The Khonsu Temple at Karnak

The Khonsu Temple at Karnak

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jim Fox

The monumental gateway to the Temple of Khonsu built by Ptolemy III

The Temple of Khonsu at Karnak is located in the southwest corner of the precinct of Amun in Luxor (ancient Thebes). It provides an excellent example of a small but complete New Kingdom temple.

The Harris Papyrus provides that:

"I built a house for thy son, Khonsu in Thebes, of good sandstone, red gritstone, and black stone (granite). I overlaid its doorposts and doors with god, (with) inlay figures of electrum like the horizon of Heaven"

Thus it was Ramesses III who makes claim to the construction of this temple, even though only seven small chapels that surround the four columned hall located behind the sanctuary of the barques (Hall of the Barque) bear his cartouches. Elsewhere, we find the names of Ramesses IV and Ramesses XI. According to their dedications, it would also seem that the High-Priests Herihor and Pinedjem constructed the first court and the pylon.

The temple dedicated to the moon god Khonsu at Karnak consists of a peristyle court which is bordered by a portico of twenty-eight monostyle columns divided into four groups. Two of these groups contain eight columns that border the court, while the other two groups contain only six columns that rest upon a slightly elevated platform. There is also a hypostyle hall with four companiform columns in the middle and two monostyle columns on each site. This hypostyle hall then communicates with a sanctuary of the barque, in which chapels open to the left and right and where, to the east, a staircase leads to the roof.

Plan of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak

The sanctuary of the barque in turn leads to a kind of pronaos that provides access to three sanctuaries located to the north and four small lateral sanctuaries. The one in the northeast corner contains a representation of the dead Osiris lying on a stretcher between the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

Fronting the temple of Khonsu's pylon are the bare remnants of a colonnade of a type similar to that which proceeds the "upper gate" of the great Temple of Amun. It is bordered on the outside by a row of sphinxes. The pylon itself measures 34.5 meters in length, 7 meters wide and 18 meters high. On its facade are four grooves meant to house masts with banners. Under the torus of each wing of the pylon is a dedication that informs us:

"the first high priest of Amun, master of the rites, Pinedjem, son of the first high priest of Amun, Piankh, has made this very great and august pylon for his father Khonsu-in-Thebes-Neferhotep on the front of his temple"

Plan of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak

The bas-reliefs that cover the two wings of the pylon represent ritual scenes of worship performed by the first high priest, Pinedjem. However, the divine wife of Amun, Maatkare, is represented alone on the east wing and Maatkare and Henuttawy worship Hathor on the west wing. Henuttawy was the wife of Pinedjem, while there were several Maatkare during this period and she is more difficult to identify, though this rendering may be of a daughter (and perhaps wife) of Pinedjem. Nevertheless, the importance of women during the 21st Dynasty is clear.

Champollion recorded this temple in his time, and observed that the antae pillars of the portico bore the inscription of the High-Priest Herihor. He also observed that:

"Cornice decorated by an anaglyph bearing under the curve of the 'annary' scepter the captions of Ptolemy. This portion of the doorway is therefore modern and replaces a more ancient doorway cap from which two end stones remain. These, being employed under the tori of the two massifs of the pylon, could not be disengaged without danger. It is there in the curve of the annary scepters that the first high priest of Amun, Pinedjem maa kheru can still be read, in the place of the Ptolemaic inscriptions. The rest of the cornice bears more modern inscriptions because the stone have been renewed.

" Champollion, Notices descriptives, vol. 2, pp. 219-24

Interior facade of the entrance gate to the peristyle court

In the colonnade of the west portico of the peristyle court, we find on the architraves, the abaci, the capitals and the shafts of the monostyle columns, the complete royal titulary of Herihor, the High-Priest of Amun who ruled southern Egypt during the latter part of the reign of Ramesses XI. He inscribed within the two royal cartouches both his name and his priestly title. Herihor is also depicted, not as a priest with a shaven head and robes, but with the headdress and other royal attributes.

On the architraves to the east and west of this court, the Horus name of the high-priest is up into relationship with Amun, his Two Goddesses name with that of Mut, and finally his Golden Horus name with Khonsu. It is again specified there that he created this large columned hall as a work for eternity, "with the hand of Ptah who provided the blueprint". Towards the rear of the peristyle court are columns that are presumed to have been taken from the great funerary temple of Amenhotep III on the west bank, which is interesting considering that the High-Priest was commissioned with protecting the funerary monuments on the West Bank at ancient Thebes (modern Luxor).

