Balloon Flight Over Ancient Thebes
by Peter Tyson
March 12, 1999
One of the best ways to get a sense of the monumental architecture that
obelisks epitomize is to fly over some of its finest examples in a balloon,
as we did yesterday. Relive the flight with us now as we ponder from above
the great mortuary temples of the Theban necropolis.
Yesterday dawned clear and still, with not a breath of wind - ideal
ballooning weather. As the balloon crew waved us off, we ascended a few feet
a second into the cloudless sky over the West Bank of Luxor. Bushy fields of
grain, their heads heavy with ripe seed, spread east to the Nile about a
mile away. Every now and then, our amiable pilot Yehia would fire up the gas
jet, sending an obelisk of flame and the necessary hot air into the
balloon's cavernous interior. Catching us off guard, the loud whoosh of the
gas would suddenly extinguish all conversation. Otherwise, it was so silent
you could hear a fellahin urging his donkey along a path 700 feet below.
Our balloon prepares for take-off from a field in Luxor.
Thebes, as Luxor was known in ancient times, was the most important capital
of the New Kingdom. The East Bank, facing the rising sun, boasted the
glorious temples of Karnak and Luxor, where the pharaohs prayed to their
favorite god, Amun, one of the gods of creation. By contrast, the West Bank,
facing the setting sun, held the necropolis or burying ground of the kings
and queens, each in their own valley. It also featured a string of immense
mortuary temples, where bald-headed priests worshipped the memory of the
now-deified pharaoh long after his passage to the netherworld.
See the Colossi of Memnon at the top of this photo? Amenophis III's mortuary temple once entirely filled the brown field behind them.
The Colossi of Memnon
Despite the boasting of its builder Amenophis III that it would be
everlasting, the vast mortuary temple that once stood in back of the
Colossi of Memnon has completely disappeared. Flooding and stone robbing
have left but an empty field. Ironically, only the foundations remain of
this sandstone edifice, the largest structure ever built on the West Bank.
balloon rises between the Colossi of Memnon.
The New Kingdom reached a peak of prosperity and peace under Amenophis III
(1408-1372), who was one of the great builders of the period. He erected
Luxor Temple on the East Bank, and his mortuary temple was only one part of
a huge complex known as the "House of Amun on the West of Thebes." The House
also featured a harbor and an entire palace city of mudbrick that Amenophis
III ordered built on the edge of the desert.