The temple complex of Karnak is the largest in Egypt and one of the largest in the world. It covers 247 acres and includes three precincts with some buildings outside the compounds. The modern name comes from the village of El-Karnak.
The site was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO
Karnak is located in the city of Thebes and is over a mile from the city’s center and the temple of Luxor. Quays and processional ways link the three precincts to the
east bank of the Nile river. The mortuary temples of the pharaohs and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens are on the Nile’s West bank across from Thebes. Karnak was a religious center for Egypt and was the seat of the cult of
Aptly called Ipet-Sut “The Most Select of Places” by the
Egyptians, Karnak Temple was the most important temple in Thebes (modern Luxor), in Upper Egypt. This was where the cult of the great god Amun of Thebes was conducted. As such, it was extremely wealthy and its priesthood held great political power.
Thebes was the city that the line of kings who reunified Egypt after the First Intermediate Period hailed from. It thus became one of the most important cities, a position that it would continue to hold throughout the majority of ancient Egyptian history. The importance of Amun rose in tandem with the city’s rise to prominence. From the earliest evidence for it from the reign of Intef II (c.2112–2063 BC), before even the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (c.2055–1650 BC), to the Graeco-Roman Period (332 BC–395 AD), this temple was accordingly lavished with royal attention in the form construction projects, ritual equipment and other necessities. Nearly every king from the New Kingdom (c.1550–1069 BC), Egypt’s age of empire, left his mark here.
The temple is located on the east bank of Luxor. Like most ancient Egyptian temples, it is built on an east–west axis. Ancient Egyptian temples were models of the cosmos, and this layout meant that they mirrored the sun god’s trajectory through the sky. Rather uniquely, however, it also possesses a north–south axis, which orients it towards another temple, the abode of Amenemopet known today as Luxor Temple. This was a different version of Amun specific to south Luxor. The two temples were linked by a processional way lined with sphinxes. This was used in one of the most important celebrations of the ancient Egyptian calendar, the Opet Festival.
In addition to the ancient Egyptians’ mastery of stone, which is evident everywhere in the scale of the monuments, the reliefs covering their walls, and the statues populating them, several highlights are worth mentioning. The world-famous Great Hypostyle Hall is a forest of 134 columns. These massive columns have a height of 15 meters, aside from the larger, central, twelve, which stand 21 meters tall. The hall may have been begun by Amenhotep III (c.1390–1352 BC; Eighteenth Dynasty), but the decoration is from the reigns of Nineteenth Dynasty kings Sety I (c.1294–1279 BC) and his son Ramesses II (c.1279–1213 BC). A magnificent obelisk of Hatshepsut (c.1473–1458 BC) in a nearby hall stands at a colossal height of nearly 30 meters. At the eastern end of Karnak is the Akhmenu, a temple by Thutmose III (c.1479–1425 BC) dedicated to the cults of various deities, his royal predecessors, as well as his own cult.
Karnak was in reality a complex of temples. The enclosure walls include a full temple to Khonsu in the south-western corner, next to which is the Opet temple, which was built in the Graeco-Roman Period for Opet, a hippopotamus goddess of childbirth. The beautiful sacred lake, where priests purified themselves before carrying out temple rituals, can still be appreciated today. Many more, smaller, temples and chapels dot the landscape of Karnak, making it a veritable open-air museum.
The original name has to do with the ancient Egyptian belief that Thebes was the first city founded on the primordial mound which rose from the waters of chaos at the beginning of the world. At that time, the creator-god Atum (sometimes Ptah or Ra) stood on the mound to begin the work of creation. The site of the temple was thought to be this original ground and the temple was raised at this spot for that reason. Karnak is believed to have been an ancient observatory as well as a place of worship where the god Amun would interact directly with the people of earth.
The Temple of Amun was in constant use with perpetual growth for over 2,000 years and considered one of the most sacred sites in Egypt. The priests of Amun who oversaw the administration of the temple became increasingly wealthy and powerful to the point that they were able to take control of the government of Thebes toward the end of the New Kingdom when rule of the country became divided between theirs at Thebes in Upper Egypt and that of the pharaoh in the city of Per-Ramesses in Lower Egypt.
The rise of the power of the priests, and the resulting weakness of the position of the pharaoh, is considered the major contributing factor in the decline of the New Kingdom and the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period (1069 - 525 BCE). The temple complex was damaged in the Assyrian invasion of 666 BCE and again by the Persian invasion of 525 BCE but, both times, was repaired and renovated.
By the 4th century CE Egypt was a part of the Roman Empire and Christianity was being promoted as the one true faith. The emperor Constantius II (r. 337 - 361 CE) ordered pagan temples to be closed in 336 CE and the Temple of Amun was deserted. Coptic Christians made use of the building for church services, as evidenced by Christian art and inscriptions on the walls, but then the site was abandoned.
