CAIRO – As Americans feasted on a full-fledged Thanksgiving parade after a two-year absence from Covid, nearly 6,000 miles away, Egypt has rekindled a very different cultural tradition that doesn’t has not been seen for several thousand years.
The country opened the 3,000-year-old Avenue of the Sphinxes to the public on Thursday in an extravagant ceremony in the southern city of Luxor that follows decades of excavation efforts.
The old footbridge, nearly three kilometers long and about 250 feet wide, was once called “The Way of God.” It connects the temple of Luxor with the temple of Karnak, just upstream of the Nile in the north.
A spectacular parade that began after dark in Egypt and around lunchtime ET took place along the avenue, which is bordered on either side by more than 600 traditional ram-headed and sphinx statues, lion-bodied and human-headed statues.
The extravagant march included participants in Pharaonic attire, a symphony orchestra, light effects, professional dancers, boats on the Nile, horse-drawn carriages and more.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi attended the performance throughout the city.
The road was buried under sand for centuries until Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Ghineim discovered the first eight sphinx statues in front of the Luxor Temple in 1949.
The effort to excavate and restore the site persisted over the next seven decades and was repeatedly interrupted by political upheavals, such as the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled the country. longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak and led to several years of civil unrest.
“Tonight I will witness one of the biggest events of my life,” Ahmed Hammam, a Luxor tour guide, told NBC News ahead of the event.
Hammam, 47, said witnessing the restoration of Avenue des Sphinxes after years of effort was “like a dream.”
“Today will be a day we will talk about for a hundred years,” Hammam said. “I hope everyone enjoys it. Not just here in my hometown, but all over Egypt and around the world as well. “
It is believed that the road was built to celebrate the annual Opet festival in the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor. The festival promoted fertility and included a procession that carried a statue of ceremonial gods from Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple.
“The Opet festival will take place, as it was in the days of the pharaohs,” Ali Abu Dashish, an Egyptian archaeologist and member of the Archaeological Union, said ahead of Thursday’s event.
Dashish said he should send a message from Egypt to the world that “we are preserving and restoring antiquities”.
Thursday’s festivities were part of an ongoing campaign to promote archaeological finds as Egypt attempts to revive its declining tourism industry.
Part of that effort has included organizing spectacular public events like the one to be held on Thursday.
In April, Cairo held an elaborate procession, dubbed the Golden Parade, to move 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies through the capital to a new museum.
Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist, called the Luxor site “the largest open site [air] museum, the world’s largest archaeological site ‘which tells the story of Egypt from the 2000 BC era.
Hawass worked on the restoration of Avenue des Sphinxes from 2005 to 2011, when work was interrupted by the uprising. He said Thursday’s festival sends an important message to the world: “Egypt is safe and we invite everyone to come back to Egypt”.
El-Sisi, 63, led the military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013 and was re-elected for a second four-year term in 2018.
He has sought to restore the stability of the key US ally and has worked hard to bring tourist dollars back to the country, whose economy has been hit even harder by the Covid-19 pandemic. Critics say he has muzzled opponents, activists and independent media by doing so.
Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo and Petra Cahill from London.