The Karnak Open Air Museum in Luxor, Egypt

The Karnak Open Air Museum

Jane Akshar

Ongoing work in the Open Air Museum at Karnak

Notation: Jane Akshar, operates Flats in Luxor, a member of the AETBI, that offers flats for lease as well as local tours of the Luxor Region. She also operates our Luxor News Blog.

A much neglected part of Karnak, and one frankly not easy to find, is the Open Air Museum. It is situated just off the first courtyard and if you are standing there, with your back to the entrance, turn left. There are some signs to the WC (but none to the museum), go past that and you will come to a small ticket office in front of loads of concrete benches with Pharaonic blocks laid out on them. The ticket price is 20 LE for adults and 10 LE for students and children.

The Amenhotep II Chapel in the Open Air Museum at Karnak, Luxor Egypt

There are many chapels that have been reconstructed here. What happened is that in ancient times a chapel would be removed by a subsequent pharaoh to make way for a more grandiose design of his successor. These chapels were often cut up into blocks and then used as hard core or rubble infill, thereby accidentally preserving them for us to enjoy when subsequent excavation has revealed them in pylons, underneath pavements or simply abandoned far from their original location..

Blocks being readied for assembly

This part of Karnak is always changing, as there is constant work going on. At the moment, they are reconstructing a chapel of Amenhotep II, shown in my photograph with reproductions of the obelisks standing on either side of it. The chapel is determined by analysts to have been between Tuthmosis I's two obelisks in front of the Fourth Pylon. Apparently Amenhotep II chose this location in an attempt to make use of the obelisks' strength to hold and support the ceiling of his chapel. Blocks of this chapel were found within the walls of the Temple of Mut.

Senusret I's White Chapel in the Open Air Museum at Karnak

My particular favourite is the chapel of Senusert I. Visitors that rue the inability to visit the Tomb of Nefertari should have a look at this chapel. It is exquisite, each hieroglyph a work of art. The attention to detail is amazing. A scarab beetle is carefully shown with its wing case and thorax, quite clearly accurate representations of the real thing. Baskets have their woven patterns, but most beautiful of all are the birds with each feather carved with love and care. Things that lose their meanings in later times because of sloppy copying are suddenly very understandable. A cartouche is now obviously a rope going round the name and tied at the bottom. Each individual bead on the necklaces, every muscle, it is all there. If I am waxing a bit lyrical it is because this chapel is worth it. When you think it is 1,000 years older than many of the works to be seen at Karnak today, you begin to realize that Egypt was truly the master of carving in stone.

Detail from the Chapel of Senusret I at Karnak's Open Air Museum

The chapel next to it is Amenhotep Is alabaster one and this also has fine carvings, but underneath you can see the grain of the alabaster and the sheen is wonderful.

To the front there is a very unusual wall reconstructed of Amenhotep IV (aka Akhenaton) in the traditional role of sacrificing his enemies in front of Amen. I find this particularly interesting as it certainly doesnt fit with the peace loving image he gets these days. It also makes me wonder if these scenes were just propaganda and no enemies actually got killed, being much more useful as slaves.

In the middle there is the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut, comprised of red and black granite. It is a wonder of reconstruction. A lot of the blocks are single scenes and how they have worked out what belongs where, is a marvel. Again, reconstruction is ongoing. A piece recently located was put in place just last year.

Detail of Tuthmosis IV temple in the Open Air Museum at Karnak

At the back there is a big reconstruction, which is ongoing, of Tuthmosis IV temple front. I have been there watching the team at work. Firstly they have made a concrete version of the columns, porticos and lintels. Then they start looking for the original stones. There is a marvelous old man, an Egyptian, who seems to have mystical powers matching the stones together. He showed me the line drawings he had been given, and he goes around looking for a matching piece. Then the skeleton of concrete is attacked with a power drill and hammer and chisel. then the original piece put back in place. In other parts of the museum you can see several blocks being pieced together or conservation being done on one particular piece.

But the nicest thing of all is the quiet and peace as hardly anyone comes here. Certainly not the big tour groups. To find a quiet spot in Karnak is a huge accomplishment.

Last Updated: June 8th, 2011