Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt, Part II: Architectural Elements Outside the Temple Proper

Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt, Part II: Architectural Elements

Outside the Temple Proper

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

>>Temple Index

The area in front of the Temple of Luxor. Note the various ruins to the side of the temple as well

Surrounding the Luxor Temple during ancient times was an extensive complex of buildings, including small chapels, statues and obelisk. The ancient city of Thebes was a maze of narrow streets flanked by small temples, markets, workshops, animal pens and a variety of mud brick houses that ranged from hovels to grand villas. Today, most of these structures probably remain beneath modern Luxor. There has been talk, and continues to be talk, of exposing the entire length of the Avenue of Sphinxes and clearing the ancient city around Luxor Temple, making the whole of it an open air museum, but that is unlikely to happen within the near future due to the costs involved and the uncertain conservation requirements.

The Avenue of Sphinxes at night in front of the Luxor Temple in Luxor, Egypt

Religious precessions moved back and forth along a 2.5 kilometer long paved Avenue of Sphinxes with human heads between the Karnak complex and the Temple of Luxor during ancient times. All together, one thousand larger than life size ram-headed sphinxes backed by gardens and pools, lined this avenue. It had six barque shrines, similar to those in the Open Air Museum at Karnak, built at intervals along this path. They were used by the priests to rest and perform ceremonies while carrying the statue of Amun from one temple to the other. The northernmost shrine was located just outside Bab al-Amara at Karnak, while the southernmost was situated in the first courtyard of Luxor Temple.

The path leading down to the entrance to Luxor Temple

From the entrance ticket office, a declining stone path, which obscures the fact that the site lies several meters below street level, runs eastward across an open area that has only recently been cleared of many inscribed stone blocks, adjacent to the remains of the Roman fortress, Roman temples and further south, an ancient Christian Church.

A view of the small Roman chapel dedicated to Serapis in front of the Luxor Temple

Then, a broad stairway reaches a courtyard built by Nectanebo I between the First Pylon and the Avenue of Sphinxes. At one time there were several Roman Period monuments build in the court, but now they are nearly all destroyed, save for an interesting small chapel in the northwest corner built by Hadrian and dedicated to Sarapis early in the second century AD.Dedicated to Hadrian on his birthday in AD 126, the chapel is now restored.

This structure was probably erected in the 1st Century AD but was reconstructed by Gaius Julius Antoninus, a former soldier and neokoro (temple attendant) of Serapis. This Serapeum was a Peripteros-temple, meaning that it was surrounded by a portico, unlike most Roman sanctuaries of Sarapis and Isis, which are prostyle, with columns in front. The platform on which the temple is built measures 12 by 8 meters. Several niches for statues were cut in the outer temple walls. The back of the cella is occupied by a brick bench originally almost a meter high, which supported a series of statues.

The Luxor Temple as it might have appeared during the Roman Period

Only one is still there. It is a large, well preserved limestone statue of Isis. Her head was still present when it was discovered, but has now been removed. In a small court in front of the temple was once an altar and well, used for ritual purifications and libations. When the Romans took control of Thebes and the Luxor Temple in about 250 AD, they turned the whole of the Luxor complex into a fortified garrison, and this building is only one of many major building projects they undertook at that time.

A view of the Avenue of Sphinxes

Indeed, the name Luxor itself comes from the Arabic term, al-Uksur, which means "fortification". The temple itself, during ancient times, was called the "Temple of Amun of the Opet," "Amenemopet," or "The Southern Sanctuary." After the small Roman temple, one finds the famous Avenue of Sphinxes that leads up to the 1st Pylon. Though many people visiting Luxor Temple are familiar with the Avenue of Sphinxes leading to Karnak, what they may not realize is that, prior to the avenue being built during the early New Kingdom, there was apparently a canal that ran along the same path.