Columns in the portico of the peristyle court in the Northeast Corner

Clonnade of the west portico in the peristyle court in the Temple of Khonsu

Left: Colonnade of the west portico in the peristyle court in the Temple of Khonsu
Right: Columns in the portico of the peristyle court in the Northeast Corner

At the rear of the peristyle court is a doorway of Ptolemy IV Philopator that opens onto the hypostyle hall. Within, the hypostyle hall consists of three naves and two aisles. The roof of the central nave was supported by four massive companiform columns that stand around seven meters high, while the two later bays are configured on one side by companiform columns and on the other by monostyle columns that are about 5.5 meters tall, surmounted by an architrave, torus and cornice similar to that of the great hypostyle hall in the Temple of Amun.

All of the dedicatory texts on the architraves of both the large and small columns are the same, naming Menmaatre Setepenamun (Ramesses XI), who is said to have built this hall called "'Wearer-of-Diadems'... Live the Good God [Neter-nefer]... the monument builder, plentiful in wonders, whose every design comes to pass (immediately) like his father Ptah-South-of-His-Wall". On the base of the wall of the hypostyle hall, we see "High-Priest of Amun-Ra, commander in chief of the armies of North and South, Herihor" inscribed, and told that he worked at the enlargement of the house of Khonsu, exalting it with electrum, precious stones and offering tables in silver and gold.

Columns in the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Khonsu

Columns in the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Khonsu

Columns in the hypostyle hall in the Temple of Khonsu

Towards the doorway leading to the courtyard (the front of the temple), Herihor presents a new title, that of Overseer of the granaries and viceroy of Kush (part of ancient Nubia). However, a very ruined inscription tells us of a miracle produced by Khonsu for him with the approval of Amun. Very regrettably, most of this inscription cannot be made out, but it may pertain to his elevation as ruler of southern Egypt.

Centered through the doorway at the rear of the hypostyle hall is the Hall of the Barque. In its center are the remains of a barque sanctuary. The upper block and walls of this room are inscribed in very deep sunk relief with the throne name, Heqamaatre Setepenamun (Ramesses IV).

Ramesses IV presents a table of offerings to the Theban triad

Just inside the doorway to this room on the inside wall to the right, we find the king holding the censer and presenting a table of offerings to the Theban triad consisting of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. This scene is superimposed over an older one. The original ground line of this older image can be found at the level of the king's knees on the newer depiction. The older figure of the king, which has been hammered out, is outlined in silhouette on the table of offerings, with his feet resting on the heads of the ducks, while his head is over the fifth and sixth lines of the ten-line text inscribed above. This texts reads:

"Offering that the king gives to Geb, to the Great Ennead, to the Small Ennead, to the neters (gods) of the itr.t of the south and of the itr.t of the North and of all the neters, presented by your son whom you love, the master of the Two Lands, Heqamaatre Setepenamun, the master of the crowns, Ramesses-shu-Maatimri-Imn; ten hundredweight of bread, ten hundredweight of pitchers of beer, ten hundred weight of beef, ten hundredweight of fowl, ten hundredweight of alabaster vessels, ten hundredweight of vestments, ten hundred weight of resins, ten hundredweight of jars of oil, ten hundredweight of bouquets of flowers, ten hundredweight of bouquets of flowers, ten hundredweight of viands, ten hundredweight of everything good and pure, ten hundredweight of everything good and sweet, that is to say, what the sky provides for you, what the earth creates for you, what the Nile brings for you from its cavern. May the hand give the flood purify, and the master of the Two Lands, Heqamaatre Setepenre, the master of the Crowns, Ramesses-shu-Maati-mri-Imn, make an offering to his father, Amun-Ra, the master of the thrones of the Two Lands. I know [the gods] who are in the sky, I know [the gods] who are on the earth, I know [the gods] who surround Horus; I know [the gods] who neighbor Seth. I satisfy Horus by returning his eyes to him, I satisfy Seth by returning his testicles to him. It is I, Thoth, he who satisfies the gods and puts things in their proper place."

The last three lines identify the king with Thoth, asserting his knowledge of everything that exists in heaven and on earth, in Horus and Seth, and also makes an allusion to the myth of the struggle between these two gods in which Seth gouged out the eye of Horus, who in turn tore off Seth's testicles. It was Thoth who arbitrated between these two adversaries, and restored the two gods. Interestingly, in Abydos, there is a similar texts, though there it is Thoth who speaks the first part of this texts before the king.

