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Thebes of the Hundred Gates

Karnak, located in the northern part of the modern-day city of Luxor, the old capital of Thebes, houses a vast complex of temple-domains, temples, chapels and shrines. The temple-domain of the war-god Montu is located in the north. The central domain, itself home to a vast multitude of temples and chapels, was dedicated to Amun, the king of the gods. The temple-domain to the south was built for the goddess Mut, Amun's divine consort.

Being dedicated to the king of the gods, it is not surprising that the central domain is the largest. The oldest known parts of this complex date as far back as the early 12th Dynasty (1991 - 1783 BC) or perhaps even earlier. Only a small but magnificent chapel, which can now be visited in the Open Air Museum at Karnak, and some blocks and statues, are all that remain of the oldest parts of the temple.

The greatest extension to the temple of Amun occurred during the New Kingdom (1540 - 1070 BC), more specifically during the 18th and 19th Dynasties. Several kings extended the original 12th Dynasty temple, gradually replacing it with newer and even more magnificent structures. Generation after generation contributed to the size and wealth of the temple, adding new pylons, courts, halls and even chapels.

New temples were erected within the enclosure walls of the domain of Amun. To the south, Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty (1196 - 1070 BC) started with a temple dedicated to the lunar god Khonsu, son of Amun. To the east, Thutmosis III of the 18th Dynasty (1540 - 1307) erected a temple dedicated to Amun-Re as the rising sun. To the north, the small temple of Ptah was started, only to be completed during the Greek-Roman Period, more than a thousand years later-

The building activity at Karnak in general, and at the domain of Amun in particular, continued until the Greek-Roman era (332 BC - 396 AD), the last stage of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation. The many gates in the mud-brick enclosure walls surrounding the three domains earned Thebes, the ancient capital of the New Kingdom, its epithet "Thebes of the Hundred Gates". Several gates were built during the 30th Dynasty (380 - 343 BC) and decorated during the early Ptolemaic era (304 - 30 BC). The gate that gives access to the temple of Khonsu in the southwestern corner of the domain of Amun is a fine example of temple decoration during that era.

The cults at the Karnak temples continued well into the Roman era (30 BC - 396 AD), but gradually, Christianity would replace the old religion. With the decay of the old cults and the diminished importance of Thebes during the Roman era, the old temples were abandoned. Parts of the Amun temple were converted into a Christian church. Early Christians, considering the old religion as demonical, broke the reliefs, demolished statues and tore down the monumental walls and columns. After centuries of intense building activity and cult, the temples at Karnak suffered the same fate as the other Pharaonic buildings throughout the country. Claimed by the sands of the progressing desert, they fell into ruin.


The Temple of Amun Re at Karnak

The access path leading to the entrance of the temple of Amun Re is flanked by a row of ram-headed sphinxes on each side. These formidable statues that combine the ram, one of the animals symbolising Amun-Re, with the lion, represent Amun-Re as a powerful deity, guarding the access to his temple. The sphinxes date to the reign of Ramesses II (1290-1224 BC) of the 19th Dynasty, although some archaeologists believe that they may even be older and date to the reign of Amenhotep III (1391-1353 BC).

Two high trapezoid towers, together with the gate between them make up the 1st Pylon that forms the actual entrance to the temple. In the view of a temple being a symbol of creation, the pylon represents the edge of the world, the horizon separating non-creation (the outside) from creation (the temple). The building of the 1st Pylon was part of one of the last great building projects on the site, during the 30th Dynasty (380-343 BC). In fact, the northernmost tower was never completed and left significantly lower than the southern tower. Four vertical grooves in each tower indicate where gigantic flagpoles once stood. So huge were these poles that they had to be supported by massive beams extending from the towers.

Two huge wooden doors that were only opened on very special occasions and during festivities once blocked the entrance to the temple.


The Open Court

Having passed the 1st Pylon, the visitor enters a wide Open Court that symbolises the land. The columns along the northern and western walls stand for the vegetation that usually grows on the edge of the land. The ram-headed sphinxes between the columns once continued the two rows of sphinxes in front of the 1st Pylon. However, they were moved aside to make place for other constructions. The small chapel immediately to the left of the entrance, behind the unfinished northern tower of the 1st Pylon, was built by Seti II (1214-1204 BC) of the 19th Dynasty as a resting-place for the barks of the Theban triad that were carried around during some festivals. It has three entrances, one for each bark. The doorway in the middle opens onto a long narrow chamber. It is the largest of the three and was used for the bark of Amun-Re.

The two other doorways open onto similar but smaller chambers and were used for the barks of Mut, the wife of Amun-Re, and Khonsu, their son. To the right of the entrance onto the Open Court, behind the southern tower of the 1st Pylon, a mudbrick construction that was once used as scaffolding, hints at the way the Ancient Egyptians managed to build and later decorate such gigantic constructions. The southern wall of the Open Court is interrupted by a small temple, constructed during the reign of Ramesses III (1194-1163 BC) of the 20th Dynasty. Its pylon only sports one trapezoid tower, which is quite exceptional. The temple was also used as a resting-place for the three divine barks during festivals. It has a pylon, an open court of its own, a columned hall and a sanctuary consisting of three chambers, one for each bark.

