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Temple Of Karnak: The History Of The Largest Temple Complex In Ancient Egypt

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

The city that the Greeks call Thebes, capital of Egypt for some 1,500 years in the period that historians call the New Kingdom, stood approximately where the town of Luxor is today, on the east bank of the Nile. Nothing is left of the city itself, but the mighty ruins of the Temple of Karnak still overawe today's visitors. With its imposing gates, its courts and halls, its forest of pillars, its carvings and statues and obelisks, it was the largest temple complex in ancient Egypt.

Temple of Karnak was the largest temple complex in ancient Egypt
Temple of Karnak was the largest temple complex in ancient Egypt

The principal temple here was sacred to the god Amun, lord of the winds and the air. He was represented as a human figure with a double feather crown, and his special animal was the ram. A minor local god originally, he was made Egypt's national god by the New Kingdom pharaohs, from the 16th century B.C. on, and identified with Re, the sun god. He was worshipped here with his consort, the goddess Mut, and their son, the moon god Khons.

Amun's little temple at Karnak was enlarged by Thutmose I at the beginning of the New Kingdom. His successors expanded it again and again. Different areas are entered through huge portals known as pylons, consisting of a doorway flanked by massive towers. There are 10 of these at Karnak. As the worshipper penetrated into the temple, he passed from the bright sunlight of the outside world into the deepening darkness of the great halls toward the mystery of the innermost shrine, which contained the image of the god. This shrine was barred to all except the king and the priests.

The Great Court
The Great Court

The complex was approached along two avenues of ram-headed sphinxes, one leading from the Nile and the other from Luxor. The vast front pylon of the main temple still stands 143 feet (43.6m) high and 370 feet (113m) wide, with walls 49 feet (15m) thick. Beyond this is the Great Court, surrounded by a colonnade, with subsidiary temples opening off it. The second pylon opens into the Great Pillared Hall, which alone covers an area one-third the size of St. Peter's in Rome. Open to the sky now, its roof originally rested 80 feet (24m) above the ground on 140 pillars arranged in 16 rows, their capitals in the form of papyrus flowers and buds.

A third pylon leads to the central court, beyond which three more pylons lead to the inner sanctuary where the golden statue of the god stood in his sacred boat. To the south, through four more pylons, lies the temple of Mut, not yet fully excavated, but almost as large as her consort's. Also in the complex are temples of Khons and other gods. The gardens in which the buildings were set vanished long ago, but there is a fine view of the complex from across the sacred lake.

The temple of Luxor itself, also dedicated to Amun-Re and also built and added to over centuries, is smaller but very impressive. Christians used it as a church, and there is a mosque inside part of it today. There is a Fine colonnade or papyrus columns, colossal statues of Ramses II, and lively carvings in relief.

Great Temple Of Amun
Great Temple Of Amun

Kings of Kings

Not far from Luxor, on the west side of the Nile, two enormous seated figures of Pharaoh Amenhotep III stand solitary in a field. Known as the Colossi of Memnon, they once stood at the entrance of his temple. More than 50 feet (15m) high, they have graffiti scrawled on them by such eminent visitors as the Roman emperor Hadrian's court poet.

Valley of the Kings

With their capital at Thebes, most of the New Kingdom pharaohs were buried in the desert to the west of the Nile, in the Valley of the Kings, where more than 60 tombs have so far been discovered. Only a small number are open to visitors. By far the most famous of them is the tomb of Tutankhamun, which created a sensation when it was opened in 1923. The most astonishing wealth of treasure was revealed - a coffin of solid gold, golden diadems, and masks, jewels, statues, chariots, weapons, ornaments, paintings - in such profusion that it took three years to clear out the tomb. The youthful pharaoh, who was only 18 when he died in 1352 B.C., still rests inside his sarcophagus in the tomb, but almost all the treasures are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.


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