An Overview of the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak

An Overview of the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak

by Jimmy Dunn

A general view of the Temple of Amun including the sacred lake

A general view of the Temple of Amun including the sacred lake

Karnak is one of the premier sites in all of Egypt and one of the most visited. In fact, it is perhaps one of, if not the largest religious complex ever constructed anywhere in the world. This vast, ancient Egypt complex demonstrates the religious significance of the area in ancient times. Though this complex is very complicated, by far the largest system of temples is that of Amun, a local god of Thebes (modern Luxor) who rose to national importance during Egypt's New Kingdom.

A map of the Karnak

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The Temple of Amun in Egypt, unusually, is built along two axis running both east-west and north-south. It's construction took place over many centuries, and at the command of many different Egyptian kings.

The original core of the temple was located near the center of the east-west axis on a mound which was itself almost certainly a very ancient sacred site. This original core was then expanded both towards the Nile in normal Egyptian fashion, but also in the direction of the outlying Mut temple to the south.

Today, visitors normally approach the temple from the west by way of a quay built by Ramesses II which gave access to the temple from a canal which, during ancient times, was linked to the Nile. Just to the right stands a small barque chapel of Hakoris (393-380 BC) which was used as a resting station on the processional journeys of the gods to and from the Nile River. A short avenue of cryosphinxes leads from the quay to the temple's first pylon. These cryosphinxes have ram's heads symbolizing the great state god, Amun, and each holds a statue of the king protectively between their paws.

The huge entrance pylon is actually unfinished, as attested by the unequal height of its upper regions, the uncut clocks which project from its undecorated surfaces and the remains of the mud-brick construction ramp that is still present on its interior side. Originally, it stood some 40 meters high (131 feet). This structure may have been built as late as the 30th Dynasty by Nectanebo I, who at least constructed the temenos walls to which the pylon is attached. However, this is uncertain and it is possible that an earlier pylon once stood on the same spot. High upon this gate is an inscription left by Napoleon's Expedition, which is still visible.

Passing through this pylon, the first courtyard now encloses an area that was originally outside of the temple, as evidenced by a number of cryosphinxes like those outside that were displaced from their original positions along the processional route. Inside this courtyard to the left is the granite and sandstone triple barque chapel of Seti II, which contains three chambers for the barques of Mut (left), Amun (center) and Khonsu (right). Opposite this shrine is a small sphinx with the features of Tutankhamun.

A view of the First Courtyard in the Temple of Amun

Centered within the courtyard are the remains of the kiosk of Taharqa, which was later usurped by Psammetichus II and later still, restored during Egypt's Greek Period. It originally consisted of ten huge papyrus columns linked by a low screening wall and open at its eastern and western ends. Now there is only one great column and a large, altar-like block of calcite (Egyptian alabaster). The function of this structure has been assumed to be a barque shrine but, because it is open to the sky, it has been suggested that the structure may have served another ritual purpose.

Osiride statues of the Ramesses III Temple in the first Courtyard

To the right of the entrance is a small temple built by Ramesses III. This was actually an elaborate barque shrine designed as a miniature version of the king's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. Hence, this structure's first court is lined with Osiride statues of Ramesses III, while the walls are decorated with various festival scenes and texts. Beyond is a portico and small hypostyle hall, as well as an inner area for the members of the Karnak Triad.

Just next to the Ramesses III temple is the famous so-called "Bubastite Portal", which gives access to the famous scenes of Sheshonq I of biblical fame (Shishak, from 1 Kings 14: 25-26).In these scenes depicted on the south face of the main temple's side wall, he smites his captive enemies. The portal on the court's opposite, northern sides leads through to the open-air museum where there are now a number of small monuments that have been reconstructed from dismantled blocks found within the temple's walls and pylons where they were used as filling. These include beautiful and nearly complete limestone barque chapel of the Middle Kingdom ruler, Senusret I and the New Kingdom shrines of Amenhotep I and II. Recently, the "Chapelle Rouge" of Hatshepsut was also added.

The high, clerestory windows of the Great Hypostyle Hall

Just before the second pylon in this court were two striding colossi of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great). However, only the feet of one remain. Before these, there is a third, standing statue of the king with the diminutive figure of the princess Bent'anta (Bentanath, and later queen) standing between his feet. This statue was usurped by Ramesses VI and later by the High Priest and southern ruler, Pinedjem I of the 21st Dynasty.

