While the tombs of the pharaohs from the pyramids of the Old Kingdom to the Valley of the Kings are familiar the world over, the settings in which the kings of ancient Egypt lived and ruled are comparatively little known. One of the two royal cities surviving from Ancient Egyptian times is at Malqata in western Thebes. It was built by the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned for thirty-eight or thirty-nine years, from about 1390-1352 B.C. Located on the sandy edge of the cultivation at the southern end of the Theban necropolis, the site today is marked only by low mud brick ruins and the great mounds that border the huge harbor known as the Birket Habu, also built by Amenhotep III.
One of the most significant urban sites surviving from ancient Egypt, Malqata was established by Amenhotep III in the 30th year of his reign (about 1360 B.C.) when he celebrated his first heb-sed, a royal jubilee intended in part to rejuvinate the king. The great palace city was constructed to the south of the large funerary temple the king was building for himself. In all, Amenhotep celebrated three sed-festivals: in year 30, year 34, and year 37 of his reign. After his death , the palace city was largely abandonned.
Amenhotep III was succeeded by his son, Amenhotep IV, who eventually changed his name to Akhenaten and moved the capital of Egypt to the site of Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. Amarna is the other well preserved royal city from ancient Egyptian times. Akhenaten is among the most famous Egyptian rulers because he broke with the traditional religion (in which many gods were worshipped) to worship only the Aten, represented as a sun disk emanating rays of light. Akhenaten’s attempted reformation did not last beyond his reign. Very shortly after his death, one of his successors, Tutankhamun, re-instated the old religion and, like Malqata a generation earlier, Amarna was abandonned. It is possible that, for a time, the palace and other buildings at Malqata were re-occupied, but the site seems to have been abandoned shortly thereafter.
Because Malqata was only occupied for a limited time, the site presents an unusual opportunity to view a settlement at one of Egypt’s principal urban centers without the “static” of later occupation and alteration.
In an area of late 18th Dynasty occupation that extends roughly seven kilometers along the floodplain, Amenhotep III built several palaces and cult areas. At the north end of the site, the complex of mud brick buildings includes the Great Palace, the North Palace, the Middle Palace, the so-called Audience Pavilion, administrative buildings, and a Temple of Amun. In among these structures, the scattered remains of numerous residential areas have been identified. These housed the different classes of Egyptian society that visited or worked within the palace-city.
The immense harbor, known as Birket Habu, begins east of the King’s Palace and extends to the south for two and one half kilometers. The enormous mounds created from digging out the floodplain rise up along the floodplain’s edge, making a monumental statement about Malqata’s importance. Heading south from the end the Birket Habu mounds, one finds a platform built for the celebration of the heb sed ceremony. Kom el-Samak lies near the terminal point of an ancient raised roadway that probably ran from the king’s funerary temple, the settlement of Malqata, and terminated at Deir esh-Shelwit, a stone temple built in Ptolemaic times that probably covers the site of a much earlier temple.
South of Kom el-Samak, a second platform of mud brick, Kom el-Abd, rises out of the low desert. But this structure was not the end of Amenhotep’s plans for his the area. At some point near the end of his reign (it appears that he never completed the project) Amenhotep III cleared a giant strip in the low desert. The strip, identified by the large stones piled along its edges, extends to the foot of the terraces leading up to the cliffs of the high desert, the Sahara. The purpose of this strip is as yet undetermined.