The temples of Karnak represent the largest temple complex in the ancient world. Amazingly, it represents the achievement of many generations of ancient builders and pharaohs. Its old name is Ipet-isut, meaning “the most sacred of places.” Continuously the building of this complex temple lasted more than two thousand years. It comprises three main temples, smaller enclosed temples, and several outer temples on 247 acres. The great “Hypostyle Hall” is an incredible forest of giant pillars.
The Karnak Temple Complex, commonly referred to as Karnak is a sprawling collection of temples, chapels, pylons, and other structures located near Luxor, Egypt. The complex was initiated during the reign of Senusret I in the Middle Kingdom and was constructed over several centuries, continuing until the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Although most of the standing buildings were erected during the New Kingdom, the area surrounding Karnak was the primary place of worship for the 18th Dynastic Theban Triad, with the god Amun presiding.
This location, known as Ipet-isut, was considered “The Most Selected of Places” in ancient Egyptian culture. Karnak is an integral part of the grand city of Thebes and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, along with the rest of the city. The modern village of El-Karnak, situated 2.5 kilometres north of Luxor, takes its name from the nearby complex.
- Location of Temples of Karnak
- Main Parts
- Avenue of Sphinxes
- Precinct of Amun-Re
- Precinct of Mut
- Precinct of Montu
- Temple of Amenhotep IV
- 3. The Great Court
- 4. The Kiosk of Tahraqa
- 5. Barque Chapel of Ramses III
- 6. Statues of Ramses II
- 7. The Second Pylon of the Temples of Karnak
- 8. Great Hypostyle Hall
- 9. Sacred Lake
The complex is a vast open site, including the Karnak Open Air Museum. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt; only the Giza pyramid complex near Cairo receives more visits. It consists of four main parts, of which only the largest is open to the public. Karnak is often understood as the Precinct of Amun-Re only because this is the only part most visitors see. The three other parts, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are closed to the public.
A few smaller temples and sanctuaries also connect the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amun-Re, and the Luxor Temple. The Precinct of Mut is very ancient, dedicated to an Earth and creation deity, but not yet restored. Hatshepsut destroyed and partially restored the original temple, although another pharaoh built it around it to change the focus or orientation of the sacred area. Many portions of it may have been carried away for use in other buildings.
The Main Aspect of Karnak
The key difference between Karnak and most of the other temples and sites in Egypt is the length of time over which it was developed and used. Construction of temples started in the Middle Kingdom and continued into Ptolemaic times. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling them to reach a size, complexity, and diversity unseen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features are vast.
The deities represented range from some of the earliest worshipped to those worshipped much later in the history of the Ancient Egyptian culture. Although destroyed, it also contained an early temple built by Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), the pharaoh who later would celebrate a nearly monotheistic religion he established that prompted him to move his court and religious centre away from Thebes. It also contains evidence of adaptations, where later cultures used the buildings of the ancient Egyptians for their religious purposes.
The Karnak complex is a vast open site that includes the Karnak Open Air Museum. It is considered the second most visited historical site in Egypt, with only the Giza pyramid complex near Cairo receiving more visits. The complex comprises four main parts, but only the largest is open to the public. Karnak is often considered the Precinct of Amun-Re only since this is the only part most visitors see. The other three parts, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are closed to the public. A few smaller temples and sanctuaries also connect the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amun-Re, and the Luxor Temple.
The Precinct of Mut is very ancient and dedicated to an Earth and creation deity, but it has not yet been restored. Hatshepsut destroyed and partially restored the original temple, although another pharaoh built it around it to change the focus or orientation of the sacred area. Many portions of it may have been carried away for use in other buildings.
The Karnak Temple Complex, located in Luxor, Egypt, is considered to be one of the most significant religious sites in ancient Egyptian history. The Great Hypostyle Hall, a part of the complex, is a massive hall featuring 134 columns arranged in 16 rows. Of these columns, 122 measure 10 metres (33 ft) in height, with the remaining 12 columns standing at 21 metres (69 ft) tall and having a diameter of over 3 metres (9.8 ft). The architraves, situated atop these columns, are estimated to weigh a staggering 70 tons.