The second pylon was begun during the reign of Horemheb, the last ruler of the 18th Dynasty, and completed during the reign of Seti I. From its core, many sandstone talatal blocks of an earlier temple of Akhenaten, the heretic king, have been removed.

Closed Bud Columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall

The second pylon opens into the famous Great Hypostyle Hall, which is one of the most impressive areas in the whole of the Karnak complex, with its towering columns. There are a total of 134 papyrus columns, including 12 in the center which are taller than the others. They measure about 21 meters (69 feet) high, while the 122 others measure 15 meters (49 feet). The larger columns have open capitals, while the smaller ones are closed. So large are these columns that fifty people could stand together on the capitals of the largest.

At one time, these columns supported a roof with small clerestory windows. While the roof is gone, some of the windows remain. They would have provided a muted illumination for the interior, which symbolizes the primeval papyrus swamp. In ancient times, the space between the columns would have been teaming with statues of gods and kings, and a few of these have in recent times been restored to the hall. Against the southern pylon wall is a low alabaster block decorated with the enemies of Egypt, termed the "nine bows", which served as a barque rest during processions. The hall was begun by Amenhotep III. However, the decorations were initiated by Seti I, and completed by Ramesses II. Ramesses the Great's decorations can be distinguished from the earlier work because they lack the artistic quality of the others in the northern half of the hall. Within the hall, the decorations show scenes from the daily ritual and also processional scenes, as well as mythical topics such as the kings interaction with various gods. On the exterior walls are carved reliefs celebrating the military exploits of Seti I and Ramesses II in Syria and Palestine, including Ramesses II's famous battle of Kadesh.

Amenhotep III initiated the third pylon, though its entrance porch is a part of the later Ramessid period. There were a huge number of reused blocks found as filler within thismonument, from which most of the monuments in the Open Air Museum were reconstructed.monument, from which most of the monuments in the Open Air Museum were reconstructed. Beyond this pylon is the Obelisk Court where four such structures were erected by Tuthmosis I and III before the entrance to the original, inner temple. However, only one of Tuthmosis I's obelisks remains. This is also where the area of the temple's second axis branches off to the south.

Detail of a depiction of the sacred barque procession in the Great Hypostyle Hall

However, continuing to the east on the main axis, the fourth and fifth pylons were constructed by Tuthmosis I. Both of these pylons were constructed by Tuthmosis I, and together with the narrow, once-pillared area between them constitute the oldest part of the temple that still remains. This part of the temple later received additions, including two obelisks of Hatshepsut, one of which still remains while the other shattered one lies nearby to the south on a concrete block. In all, Hatshepsut placed four obelisks in the Temple of Amun, though these are the only ones left.

Pillars bearing the floral emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt

Very little remains of the sixth pylon, which was built by Tuthmosis III. However, the walls still retain the lists of conquered peoples of the south (southern wall) and of the north (northern wall). This pylon fronts a court with two magnificent granite pillars bearing the floral emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt on the respective northern and southern sides. On the courts north side are two large statues of Amun and Amaunet, which were dedicated by Tutankhamun.

This court leads to a granite barque shrine built by Alexander the Great's short lived successor, Philip Arrhidaeus, though it perhaps replaced an earlier shrine of Tuthmosis III. It is made up of two halves, consisting of an outer area where offerings were made to the god, and an inner area which still contains the pedestal upon which the god's barque rested. Here, the inner walls. are adorned with scenes of offering rites, with Amun appearing in both his usual anthropomorphic and his alternative ithyphallic forms. The outer walls still depict various festival scenes, some still retaining much of their original brightly colored paint.

The chambers that surround the granite shrine, which are made of sandstone, were built by Hatshepsut, but the walls closest to the structure were placed here by Tuthmosis III. He decorated them with the "annals" of his military campaigns and dedication to the temple, including a scene in which the king presents his two obelisks.

These walls precede the so-called "central court", which is an open court where the earliest temple on this site probably once stood, and which became the sanctuary of the later temple. Unfortunately, the building was plundered for its stone during antiquity, and there is now little left other than the large calcite slab on which a shrine once stood.

