Thebes was the most populous city in the world when Pharaoh Akhentaten chose to relocate the capital to Akhetaten (Amarna), over 300mi away. What happened to Thebes during the Amarna Period; was it completely abandoned?
To begin, the claim that that Thebes was the most populous city in the world at the time of Akhenaten must be questioned. Very little of ancient Thebes has been excavated since it lies rather inconveniently beneath modern Luxor, and excavations have focused on Karnak, Luxor temple, and the tombs and mortuary temples of the Theban west bank.
We can say virtually nothing about the houses of the inhabitants of Thebes, and any population estimates are at best mildly informed guesses.
Additionally, we shouldn’t speak of Thebes or Amarna as “the” capital of Egypt. In the 18th Dynasty, we can speak of two capitals – Memphis in the north and Thebes in the south. The vizierate was split into two from the reign of Thutmose III (14th century BCE) onward, with the vizier of Lower Egypt residing in Memphis and the vizier of Upper Egypt residing in Thebes.
The nature of the relationship between Memphis and Thebes remains unclear, but it seems that we can classify Memphis as the administrative capital of Egypt and Thebes as the civil capital, which housed the king and his court at nearby palatial sites like Deir el-Ballas and Malqata. Memphis remained occupied throughout the Amarna period, and it remained under the supervision of the vizier of Lower Egypt. Additionally, we know of a temple to the Aten that was built in Memphis (pr itn mn-nfr, “The House of the Aten of Mennefer”).
Of Thebes in the Amarna period, we can say relatively little. It is unlikely that it was abandoned entirely, but the temples and tombs in the Theban area reveal very little about the Amarna period. Nigel Strudwick’s Thebes in Egypt goes so far as to claim that “activity in Thebes dropped to almost zero” during the Amarna period.
The house of Nakht, the vizier of Upper Egypt, has been located in Amarna, as have the houses of other notable officials, and it seems that the bulk of the administration of Thebes was relocated to Amarna.
On the other hand, the dowager queen Tiye seems to have remained in residence at Malqata, suggesting that Thebes still housed at least a small remnant of the royal court. Queen Tiye is virtually absent from reliefs and tomb scenes from Amarna with the notable exception of the tomb of Huya, where she is shown visiting Amarna as part of the festivities in Year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign. It has been suggested that it was at this time that Nefertiti ascended to the throne as co-regent, but this has not yet been proven.
The large population shift from Thebes to Amarna was not that unusual for the time, and Amarna was only one of several new capital cities constructed in the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. The first ruler of the Late Bronze Age to establish a major new capital was King Kurigalzu I of Babylonia, who built Dur-Kurigalzu (“Fortress of Kurigalzu”) as the new administrative capital of Babylonia, though the city of Babylon continued to serve as the chief religious center.
Dur-Kurigalzu was briefly excavated by a British team in the 1940s, but the vast majority of the site remains unexcavated. King Tukulti-Nunurta I of Assyria, who reigned after the time of Akhenaten, established a new capital at Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta (“Quay of Tukulti-Ninurta”).
Like Babylon, the city of Aššur remained the religious center of Assyria and outlived Tukulti-Ninurta’s impressive but short-lived capital city. In Anatolia, the Hittite king Muwatalli II abandoned the capital of Ḫattuša in favor of the new capital city of Tarḫuntašša. This city has remained frustratingly elusive, but it seems to have been located somewhere in the Konya Plain.
Muwatalli’s son and successor returned the royal court to Ḫattuša, abandoning Tarḫuntašša, which became the seat of a cadet branch of the royal family that grew to rival the courts of Ḫattuša and Carchemish in power and prestige. Finally, the Elamite king Untaš-Napiriša established the city of Al-Untaš-Napiriša, more commonly known today as Chogha Zanbil.
This new capital city was intended to be an alternative to (if not a replacement of) Susa, but the city was never finished and was abandoned shortly after the death of Untaš-Napiriša.
As for the logistics of the move from Thebes to Amarna, the Egyptians had perfected the art of mass deportations and resettlement through a long history of warfare and raiding in the Levant, as had their contemporaries like the Hittites.
The description of the battle of Megiddo from the reign of Thutmose III, for examples, notes that the Egyptians transported 3400 prisoners, 2041 horses, 191 foals, 924 chariots, 1929 cows, 2000 goats, 20,500 sheep, and so on from Megiddo in Israel back to Egypt – a much more difficult trek than sailing up or down the Nile.