Experts have put forth several theories regarding how the architraves were lifted to these heights. One theory posits that levers were used, although this method would have been incredibly time-consuming and required exceptional balance to accomplish. Another common theory suggests that large ramps constructed of sand, mud, brick, or stone were used, and the stones were then towed up the ramps. If stone was used for the ramps, they would have been able to use much less material. The top of the ramps would presumably have employed either wooden tracks or cobblestones for towing the megaliths.
An unfinished pillar located in an out-of-the-way location provides valuable insights into how it would have been finished. Final carving was executed after the drums were put in place so that it would not be damaged during placement. Several experiments were conducted at other locations to move megaliths using ancient technology, some of which are amongst the largest monoliths in the world.
Notably, the sun god’s shrine in the Karnak Temple Complex was built in such a way that it has light focused upon it during the winter solstice. In 2009, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) launched a website dedicated to virtual reality digital reconstructions of the Karnak complex and other resources.
The Great Hypostyle Hall’s central columns feature open papyrus umbel capitals and architraves. The sheer size and scale of this monumental structure continue to awe and inspire visitors from all around the world.
Location of Temples of Karnak
The temple was originally named Nesut-Towi, meaning “Throne of the Two Lands”. It was also referred to as Ipet-Iset, or “The Finest of Seats”, Ipt-Swt, which means “Selected Spot”, and Ipetsut, meaning “The Most Select of Places”.
Some suggest that the current name of Karnak comes from the Arabic term خورنق Khurnaq, which means “fortified village”. However, there is no historical evidence to support this theory.
History of the Temples of Karnak
The significance of the Karnak complex is closely tied to the history of Thebes and its evolving cultural influence. Religious centres were regionally specific and gained prominence by establishing a new capital for the unified culture. Before the Eleventh Dynasty, Thebes wasn’t of great importance, and early temple structures were limited in size, with shrines dedicated to Mut and Montu, the early deities of the area. Invaders destroyed these. The earliest known artefact found in the temple area is an eight-sided column from the Eleventh Dynasty that references Amun-Re. Amun, the local tutelary deity of Thebes, was identified with the ram and the goose. The name Amun means “hidden” or the “hidden god.”
During the Eighteenth Dynasty, Thebes became the capital of Ancient Egypt, and significant construction was carried out in the Precinct of Amun-Re. Almost every pharaoh of that dynasty added to the temple site, including Thutmose I, who erected an enclosure wall connecting the Fourth and Fifth pylons. Hatshepsut restored the original Precinct of Mut and erected twin obelisks, one of which still stands today. Another project of hers was the Red Chapel, intended as a barque shrine, which may have originally stood between the two obelisks. She also ordered the construction of two more obelisks to celebrate her sixteenth year as pharaoh.
The Great Hypostyle Hall’s construction may have begun during the Eighteenth Dynasty, but most new building was undertaken under Seti I and Ramesses II in the Nineteenth. Merneptah commemorated his victories over the Sea Peoples on the walls of the Cachette Court, which was the start of the processional route to the Luxor Temple. The last major addition to the Precinct of Amun-Re’s layout was the First Pylon and the massive enclosure walls constructed by Nectanebo I of the Thirtieth Dynasty.
By 323 AD, Constantine the Great recognized Christianity, and in 356, Constantius II ordered the closing of pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire, which included Egypt. Karnak was mostly abandoned by this time, and Christian churches were founded among the ruins. Thutmose III’s central hall was repurposed as a Festival Hall, where painted decorations of saints and Coptic inscriptions can still be seen.
European knowledge of Karnak
The exact location of Thebes in medieval Europe was unknown, although both Herodotus and Strabo provide precise details regarding its location and the distance one must travel up the Nile to reach it. Maps of Egypt based on the work of Claudius Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which dates back to the 2nd century, had been circulating in Europe since the late 14th century, all of which indicated the location of Thebes (Diospolis). Despite this, several European authors who visited only Lower Egypt and published their travel accounts, such as Joos van Ghistele and André Thévet, placed Thebes in or near Memphis during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The first known European mention of a range of monuments in Upper Egypt and Nubia, including Karnak, Luxor temple, the Colossi of Memnon, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, and others, came from an unknown Venetian in 1589. However, his account does not provide a name for the complex. This account is housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze.
