Journey to Egypt, Part 7: Karnak Temple Complex

December 26, 2018

We left Cairo this morning and flew to Luxor (which means “palace” in Arabic). The flight was short – about one hour. Luxor in ancient times was the Egyptian civilization’s capital, called Thebes. Modern-day Luxor grew out of the ruins of ancient Thebes, and today its population is about 800,000. I liked Luxor much better than Cairo – fresher air and more colorful.

The temples of Karnak and Luxor are both on the east bank of the Nile River, which were monuments for the living. All funerary monuments and tombs are on the West Bank, in the direction of the setting sun.

Our hotel, Sofitel Winter Palace, was more or less across the street from Luxor Temple, but Mohamed told us it was much better to see it at night. So after lunch, we rode in a motor coach to Karnak, one of the most important sites in Egypt. It was built over the span of 1,300 years by a succession of pharaohs, who each added their own tribute to Amun-Ra, their creator god, who created himself and then everything else. Karnak was therefore expanded or altered according to the politics of each contributing kingdom.


Model of the Karnak temple complex, shown from the southern entrance.

Every temple complex has 4 elements, including (from inside to outside) the sanctuary, a row of columns, an open courtyard, and a pylon (or gate). Karnak consists of not one, but several of these temple complexes. There are statues to various gods and kings, and hieroglyphic writing on the columns and walls. Karnak also has 2 standing obelisks. It’s a huge place.

We entered the complex from the Western entrance (the west-east axis can be seen in the background of the model above), via the First Pylon. The First Pylon is actually the most recent of all the pylons of Karnak; built by the kings of the 30th Dynasty (380-343 BCE), it was left unfinished.


Western entrance to Karnak and the First Pylon

The approach to the first pylon is flanked with rows of ram-headed sphinxes.
These sphinxes once marked a 4-mile avenue in ancient Egypt connecting Karnak and Luxor Temple.
The ram-headed sphinx is the symbol of the god Amun, who is associated with the goose or the ram. Between each sphinx’s paws is a statuette of Pinudjem I or it may be Ramses II. Note that the figure holds an ankh, “the key of life.”

Passing through the first pylon, we saw two giant statues of Ramses II on the far side of the forecourt, marking the entrance to the Hypostyle Hall, a hall containing 134 columns!

Against the inside wall of the first pylon are the remains of mud brick scaffolding which was used in building the pylon. Karnak scaffolding 1st pylon
These scaffolds were not just used for building, but also for decorating. How did the ancient artisans carve and paint images way up high? They would use a scaffold or pile up sand alongside the wall. They would start the carving at the top of the wall (or column, etc.) and as they moved downward, they would remove the sand from the top, and so on until they reached the bottom.

In the middle of the forecourt is a single column, 21 meters high, with the open papyrus design, all that remains of the 10-columned kiosk of Taharqa (690-664 BCE), an Ethiopian pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty.
The ram-headed sphinxes continue into the forecourt.
On the left side of the forecourt is the Shrine of Seti II, which is 1,000 years older than the first pylon! Seti II built this small building, containing three small chapels, to receive the sacred boats of the “Theban Triad” (Amun-Ra in the center, Mut on the left and Khonsu on the right) during processions of the Opet festival.

On the right side is the Temple of Ramses III (20th Dynasty).

Karnak (304)-Temple of Ramses III with Osirid statues.jpg

The court of the Temple of Ramses III, containing 20 statues of the king in the form of Osiris. This photo is on a DVD of photos of Egypt that I purchased.

The Second Pylon was built during the reign of Horemheb (18th Dynasty), mostly with blocks dismantled from buildings of Akhenaten, the “heretic king.”

The pharaohs of the New Kingdom built the impressive Hypostyle Hall – Ramses I began the decoration in the 19th Dynasty and Ramses III (20th Dynasty) completed it about 120 years later.


To get an idea of how massive these columns are, here’s me in front of one of them.

Artists’ rendition of Hypostyle Hall as it would have looked in ancient times:

This is the largest hall in the complex and was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra.
The sandstone for this hall came from the quarry of Gebel Silsila, 100 miles south on the Nile.
Some of the color from the original paint is visible on the tops of columns and on the crossbeams.
The bee is a symbol of Lower Egypt because most of the beekeeping industry in ancient Egypt was in the north.  The ankh is the key of life and is often portrayed in Egyptian carvings.

