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The Karnak Temple


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The Temple of Karnak is actually three main temples, smaller enclosed temples, and several outer temples. This vast complex was built and enlarged over a thirteen hundred year period. The three main temples of Mut, Monthu and Amun are enclosed by enormous brick walls. The Open Air Museum is located to the north of the first courtyard, across from the Sacred Lake. The main complex, The Temple of Amun, is situated in the center of the entire complex.   The Temple of Monthu is to the north of the Temple of Amun, while the Temple of Mut is to the south. The temple of Karnak was known as Ipet-isut (Most select of places) by the ancient Egyptians. It is a city of temples built over 2000 years to the Theben triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The construction of Karnak Temple began in the Middle Kingdom and was completed during the New Kingdom, some 1,600 years later. Every successive king of this era added to the temple, which covers two hectares (five acres) of land.

The area of the sacred enclosure of Amon alone is 61 acres and would hold ten average European cathedrals.The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big. The Hypostyle hall at 54,000 square feet with its 134 columns is still the largest room of any religious building in the world. In addition to the main sanctuary there are several smaller temples and a vast sacred lake. It is a complicated site with four courtyards, ten pylons, a sacred lake and many buildings.

Karnak is the home of the god Amon who was an insignificant local god until the 12th dynasty when Thebes became the capital of Egypt. He was represented in his original state as a goose and later as a ram, at the height of his power he was shown as a human with a head dress of feathers - all that remained of the goose. 


Karnak temple; 
CMC PCD 2001-288-016

n ancient times wars were not fought between countries but were considered as contests between gods. This is how Amon, with the help of Thutmose III and various other New Kingdom kings, rose to become the first supreme god of the known world and was hailed as God of gods. Little is know of him, unlike most other gods he has no legends or miracles to impress his worshippers and seems to be closer to an abstract idea of a godhead. His followers came from all the strata of society.  

All Egyptian temples had a sacred lake, Karnak's is the largest. It was used during festivals when images of the gods would sail across it on golden barges. Karnak was also the home of a flock of geese dedicated to Amon. 

Many of the main roads which lead to the temples of Thebes 
(Luxor) used to be continuously lined with sphinxes. Those which flank the entrance of the First Pylon of Karnak combine the body of a lion with the head of a ram. The ram was a symbol of the god Amun for whom the temple was built. Each sphinx protects, between its forelegs, a standing statue of the king--originally Ramesses II (c.1279-1213 B.C.).
An avenue of sphinxes with curly-horned rams' heads leads to the entrance to the first pylon. The sphinxes represent a form of the sun god, Amun-Re. Between their paws is a small figure of Rameses II, who won the famous Battle of Qadesh against the Hittites in Syria (1274 B.C.). 

The Temple of Amun:

This is the main temple within the Karnak Complex and was dedicated to Amun the god of Thebes. On being combined with the sun god Re to form Amun-Re he would become the central god of the New Kingdom (1540 - 1069 BC).
The first pylon was started in the XXV Dynasty but never finished, an attempt to emulate the grandeur of earlier times failed in all ways apart from size. At 113 metres wide and 43 metres high it is the largest here at Karnak and dwarfs its equivalent at Luxor.

The second pylon was the work of Horemheb and leads into the immense Hypostyle Hall. This was started during the reign of Ramses I the founder of the XIV Dynasty. The hall was finally finished under his grandson: Ramses II.
The hall would have been about 25 metres high and it is hard to take in the idea as you walk between these huge papyrus columns that they originally held up a roof. I haven't tried but they reckon it would take six tourists to be able to link hands around the base of the central columns.
If you look around the walls of the hall you will see two distinctly different sets of carvings. Those in the northern half were made during the reign of Seti I and show him in battles throughout what we now call the Middle East.
Those in the southern of the hall are of Ramses II and you can see how that they have been cut differently. Those of Seti are carved so that the area around the subject is cut away leaving the subject. This meant of course that later rulers could simply chisel out the subject.

