Three thousand four hundred years ago, a contentious ancient Egyptian king abandoned his name, his religion, and his capital in Thebes (modern Luxor). Archaeologists know what happened next: The pharaoh Akhenaten built the short-lived city of Akhetaten, where he ruled alongside his wife, Nefertiti and worshipped the sun. After his death, his young son Tutankhamun became ruler of Egypt—and turned his back on his father’s controversial legacy.
But why did Akhenaten abandon Thebes, which had been the capital of ancient Egypt for more than 150 years? Answers may lie in the discovery of an industrial royal metropolis within Thebes that Akhenaten inherited from his father, Amenhotep III. The find, which has been dubbed the “lost golden city of Luxor” in an announcement released today, will generate as much enthusiasm, speculation, and controversy as the renegade pharaoh who left it.
“There’s no doubt about it; it really is a phenomenal find,” says Salima Ikram, an archaeologist who leads the American University in Cairo’s Egyptology unit. “It’s very much a snapshot in time—an Egyptian version of Pompeii.”
The site dates from the era of 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled between around 1386 and 1353 B.C. and presided over an era of extraordinary wealth, power and luxury. In Amenhotep III’s final years, he is thought to have briefly reigned alongside his son, Akhenaten.
Why and how did the pharaoh’s controversial transformation take place, and what was everyday life like under the great Amenhotep III? The newly found city could provide clues. The excavation site straddles old and new in an area renowned for its archaeological riches. To the north is Amenhotep III’s 14th-century B.C. mortuary temple, and to the south is Medinet Habu, a mortuary temple built almost two centuries later for Ramses III.
Archaeologists had hoped the space between might be the site of the mortuary structure where Tutankhamun’s subjects would have placed the food and funerary items they offered him when he died around 1325 B.C. Instead, they uncovered something very different: zigzagging mudbrick walls up to nine feet high and piles of ancient artifacts from the era of Amenhotep III.
Structures are packed with everyday items, many of which relate to the artistic and industrial production that supported the pharaoh’s capital city. There are homes where workers might have lived, a bakery and kitchen, items related to metal and glass production, buildings that appear related to administration, and even a cemetery filled with rock-cut tombs.
That loss is modern archaeology’s gain. “It’s extraordinarily beautiful,” says Ikram. She recalls walking through the preserved streets, surrounded by tall walls where, she says, she expected an ancient Egyptian to come around the corner at any moment. “I don’t think you can oversell it,” she says. “It is mind-blowing.”
But why was it abandoned during the brief reign of Akhenaten? “I don’t know that we’ll get closer to answering that question through this particular city,” says Bryan. “What we will get is more and more information about Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and their families. It’s early days, but I think we’ll see more and more connections.” Though the newly discovered city may not give up clues to the mystery of the rebel pharaoh, it will paint an even more vivid picture of the life he left behind.