Avenue of the Sphinxes itself is by no means new.
So I wanted to provide some historical background and context for this new attraction that was recently unveiled in Luxor in spectacular fashion, and which you’ll surely see when you finally visit – or revisit – Luxor in the near future. Let’s go.
The Avenue of the Sphinxes
Ancient Egypt was known for its countless celebrations, but perhaps none was as significant as the annual Opet Festival, which began in the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom period and continued until well into the ancient Egyptian civilization’s final days.
Apart from dancing and huge feasts, the Opet Festival also featured a procession held along the Avenue of the Sphinxes – a ceremonial road lined with sphinxes that connected the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor.
Egypt may no longer celebrate these festivities for religious purposes, but thanks to the country’s dedication to continuously unearthing its ancient heritage, the magic and majesty of the Avenue of the Sphinxes can finally be seen and appreciated again by visitors to Egypt.
In this episode of The Egypt Travel Podcast – the story of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a processional road that held great significance for ancient Egyptians. Unfortunately, it fell into disuse and was eventually lost under layers of earthen fill and modern urbanization. But thanks to painstaking excavation and conservation efforts that spanned decades, this incredible ancient site has reemerged as a centerpiece of the historical landscape of Luxor.
The History of the Avenue of the Sphinxes
Located in the ancient capital city of Thebes in southern Egypt, the Avenue of the Sphinxes once connected the massive religious complexes of Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. The avenue was said to have been used only once a year – specifically on the day of the Opet Festival, which was held in the second month of the “Akhet season” – the time of year when the Nile floods and brings a fresh supply of fertile soil to the Nile Valley.
One of the highlights of the festival, according to some ancient sources, was a procession held along the road between Karnak and Luxor temples wherein participants carried the statues of “Amun,” the god of the air,” and his wife “Mut,” the goddess of the sky. Once they arrived at the temple in Luxor, Amun was transformed into Min, the god of fertility and harvest whom the ancient Egyptians regarded as the “Lord of the Eastern Desert.”
However, other sources claim that what the priests escorted down the route were actually statues of the Holy Trinity of Thebes: Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, the god of the Moon. These were said to have been carried in sacred vessels that looked like boats, with onlookers extending their arms and cheering in reverence as these deities passed by them while traveling from temple to temple.
The Opet Festival was incredibly significant for the ancient Egyptians, and this fact wasn’t lost on the subsequent foreign empires that came to conquer Egypt.
In a piece for National Geographic, Egyptologist Dr. Marina Escolano-Poveda wrote, “Opet’s fusion of majesty and popular merry-making helped forge a powerful bond between the people and their pharaoh during the New Kingdom. Centuries later – after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C. – the conqueror’s agents in Thebes observed how the festival’s symbolic power could be adapted to confer divine legitimacy upon Alexander’s control of the region. Alexander built his own chapel in the Temple of Luxor and decorated the walls with his likeness in the presence of Amun-Re.”
Experts estimate that appropriately 1,350 human-headed sphinxes once lined the ancient processional route, and alongside them were small chapels where people could place their offerings. Each one had a specific function and role to play during the annual procession – for instance, one was dedicated to receiving the beauty of Amun, while another was for cooling the boat oars that he used.
Scholars believe that many of these chapels were built on the orders of Queen Hatshepsut, the daughter of the charismatic King Thutmose I, who – despite her gender – rose to become one of the greatest leaders that ancient Egypt had ever seen. Her reign was remarkable – a time of peace, wealth, and prosperity that gave rise to some of the most phenomenal art and building projects to have come out of that period.
Queen Hatshepsut was known for spearheading many ambitious architectural endeavors. During the first few years of her reign, she commissioned a pair of hundred-foot-tall obelisks, which were ultimately placed at the entrance of the great temple complex at Karnak. Each one weighed approximately 450 tons and was towed down the Nile River by a total of 27 ships that were steered by more than 800 oarsmen.
Archaeologists believe that the ancient Egyptians began constructing the Avenue of the Sphinxes sometime during the New Kingdom – a period characterized by an increased devotion to the national god “Ra of Heliopolis,” who was also referred to as “Amon-Ra.” During this time, the once-fledgling northeast African river valley civilization became a powerful regional empire, with its rulers expanding its borders to cover parts of Western Asia in the Levant.
Due to its complex and incredibly detailed design, the Avenue of the Sphinxes was only finished during the rule of Nectanebo I – the first king of the 30th dynasty of ancient Egypt. Much like his predecessors, he commissioned a number of architectural projects too, particularly on the island of Philae and in the city of Edfu. However, his most notable achievement was his successful repulsion of the Persian Empire, which had tried to reimpose their rule on Egypt during his reign.
To commemorate this victory, every single statue on the Avenue of the Sphinxes was inscribed with the name “Nectanebo I,” whether they were originally intended to represent him or not.
The Decline of the Avenue of the Sphinxes
Despite the religious significance of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, it fell into disuse as the centuries passed, with some of the statues even being destroyed. When parts of the road started becoming covered by sand, locals began building housing and neighborhoods on top of the newly created land.
Because of this, the Avenue of the Sphinxes eventually became lost to history. It only resurfaced in the middle of the 20th century, when excavations being carried out in front of the Luxor Temple by archaeologists including Zakaria Ghonaim and Mohamed Abdel Kadir began unearthing parts of the road.
Since its rediscovery, both excavation and conservation efforts have been ongoing at the Avenue of the Sphinxes. However, the project was halted twice – first in 2005 and then again in 2011, when the Arab Spring sent many archaeological projects throughout the entire region into an extended pause.
In order to unearth the ancient road, thousands of more “modern” – in the context of Egypt – homes and shops built over this ancient site had to be demolished and their owners and inhabitants relocated at a cost of over 40 million dollars.
Mustafa al-Saghier, the General Supervisor of the renovation project, noted that excavation efforts on the Avenue of the Sphinxes also unearthed other previously unknown artifacts, including parts of a wall that experts believe dates back to the Roman period.
Revival and Re-Opening of the Avenue of the Sphinxes
On November 25, 2021 – the government of Egypt held a lavish televised ceremony to unveil the newly-restored and reopened Avenue of the Sphinxes. The ceremony featured fireworks over the Nile, modern and classical musical performances, elaborately choreographed dances created to celebrate the country’s ancient heritage, and a symbolic procession along the avenue much like the one performed annually during the Opet Festival of ancient times.
In a speech held during the event, Dr. Khaled El-Enany, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, said, “Tonight is an artistic celebration of the ancient Opet Festival. One of the most important festivals in Ancient Egypt, it happened on the second month of the flood every year. Its name is also the name of the second month in the Coptic calendar. So, we are all part of one fabric throughout thousands of years.”
With his words in mind, it’s clear that the cultural and historical significance of the Avenue of the Sphinxes hasn’t been lost to history. It continues to resonate with us more than three thousand years after this ancient road was first built and used.