The name “Karnak” as a village and the name of the complex was first attested in 1668 when two capuchin missionary brothers, Protais and Charles François d’Orléans, traveled through the area. Protais’ writing about their travel was published by Melchisédech Thévenot (Relations de divers voyages curieux, 1670s–1696 editions) and Johann Michael Vansleb (The Present State of Egypt, 1678).
The first drawing of Karnak was found in Paul Lucas’ travel account of 1704 (Voyage du Sieur Paul Lucas au Levant). Although it is rather inaccurate and can be confusing to modern readers, it is based on a complex confined by the three huge Ptolemaic gateways of Ptolemy III Euergetes / Ptolemy IV Philopator, and the massive 113 m long, 43 m high, and 15 m thick, First Pylon of the Precinct of Amun-Re. Lucas traveled in Egypt during 1699–1703.
Karnak was successively visited and described by Claude Sicard and his travel companion Pierre Laurent Pincia (1718 and 1720–21), Granger (1731), Frederick Louis Norden (1737–38), Richard Pococke (1738), James Bruce (1769), Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt (1777), William George Browne (1792–93), and finally by a number of scientists of the Napoleon expedition, including Vivant Denon, during 1798–1799. Claude-Étienne Savary describes the complex in great detail in his work of 1785; especially in light of the fact that it is a fictional account of a pretend journey to Upper Egypt, composed of information from other travelers. Savary did visit Lower Egypt in 1777–78 and published a work about it as well.
Avenue of Sphinxes
Precinct of Amun-Re
The temple complex at Karnak is a significant historical site and a testament to the architectural and artistic achievements of ancient Egypt. One of its most important structures is the Great Hypostyle Hall, which features a forest of towering columns and intricate reliefs depicting the glory of the pharaohs. Another notable feature is the Precinct of Amun-Re, a vast courtyard surrounded by imposing walls and adorned with numerous shrines and sanctuaries. The temple is dedicated to Amun-Re, the primary deity of the Theban Triad, and contains several colossal statues, including the awe-inspiring figure of Pinedjem I, which measures an astounding 10.5 meters in height. The sandstone used to construct the temple, including all of its columns, was quarried from Gebel Silsila, a location some 100 miles to the south of the temple, and transported along the Nile River. Additionally, the temple boasts one of the largest obelisks in the world, weighing an impressive 328 tons and standing 29 meters tall.
Karnak Temple First Pylon
The final pylon at Karnak, serving as the primary entrance to the temple today, was the last structure to be constructed. Though incomplete and lacking decoration, the remnants of the mud brick ramps used in its construction are still visible within the great court. The north tower stands at approximately 71 feet (21.70m), while the south tower is 103 feet (31.65m) in height. Had the structure been completed, it would likely have reached a height between 124 feet (38m) and 131 feet (40m). Nectanebo I (380-362 BC), the builder of the massive enclosure wall surrounding Karnak, is credited with the construction of this pylon. Some scholars suggest that an earlier pylon may have previously occupied the same location.
Approaching the pylon, an avenue of sphinxes featuring ram-headed statues representing the god Amun leads the way. These sphinxes stand in front of a small Osiris-shaped effigy of Ramesses II, situated between their front paws.
Precinct of Mut
The precinct dedicated to the mother goddess, Mut, lies to the south of the newer Amen-Re complex and features various smaller temples and a crescent-shaped sacred lake. It was in the Eighteenth Dynasty Theban Triad that Mut became identified as the wife of Amun-Re. Unfortunately, the temple has been damaged over time, with many parts being repurposed for other structures. However, the Precinct of Mut has been opened to the public following the restoration and excavation works carried out by the Johns Hopkins University team, led by Betsy Bryan. Notably, the courtyard to Mut’s temple yielded six hundred black granite statues. This may be the oldest part of the site.
