Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt, An Introduction

Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt, Part I: An Introduction

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

>>Temple Index

Night Photo of the Luxor Pylon built by Ramesses the Great

The name Luxor represents both the present-day metropolis that was ancient Thebes, and the temple on the eastern bank which adjoins the town. "Luxor" derives from the Europeanized Arabic term, al-uksur, meaning "fortifications". That name in addition was adapted from the Latin castrum which referred to the Roman fort built around the temple in the later third century AD. Known in ancient times as "the private sanctuary (Opet) of the south," the temple proper is located south of Karnak. The temple of Luxor has, since its inception, always been a sacred site.

Night Shot of the Ramesses II Courtyard

The present temple, the southernmost of the monuments of the Theban east bank, is built on a rise that has never been excavated and which may conceal the original foundations. The temple measures 189.89 by 55.17 meters and consists of a colonnade, a court with porticoes, an "open" hypostyle hall of an unusual type, four small halls with lateral rooms, the sanctuary and two shrines.

View of the Temple complex from the South

Unlike most other Egyptian temples, its main entrance does not face the river and its most obvious axis is aligned towards the temples at Karnak on the royal axis rather than the divine one. The longitudinal axis of the temple is curved, formed of straight stretches set end to end. The rearmost part of the plan up to the open hypostyle hall has the same axis as the earlier temple of Tuthmosis III, probably parallel to the riverbank. From the rear of the open hypostyle hall the axis deviates eastward to allow it to pass east of the earlier temple of Tuthmosis III and be linked to the axis of the processional path of sphinxes running toward the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak. The process of curving the axis is allied to a deformation of the various parts of the plan beyond the hypostyle hall into trapezoids (court and colonnade) or parallelograms to allow for symmetry along this axis. At the same time the lines transverse to the axis are not parallel to one another but they follow the curvature in a compromise to set them at right angles to this axis. Curved axes are also used at Karnak and later in the Temple of Philae.

In ancient Egypt the temple area now known as Luxor was called Ipt rsyt, the "southern sanctuary", referring to the holy of holies at the temples southern end, wherein the principal god, Amun "preeminent in his sanctuary", dwelt. His name was later shortened to Amenemope. This Amun was a fertility god and a god of renewal, and his statue was modeled on that of the similar Min of Coptos. He also has strong connections to both Karnak and West Thebes.

Every year, a statue of the Amun who dwelt at Karnak was carried in a procession to Luxor Temple to greet Amun of the Opet, Amenemopet, in a festival known as "The Beautiful Festival of the Opet." It was one of the most important ceremonies on Egypt's religious calendar from at least the New Kingdom through the end of the Pharaonic period. The procession associated with this festival is depicted on the outer walls of the Temple of Ramesses III in the Great Court at Karnak, and on the walls of Amenhotep III's Colonnade at the Temple of Luxor.

A view of the Temple Complex from directly above

The original function of the temple of Luxor, apparently dedicated to the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu, appears uncertain. However, recent hypotheses suggest that the temple of Luxor, a collection of irregularly developed structures begun during the reign of Amenhotep III and then expanded, particularly by Ramesses II, and still further enlarged in later years, should be considered a sanctuary dedicated to the celebration of the royal ka.

Hence, Luxor Temple was the power base of the living divine king, and the foremost national shrine of the kings cult. This doctrine of divine kingship separated the Egyptians from their neighbors in Mesopotamia and from the later medieval "divine selection and right of kings" of Europe.

A view of the avenue of sphinxes

Kingship was believed to be ordained by the gods at the beginning of time in accordance with maat., the well-ordered state, truth, justice, cosmic order. The reigning king was also the physical son of the Creator sun-god. This divine conception and birth was recorded on the walls of Luxor Temple, at Deir el-Bahari, and other royal cult temples throughout Egypt. The king was also an incarnation of the dynastic god Horus, and when deceased, the king was identified with the father of Horus, Osiris. This living king was thus a unique entity, the living incarnation of deity, divinely chosen intermediary, who could act as priest for the entire nation, reciting the prayers, dedicating the sacrifices.