Coptic Christian cross on the west wall of the Hall of the Barque in the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak

The entire lower part of the west wall of the Hall of the Barque remained free of any bas-relief, save for a Christian cross, and only the dedicatory frieze is carved, in the name of Ramesses IV, beloved of Khonsu-Neferhotep.

Taking a look at the east wall of this hall, on the lower register, to the right, we see the hand of the king making an offering to Amun-Re and Mut, who are both standing. On both sides of the cartouche on the lintel, the king is wearing the blue war helmet, and making an offering to a seated, Falcon-headed Khonsu, who's head is surmounted by a disk within a crescent.

Above the lintel in the second register, Khonsu offers the palm tree of the years and the sed-festival symbol, while Isis breast-feeds the young king who wears the white corwn of the south. On the right is the god Shu, who is wearing the ostrich plume that is his symbol. He receives two vessels from the hands of the king.

Ramesses IV offers the first fruits of the season to a falcon-headed Khonsu

The Frieze above this register is composed of the anaglyph of Ramesses IV's royal name, Heqamaatre Setepenamun, and his Son of Ra name, Ramesses Maatmeryamun, in which the hieroglyph "mes" is replaced by the king wearing the braid of the crown prince. The term "mes" implies, according to its determinative, "to be born", "birth", or "born of".

To the right, on the bottom register of the east wall, the king is first purified by Thoth and Horus, before making his "royal ascent". Further right on the east wall, we discover Ramesses IV offering the first fruits of the season to a falcon headed Khonsu.

Representation of Khonsu on an outside block

Across from the east wall on an outside block of the barque sanctuary is a fine image of Khonsu, wrapped in white linen over which two ribbons cross. He holds all of the scepters in his hand with the exception of the wadj. The hek and nekhakha scepters frame the djed scepter, from which the ankh and was emerge. The top of Khonsu's chest is encircled by a large necklace made up of multiple rows of pearls, on which is hanging the menat necklace of Hathor. He wears the blue headband of Ptah, and the braid of the crown prince under the royal band, from which also emerges the uraeus crowned with a disk in a crescent.

At the rear of this small hall without columns, on the north east rear wall, on the bottom register we find the king, blessed by a lion-headed Mut, making an offering of a vessel crowned with a falcon head and the disk within a crescent to a standing Khonsu-in-Thebes-Neferhotep, who is bearing the disk of Re encircled by a serpent. Upon the offered vessel is the same symbol as that of the god to whom it is offered. Above, the king, protected by Isis, makes the offering of his anaglyph to Khonsu, who now wears the feathers that are more characteristic of Montu. These two register are surmounted by another frieze.

Doorway providing access to the Pronaos

The extant jambs and double lintel of the doorway at the back of the Hall of the Barque leading to the pronaos were constructed during the Ptolemaic period. On the upper lintel, two groups of eight gods (neters) are depicted worshiping the moon disk, symbol of Khonsu, which is set within a thin crescent. On the lower lintel, the king is depicted while presenting two vessels of wine to a falcon-headed Khonsu, who wears a headdress of the disk in the crescent. Next he is shown making an offering of Ma'at to Amun, followed by Khonsu who is wearing the braid denoting a crown prince (on the right), and to Amun followed by Mut (on the left).

To either side of the Hall of the Barque are small chapels, with a stairway situated in the southeast corner that leads to the roof, and a sun chapel, which provides a fine view of the surrounding area. Here, atop the temple, one finds footsteps etched into the stone. Pilgrims often traced the contour of their feet to piously mark their journey to such sanctuaries.

Beyond the Hall of the Barque, the pronaos has four columns of the polygonal type but which are slightly fluted on the top sections, except at their perfectly cylindrical bottoms. The base and the beginning of the shafts are carved from one block. Various chapels open to the north, with two lateral chapels to each side.

Footprints on the roof of the Temple of Khonsu

About the temple is an enclosure wall with a gate built by Ptolemy III known as Bab el-Amara. The frequent appearance of blocks with unmatching and inverted decorations, such as an upside-down chariot above the top of the stairs leading to the roof, shows the extent to which stone from earlier buildings was used in this temple. Begun under Ramesses III, the temple continued to be renewed up into the Roman era.

This temple, located in one of Egypt's most frequently visited tourist areas, is well worth a visit. Notably, the roof with its sun chapel provides an excellent panorama of Karnak which was captured in a well-known drawing by the 19th century artist, David Roberts.

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011






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