Globally, the dazzling Egyptian event was reported as an activity designed to boost tourism to Egypt, which had conspicuously dropped owing to COVID-19 pandemic. For Egyptians, however, the spectacular, joyful opening of the Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor acted as a strong booster to national pride, a dose of much needed encouragement to meet the challenges of the painful reforms transforming the country into a much better place for tomorrow.
The reopening of the Avenue of Sphinxes was one of various major projects to restore historic sites and promote tourism. Last April, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMRC) was opened in a spectacular Pharaohs’ Golden Parade that transferred 22 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to their new home at NMEC.
The little girl
The event was held on the evening of Thursday 25 November 2021 at Luxor Temple, and was attended by a host of senior Egyptian and non-Egyptian officials and public figures, led by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and his wife Intissar, both beaming with visible pride.
As he walked in, the President stopped before a little girl who stood among a small group of children dressed in pharaonic blue to greet him. He smiled and talked to her; everyone wondered what about? It turned out he had met her that morning with her family in Aswan, some 200km south of Luxor, where he was visiting victims of flash floods in the city. He had invited her to the Luxor festival that evening and sure enough, there she was.
On hand to explain and highlight the significance of the event was Khaled al-Anani, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, who has a reputation for being an engaging, articulate, superbly informed speaker who manages to deliver information in a simple gripping manner.
”We’re not done yet”
The event celebrated the reopening of the 3000-year-old Avenue of Sphinxes, a 76-metre-wide sandstone path which stretches some 2,700 metres, linking the temple of Karnak north of Luxor with Luxor temple inside the city. The Avenue is lined with 1,057 sphinxes, ram-headed or human-headed lion statues, hence its name “Avenue of Sphinxes” or “Ram Road”.
Dr Anani explained that Luxor, on the Nile’s eastern bank, was designated a World Heritage site in 1979 and is described by archaeologists as the world’s largest and most significant open museum. It sits on the site of ancient Thebes, the capital of Egypt during most of the New Kingdom (1539 – 1075BC), and intermittently before and after that era. Karnak is a temple complex built by Egyptian pharaohs between 2000BC and 30BC; it sprawls over some 63 feddans of land [1 feddan = 4,200 square metres] east of the Nile.
The Avenue of the Sphinxes, was constructed over a prolonged period of time and was finished during the reign of Nectanebo I (380-362 BC).
The path, originally termed the Path of the God, was expanded over hundreds of years and had annexes added to it, including baths and washbasins, a pottery making area, and storage for wine vessels, Minister Anani explained.
The Avenue of Sphinxes was first discovered in 1949 when Egyptian archaeologist Mohammad Zakariya Ghoneim discovered eight sphinxes near Luxor Temple. Further statues flanking the road were uncovered in subsequent decades, even though excavation works were interrupted during times of political unrest; the Avenue further underwent extensive restoration efforts. The result is that, according to Dr Anani, a third of the statues have been unearthed, and only the pedestals of the others. “We’re not done yet; we’re still working to uncover more statues,” he said.
The Sphinxes Avenue was built to host the annual Opet Festival which was celebrated by the 18th Egyptian Dynasty (1550 – 1292BC) and later dynasties, in the second month of the season Akhet—the season of the inundation and the flooding of the Nile—to honour the gods of the Theban Triad, Amun-Ra, Mut and Khonsu. The purpose was to give energy to the Netjer—divine power—and to reestablish the pharaohs’ divine right to rule. Queen Hatshepsut who ruled Egypt as a Pharaoh during 1473–1458 BC is believed to have been the first to develop and celebrate the Opet Festival. During her reign, the festival lasted for only 11 days. Amenhotep III,
Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II also celebrated Opet which by then lasted for little less than a month.
The festival procession started from Karnak and ended in Luxor temple, and was attended by large crowds. Statues of the Theban Triad were carried to large fanfare from their home in Karnak to Luxor where they would remain between 24 and 27 days before being taken back to Karnak. The marching procession of the gods would stop at specific points en route, where offerings would be granted for the gods.
The Opet has been celebrated every year in modern-day Luxor, in a one-day event attended by the governor, senior officials, public figures, and large crowds. But it was mainly a local celebration.
On the evening of Thursday 25 November, however, a reenactment of the Opet was the highlight of the glittering ceremony opening the Avenues of the Sphinxes.
Glittering in light
The Thursday celebration was heralded by a gradual lighting of Luxor temple, the Avenue of Sphinxes, and Karnak as the sun set. At the same time, the West Bank was lit, including Hatshepsut’s iconic temple and the Memnon Colossus. Laser lights shot upwards towards the sky. Luxor’s Corniche, the road that runs along the east bank of the Nile, and the city’s landmarks also glittered in light.
Among the landmarks lit was the Coptic church of the Holy Virgin, a 118-year-old church that overlooks the Avenue of the Sphinxes, and which had been spared demolition as the government pulled down buildings to further excavate and restore the Avenue to its old glory. The church houses relics of the St Maurice and other saints of the 3rd-century Theban Legion who served in the Roman army in Gaul and Switzerland, and were martyred there for their Christian faith.
In the Nile, feluccas with brightly illuminated sails sailed the water; and in the air a number of coloured air balloons flew.
The celebration started once the President arrived.
The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nader Abbassi played tunes based on Egyptian melodies. Singers sang modern Egyptian songs in love of the country, some had been prerecorded in Hatshepsut’s temple and were screened that evening.
The highlight of the performances, however, were three songs of the original Opet festival sung for the Theban god Amun; these were performed in the ancient language during the recent celebration.
More than 400 performers clad in ancient Egyptian garments paraded and danced on the Avenue. Finally came the three gods of the Theban Triad, each on a golden pharaonic barque carried by today’s young Egyptians from Karnak to Luxor temple.
Once they arrived, fireworks burst in a kaleidoscope of light in the night sky. The dancers on the stage performed the famous Luxor stick dance to the famous 1970s song Luxor Baladna Balad Suwaah (Our hometown Luxor is home to tourists). On Luxor’s Corniche, a procession of horse drawn carriages the city is famous for marched in a splendid procession.
Altogether, the song and dance, the chariot procession, and the burst of fireworks formed a most fitting finale to a grand evening.
1 December 2021