It was rediscovered during the 7th century CE Arab Invasion of Egypt at which time it was called "Ka-ranak" which means 'fortified village' because of the enormous amount of architecture amassed in one area. When European explorers first began traveling in Egypt in the 17th century CE they were told the grand ruins at Thebes were those of Karnak and the name has been in use for the site since then.
According to the UCLA Digital Karnak project the Wadjet Hall (whose name comes from the style of columns used) was first built by Thutmose I (reign 1504-1492 B.C.) near the main sanctuary, between the fourth and fifth pylons. It measures about 246 feet by 46 feet (75 meters by 14 meters) and was used for the king’s coronation and jubilee (heb-sed) festival.
The heb-sed festival generally took place 30 years after a king came to the throne and then every three years afterwards. “During the festival, the king ran around a heb-sed court performing feats of strength to demonstrate his ability to continue to rule Egypt,” writes researcher Pat Remler in her book "Egyptian Mythology, A to Z" (Chelsea House, 2010).
HATSHEPSUT & THUTMOSE III
Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh of Egypt who reigned from roughly 1479 to 1458 B.C. At Karnak she renovated the main sanctuary at Karnak, creating in its place a “Palace of Ma’at.” She also created a chapel made of red quartzite to hold the god’s portable bark (boat).
When Hatshepsut’s successor, Thutmose III, came to the throne, he ordered the destruction of images of the female pharaoh and had her quartzite chapel destroyed and replaced with one of his own.
His legacy at Karnak was not all destructive as he ordered construction of the Ahkmenu, a pillared structure built on the east side of the central sanctuary. It contains a list of Egyptian kings going back to before the Great Pyramids were built.
He also created a “contra temple” adjacent to the Ahkmenu. “Known as the ‘chapel of the hearing ear,’ the shrine allowed the populace of Thebes to petition a statue of the king with Amun-Ra,” writes the Digital Karnak team. In addition the king built a “sacred lake” to the south of the main sanctuary.
GREAT HYPOSTYLE HALL
Perhaps the most fantastic building at Karnak was the “Great Hypostyle Hall” built just to the west to the main sanctuary, along the main entranceway. Built by Seti (also called Sety) I, a king who ruled from 1290 to 1279 B.C., it covers an area “large enough to accommodate the whole of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral” writes the University of Memphis Great Hypostyle Hall Project team on their website.
The building is about 337 feet (103 meters) by 170 feet (52 meters). The researchers note that there are 134 columns in total, the largest twelve of which are 70 feet (21 meters) high and support the central part of the structure. The other 122 columns are about 40 feet (12 meters) tall.
On the outside walls are scenes showing Seti and his successor, Ramesses II, smiting enemies from Libya, Syria and the Levant. Shortly after it was constructed, the hall likely became the setting for coronation and heb-sed ceremonies, replacing the Wadjet hall in this function.
Khonsu was the child of Amun-Ra and the goddess Mut. A temple dedicated to him at Karnak was built, appropriately, placed between the main sanctuary of Amun-Ra and the southern precinct that honored Mut.
Built by Ramesses III, a king who reigned from 1186 to 1155 B.C., the temple is about 230 feet (70 meters) by 88 feet (27 meters). The columns in its hall measure about 23 feet (7 meters) tall. “The temple contained not only a suite of rooms for the housing of the statue of the god, but also a separate bark (boat) chamber,” writes the digital Karnak team.
Construction continued at Karnak periodically after the end of the New Kingdom. King Taharqa, who reigned around 2,700 years ago, was part of a dynasty of rulers from Nubia (modern-day Sudan) who came to control much of Egypt. He was interested in Karnak’s “sacred lake” and built the “edifice of the lake” beside it, a partly underground monument.
It was dedicated to Re-Horakhte (a combination of two sky
gods), which would explain the open solar court above ground, while the subterranean rooms symbolised the sun’s nocturnal passage through the
underworld. Among its features was a “nilometer” a structure used to measure the water level of the
Nile that. In this case, the meter would have had a symbolic use.
NECTANEBO I - ROMAN RULE
The last major building program at Karnak was carried out by Nectanebo I, a king of the 30th, and final, dynasty of ancient Egypt. He reigned between 380 and 362 B.C. After his dynasty ended, Egypt would be ruled by people descended from Persia, Greece or Rome.
Nectanebo built a large enclosure wall around the site along with an additional temple. He also began construction of a new pylon at Karnak at the western entrance (although he wasn’t able to finish it).
The rulers of foreign descent who took control of Egypt continued work at Karnak to some degree. Ptolemy IV (reign 221-205 B.C.) would create a series of ritual catacombs dedicated to
Osiris, god of the underworld.
“The building functioned as a ‘hypogeum,’ an underground burial place. Many of these are known from ancient Egypt, although typically these spaces contained burials for sacred animals. The Karnak example instead served for the burial of small statuettes of Osiris,” writes the digital Karnak team.
After Egypt fell under the control of Rome in 30 B.C. after
the suicide of Cleopatra, work at Karnak petered out, the great monument becoming the magnificent archaeological site it is today.