The Temple of Karnak (2 miles north of Luxor) ranks with the Pyramids as most amazing site in Egypt and by some estimates is the largest religious structure ever created. Over two millennia it was enlarged and enriched by consecutive pharaohs until it covered 247 acres of land on the Nile’s east bank. At its height it stretched over an area of one mile by a half a mile---about half the size Manhattan---and was like a city, containing its own administrative offices, palaces, treasuries bakeries, breweries, granaries and schools. "Karnak" is the Arabic word for fort. It used to be called Ipetesut---“most esteemed of places.”

Mark Millmore wrote in discoveringegypt.com: “ A place of pilgrimage for nearly 2,000 years, it dates back to around 2055 B.C. and continued to be used to around A.D. 100. It remains impressive today. To ordinary people in ancient Egypt it must have seemed like a place that only gods could have built. A cult temple dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khonsu, the Thebian Triad, it was the largest religious building ever constructed, covering about an area of 1.5 kilometers by 0.8 kilometers, and comprised of a city of temples built over 2,000 years. The area of the sacred enclosure of Amun alone is sixty-one acres and could hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big that St Peter’s, Milan, and Notre Dame Cathedrals would fit within its walls. The Hypostyle hall, at 54,000 square feet (16,459 meters) and featuring 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 – 423 feet by 252 feet (129 by 77 meters). The sacred barges of the Theban Triad once floated on the lake during the annual Opet festival. The lake was surrounded by storerooms and living quarters for the priests, along with an aviary for aquatic birds. [Source: Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com]

There are three main areas at Karnak are: 1) the Sanctuary of Amon; 2) the Sanctuary of Mut, 3) Sanctuary for Montu. Each is separated by a rough brick boundary and each has a main temple in the middle of the enclosure. Next to the main temples were sacred lakes where ceremonies were held. Unlike most other temples in Egypti, Karnak has two axes: one following the sun from east to west; and the other following the Nile from north to south. The largest structure contains the largest columns in the world.

Most of the structures at Karnak are part of the Sanctuary of Amon, which covers an area of about 60 hectares and is dedicated to Amon, the god of fertility and growth. To the south is the Sanctuary of Mut, which covers an area of about 9 hectares and is dedicated to Mut, the wife of Amon. Mut is symbolically portrayed in the form a vulture. To the north is a small Sanctuary for Montu, which covers an area of about 2½ hectares and is dedicated to Montu, the God of War.

The Temple Complex opens at 6:00am or 6:30pm. It is a good idea to arrive early and look around the grounds before it gets too hot and too many people arrive. When it does get hot you can seek refuge in the hypostyle hall, where there is ample shade even during the midday sun.

Opet Festival at Karnak, See Festivals

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

History of the Temple of Karnak

Karnak was built to mark the birthplace of Amun, the greatest of all Egyptian gods. It was probably built on a pre-existing sacred mound. It was built with money that the pharaohs earned in taxes and booty brought back from military victories.

Work was carried out on Karnak for 2,000 years beginning in the 12th dynasty (around 2000 B.C.) of the Middle Kingdom when an early temple was established and successive pharaohs added their own shrines and gates. Construction of buildings continued through the Middle and New Kingdom periods, with most of the work done between the XVIII Dynasty and the end of the Ramses era. In the XVIX Dynasty, 81,322 people, including priests and peasants, worked on the temple of Amon. Construction of the main hypostyle hall began in 1375 B.C. under Amenhotep III, and was continued under Seti I, his son Ramses II and was finally completed under Ramses IV.

Karnak was built from sandstone. Because it was easier to build a new temple from stones from an old temple than it was to quarry new stones, not much remains of the oldest temples because their stones were used to make newer structures. Over time the dimensions and buildings of each sanctuary changed according to the wishes of each successive pharaohs.

Supported by revenues from royal land endowments, Karnak became an economic power. Under Ramses III the “domain of Amun” covered 900 square miles of agricultural land, vineyards and marshlands, in addition to quarries and mines. Like many other monuments in Egypt, Karnak was covered by sand up until a century ago. When French soldiers first laid eyes on it in 1799, one lieutenant in Napoleon’s army wrote: “Without an order being given the men formed their ranks and presented arms, to the accompaniment of drums and the bands.” Exposure to the elements and the absorption of ground water has caused the columns to slowly deteriorate. The groundwater problem was caused by the Aswan Dam which has raised the level of the Nile and, along with it, the water table under Karnak.