The columns with papyrus bud tops (122 of the 134) are smaller than those with open papyrus tops.

Pharaohs/kings (I use these terms interchangeably) all had their own official artisans: architects, artists, carvers, painters, and others, highly trained in their respective professions. When I or any text writes, “the pharaoh built…” we don’t mean literally. The king would commission his staff of artisans to create monuments to glorify them and the gods. Kings who were known for having conquered territories and peoples through warfare would have depictions created of themselves in battle and enumerating their captives.


This frieze is a representation of the numerous captives (you can tell they are captives because their arms are shown behind their torsos, as if tied behind their backs), perhaps Syrians (due to their facial features), captured in battle probably by the armies led by 18th Dynasty kings.

20181226_153150Some of the carvings are representative rather than being complete pictures (such as the enumeration of captives in the above photos) accompanied by extensive hieroglyphic writing which tells the story of the battle. Others are stylized scenes showing battles, home life or offering to the gods.

Mohamed pointed out the artistry of the creator of this carving, showing a king in his chariot in battle. Notice the front legs of the horse, its leg repeated several times to indicate movement, as well as its flying mane. Below the rearing horse is a pile of dead people defeated in battle.
20181226_153602.jpgSome carvings show the king and perhaps his wife or other officials paying tribute to their gods.


This frieze shows several images of the king (figure on the right) presenting various offerings to the god (probably Amun-Ra), who is seated on the left wearing a large headdress.

18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III constructed the Third Pylon which leads to the Obelisk of Thutmose I inside the court of Amenhotep III.
The writing on the obelisk extolls the deeds of the king, his greatness and divinity (kings were seen as semi-divine). Cartouches tell his royal names, for he usually has several.
I believe this is the Thutmose III obelisk.
SONY DSCAnother obelisk nearby was erected during the 18th Dynasty reign of Hatshepsut, a queen who acted as regent and then ruled alongside Thutmose III for 20 years. The lower part of this obelisk is well preserved because after her death, Thutmose III had a brick wall built around it, probably to hide it from view within the temple.
Hatshepsut had built another obelisk, but it is no longer standing. However, the top of it has been preserved and here it is lying on its side.
SONY DSCOther monuments dedicated to her have been defaced in an attempt to erase her name from history. The ancient Egyptian royals did not consider it proper under normal circumstances for a woman to rule (except as regent to an underage king until he was old enough to rule by himself). While there is no indication that Thutmose III harbored any personal animosity toward his aunt Hatshepsut, he would have wanted to establish himself as ultimate ruler and therefore had to illegitimatize her rule.
This photo from the DVD set I purchased shows the gods Horus and Thoth anointing a figure that has been crossed out. Could it have been Hatshepsut? Note how well-preserved the colors are over 3000 years!
Karnak (150) - Horus & Thoth pouring water onto crossed out god
I did not get photos of these pillars of Thutmose III, representing the union of Egypt, which rise behind the 6th Pylon. The papyrus (left) represents Lower Egypt and the lotus (right) stands for Upper Egypt.
Karnak (104) - pillars of Thutmose III
The complex is so large that it is difficult to remember where we took the photos! In our free time, we wandered through temples,

among ruins,
and under columns. This group of columns is the closed lotus type.

We admired the carvings on ruins and tried to understand them with the limited knowledge Mohamed had given us so far.


Dale put his fist into one of the hieroglyphic symbols to show how deep some of the carvings are.

I was surprised at how much of the color of the paint was still visible; this was most common inside the small temples and underneath crossbeams that don’t get much sunlight.

It was possible to see the color even on this group of statues.
Karnak (140) - statues with color remaining

Southeast of the temple is the Sacred Lake, which is fed by the Nile. The morning rituals of the ancient priests included purifying themselves in this lake.
North of the lake is a large scarab on a pedestal, dating from the reign of Amenhotep III. This is one of the major motifs of the ancient Egyptians and symbolized the  newborn sun. A legend says that a woman who runs clockwise around it three times will become pregnant in the near future!