In 2006, Bryan presented her findings on a festival that involved a deliberate overindulgence in alcohol. Both the priestesses and the population participated in this event, which historical records indicate tens of thousands attended. The festival took place in the temple of Mut, as she had absorbed the warrior goddesses, Sekhmet and Bast, among her aspects when Thebes gained greater prominence. Mut’s assimilation of other goddesses led to her names changing over the years, with the final iteration being Mut-Nekhbet.
Luxor temple excavations revealed a “porch of drunkenness” that Pharaoh Hatshepsut built onto the temple during her twenty-year reign. A later myth surrounding the annual drunken Sekhmet festival claims that Ra, the sun god of Upper Egypt, created Sekhmet from a fiery eye he gained from his mother to destroy the mortals who conspired against him (Lower Egypt). Despite her blood-lust not being quelled after the battle, Ra tricked Sekhmet by turning the Nile red, which made Sekhmet drunk on beer mixed with pomegranate juice, causing her to give up slaughter and become an aspect of the gentle Hathor. The complex interweaving of deities in Egyptian culture occurred over thousands of years.
The Kiosk of Tahraqa
Taharqa, the fourth monarch of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, held the position of king in his native land of Kush, located in Northern Sudan. The remains of an immense kiosk, erected by the aforementioned pharaoh Taharqa (690-664 B.C.), featured ten twenty-one meter high papyrus columns that were once linked by a low screening wall. Today, only a single, great column remains standing. While it is believed that the structure served as a barque chapel (or Station), some Egyptologists have suggested that the site may have been utilized in ritual activities to join with the s.
Statue of Ramesses II
Certain Egyptologists have posited the notion that the ancient artifact known as the “t.nsk eit” may have been utilized in ceremonial activities to facilitate spiritual communion with the divine. Of note, the Statue of Ramesses II (1070-1032) serves as an exemplary depiction of the ancient Egyptian monarch, with the king adorned in the traditional nemes headdress, replete with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Additionally, the king’s arms are crossed, clasping the crook and flail in a symbolically potent gesture of royal authority. At the statue’s base, Princess Bent’anta is depicted, garbed in an Uraeus crown of rearing cobras and holding a flower. The name Bent’anta (alternatively rendered as Bintanath, Bint-Anath, or Bintanat) is of Syrian origin, translating to “Daughter of Anath,” a reference to the Canaanite goddess Anath. Notably, Bent’anta’s mother remains unnamed in historical records.
Statue of Princess Bent’anta
The statue of Princess Bent’anta is a notable historical artifact of Syrian origin. The name Bent’anta, which means “Daughter of Anath,” references the Canaanite goddess Anath. It is noteworthy that the mother of Princess Bent’anta remains unnamed in historical records. The statue depicts the Princess in an Uraeus crown of rearing cobras while holding a flower.
Precinct of Montu
The Temple of Montu, situated to the north of the Amun-Re complex, is dedicated to the worship of the war-god Montu. Despite being smaller in size, it is not accessible to the general public. Another temple, the Temple of Amenhotep IV, was intentionally dismantled and can be found towards the east.
Temple of Amenhotep IV
The Temple of Amenhotep IV, situated east of the main complex and outside the walls of the Amun-Re precinct, was deliberately dismantled after its builder’s death. The temple was constructed in an attempt to overcome the powerful priesthood that had gained control over Egypt before his reign. Unfortunately, the temple was destroyed so thoroughly that its complete extent and layout remain unknown. The priesthood of that temple once again regained their powerful position soon after Akhenaten’s death.
3. The Great Court
4. The Kiosk of Tahraqa
5. Barque Chapel of Ramses III
6. Statues of Ramses II
7. The Second Pylon of the Temples of Karnak
The second tower was built by Horemheb (1323-1295 BC), who filled the tower’s interior with thousands of stone blocks from demolished monuments built by king Akhenaton. This building was not finished and partly decorated before Horemheb’s death. His successor Ramses I completed the decoration of the tower during his brief reign of fewer than two years. Ramses I replaced all of Horemheb’s cartouches with his own. Ramses I also built two small shrines that abutted the tower’s east wall on either side of the central passageway. Again, during his rule of Egypt, Ramses II usurped these royal cartouches