The temple originally had a roof, and the columns were once plastered and painted with heroic scenes from the pharaohs lives. But mostly what remains now are some carved hieroglyphics and symbols, embellished by graffiti from 19th century British and Egyptian soldiers and 20th century tourists.

One of the remaining wall inscriptions reads: "His Majesty exults at the beginning of battle, he delights to enter it; his heart is gratified at the sight of blood. He lops off the heads of his dissidents...His majesty slays them at one stroke---he leaves them no heir, and whoever escapes his hand is brought prisoner to Egypt." Another set of inscriptions describe the festival of Opet. The victories of Shoshenq I, a Libyan refereed to in the Bible as King Shishak, are immortalized on a relief at Karnak.

Parts of Karnak Temple

The Temple of Amon is a long series of structures divided by six large walls and pylons (massive gates). Between these walls are large halls and courtyards, some with obelisks. The "Propylaea of the South" is an extension that includes the seventh, eight, ninth and tenth pylons.

Visitors enter the Temple of Amon on the Avenue of the Criosphinxes, which consists of a walkway sided by a parallel row of sphinx statues with ram heads. The rams represent Amon. Beneath the rams heads are small statues of Ramses II. The Avenue of the Cryophinxes, leads to the first and largest pylon. Largely unadorned and built during the Roman-Greco Ptolemy era, the avenue is 113 meters wide and 15 meters thick.

The Ethiopian Courtyard (the first courtyard after the entrance to Karnak) dates back to the IX Dynasty. On the north side is an enclosed wall fronted by columns with closed papyrus capitals. In front of these are sphinxes commissioned by Ramses II. A giant column with an open papyrus capital is all that remains of the a massive pavilion of Ethiopian king Taharka. The pavilion was 21 meters high, had a wooden ceiling and was built to house sacred boats.

In front of the columns to the right is the Temple of Ramses III. On three sides of the interior of the temples are pillars fronted by statues of Ramses III with his arms crossedm holding a crook like the God Orisis. On the left side is the Temple of Seti I, dedicated to the chapels of the Thebes Triad: Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The white chapel of Semostris I and the alabaster chapel of Amenhotop I were rebuilt in the 1940s.

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Temple of Amun

The Second Pylon (far side of the Ethiopian Courtyard) was originally decorated with two massive winged pyramids. Today there is a fallen statue of Ramses II. The large 15-meter-high statue is the Colossus of Pinedjem, a Pharaoh from XXI Dynasty. There is a small statue of a priest between his legs. Sometimes this statue is described as being Ramses II and his favorite wife Nefertari.

Hypostyle Hall of Karnak Temple

The Hypostyle Hall of Karnak --- between the Second and Third Pylons, within the Karnak Temple complex, in the Precinct of Amon-Re --- is a massive hall, with 134 massive columns, that measures 102 meters by 53 meters and and was once covered by a roof. Running down the center of the hall are 12 gargantuan open-papyrus-shaped columns that soar 70 feet into the air. These columns are the tallest stone columns in the world. They were raised in 1270 B.C. It is said that there is enough room on the top of each of these columns to throw a party with 50 people. The hall itself is large enough to accommodate Notre Dame cathedral.

On both sides of the papyrus columns are 122 smaller but still massive closed-papyrus columns that rise up 42 feet. The temple and the column are so massive and overwhelming many tourists that stand transfixed with their mouths agape as they try to take it all in. The climatic scene of the movie version of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile was shot here as well as a chase scene from one of the Roger Moore James Bond movies.

It worthwhile spending some time in the hall to see how light and shade affect the columns as the sun moves across the sky. It is also worthwhile to get a guidebook of hieroglyphics and sit in the shade and try to decipher the texts written on the columns. Paintings remain on the undersides of the lintels that link the top of the columns. Look for a pillar with the carving of a scarab, the Egyptian symbol of fertility. Women who walk around this pillar seven times are expected to give birth shortly afterwards.