In the center of this first court are the ruins of the kiosk of Taharqa (690-664 B.C.), one column (middle ground, right) of which is complete. Beyond the kiosk before the Second Pylon are two standing statues of Ramesses II (c.1279-1213 B.C.). After the Second Pylon, the columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall can be seen.

The Hypostyle Hall is found after passing through the Second Pylon. The hall is considered to be one of the world's greatest architectural masterpieces. Construction began during Ramesses I's reign. He was the king who founded the Nineteenth Dynasty and was king for only one year. The work continued under Seti I (1306 - 1290 BC). Seti I also built the Temple of Abydos and many other temples. The hall was completed by Seti's son, Ramesses II. The effects that are produced inside the hall are much different than they were originally. The huge architraves are not above the capitals that tower above. Towards to center of the hall several architraves and windows that have stone latticework still remain. This small area can give you an idea of the builders' intent for the lighting effects. Some imagination is required here to appreciate what it must have looked like. The walls, ceilings and columns are painted with the natural earth tones. The light that was allowed in originally kept most of the hall in shadows. The hall ceiling was 82 feet high and was supported by 12 papyrus columns. The columns are made of sandstone and set in two rows of six. Each row is flanked on either side by 7 rows of columns that are 42 feet (12.8m) high. Each row has 9 columns, however the inner rows have 7 columns. The reliefs throughout the hall contain symbolism of Creation. The reliefs in the northern half are from the time period of Seti I and are obviously better done than those done by his son Ramesses II, which are in the southern half. Ramesses II's reliefs are cut much deeper than those of Seti's. This gives a much more dramatic light and shadow effect. 

The outer walls of the Hypostyle Hall are covered with scenes of battle. Again, Seti I is to the north and Ramesses II is to the south. The scenes have long since lost their color that was painted and the outlines of the scenes have been blurred by the centuries of wind and sun. It is unsure whether the scenes of battle are based on historical fact or of ritual significance. It is thought that when the battle details are very precise, real events are most likely involved. Seti's battles take place in Lebanon, southern Palestine and Syria. The southern walls of Ramesses II have hieroglyphic texts which actually record details of the Hittite king and Ramesses II signing a peace treaty in the twenty-first year of Ramesses reign. This is the first evidence found for a formal diplomatic agreement and is certainly historical.

The Transverse Hall lies beyond the rear wall of the Hypostyle Hall. The wall is mostly ruined. With the Transverse Hall is a partially reconstructed Third Pylon of Amenhotep (Amenophis) III. The Transverse Hall has remains of the earliest sections of the Karnak complex that are still in existence.

Beyond the Third Pylon and in the Central Court of Karnak Temple is the Obelisk of Thutmose I (c.1493-1479 B.C.). This is the last of four obelisks which originally stood in front of the Fourth Pylon, which, in the time of Thutmose I, was the entrance into Karnak Temple. The obelisk is 71 feet/21.7 meters in height, sits on a base 6 feet/1.8 meters square, and weighs about 143 tons. Each side of the obelisk has three vertical lines of inscription, the central one being a dedication by Thutmose I.

Leaving the hypostyle hall through the third pylon you come to a narrow court where there once stood several obelisks. One of the obelisks was erected by Tuthmosis I (1504 - 1492 BC) who was the father of Hatshepsut. This obelisk stands 70 feet (21.3m) tall and weighs about 143 tons. During the centuries between Tuthmosis I and Ramesses VI, the kings of the time did more than their share of destroying and dismantling. This obelisk was never touched. The original inscription was left in its place. However, two kings did add their inscription on either side of the original.