On it, sacred barques once sailed between the Luxor and Karnak Temples, which may help to explain why boat shaped shrines, also called barques, were later ceremoniously carried. However, by the late New Kingdom, as lunar-dated festivals progressed through the calendar and began to fall outside the season of the annual Nile inundation, there was too little water to float the barques, and so the canal was filled in and paved over. Thereafter, the processions moved overland or on the Nile. Though the Avenue of Sphinxes was begun during the late part of the New Kingdom, it did not reach its final form until the Late Period, 30th Dynasty rule of Nectanebo I.

The current sphinxes, with the body of a lion, are thought to have heads modeled after Nectanebo I. He apparently replaced the earlier New Kingdom sphinxes with his own. Only some small segments of the Avenue of Sphinxes have ever been excavated. Preserved best are the thirty-five or so sphinxes exposed on each side of a paved roadway beginning at the Luxor Temple and extending a few hundred meters northward.

Today, tourists enter the temple from the Corniche, the avenue along the Nile on the west of the Temple of Luxor. This entrance is not far from the ancient one. Indeed, below street level, one can still see the stones of the landing quay built to receive sacred barques and other vessels that arrived and departed during festival days along the Nile.

As one finally approaches the First Pylon at the Luxor Temple, before it is a red granite obelisk erected by Ramesses II. It stand 25 meters tall and weighs 254 tons. Facing the pylon, this obelisk is on the left of the gateway. There was also one on the right, but it was removed in 1835 to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It stood 22.5 meters tall and weighs 227 tons. Each of the obelisks stood on a base with four baboons carved on its face.

The missing obelisk now at Place de la Concorde in Paris

According to one story, Josephine bade farewell to Napoleon by saying, "While in Egypt, if you go to Thebes, do send me a little obelisk." After several years of negotiations, indeed, the French did get an obelisk. In fact, both obelisks were originally supposed to be shipped to Paris, but the work was thought too expensive and the French elected to ship only the better preserved of the two. It was loaded on to a huge barge and sailed to Alexandria and then on to France. When it arrived in October of 1833, its erection was the scene of a great celebration witnessed by the king and queen, along with about 200,000 onlookers.

The two great seated statues just outside the first Pylon at Luxor Temple

Situated inside the two obelisks and flanking the gate are two seated statues of kings, seven meters tall. There are also traces of four striding statues of the king, one of which is now in the Louvre in Paris. The seated statue on the east shows a princess and Queen Nefertari, carved at much smaller scale than Ramesses II, next to the king's legs. On both statues, the sides of the king's throne are decorated with figures of Nile-gods biding together the two lands of Egypt.

Flanking the first Pylon and surrounding the entire complex was once a Roman fortification wall. Most of it is now gone, but originally it had as many as six gateways. These gates were provided with trapdoors and flanked by horseshoe-shaped towers. However, the towers and the enclosure wall itself were built of brick and are now largely lost. The tower to the left of the First Pylon is the best preserved and rises two meters above ground level. Next to this tower, part of the enclosure wall, 4.5 meters thick at that point, is visible, and behind it are fourteen steps that lead to a trop door.

A view of the Avenue of Sphinxes as it leads up to the 1st Pylon at the Temple of Luxor

Inside the fortress walls but outside the temple proper were buildings, made of mudbrick and now completely gone, that were crisscrossed with paths. On two intersections a high pillar was erected on each of the four corners to form a tetrastylon, or a four-pillar monument. These pillars bore statues of the four emperors, the two senior ones and their two junior colleagues. Both tetrastyla are partly preserved. The bases of the east tetrastylon are partly buried and about 2.3 meters high. The bases with pillars of the north-west tetrastylon are better preserved and are up to 4.2 meters high.

It may be some years before we really know what all surrounds the Luxor Temple, because of the encroaching modern community. Certainly there must be more to discover along the Avenue of Sphinxes, but costs associated with excavation are prohibitive, and so we will simply have to wait to see what else might be found.

See also:






Reference Number

Art of Ancient Egypt, The

Robins, Gay


Harvard University Press

ISBN 0-674-00376-4

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egypt in Late Antiquity

Bagnall, Roger S.


Princeton University Press

ISBN 0-691-1096-x

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Sacred Sites of Ancient Egypt

Oakes, Lorna


Lorenz Books

ISBN (non stated)