The Great Hypostyle Hall, covers 16,459 meters (54,000 square feet). The 134 massive columns are arranged in 16 rows. It is still the largest room of any religious building in the world. The 12 larger columns stand 24 meters (79 feet) high and have a circumference of (being 10 metres (33 ft). They line the central aisle, and with the other columns one supported a massive, now fallen, roof. The design was initially instituted by Hatshepsut, at the North-west chapel to Amun in the upper terrace of Deir el-Bahri. Some paint survives on the under side of the capitals and other places on some of the columns. The hall’s name refers to the hypostyle architectural pattern.[Source: Wikipedia, Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com ^^^]

Karnak Hypostyle Hall

The hall was built entirely by Seti I (ruled 1294 to 1279 B.C.) who inscribed the northern wing with inscriptions. The outer walls depict his battles. Scholars previously thought the hall was constructed by Horemheb or Amenhotep III. Decoration of the southern wing was completed by Ramesses II, who he usurped the decorations of his father along the main processional walk ways. The south wall is inscribed with a record of Ramesses II’s peace treaty with the Hittites which he signed in 21st year of his reign. Later pharaohs including Ramesses III, Ramesses IV and Ramesses VI added inscriptions to the walls and the columns in places their predecessors had left blank. ^^^

The northern side of the hall is decorated in raised relief, and was mainly Seti I's work. The southern side of the hall completed by Ramesses II has a sunken relief although he used raised relief at the beginning of his reign. Ramesses II also usurped decoration of his father along the main north-south and east-west processional ways of the hall, giving the impression that he was responsible for the building. However, most of Seti I's reliefs in the northern part of the hall were left untouched. The outer walls depict scenes of battle, Seti I on the north and Ramesses II on the south. Although these reliefs had religious and ideological functions, they are important records of the wars of these kings. ^^^

In 1899, 11 of the massive columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall toppled over domino style because their foundations were undermined by ground water. Georges Legrain, who was then the chief archaeologist in the area, oversaw their rebuilding that was completed in May 1902. Later, similar work was done to strengthen the rest of the columns of the Temple to ensure the same thing didn’t happen again. ^^^

Columns of Hypostyle Hall

According to the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project of the University of Memphis: The Great Hypostyle Hall is a forest of 134 giant sandstone columns in the form of papyrus stalks, with the 12 great columns in its central nave capped by huge open papyrus blossom capitals. The main east-west axis of the Hypostyle Hall is dominated by a double row of 12 giant columns. The 12 great columns are several meters taller than the 122 shorter closed-bud papyrus columns grouped on either side of the central aisle. The structural purpose of the twelve great columns was to support the higher roof of the clerestory in the central nave. [Source: Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project, University of Memphis <=>]

“All the columns in the hall represent papyrus stalks, and the 12 great ones have open capitals imitating the feathery blossoms of flowering papyrus.The diameters of the giant bell-shaped capitals are 5.4 meters (18 ft), wide enough to support 100 men. Natural papyrus stalks are not cylindrical but have three sides with ridges along each edge. The columns are round, but a slight ridge runs up each column like a vertical seam in imitation of the plant. <=>

“Every inch of these columns has been inscribed by Ramesses II. Royal cartouches and Ramesses' other royal titles have been inserted nearly everywhere possible from the base of the shafts to tiny ones on the outer rims of the papyrus capitals. Two huge vertical cartouches below the scenes on each column face the processional axis, marking Ramesses II's claim to be the owner of the Hypostyle Hall. Ramesses II even placed his cartouches on the papyrus blossom capitals of the great columns 20 meters above the viewer at ground level. Ramesses II also decorated each of the twelve columns with two scenes depicting him offering to the gods. One scene faced west towards the main entrance of the temple and the other faced towards the main aisle so that the scene faced south on the northern row of columns and north on the southern row. <=>

Decorations on the Columns of Hypostyle Hall

Hypostyle Hall columns

According to the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project of the University of Memphis: “Ramesses II's interventions on the twelve great columns of the central nave are more extensive than for the 122 smaller ones. At the start of his reign, the twelve also had a simpler decorative scheme. The two main phases of his reliefs on these columns can be distinguished by the presence of absence of palimpsests of raised relief that he later converted to sunk. Reliefs lacking these palimpsests will have been carved in sunk relief later than those originally carved in raised relief. Initially, decoration on the great columns was limited to the triangular leaf pattern at the base of the shafts, two scenes midway up the shafts, a frieze of cartouches and cobras near the top and a vegetation motif with small cartouches on the wide papyrus blossom capitals. Large areas of the shafts remained undecorated. [Source: Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project, University of Memphis <=>]

