An expedition working near Luxor has stumbled upon the remains of a lost ancient Egyptian city, in what is being hailed as the most significant archaeological discovery in the region since the 1920s.
Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, the former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs in Egypt, made the announcement on Thursday through his Facebook page. The 3,400-year-old city, called The Rise of Aten, was found buried in sand near the southern Egyptian city of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings (the location of King Tut’s tomb). A team of archaeologists inadvertently stumbled upon the city while searching for Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple.
Hawass is claiming to have led the expedition, but the archaeologist is infamous for putting his name on virtually everything having to do with discoveries relating to ancient Egypt and for engaging in some shoddy science (this being an excellent example). That aside, this latest discovery is the real deal, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of this incredible find.
The Rise of Aten dates back to the reign of Amenhotep III, the ninth pharaoh of ancient Egypt’s 18th dynasty. Amenhotep III was in power from about 1391 to 1353 BCE, and his rule coincided with a golden age — a time when ancient Egypt peaked in its international power and cultural output.
As Hass explained in his release, The Rise of Aten was the largest administrative and industrial centre along the western bank of Luxor during this time period. Many “foreign missions” had searched for this city, but it eluded discovery until now, he added.
Betsy Bryan, a professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on this time period, said there’s “no indication” that this “section had been found before, although clearly it represents part of an enormous royal city.” The “size of this royal city was indeed similar to Amarna,” the capital city to the north, and “represents a clear precedent for the coming city of Akhetaten,” added Bryan, who’s not involved in the project.
Excavations in the area began in 2020, and within weeks the team began to uncover mud bricks. As the excavations continued, and much to their astonishment, the archaeologists began to realise that they were unearthing a city of significant size. Despite being buried for thousands of years, the city is in a reasonably good state of preservation, featuring nearly complete walls and rooms filled with artifacts representative of daily life. The “city’s streets are flanked by houses,” wrote Hawass, with some walls measuring nearly 10 feet (3 meters) tall. The team is now seven months into the project, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Discoveries within the city include rings, scarabs, coloured pottery, wine pitchers, and mud bricks inscribed with the seals of King Amenhotep III’s cartouche, the latter of which was used to date the city. A container packed with roughly 22 pounds (10 kg) of either dried or boiled meat features the following inscription: “Year 37, dressed meat for the third Heb Sed festival from the slaughterhouse of the stockyard of Kha made by the butcher Luwy.”
“This valuable information, not only gives us the names of two people that lived and worked in the city but confirmed that the city was active and the time of King Amenhotep III’s co-regency with his son Akhenaten,” wrote Hawass.
A bakery was uncovered in the southern section of the city, along with an area for preparing and cooking food (including ovens and a storage area for pots). Based on its size, “we can state the kitchen was catering a very large number of workers and employees,” said Hawass.
A second area, still only partly investigated, appears to be the administrative and residential district, as it features bigger and more organised living units. A wall arranged in a zigzag pattern encloses this area, with a lone access point leading in, indicating some kind of controlled security measure.
“There are industrial sectors, all specifically divided by sinusoidal walls and discrete by function,” explained Bryan in her email. “This is exceptional in scale and organisation. Ovens and kilns abound. Stamped bricks in large numbers with the clay source next to them. Granite debitage from working statues,” she wrote, adding: “Be still my heart.”
Apparent workshops were uncovered in a third area, including places to manufacture mud bricks. Here, the team also found casting moulds, which were likely used to produce amulets and “delicate decorative elements,” per Hawass, which he said is “further evidence of the extensive activity in the city to produce decorations for both temples and tombs.” The archaeologists also found tools possibly used for spinning and weaving and evidence of metal and glass-making, though the main area in which these activities were performed has yet to be uncovered.
The team also found a human burial, in which an individual was found lying with their arms placed at their side and the remnants of a rope tied around the knees. The location and position of this person was described as “odd,” and it warrants further investigation. Same for a strange burial involving an apparent cow or bull found inside a room.
The Rise of Aten was eventually abandoned and relocated to Amarna, 400 km to the north, for reasons that still elude archaeologists. “Only further excavations of the area will reveal what truly happened 3,500 years ago,” wrote Hawass.
Excitingly, there is still much to explore within this ancient city, including a large cemetery and a collection of, get this, rock-cut tombs. Whoa — it’s suddenly 1922 all over again.