A lone column standing almost in the center of the Open Court was part of a structure built during the reign of Taharqa (690-664 BC) of the 25th Dynasty. It was used in the annual ceremony during which the statue of Amun-Re was exposed to the sun so that it could be charged with solar light. Because of this specific function, this structure did not have a roof. Centuries before, a statue representing Ramesses II (1290-1224 BC) or Amenhotep III (1391-1353 BC) had already been erected. It bears witness to the highly skilled craftsmenship of the Ancient Egyptian sculptors.


  • The second pylon separates the Open Court from the Great Hypostyle Hall, one of Egypt's most impressive architectural achievements. 134 columns tower meters high along the temple's main west-east axis. The 12 columns that flank the axis are some 10 meters higher than those in the two aisles. The two easternmost of these immense columns are part of the vestibule of the third pylon, built by Amenhotep III (1391 - 1353 BC). This, along with a parallel construction in the temple of Luxor dated to the same reign, has led researchers to believe that Amenhotep III built the 12 central columns. It may even have been his intention that they would form a narrow but high columned entry-passage to the temple's inner sanctum.


  • The columns in the two adjourning aisles are some 13 meters high. They were built and decorated during the reigns of Seti I (1306 - 1290 BC) and Ramesses II (1290 - 1224 BC). The royal cartouches of Ramesses are prominent here. Some of the original colours have been preserved on the massive stone beams between the tops of the columns. With their capitals shaped as open papyrus plants (central columns) and closed lotus flowers (aisles), the Hypostyle Hall symbolises a huge marshland, a forest made up of Egypt's heraldic plants. The Hypostyle Hall thus not only represents the marshes it is also symbolic for Upper and Lower Egypt.


  • The walls of the Great Hypostyle Hall were, like most other walls, covered with representations of Amun, the principal deity of the temple, sometimes accompanied by his wife Mut and their son Khonsu. The kings are often shown presenting offerings or performing rituals for the gods. Large hieroglyphs identify the kings and perpetuate their rituals. Very common themes represented on the outside walls are hunting and war scenes, showing the victorious king hunting down and destroying the forces that oppose the forces of creation. At first sight, the area to the north of the Hypostyle Hall offers a desolate view. Several semi-erected columns hint at the existence of smaller structures - chapels dating to different eras. A path leading north passes some chapels of the 25th and 26th Dynasties (664 - 525 BC) and eventually leads to a small and not often visited temple dedicated to the Memphite god Ptah.


  • The temple of Amun-Re has a double axis. The main axis extends from the east (sanctuary) to the west (1st Pylon). The secondary axis runs from north (7th Pylon) to south (10th Pylon) and connects the temple of Amun-Re with the temple of his divine wife, Mut and with his second temple at Luxor. The secondary axis intersects with the primary at the small open court between the 3rd and 4th Pylons. Before the construction of the 3rd Pylon during the reign of Amenhotep III (1391-1353 BC) and the Great Hypostyle Hall to the west, this area had been the entrance to the temple of Amun Re, and a great open court. Thutmosis I (1494-1482 BC), his son Thutmosis II (1482-1479 BC) and daughter Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC) all erected a pair of obelisks in this area. Only one obelisk of Thutmosis I and one of Hatshepsut are still standing.


  • From the main axis, the secondary axis starts with a wide-open court, delimited by the wall between the 3rd and 4th Pylons to the north, a wall to the east and west and the 7th Pylon to the south. During excavation and restoration works, literally thousands of statues of varying sizes were found buried in this open court. This has given the court its modern-day name cour de la cachette (cache court). Some of the statues have been placed against the northern face of the 7th Pylon. They represent several kings who, at one time, had contributed to the construction of the temple of Amun-Re. The statues are of different types, ranging from the Osiri-form (body apparently wrapped in a shroud, arms tightly against the body, with only the head and crowns protruding), to standing and sitting statues (body normally dressed). Facing back towards the main axis, the visitor will notice the back of the 1st Pylon to the west, followed by the Great Hypostyle Hall and the remaining obelisks of Thutmosis I (1494-1482 BC) and Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC).
  • A new open court stretches to the south of the 7th Pylon. It is delimited to the south by the 8th pylon. The decoration of the south face of this pylon is fairly typical: it displays the king, in this case Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC), while smiting one or more enemies. Although these scenes may sometimes refer to actual victories won by the Egyptians during wars, they are often interpreted as being purely symbolic. The pylon, representing the edge of the creation, was the place where all forces of non-creation, symbolised by Egypt's political enemies, had to be defeated. For the same reason, statues representing the king often guarded pylons. The king could be represented standing, striding or seated on a throne. Of the statues that once stood before the 7th Pylon, only the lower parts of the legs and the feet subsist.


  • The 8th Pylon is fairly well preserved, and so is one of the statues standing to its south. Although this statue bears the name of Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC), it has often been credited to Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC). Because later generations did not consider Hatshepsut's reign as an independent reign but more as a regency or a usurpation, her names were very often replaced by those of her predecessors or co-regent. Like the 7th Pylon, the 8th Pylon is also decorated with reliefs showing the victorious king striking down the enemies of Egypt. Again, an open court stretches to the south of this pylon. The 9th Pylon in the south, of which only little remains, delimits it. To the south of the 9th Pylon, another open court, with the Festival Temple of Amenhotep II (1427-1401 BC) to the east, and finally the 10th Pylon to the south, can be found.





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