“In the Great Hypostyle Hall, Ramesses II inserted additional stereotyped decoration above and below the scenes. Immediately above the scenes came an additional frieze of large cartouches resting on gold-signs and surmounted by a solar disk with ostrich plumes but lacking a frieze of cobras. Just beneath the scene was a pair of tall vertical cartouches facing the main axis. Extending to either side of these were parallels horizontal bandeau texts giving the king's Horus and cartouche names and titles. He inserted nearly identical bandeaux on the fourteen columns of the Luxor Colonnade Hall in the same position. Below this at Karnak was a small horizontal bandeau text with a speech of Amun and a string of the king's names and titles. Finally, Ramesses inserted a cobra and cartouche motif in the blank spaces between the triangular peaks of the leaf pattern at the base of the shafts. All of his later inscriptions on the twelve great columns were carved solely in sunk relief with the long form of his prenomen and the Ra-ms-s form of his nomen indicating that they were carved after his first regnal year but before his 21st year. <=>

“Several decades later, Ramesses IV (ruled ca. 1153-1147 BCE) added his own cartouches over triangular leaf patterns at the base of the shafts. These are difficult to read because this king changed the spelling of his name and recut these inscriptions. Later still, Ramesses VI (ruled ca 1143-1136 BCE) took credit for these by placing his own name inside the cartouches. Plaster was used to cover the earlier versions each time. Most of this is gone, leaving a confusing jumble of hieroglyphs. In some places the plaster remains, testament to a Pharaonic "cover-up."” <=>

Karnak Obelisks

After the Third Pylon visitors come to the obelisk of Thumosis I. It is 23 meters tall and weighs 143 tons. Other obelisks were located here but they are now gone. After the Forth Pylon is the obelisk of Hatsheput. It is 30 meters high and weighs 200 tons. Queen Hatsheput reportedly spared no expenses and poured in "as many bushels of gold as sacks of wheat" to get the obelisk completed.

There were once six large obelisks and two smaller ones in this area. Among these are the Lateran Obelisk, now in Rome. The great obelisk at the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak is nearly 100 feet high and weighs about 323 tons---about the same as a 747 jumbo jet. The Red Chapel of Queen Hatashepsut (1505-1484 B.C.) is Karnak’s largest chapel at 100 square meters. Comprised of huge black granite and red quartzite slabs, it stood for only 20 years before it dismantled by her son-in-law and used for another structure. In 1996, it was reconstructed.

After the Fifth and Sixth Pylon at Karnak

After the Fifth and Sixth Pylon is the Sanctuary of the Sacred Boats, the Festival Hall (also known as the "Temple of Millions of Years"), the large ceremonial Hall of Tuthmosis III and the Temple of Tuthmosis III. All of these buildings were covered by a large roof. Further on are the Temple of Ramses II and the Portal of the East. To the north of Portal of the East are the Osiris Chapels.

The Fifth Pylon was raised by Tuthmosis II and the Seventh Pylon was raised by Tuthmosis III. The Festival Hall is a hypostyle hall painted red to imitate wood. It included a row of 32 pillars. Some have paintings from the A.D. 6th century that are in fairly good condition. They were made by Christian monks. In the Sanctuary of the Sacred Boats are reliefs that still contain centuries-old pigments. In 1996, archaeologists began reconstructing the chapel of Thutmosis IV using a crane from a bridge project to lay the 35-ton ceiling slabs.

Sacred Lake (outside the main hall) was used for purification and was regarded as the dominion of Amon. Measuring 120 meters by 77 meters, it is surrounded by buildings, storehouses, and priest's homes. In ancient times there was an aviary for aquatic birds. Sacred ducks and geese lived in the lake whcih also provided fresh water for purification rituals. Priests purified themselves in the morning in the waters before going about their duties.

Today the Sacred Lake surrounded by restaurants and souvenir stands. Nearby is a large granite scarab dedicated to the Khepr by Amonosis and offering storehouses. To the east of the Sacred Lake is a row is a viewing stand, used to watch the Light and Sound Show at night. From here there are good views of the entire Karnak Complex.

Propylaea of the South (extending from the south of main temple) is in the process of being restored. It includes the seventh, eight, ninth and tenth pylons and several colossal statues. Large portions have completed. Judging from the numbers of pieces laying around a lot of work still needs to be done.

Next to the main hall are rows and rows of piled stones. These are remnants from a temple built by Akhemtan. In the 1960s a journalist photographed 30,000 decorated blocks and with the aid of a computer attempted to piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle. The Portal of the South, Temple of Khonsu and Pylon of the Temple of Opet are located on a rise with good views of the Propylaea of the South.

