One of 12 new recently unearthed sphinxes smiles on Luxor (map), Egypt, in a picture released Monday. In a former residential neighborhood—razed for the sake of archaeology and tourism—the 2,300-year-old statues may have been the finishing touches on the Avenue of the Sphinxes, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities announced today.
The ancient, sacred route was actually a system of canals that connected the great temples on the east bank of the Nile River at Thebes, as Luxor was then called. Long known from ancient texts but never before confirmed, the new extension of the Avenue of the Sphinxes dates to the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo I (380 to 362 B.C.), whose name is engraved on the bases of several of the sculptures.
"Thebes was a holy place in the east, and the ancient Egyptians achieved this sacred road to facilitate the visitation of the temples," said Mansour Boraik, the antiquities council's head of excavations in Luxor.
Workers position one of the new sphinxes on its base in a picture released Monday.
The first recorded journey down the Avenue of the Sphinxes canal was made by ancient Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut, who is said to have taken part in a boat procession as part of the Opet festival, celebrating the annual Nile floods, about 3,500 years ago.
At that time, the route was relatively undecorated. Later rulers added the sphinxes—believed to have numbered more than a thousand—that gave the avenue its name.
Already archaeologists have found nearly 900 of these statues along the 1.7-mile (2.7-kilometer) avenue. But they're still puzzling out how the avenue appeared to the ancients. For starters, the Nile once ran right alongside the temples connected by the avenue. Since then, the river has shifted about a half mile (0.8 kilometer) to the west, according to Luxor-based Egyptologist Ray Johnson, of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who is not affiliated with the discovery.
The 12 newfound statues, many now headless, lined one end of the newly unearthed Nectanebo section of the Avenue of the Sphinxes. So far only about 66 feet (20 meters) of the 0.4-mile (600-meter) Nectanebo route have been excavated—part of an effort to transform historic Thebes into a modern tourist attraction. (Download Egypt wallpapers.)
The previously excavated section of the Avenue of the Sphinxes connects the two main temples of eastern Thebes—Karnak and Luxor. Archaeologists are hoping that, once fully excavated, the newfound section—which appears headed for the nearby temple of the goddess Mut—will add a third temple to the ancient canal complex.
"If we found a quay, or a harbor, leading to Mut temple, it means, in my opinion, we will be in front of a great discovery that changes the landscape of the east of Luxor," dig leader Mansour Boraik said. It would suggest, for one thing, that the ancient festival boat processions at Thebes covered much more ground, and a more complex route, than previously thought.