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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.

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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.


Preparing for takeoff 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.

text 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 & Colossi Our 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.

Continue: The Ramesseum



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