Tent pole columns in the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III

The relatively complete Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III lies beyond the central court, which retains some of the most interesting and unusual features to be found at Karnak. This structure was built as a sort of shrine to his ancestral cult, including himself. Named the "Most Splendid of Monuments", the entrance located on the building's southwest corner was originally flanked by two statues of the king in festival attire. It leads into an antechamber with storage magazines and other rooms on the right and left of the temple's great columned hall. Around the perimeter, the roof is supported by square pillars, though in the central section there are curiously shaped columns that imitate ancient tent poles. They are probably symbolic of those in his actual military tents, though it is possible that they recall similar structures from earlier religious buildings. During the Coptic Christian Period between the fall of the ancient pagan religion and the Muslim invasion of Egypt, this building was reused as a church, evidenced by haloed icons that may still be seen near the tops of several columns. Other rooms within the building were dedicated to his ancestors, the god Sokar, the sun god in his morning manifestation and to Amun. In the chapel of Amun, there is a massive quartzite pedestal that once supported the shrine of that god. The vestibule of this temple is also well known as the "Botanical Room" having depictions of exotic flora and fauna that Tuthmosis III encountered on his military campaigns.

A view of Tuthmosis III Festival Temple

At the back of Tuthmosis III's complex, the walls are mostly destroyed, so it is possible to exit there and to examine the niche shrines built against the temple's back. It was here that the ancient Egyptians brought their petitions for Amun's consideration. It was here, on either side of the shrines, that the two long lost obelisks of Hatshepsut were located. However, their bases can still be seen. A little further to the east, beyond a reconstructed "horned" altar of late date, are the remains of a small "temple of the hearing ear". Like the niche shrines of Ramesses II, they allowed common Egyptians, not usually allowed within the temple proper, access to their state god, Amun. This structure also once contained a single obelisk on the central axis. Though not certain, this may have been the Lateran Obelisk now in Rome. This temple once stretched almost to the rear gate of the Karnak complex.

The rear gate is an imposing portal reaching some 20 meters (over 65 feet) in height. It was constructed by Nectanebo I, and it terminates the main east-west axis of the complex. However, to the north, just inside the ruined mud-brick wall, are the remains of a small 22nd Dynasty temple built by Osorkon IV and dedicated to Osiris Hekadjet, "Ruler of Eternity". There were also several other small shrines in this area.

From here, turning back to the south, one may walk back towards the sacred lake which is now filled with ground water. It supplied water for the priests' ablutions as well as for other temple requirements. There, seating for the temple's famous sound and light show lies atop the excavated remains of the housing for priests. The lake is lined with rough hewn stone and on its southern side is a stone tunnel through which the domesticated geese of Amun were released into the lake from their yards further south.

A chapel of Taharqa sits on the northwest corner of the lake. This is a strange little building with underground chambers that contain descriptions of the sun-god's nightly journey through the netherworld and his rebirth each day as a scarab beetle. Apparently, this is the reason that the large scarab sculpture was brought here from the west bank mortuary temple of Amenhotep III. Also on the northwest corner of the lake rests the pyramidion of Hatshepsut's second obelisk.pyramidion of Hatshepsut's second obelisk.

An Osiride and a striding royal statue in the first court of Karnak's southern axis

Beyond Hatshepsut's pyramidion is the first court of the temple's north-south axis. Here is the seventh pylon, which was constructed by Tuthmosis III, though the side walls are the work of Merenptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II. The courtyard is also known as the "Courtyard of the Cachette", for it was at the southern end of it that Legrain discovered some 20,000 statues and stelae in 1904. Many of these were stone states that have survived in good condition, though others made of wood were completely destroyed by ground water. Statues made of bronze faired only slightly better.

The remaining pylons on this axis consist of the eighth, built by Hatshepsut, and the ninth and tenth, raised by Horemheb, who made considerable use of stone quarried from the temples of Akhenaten.

Built into the southern wall of the court between the ninth and tenth pylons is a small Sed-festival temple of Amenhotep II, which was only recently reconstructed by American Egyptologist Charles Van Siclen III. Within, the temple's central hall contains some finely carved reliefs which have retained much of their original color, even though the images of the god Amun were destroyed during the reign of Akhenaten. They were later repaired by Seti I. Van Siclen believes that this structure once occupied an area in front of the eighth pylon, and that it was apparently removed, stone by stone, by Horemheb and rebuilt at its present location when the king extended the Great Temple of Amun's south wing.

The southern entrance to the precinct of Amun was a gate through the tenth pylon which led past two limestone colossi, probably of Horemheb, to the sphinx-lined processional way which connected the precinct of Mut. Within the walls of the Amun precinct lie a number of smaller temples, including the Temple of Khonsu, the Opet Temple and the Temple of Ptah. Individual Sections of the Great Temple of Amun:

Other Temples within the Precinct of Amun (within the enclosure walls):






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Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011