The First Courtyard in the Amun Temple at Karnak

The First Courtyard at the Temple of Amun, Karnak

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jim Fox

The First Courtyard at the Temple of Amun, Karnak

The First Courtyard at the Temple of Amun, Karnak

In the first courtyard of the Temple of Amun at Karnak, on the inside of the courtyard abutted up against the inside of he first pylon is a construction platform built of brick caissons enclosing packed earth between retaining walls perpendicular to the pylon, which is evidence that the first pylon was still under construction when the work was abandoned.

Construction Ramp visible abutted up against the inside of the first pylon at the Temple of Amun

The first, western pylon of the Temple of Amun at Karnak (in modern Luxor, ancient Thebes) forms the facade to a large, somewhat square courtyard measuring some 84.12 by 99.4 meters. It is bordered on two sides by a portico with columns built during the 22nd Dynasty rule of Sheshonk I (Shoshenq I) , though he left the columns here undecorated except for the five standard bands indicating constriction that separate the column shafts from the capitals. The capitals themselves or in the form of closed buds.

About in the center of the northern enclosure wall behind the columns is an enigmatic, but interesting depiction. This is the so called magic image of Amun. Here, the pharaoh is referred to as per-aa in the two cartouches, and he is making libation in the presence of a very strange image. The representation has the head of Amun, wearing a crown topped by a solar disk surmounted by two large feathers, which emerge from a goatskin bottle embraced by the extended wings of Ma'at. In turn, this depiction surmounts a pedestal crowned by a uraeus, in front of which is a lion whose chest comes up to the level of the shafts. It would seem that this "magic image of Amun" was perhaps paraded during processions. This scene then sits upon a table fronting a series of lotuses, each of which is giving birth to a new lotus framed by two buds.

The so called magic image of Amun

The first open courtyard in the Temple of Amun at Karnak was originally outside the temple proper, so the row of Cryosphinxes outside the temple would have continued unabated within. However, the statues that once occupied the space within the courtyard (some were completely removed) had to be repositioned. They were placed further to the side, just before the columns of the courtyard's flanking porticos. This courtyard includes edifices dating over a thousand year period that extended from the end of the 18th Dynasty to the Ptolemaic Period.

Barque Chapel of Seti II

Front Facade of the Barque Chapel of Seti II

As one passes through the first pylon, to the left is the quartzite and sandstone triple Barque Chapel of Seti II, sometimes referred to as the repository of Seti II but known in ancient times as "Castle of Seti Merneptah in the Temple of Amun". Its facade, reaching some 7.1 meters above the surrounding pavement, is marked by sloping walls that are capped by the standard torus (a large convex molding, semicircular in cross section) and cornice. The central doorway measures 4.5 meters high, while the side doorways are each 3.79 meters.

Eastern Area of the North Facade of the Barque Chapel of Seti II

The foundation, the first course of stone, and the doorway are all made of quartzite that probably came from Gebel el-Ahmar near Cario. The rest of the building is made of more ordinary sandstone, probably from Gebel el-Silsila. Hence, this edifice is made of white blocks of sandstone from the South placed on red stones coming from the north. The quartzite blocks of the first course of stone also have a much more pronounced slope than the rest of the building. In the eastern area of the northern facade of the building we find depictions in two registers of tableaux presenting Seti II offering to the Theban gods. In the lower of these registers the gods are upright and walking, while in the upper they are seated on a cubic throne and holding the was scepter and the ankh (the key of life). The west side of this facade is divided lengthwise by a vertical column of text. here, the king on the left, facing west, claps Amun Re Kamutef around the waist. On the Right, the king is turned to the east, and gives unction to his father, the ithyphallic Amun Re.

Doorway to the capel of Khonsu in the Barque Chapel of Seti II

It has three deep chambers for the barques of Mut (left), Amun (center) and Khonsu (right). These chambers have no common entryways. The sanctuary consecrated to Mut has two niches in the back and on its wall is a depiction of the barque of of that god. The central chamber has three niches in its rear wall, and likewise contains representations of the barque of Amun. Here, however, is inscribed the name of Menmaatre (Seti I) rathe than Set II. On the doorway to the Khonsu chamber, neither the lintel nor the jamb of which is adorned with any decorations. However, on the sandstone partition to the right of the doorway are representations of "Khonsu in Thebes Neferhotep", and Thoth, who resides in Hermonthis preceded by Amun. In the chamber for the barque of Khonsu, there are two niches on the rear wall, as well as three more on the east wall. All of these niches probably at one time held statues. Also on the east wall of the Khonsu chamber is a stairway that gives access to the roof of the structure.

Opposite this triple shrine is a small sphinx, we believe, with the features of Tutankhamun.