The earliest reference to the temple comes from a pair of stelae left at Maasara quarry, in the hills east of Memphis, inscribed in regnal year 22 of the reign of Ahmose, c. 1550 BC. The text records the extraction of limestone for a number of temples including the "Mansion of Amun in the Southern Sanctuary." But structural evidence appears at Luxor only during the co-rule of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III c 1500 BC. These elements are now built into the triple shrine erected by Ramesses II, c 1280 BC, the most substantial remnant of Luxor temples Tuthmosid phase. The shrine was erected inside the first court, in the northwest corner, and reused elements from the original chapel dedicated by Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III.. This small building had been the last of six barque stations built along the road that brought Amun and his entourage from Karnak to Luxor every year during the Opet Festival..

Luxor Temple as seen from the Nile (Photo by Calvin Todd)

Like the Karnak Temple Complex, over the past three thousand years, the Temple of Luxor has undergone many additions and changes. The early building may rest on a no longer visible older structure dating back to the 12th Dynasty. However, since neither the cult nor any part of the temple appears to predate the early 18th Dynasty; the few Middle Kingdom fragments found here more probably came from elsewhere and were transported to Luxor after the original buildings were dismantled. There might have even been an Old Kingdom temple prior to that, though equally without question, these temples did not take on the same importance as the New Kingdom one, when the religious capital and the palaces of the kings was at Thebes.

Another aerial view of the Temple of Luxor

The temple we see today was built essentially by two kings, Amenhotep III, (the inner part), and Ramesses II, (the outer part). Amenhotep III built the core area of Luxor Temple as it stands today in two stages. During the first stage he constructed and decorated a multi-roomed complex on a raised platform that today is the southernmost part of the temple. Later in his reign the king added an open peristyle sun court to the north and also laid the foundations for a large colonnade to the north of that.

A photograph by Francis Frith during the mid 1800s of the Amenhotep Court, which was apparently being cleared at the time

Work was stopped on the temple during the reign of Amenhotep III's son, Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who attempted to diminish or destroy the power of Amun's temples, even though he built a sanctuary to the sun next to the Luxor Temple that was later destroyed by Horemheb. In fact, the colonnade of Amenhotep III was not completed and decorated until the time of Tutankhamun, who succeeded Akhenaten and who officially restored the worship of Amun in Thebes.

A photograph by Francis Frith during the mid 1800s of the entrance pylon, showing its crumbling state at that time

For almost half a century the temple remained for the most part as Amenhotep III had left it until it was eventually expanded by Ramesses II. He built the huge pillared court and pylon on a new axis which swung to the east to align it with Karnak. Ramesses II also built the triple shrine, on the location of an earlier way station built by Hatshepsut, to hold the barques of Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu when they visited Luxor.

Though no further expansions were made on this scale after the New Kingdom, Late Period kings, such as Shabaka who seems to have constructed a large pillared kiosk for Ramesses' pylon, and some 300 years later, Nectanebo I, who added a broad courtyard in the same open area before the pylon, continued to be active at Karnak. The continuing importance of Luxor Temple can also be seen in the renewal of the central barque shrine in the name of Alexander the Great shortly after his conquest of Egypt, though Alexandria claims to have undertaken major reconstruction work "to restore it to the glory of Amenhotep's times. It had apparently by that time fallen into disrepair. Later, it was made into a fortification and used by the Romans.

The entrance Pylon of Luxor Today

After Egypt's pagan period, a Christian church and monastery was located here, and after that, a mosque (13th century Mosque of Abu el-Haggag) was built that continues to be used today. Therefore, for some 3,000 years and up until our current time, Luxor Temple has continues to be a sacred precinct.

Plan of the Temple of Luxor

Plan of Luxor Temple Hence, even though the Luxor Temple has a far less complicated history than Karnak, we are nevertheless forced to work our way backward through time as we explore the temple and its many segments.

See also:






Reference Number

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Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011