Digging in the sand is fun for adults and kids alike. If you’re at the beach, your shovel may uncover some shells. But if you’re an archaeologist digging in the Egyptian sand, you might turn up something epic. A team of archaeologists working in Luxor recently unearthed the most significant find since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. What had the sands of time buried?
The average person (raising my hand) thinks of archaeological discoveries as being things such as broken pottery pieces. Well, to quote Gomer Pyle, “Surprise, surprise!” A project led by Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, Zahi Hawass (we’ve all heard of him, right?), unearthed an entire ancient city. I can understand pottery shards being lost in the sands of time, but an entire city?? Yup!
Hawass’ team began excavations back in September 2020. (Apparently the Egyptian desert was not on lockdown due to the pandemic then.) After seven months of excavating and searching, the team unearthed a city which had been lost under the sands and untouched for thousands of years. And this wasn’t just any city. This city is the largest ancient city ever found in Egypt. Wow! Can you imagine the amount of sand which it would take to bury a whole city?
The unearthed location is described as “ancient,” but just how old is ancient? The answer is pretty old–like in 3,400 years old, dating back to the 14th century B.C. The place was a bustling metropolis under the reign of Amenhotep III (let’s just call him “Amen” for short), who ruled from 1391 to 1352 B.C. The lost city would also have been around during the reign of the boy king, King Tut.
Amen’s rule took place in a time of great splendor, style, and riches. Egypt reached its peak of wealth, artistic achievements, and international power then. Amen, also known as “Amenhotep the Magnificent,” served as the ninth pharaoh in the 18th Dynasty. Numerous statues were apparently commissioned to attest to his magnificence. More surviving statutes of Amen exist than of any other Egyptian pharaoh.
Given Amen’s magnificence and Egypt’s status in the ancient world during his rule, it should be no surprise that the unearthed city evokes wonder. The archaeologists who discovered it dubbed their find the “lost golden city.” The metropolis’ actual name, the Rise of Aten, suggests how “golden” the city was. According to Egyptian mythology, Aten was the creator of the world and deemed a sun god. (Clearly, he was a bright guy.) A seal found in the ruins referred to the city as “the domain of the dazzling Aten.”
Where were this scintillating city’s ruins found? Archaeological work was being conducted in The Valley of Kings some 300 miles south of Cairo at the time of the discovery. Specifically, the ruins were found on the west bank of the Nile River in Luxor, known as Thebes in ancient times. The site was situated between Rameses III’s temple and Amen’s temple at Memnon. Teams had unsuccessfully searched for the ancient city before, but pay dirt (pay sand?) was struck by Zahi Hawass’ team.
Despite thousands of years underneath the sand, the lost golden city appears in a good condition of preservation. This find is especially significant because archaeologists don’t have much evidence about how Egyptians lived and worked in their cities. Evidence abounds at this site in the form of structures, tools, and jewelry. And, if anyone’s hungry, a vessel holding two gallons of dried meat survived the years of burial. If it wasn’t dry before, centuries upon centuries beneath the sand probably did the trick.
So far, Hawass’ team has unearthed most of the southern part of the city, but the northern region awaits their attention. The city’s ten foot high walls remain intact. These walls may have kept out thieves, but they were useless in the end against the desert sand which ultimately buried the Rise of Aten. Streets in the city are lined with houses, and several residential districts have been identified. In particular, a zigzag wall enclosed one administrative and residential district offering only one entrance, likely for security. Yes, even in the days of the pharaohs gated communities were necessary.
Housing structures with complete rooms and walls appear in residential districts. These rooms are filled with the tools of daily life. And residents have to eat as evidenced by a bakery discovered in the area with ovens and storage pottery. Perhaps the special of the day was mummy (as opposed to monkey) bread.
The city’s workshop area allowed for the production of mud bricks to build temples and annexes. Bricks found in the city bear Amen’s seal. The presence of large numbers of casting molds indicate amulets and decorative elements were also being produced. Tools on site include those for spinning, weaving, and metal and glass-making. Slag unearthed evidences the metal and glass-making process. So, when they weren’t singing their pharaoh’s praises, these Egyptians were quite industrious.
And where people live, they also die. The lost city’s environs include a large cemetery and tombs similar to those in the Valley of Kings. Stairs carved into the rock led to the tombs’ discovery. While uncovered, these tombs have not yet been explored. The archaeological team anticipates the untouched tombs will be filled with treasures. Such a find, of course, would make the lost golden city even more golden.
As golden as the Rise of Aten may have been in its time, it eventually succumbed to and was buried by nature. As magnificent at Amen may have been (or at least thought he was), he eventually became a footnote in history; in fact, many readers may not have even heard of him until now. As mighty as Egypt was in the ancient world, it eventually lost that position. We don’t have to be archaeologists to unearth the bottom line from all that history. All earthly beauty, power, and status will eventually end. What will future generations look back and see about us?
Do you think the day to day life of an ancient Egyptian was strikingly different from yours? Does it amaze you that an entire city could have been lost under the sand for thousands of years only to emerge relatively intact? What aspect of the lost city intrigues you the most? What patience must an archaeologist have to dig through the sand for months before finding something?