Beyond this obelisk is the only remaining Obelisk of Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC). It is 97 feet (29.6m) high and weighs approximately 320 tons. Besides the Lateran obelisk in Rome, this is the tallest standing obelisk. The one in Rome is 101 feet (30.7m) high. Hatshepsut was a woman who dared to challenge the tradition of male kingship. She died from undisclosed causes after imposing her will for a time. After her death, her name and memory suffered attempted systematic obliteration. The inscription on the obelisk says, "O ye people who see this monument in years to come and speak of that which I have made, beware lest you say, 'I know not why it was done'. I did it because I wished to make a gift for my father Amun, and to gild them with electrum." Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BC) was Hatshepsut's successor. When he came to power, he built a high wall around her obelisk. This wall hid the lower two-thirds but left the upper towering above. It has been thought that this was an easier and cheaper way of destroying her memory than actually tearing it down and removing it. If Tuthmosis had really wanted to destroy the obelisk, he would have certainly torn it down and removed it. Perhaps that was another reason for his building the wall. The top of the obelisk was visible for 50 miles (80 km). The pink granite for the obelisk was quarried at Aswan, which is several hundred miles south of Karnak. The stone was moved several miles over to the river and shipped down to Thebes. The setting of the stone is shown on reliefs as the pharaoh raising it with a single rope tied to its upper extremity. This is most probably symbolic, but may have been done this way with several hundreds of people pulling together. To the south of the standing obelisk is its companion which has fallen. It was also make of a single block of granite but is broken now. 

The Middle Kingdom Temple
Passing on through the fifth and sixth pylons you come to the sanctuary of the sacred boats built by Alexander the Great's brother. Constructed from granite it is well carved in a style that would be continued by the Ptolemies.
The oldest part of the temple complex lies beyond. You will have noticed that in accordance with Egyptian tradition the buildings have been getting smaller and narrower. The reason for the massiveness of the first pylon was because once the second had been built, anything else that was to be added had to be even grander.
There is little left of this part of the complex apart from the foundations.
The final building is the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III and alongside it his Festival Hall. This contains a unique set of pillars constructed and carved to give the impression of a tent. The two rows of ten pillars are narrower at the base than the top. On some of them you will see carvings from the period when the hall was used as a Christian church.
Tuthmosis III (1479 - 1425 BC) built up the first truly imperial system by not only conquering his enemies but by organising them into tribute giving vassals.

The Sixth Pylon, which was built by Tuthmosis III, leads into a Hall of Records in which the king recorded his tributes. Very little remains of this archive beyond two granite pillars. Just beyond these pillars lies the Holy of Holies or sanctuary. Originally it was the oldest part of the temple. The present sanctuary was built by the brother of Alexander the Great, Philip Arrhidaeus (323-316 BC) who was the King of Macedonia. The present sanctuary was built on the site of the earlier sanctuary built by Tuthmosis III. The present sanctuary contains blocks from the Tuthmosis sanctuary and still contain Tuthmosis' inscriptions. The sanctuary is built in two sections. Why this was done is not known. 
Just to the east of the Sixth Pylon of Karnak Temple is the vestibule to the sanctuary (right), where the priests kept the portable shrine used by the god's statue in processions. In the vestibule, built by Thutmose III (c.1479-1425 B.C.), are these two granite columns, elegant reminders of the importance of the concept of a unified Upper (Nile valley) and Lower (Nile delta) Egypt. These columns are decorated in raised relief with the papyrus on the left (north/the delta) and the lotus on the right (south/the valley).

The Lateran Obelisk

In a small temple near the East Gate is a large base where once stood the world's tallest obelisk, all 32.3 metres of it. About 357 AD the Emperor Constantine ordered that the obelisk should be moved to Constantinople. Despite not having airport luggage handlers in those days the obelisk ended up in Rome instead!
It fell over at some stage in its life and was re-erected in 1588 in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. The carvings on the obelisk state that it was made by Tuthmosis III for his father Amun-Re and that it was unusually: intended as a single obelisk.
Obelisks usually come in pairs and the secret here may be the unfinished obelisk which lies in the granite quarry in Aswan. This would have been the world's largest ever obelisk but the stone cracked and it was never finished. As the Lateran obelisk came from the same quarry, its singularity may have arisen from the failure of the twin rather than any pre-determined decision.

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