The Kiosk of Tahraqa

One of the towering columns of the Kiosk of Tahraqa and the second pylon of the Temple of Amun in the brackground, fronted by colossal statuess of Ramesses II

Centered in the courtyard are the the remains of a huge kiosk of Tahraqa (Taharqa), which was usurped by Psammetichus II (Psamtik II), and the restored during the Greek Period. It originally consisted of ten, tall, slim papyrus columns linked by a low screening wall, though open at its eastern and western ends. This building now retains only one great column and a large block of Egyptian alabaster (calcite) that resembles an altar that perhaps was once surmounted by a pedestal. However, Champollion tells us that:

"Twleve (?) columns, or rather twelve large scale imitations of the wadj amulets that served as props for the sacred tokens of Amun and the king who inhabited this building, were once in the center of the large courtyard of the palace. It should in fact be noted that these constructions posses in no way the curve of a column but are lengthier and narrower below the bell of the capital...

It becomes obvious in view of this decoration that the author of the pillars is the king Taharqa, who, after the expulsion of the Ethiopians under Psamtik, the first of the dynasty, has replaced the inscriptions left by the foreign king with those of the native king. However, the proper name of the former, although hammered out, is still quite visible on the second ring of the column of the first Babastite portico."

Colonnade of TaharqaHeiroglyph Wadj Symbol

Left: Colonnade of Taharqa; Right: Heiroglyph Wadj Symbol

Champollion believe that these columns were standard holders. Indeed, the columns the average diameter of the shaft of these columns is round one-seventh the size of the total height, whereas normally this proportion is hardly greater than one-sixth. Their total height is 21 meters, with the aver diameter being 2.99 meters.

Traditionally, this building has been considered to be another barque chapel, yet, the fact that it was an open structure suggests otherwise. Some Egyptologists today believe that it may have had a function in ritual activities associated with a "uniting with the sun" ceremony, as was practiced in later times at Dendera and elsewhere. However, others maintain that this structure was not open at all, but roofed with timber and was used as a way station for the sacred barques. Indeed, the columns appear to have an abacus (though this is called a dado), usually used to support an architrave. This area was later paved with irregular slabs of red granite.

First Barque Chapel of Ramesses III

In the Harris Papyrus written during the 20th Dynasty, Ramesses IV, recording on behalf of his father Ramesses III, said:

"I made for thee a mysterious horizon in thy city of Thebes over against thy forecourt, O lord of gods (named): 'House (pr) of Ramesses Ruler of Heliopolis, L.P.H., inn the House of Amun", abiding like the heavens bearing the sun. I built it, I laid it in sandstone, having great doors of fine gold. I filled its treasury with the things which my hands carried off, to bring them before thee every day."

Courtyard of the Temple of Ramesses III with its Osirian Statues

He was most likely speaking of Ramesses III's barque chapel in the right (southern) part of the first courtyard of the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This temple is built on a platform with the profile of a cavetto cornice. The facade of the building is in the form of a pylon, in front of which once stood two squat, six meter royal statues carved from red sandstone. Champollion tells us that the pylon would have been much larger, but its upper portion is destroyed today, so it is missing the cornice, the frieze and the upper section of the tableaux that decorated it. In fact, in antiquity, this was probably a much larger edifice.

The chapel is indeed an elaborate barque chapel today, but originally it was designed as a miniature version of this king's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. The monument was entirely crowned with a grooved cornice capping the standard torus that also bordered the corners of the pylon. Champollion described the two underpinnings of this pylon very well, telling us that:

"On the left underpinning, the king Ramessses Meryamun, wearing the pschent [white crown over the red], holds a group of begging prisoners by the hair as he massacres them with his white club. Facing him, Amun-Re presents the harpagon to the pharaoh and holds with his left hand the bonds to which the captives with the coats of arms are attached. These are the people of the North and the Central regions."

Asimilar scene on the right underpinning portrays the king wearing the red crown. Legrain adds that:

"The door posts and the cornice are of gray speckled granite. This was the great doorway of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Usermaatre Meryamun. Hardly any of the blocks that composed it remain."

The splay of the right door post as one enters this chapel from the first courtyard is adorned with horizontal inscriptions of royal titles alternating with baskets that are surmounted with three symbols, including a was, ankh and djed, meaning prosperity, life and stability.

The first court is lined with eight Osride statues of the king, with those to the west wearing the crown of the red crown of the south, while those on the east, the while crown of the north. The Osirde statues on the west hold the hek scepter in the left and and the nekhakha scepter in their right. The architrave surmounting the Osride pillars (see also Osiris), which once supported a grooved cornice, provide the dedication written by Ramesses III, in two lines, which states:

"He has made the house of Ramesses, sovereign of Heliopolis in the house of Amun, in perfectly sound white stone"

The interior walls are decorated with various festival scenes and texts.