The Sanctuary of Mut (one kilometer south of the main temple) includes the Portal of Ptolemy II Philadelph, Temple of Mut, Great Sacred Lake, Temple of Ramses III and Temple Amonosis III. Sanctuary for Montu (north of main temple) embraces the Temple of Montu, Temple of Maat, Portal of the North, and a Ptolemaic Temple.

Origins of the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: “The first incontrovertible evidence for the existence of a temple of Amun-Ra in the area of Karnak comes from the reign of Intef II in the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 B.C.). However, Egyptologists initially suspected that a temple existed at the site as early as the Old Kingdom (This early temple would have been dedicated to the individual god Amun rather than the syncretized deity “Amun-Ra,” as existing texts refer to Amun-Ra only after the Old Kingdom.). The “chamber of ancestors” in the Akhmenu “Festival Hall” contained a series of reliefs depicting Thutmose III offering to a select group of kings whom he honored as his ancestors. Because the (destroyed) cartouche of the first king in the series was followed by that of Sneferu, the first king of the 4th Dynasty, and the names of four subsequent Old Kingdom kings, some scholars interpreted this modified king-list as a record of the rulers who contributed constructions to the temple, thus pushing the temple’s existence back substantially to the late 3rd or early 4th Dynasty (around 2700 to 2550 B.C.) . [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

A statue of the Old Kingdom king Niuserra Isi, found in Georges Legrain’s excavations at Karnak in the early 1900s, seemed to denote a tie between the Old Kingdom and a temple to Amun. However, the statue was not necessarily dedicated to the god Amun, and whether it originally stood within a temple to this deity is impossible to know. Indeed, Luc Gabolde of the Centre Franco- Égyptien d’Étude des Temples de Karnak (CFEETK) has recently identified a statue inscribed for Pepy I, “beloved of Amun-Ra, Lord of Thebes,” as a Late Period (712–332 B.C.) votive offering probably found at Karnak. If the practice of depositing statues of kings from former times was common, the presence of Old Kingdom statuary in the Karnak “cachette” would not verify the existence of an Old Kingdom temple. Gabolde, in his study of the Middle Kingdom court, noted that Old Kingdom ceramics were completely lacking in that area, as well as in other areas of the temple investigated down to the presumed level of the Old Kingdom. Unless new evidence is discovered, these findings suggest that a temple to Amun, or to Amun-Ra, did not exist at Karnak before the First Intermediate Period. <>

“With the ascendancy of the Intef family, the first hard evidence for the presence of a temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak appears. It was during this period of royal ambition and display that Intef II is thought to have erected a small mud-brick temple, probably with a stone-columned portico, on the east bank for the god Amun-Ra. Evidence for this construction comes from a sandstone column found reused at Karnak that includes an inscription dedicated by that king. A stela from the Intef cemetery on the west bank that mentions the “Temple of Amun” also provides support for the contention that such a cult place was operating prior to the Middle Kingdom. Gabolde’s CFEETK excavations since the late 1990s have refocused interest on the earliest periods of the Amun-Ra Temple at Karnak. A series of small sandstone-block platforms, no larger than 10 × 10 m, were examined. These platforms, located along the west side of the later “Middle Kingdom court,” lay below the levels of the thresholds of the Middle Kingdom temple of Senusret I (discussed below). Gabolde dated one phase of the reused sandstone in the series of platforms to the early Dynasty 11 kings based on a number of factors, including the similarity of the stone to other constructions of that period at Thebes. Other reused blocks, a few with fragments of relief scenes, could be dated to the later 11th and early 12th Dynasties. The platform therefore appeared to be the location of the original temple and portico of Intef II, dismantled soon after his reign, and replaced or rebuilt by the later 11th Dynasty kings and subsequently Amenemhat I at the same location.” <>

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ariel view of Karnak

Karnak Temple Under Thutmose I and II in the Early New Kingdom

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: ““The construction efforts of Thutmose I had a great impact on the arrangement of the temple for years to come. Scholars have generally attributed both the fourth and fifth pylons to the king, as well as a corresponding stone enclosure wall, which together still form the core area of the temple. Thutmose I originally lined the court of the fifth pylon with a portico of 16 fasciculated columns. By erecting the first pair of granite obelisks at Karnak in front of the fourth pylon (the temple’s main gate at the time), Thutmose began an association of obelisks with the god Amun-Ra that may have bolstered the divinity’s rising universality. His act was emulated and outperformed (with taller and larger obelisks) by a number of 18th and 19th Dynasty rulers. [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“Politically, Karnak took on new importance in the 18th Dynasty, as the pharaohs began to use the temple as a means of demonstrating their divinely ordained selection as king. The enhancements of Thutmose I highlight this change: among his contributions to the temple was the addition of a wadjet hall, where coronation rituals took place with the god Amun-Ra sanctioning the choice. The wadjet hall was originally an open-air court between the new fourth and fifth pylons of the king.

