Art and Archaism in Western Thebes
From the start of the Middle Kingdom through the Late Period, the site of Thebes (Egyptian W3s.t, modern Luxor) in Upper Egypt held sway as a political and religious centre devoted to the state cult of the god Amun and the mortuary cults of the Egyptian kings. Temples clustered on both banks of the river, and the cliffs of the west bank hid the tombs of New Kingdom pharaohs and generations of elite officials, especially those attached to the Theban temples. Sacked by Cambyses in 525 BC and overshadowed by the more northern concerns of the last native kings, Thebes saw its political power dissipate, but its temples continued to receive patronage from the Ptolemaic rulers and, to a lesser extent, the Roman emperors.
Because of the long history of Thebes and its vast archaeological remains, the area has been intensively excavated and comparatively well recorded over the past two hundred years. Although interest has primarily focused on New Kingdom monuments, the accounts of travellers, collectors, and excavators also help reconstruct the funerary archaeology of the West Bank in the Roman Period. The cliffs, cemeteries, and temple areas have yielded finds which permit a more detailed, diachronic study of mortuary practices at Thebes than is possible for other Egyptian sites. This chapter considers a selection of Theban burials dating from the reign of Augustus to around the time of Diocletian. The picture that emerges from these burials suggests that funerary art at this somewhat remote site tended to be conservative, using forms and motifs that were legacies of its pharaonic past.
Thebes in the Roman Period has been characterized with some justification as a city in decline.1 Already under Ptolemy I Soter, the establishment of Ptolemais as a
1 K. Vandorpe, ‘City of many a gate, harbour for many a rebel: Historical and topographical outline of Greco-Roman Thebes’, in S. P. Vleeming (ed.), Hundred-Gated Thebes: Acts of a Colloquium on Thebes and the Theban Area in the Graeco-Roman Period (Leiden 1995), 203–39; A. Bataille, Les Memnonia (Cairo 1952); and Thèbes gréco-romaine’, CdÉ 26 (1951), 325–53.