Cartouche of Ramesses III with the name of Mut below

Beyond the court is a vestibule on a higher level that was also fronted by similar Osiride pillars between which runs a parapet 1.83 meters high, except for the central area. The east face of the pillar to the left of the entranceway provides an excellent example of the royal name of Ramesses III, Usermaatre Meryamun, and below that the name of Mut (the vulture) is carved. A row of bud papyriform columns is set behind the Osiride pillars. Here, the walls are adorned with scenes of sacred processions. The remains of two large statues of Sekmet produced in black granite, similar to those in the temple of Ptah, were found on each side of the doorway that communicates with the next chamber (they hypostyle hall). On the pedestal of the statue on the left was written, "Beloved of Mut-Sekhmet, lady of Asheru", while on that of the right, "Beloved of Sekhmet-Menhit".

A small, shallow hypostyle hall follows with two rows of four bud columns each. The shafts of these columns emerge from eight leaves that are carved above the pedestals. Two of the royal cartouches, with a uraei crowned by the solar disk, are engraved in sunk relief, alternate between each of these leaves. Surmounting these cartouches is a register of tableaux carved in very light relief. Above the five constrictive bands of the shaft of these columns, and just below the abacus, the two cartouches found at the bottom of the shaft are repeated, though here only is flanked by uraei. These cartouches are crowned by solar disks. Scenes within this hall portray the daily worship of Amun, with the king entering the room followed by two gods, including Montu.

Floor Plan of the First Courtyard at the Temple of Amun, Karnak

In the rear of the hypostyle hall, a darkened area contains three contiguous chapels for the barques of Karnak triad, as well as a few small rooms. Here, the ceiling was at one level except for the sanctuary of Amun and its flanking rooms, so that a row of clerestory windows at the rear of the hypostyle hall lighted the back of the temple, with additional light provided by slots between the slabs of the ceiling.

There was a drainage system for water here on the roof, with three gargoyles on each side of the temple. The roofing slabs were placed perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, except above the vestibule.

The Bubastite Portal

Just beside this temple between it and the second pylon is the so called "Bubastite Portal", which gives access to the now famous scenes of Sheshonk I (Shoshenq I), believed to be the Shishak of biblical fame (1 Kings 14: 25-26). The inscriptions on the architrave and pillars that frame the portico are in the name of Sheshonq I and his successors of the 22nd Dynasty. The scenes depict this Libyan king smiting captive enemies on the south face of the main temple's walls. These scenes graphically portray his successful campaign into Palestine, which is believed to be recounted in 1 Kings 14, and 2 Chronicles 12 of the Bible. Sheshenq himself is presented on the posts of the doorway, along with his son, Iuput, high priest of Amun at Karnak.

A portal on the courtyard's opposite, northern side communicates with the open-air museum where a number of small monuments have been reconstructed from dismantled blocks found within the temple's walls and pylons. These include the nearly complete limestone barque chapel of Senusret I, shrines of Amenhotep I and II, and Hatshepsut's red quartzite "Chapelle Rouge", which has only recently been reconstructed. The Second Pylon At the rear of the courtyard is the second pylon and a vestibule that precedes it, but architecturally forming one building. The western section of the vestibule preserves the vestiges of the tableaux carved in the name of Horemheb, but who's cartouches were subsequently added on to by Ramesses I and II. On the south wall of the vestibule is carved a relief of Amun, who is holding the scythe in his right and and the was scepter in his left.

Osorkon I being suckled by Hathor

This pylon was fronted by two striding colossi of Ramesses II, of which only the feet of one remain. Fronting these is a third, standing statue of the king with the small image of his daughter and queen, Bent'anta, standing between his feet. The statue was later usurped by both Ramesses VI of the 20th Dynasty, and Pinudjem I of the 21st Dynasty. This pylon was begun during the reign of Horemheb, but was not completed until perhaps the reign of Seti I (though also perhaps Ramesses I). Now removed, its core was filled with many sandstone talatat blocks of an earlier temple of Akhenaten. In the southwest corner of the second pylon is an unfinished Anta Pillar with a depiction of Prince Osorkon I being breast fed by Hathor.

Like the first pylon, this one also has grooves (four) for flagstaffs in each tower. A staircase in the northern tower rises to the top of the pylon. There are decorations on this pylon that were begun by Horemheb and completed by several of his successors. The gateway of this pylon was called "Illuminating Thebes". The Greeks entirely reworked this large doorway.

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Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C. Badawy, Alexander 1968 University of California Press LCCC A5-4746
Luxor, Karnak and the Theban Temples Siliotti, Alberto 2002 American University In Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 641 1
Ramesses II James, T. G. H 2002 Friedman/Fairfax ISBN 1-58663-719-3
Temples of Karnak, The de Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller 1999 Inner Tradition ISBN 0-89281-712-7
Thebes in Egypt: A Guide to the Tombs and Temples of Ancient Luxor Strudwick, Nigel & Helen 1999 Cornell University Press ISBN 0 8014 8616 5