“Thutmose II added a new pylon to the west of the old temple entrance (later torn down for the construction of the third pylon, so it does not figure in the pylon numbering system at Karnak), creating a large “festival court,” enclosing the obelisks of Thutmose I within the building, and establishing a new western gate to Karnak. Along the hall’s south side, a small pylon entrance led to the constructions along the temple’s southern axis. Gabolde has used blocks found in the third pylon to reconstruct the appearance of the inscribed doors, side walls, and small pylon of the court. <>

“Thutmose II commissioned a pair of red granite obelisks, inscribed fragments of which have been found at Karnak, presumably for placement in his new hall. Gabolde has reconstructed (on paper) one of these monoliths. The preserved inscriptions of the king show that the monument originally belonged to him, but that he must have died before it could be completed and raised, as Hatshepsut added her own inscription, with a dedication to her father, Thutmose I. Two socles found subsumed by the third pylon and its gate likely mark the location of these obelisks . <>

“Tura limestone blocks probably recovered from the “cachette court” provide evidence that Thutmose II had constructed a two- roomed bark-shrine for the temple, similar in form to the later “Red Chapel” of Hatshepsut. The bark shrine may have stood in the future location of the Red Chapel, in front of the Senusret I temple, or it may have been positioned in the new “festival court” of the king. The chronology of its destruction is not defined, but modified inscriptions show it must have been dismantled between the ascension of Hatshepsut to the kingship and her proscription at the end of the reign of Thutmose III. <>

“A painted scene from the Theban tomb of Neferhotep (TT 49) implies that at some time in the 18th Dynasty, a giant T-shaped basin connected to the Nile by a canal was cut on the west side of the temple. A rectangular quay is depicted as flanking its eastern edge. If the basin was located in the vicinity of the later second pylon, as Michel Gitton suggested in his reconstruction of Karnak in the reign of Hatshepsut, the Nile must have shifted westward from its location in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). It is perhaps this shift that allowed the westward expansion of the temple in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.). The presence of a canal and basin may equally have limited further movement of the temple west at this time.” <>

Karnak model

Karnak Temple Under Queen Hatshepsut

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: “The wadjet hall would be dramatically changed during the reign of Hatshepsut. The queen removed her father’s numerous stone columns and replaced them with five gilded- wood papyriform wadj-columns (wadj being the Egyptian term for papyrus). In the center of the hall she erected two red granite obelisks (one remains standing today) with electrum overlay. These tall monuments prevented her from roofing the hall completely, but she covered the side aisles of the hall with a wooden ceiling. The queen’s obelisks were dedicated to the celebration of her Sed Festival in the 16th year of her reign. [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“Hatshepsut transformed the very core of Karnak, removing the Osiride portico of the Middle Kingdom temple and most of the forecourt constructions of Amenhotep I, including his entrance gate and bark chapels. To the front of Senusret’s temple, she appended a suite of rooms, her “Palace of Maat”. The queen ordered a beautiful two-roomed bark chapel of rose quartzite and black diorite, the Red Chapel, as a showpiece for Amun-Ra. In their recent republication of the chapel, CFEETK scholars concluded that the chapel’s placement was, as traditionally thought, within the Palace of Maat. As the insertion of the chapel into the Palace of Maat would only have been possible if renovations to the palace’s original rooms (including the removal of a number of the walls on the northern side) took place during the reign of the queen, it seems that Hatshepsut re-envisioned these rooms expressly to expand the area for her Red Chapel, finished only sometime around year 17 of her reign. <>

“Over 200 limestone blocks recovered primarily from the “cachette court” have been identified by Gabolde as part of a multiple- roomed structure (named the Netjery-Menu) dated to the early co-regency of the queen. Relief scenes and inscriptions depict Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, her daughter Neferura, and Thutmose III involved in the temple’s daily ritual. ....Another recently rediscovered monument of the queen’s was composed of a number of limestone niches dedicated to the royal statuary cult. These niches, also dated to the early years of the queen’s co-regency, were seemingly removed before she ascended to the throne as king.

