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CAIRO — While Americans feasted their eyes on a full-blown Thanksgiving Day parade after a two-year Covid absence, nearly 6,000 miles away Egypt revived a very different cultural tradition that has not been seen for several thousand years.
The country opened the 3,000-year-old Avenue of Sphinxes to the public Thursday in an extravagant ceremony in the southern city of Luxor that follows decades of excavation efforts.
The ancient walkway, nearly two miles long and about 250 feet wide, was once named “The Path of God.” It connects the Temple of Luxor with the Temple of Karnak, just up the Nile river to the north.
A spectacular parade that began after nightfall in Egypt and around lunchtime ET proceeded along the length of the avenue, which is lined on either side by over 600 ram-headed statues and traditional sphinxes, statues with a lion’s body and a human’s head.
The extravagant march included participants in pharaonic dress, a symphony orchestra, lighting effects, professional dancers, boats on the Nile, horse drawn carriages and more.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attended the city-wide spectacle.
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 interrupted numerous times by political upheaval, like the 2011 Arab Spring uprising which overthrew the country’s longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak and led to several years of civil unrest.
“Tonight I will be witnessing one of the greatest events that has ever happened in my lifetime,” Ahmed Hammam, a Luxor tour guide, told NBC News ahead of the event.
Hammam, 47, said that witnessing the restoration of the Avenue of Sphinxes after years of effort was “like a dream.”
“Today will be a day we will talk about for a hundred years to come,” said Hammam. “I hope everybody will enjoy it. Not just here in my hometown city, but in the whole of Egypt, and the whole of the world as well.”
The road is believed to have been 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 be held, as it was in the past at the time of the Pharaohs,” said Ali Abu Dashish, an Egyptian archaeologist and member of the Archaeological Union, ahead of Thursday’s event.
Dashish said it should send a message from Egypt to the world that, “we preserve and restore antiquities.”
Thursday’s festivities were part of an ongoing push to promote archeological discoveries as Egypt tries to revive its flagging tourism industry.
Part of that effort has included staging spectacular public events like the one set to take place Thursday.
In April Cairo held an elaborate procession, dubbed the Golden Parade, to move 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies across the capital to a new museum.
Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist, called the Luxor site “the largest open [air] museum, the largest archeological site in the world” that tells the history of Egypt from the 2,000 BC era — known as the Dynasty XI — until the Roman Period.
Hawass worked on the restoration of the Avenue of Sphinxes from 2005-2011, when work was stopped by the uprising. He said that Thursday’s festival sends an important message to the world that “Egypt is safe and we invite everyone to come back to Egypt.”
El-Sissi, 63, led the military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013 and was re-elected to a second, four-year term in 2018.
He has sought to restore stability to the key U.S. ally and worked hard to bring tourist dollars back to the country, whose economy has been further hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Critics say he has muzzled opponents, activists and independent media in doing so.
Charlene Gubash reported from Cairo, and Petra Cahill reported from London.
Charlene Gubash is an NBC News producer based in Cairo. Gubash, a native Minnesotan, has lived and worked in the Egyptian capital since 1985.
Petra Cahill is a senior editor and writer for NBC News Digital. She writes NBC News’ Morning Rundown newsletter.
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