Karnak Temples Tour
Thebes was the capital of New Kingdom Egypt. It had grown in importance throughout the Middle Kingdom, when it was a sanctuary of the god, Montu. Karnak and Luxor Temples together were known as Waset, Thebes was the later Greek name for the town.
Karnak is the biggest temple complex in the world, covering an area of 100 hectares and there is nowhere more impressive to the first-time visitor. Much of it has been restored during the last century and our knowledge of the buildings here in different periods of Egyptian history is still increasing each year. In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, ‘The most select of places’.
The temples are built along two axes (east-west and north-south) with the original Middle Kingdom shrines built on a mound in the centre of what is now called the Temple of Amun.
On the west side is the entrance to the temple used by visitors which was once a quay built by Rameses II to give access via a canal to the river Nile. This is where boats carrying statues of the gods would have arrived and departed from the temple during festivals, such as Opet, and from where the cult statue of Amun would leave on its weekly tour of the west bank temples such as Deir el-Bahri and Medinet Habu. There are many names of kings on the quay each recording the levels of inundations during their reigns.
On the right, in front of the first pylon, is a small barque shrine built by Hakor in Dynasty XXIX, which was used as a resting place during the gods’ processional journey to and from the river.
An avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leads the visitor towards the massive front of the first pylon, each one holding a statue of the king, Rameses II, in its paws (later usurped by Pinudjem of Dynasty XXI). The sphinxes were fantastic beasts with the body of a lion and the head of a ram, a symbol of the god Amun.
The first pylon is unfinished and its height, originally of 43m, is still pretty impressive. There is no certainty as to who built it, but it’s thought that it may have been the Dynasty XXV king Taharqo whose buildings are in the forecourt. Alternatively it may have been constructed by Nectanebo I of Dynasty XXX who built the temenos walls which link to the pylon and surround the temple complex. The remains of a mudbrick ramp can still be seen on the inner side of the pylon, the only example we have, and which shows how the pylon was constructed.
The forecourt is now inside the entrance pylon but would have originally been outside the main temple. In the center are the remains of the giant Kiosk of the Nubian pharaoh, Taharqo, with its one complete papyrus column still standing. It is worth remembering that Karnak Temple was built to expand outwards from a central core, the oldest part being in the middle of the main axis, behind the sanctuary of Amun.
To the north of the forecourt and adjoining the first pylon, is the triple barque shrine of Seti II, with three rooms built to contain the barques of Mut, Amun and Khonsu, the gods of the Theban triad.
On the south side of the forecourt is the entrance to a temple of Rameses III, who was not satisfied with the simple way-stations of his ancestors and built an elaborate barque shrine designed as a mini-version of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu on the west bank. Its first court is lined with Osirid statues of Rameses and its walls show festival scenes and texts. Next to this is the ‘Bubastite gate’, built by Sheshonq of Dynasty XXII, the biblical king ‘Shishak’.
The second pylon was built by Horemheb but not completed until the reign of Seti I. Seti’s son Rameses II built two colossal statues of himself which stood in front of the pylon gate. A third statue of Rameses II still stands in situ and has a tiny statue of his daughter Bent’anta between its feet. This statue was later usurped by Rameses VI then the High Priest Pinudjem I. Inside the walls of this pylon many of the sandstone talatat blocks from the Akhenaten temple were found which had been reused as infill in the construction of the walls.
Through the entrance of the second pylon is the famous hypostyle hall. Standing amongst its 134 gigantic columns the visitor can’t help but be awe inspired by the grandeur of the place. The centre 12 columns are larger (21m tall) and have open papyrus capitals, which may have been intended to symbolise the original ‘mound of creation’. The other 122 columns are smaller (15m) and have closed capitals, perhaps representing the swamp which surrounded the mound.
The hypostyle hall was begun by Amenhotep III who built the side walls which close off the space between the second and third pylons. It was not completed until the reign of Seti I who carved his beautiful raised reliefs around the walls of the northern half. His son Rameses II completed the decoration of the southern half of the walls and pillars, often overcarving his father’s reliefs with his own crude sunk relief carvings including temple foundation rituals. ‘Rameses the Great’ was not going to be forgotten.
Both Seti and Rameses have left us fine examples of temple ritual and the relationship of the pharaohs with their gods. Accounts of their battle exploits are carved around the outer walls. It was Rameses who added a roof of stone slabs to the hall and we can imagine the dim, mysterious atmosphere it would have had, lit only by the high clerestory windows. The pillars are very close together and it’s difficult to get an overview of the hypostyle hall. When it was in use the spaces between the columns would have been filled with statues of gods and kings. Looking back at the hypostyle hall from beyond the third pylon we can see just how high it must once have been.