View of sphinxes, the first pylon, and the central east-west aisle of Temple of Amon-Re, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt (photo: Mark Fox, CC: BY-NC 2.0)
The massive temple complex of Karnak was the principal religious center of the god Amun-Re in Thebes during the New Kingdom (which lasted from 1550 until 1070 B.C.E.). The complex remains one of the largest religious complexes in the world. However, Karnak was not just one temple dedicated to one god—it held not only the main precinct to the god Amun-Re—but also the precincts of the gods Mut and Montu. Compared to other temple compounds that survive from ancient Egypt, Karnak is in a poor state of preservation but it still gives scholars a wealth of information about Egyptian religion and art.
Google Earth view of Karnak
Ancient Egyptian history is divided into kingdoms (long politically stable eras). The New Kingdom was the third and final such period.
Amun-Re was a principal god of ancient Egypt. This deity was a composite of the god Amun, the patron of Thebes, and the Sun god, Re (or Ra).
Mut was a primordial goddess associated with motherhood. She was at times referred to as mother of the earth and as mother of the gods.
Montu was the ancient Egyptian god of war and is often depicted with the head of a falcon or a bull.
“The Most Select of Places”
The site was first developed during the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 B.C.E.) and was initially modest in scale but as new importance was placed on the city of Thebes, subsequent pharaohs began to place their own mark on Karnak. The main precinct alone would eventually have as many as twenty temples and chapels. Karnak was known in ancient times as “The Most Select of Places” (Ipet-isut) and was not only the location of the cult image of Amun and a place for the god to dwell on earth but also a working estate for the priestly community who lived on site. Additional buildings included a sacred lake, kitchens, and workshops for the production of religious accoutrements.
Model of the Precinct of Amon-Re, Karnak (photo: Rémih, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
The main temple of Amun-Re had two axes—one that went north/south and the other that extended east/west. The southern axis continued towards the temple of Luxor and was connected by an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes.
“Tent pole” columns, Festival Temple of Thutmose III, c. 1479-25 B.C.E., sandstone, mud brick, paint, Karnak, at Luxor, Egypt (photo: Dennis Jarvis, CC: BY-SA 2.0)
While the sanctuary was plundered for stone in ancient times, there are still a number of unique architectural features within this vast complex. For example, the tallest obelisk in Egypt stood at Karnak and was dedicated by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut who ruled Egypt during the New Kingdom. Made of one piece of red granite, it originally had a matching obelisk that was removed by the Roman emperor Constantine and re-erected in Rome. Another unusual feature was the Festival Temple of Thutmose III, which had columns that represented tent poles, a feature this pharaoh was no doubt familiar with from his many war campaigns.
An obelisk in ancient Egypt is commonly a very tall four-sided stone that tapers upward and is topped with a pyramid shape. Each side is often heavily inscribed with hieroglyphs. The stone is often a single piece of granite. The obelisk from Karnak (now in Rome) is estimated to weigh more than 900,000 pounds.
Hypostyle Hall, c. 1250 B.C.E. (hall), 18th and 19th Dynasties, New Kingdom, sandstone and mud brick, Karnak, at Luxor, Egypt (photo: Blalonde, public domain)
One of the greatest architectural marvels of Karnak is the hypostyle hall built during the Ramesside period (a hypostyle hall is a space with a roof supported by columns). The hall has 134 massive sandstone columns with the center twelve columns standing at 69 feet. Like most of the temple decoration, the hall would have been brightly painted and some of this paint still exists on the upper portions of the columns and ceiling today. With the center of the hall taller than the spaces on either side, the Egyptians allowed for clerestory lighting (a section of wall that allowed light and air into the otherwise dark space below). In fact, the earliest evidence for clerestory lighting comes from Egypt. Not many ancient Egyptians would have had access to this hall, since the further one went into the temple, the more restricted access became.
Ramesside refers to the period when Egypt was ruled by the eleven pharaohs named Ramses. Clerestory refers to windows placed high on a wall often just below the roof.
Temple as Cosmos
Plan of the Temple of Amon-Re, Karnak
Conceptually, temples in Egypt were connected to the idea of zep tepi, or “the first time,” the beginnings of the creation of the world. The temple was a reflection of this time, when the mound of creation emerged from the primeval waters. The pylons, or gateways in the temple represent the horizon, and as one moves further into the temple, the floor rises until it reaches the sanctuary of the god, giving the impression of a rising mound, like that during creation. The temple roof represented the sky and was often decorated with stars and birds. The columns were designed with lotus, papyrus, and palm plants in order to reflect the marsh-like environment of creation. The outer areas of Karnak, which was located near the Nile River, would flood during the annual inundation—an intentional effect by the ancient designers no doubt, in order to enhance the temple’s symbolism.
- R. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (New York, Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 154.
- R. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (New York, Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 77.
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