“Hatshepsut placed another pair of obelisks at the eastern edge of Karnak, outside the stone enclosure walls of Thutmose I. Although now destroyed, the obelisks are mentioned in a quarry inscription at Aswan and depicted in the queen’s temple at Deir el Bahri. Luc Gabolde and scholars from the CFEETK have been working on documenting pieces from these obelisks, and they have reconstructed their appearance as displaying a central line of hieroglyphs, flanked by scenes of Hatshepsut (and sometimes her nephew) with the god Amun-Ra. “A large stone pylon, the eighth, was constructed by the queen to the south of the temple, along what appears to have been the established north-south processional route...Reused blocks from the queen’s temple of Mut have recently been discovered during excavations at that site, and the Thutmoside temple and an accompanying triple bark-shrine at Luxor are known to have played a role in the queen’s Opet Festival ceremonies.” <>

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Karnak Temple Under Thutmose III

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: “Karnak experienced another period of vast change during the reign of Thutmose III. The greatest addition was a huge temple, the Akhmenu Festival Hall, placed behind Karnak’s east wall, built after the king’s 23rd year. The structure consisted of a large pillared hall leading to a set of three shrines, a series of rooms dedicated to the god Sokar, a hall decorated with relief scenes of flora and fauna observed during the king’s foreign military campaigns, a chamber with niched walls that served as the main shrine of the divine image, and an upper sun-court. The exact cultic nature of the temple remains elusive, but it may have held ceremonies for the regeneration of the king on earth. [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“A new stone enclosure wall was constructed, enclosing the Akhmenu in the greater temple complex. The obelisks of Hatshepsut were incorporated into a small contra-temple along the enclosure’s eastern wall. Contra-temples, usually appended to the rear wall of a temple and opening outward, provided a location for those not allowed within the temple proper (such as the public) to interact with the divinities. Often statues of the king were located at these shrines, and people would petition the images to act as intermediaries with the gods on their behalf. At the center of Karnak’s contra-temple stood a large calcite naos with a dyad of Thutmose III and the god Amun-Ra (although it originally may have depicted Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, with the queen’s figure later recarved). <>

“Thutmose III also added a stone pylon (the seventh) and connecting walls between the queen’s pylon and the temple wall along the southern processional route. In front of the pylon, he raised red granite obelisks. Along the east wall of the eighth pylon’s forecourt, he placed a calcite bark-shrine surrounded by peripteral pillars. This may have replaced the earlier calcite shrine of Amenhotep I at the same location, as Thutmose III gave his shrine an identical name. <>

“A huge sacred lake was cut into the space southeast of the temple. This may have been an expansion of a pre-existing lake at the same location. To the east of the lake a large mud- brick enclosure wall with exterior bastions was constructed, traditionally assigned to Thutmose III (although it may actually be older). The wall was enlarged and renovated in at least three phases, the last of which may date to as late as the 25th Dynasty...To the north of the main precinct, the king erected a small sandstone temple to the god Ptah (possibly replacing an earlier one of mud-brick). A hall with two columns fronted the temple’s triple sanctuary. <>

“Within the central core of Karnak, Thutmose III ordered significant remodeling. Behind the fifth pylon, he had a smaller pylon erected, the sixth, creating a small pillared court in front of the Palace of Maat. He replaced the limestone chapels of Amenhotep I along the sides of this court with sandstone replicas whose decoration commemorated the earlier king. Walls were appended to the east faces of the fifth and sixth pylons and a granite gate was erected between the pylons, creating a corridor along the temple’s central axis to the Palace of Maat. Although he appears to have continued the decoration of Hatshepsut’s unfinished Red Chapel, the king eventually removed and dismantled the chapel, with the front and rear doors reused in an interior wall of the palace’s northern suite of rooms and the new corridor behind the sixth pylon. Some of the palace’s interior walls were removed, either by the king, or earlier, by Hatshepsut, to allow the emplacement of the central bark-shrine. The Red Chapel was replaced with a new granite shrine, of similar size and shape, and a new entrance portico was designed for the Palace of Maat. <>

“Possibly due to damage incurred in the wadjet hall from heavy rainstorms, Thutmose III began a total reworking of the space. A stone gateway was erected around the obelisks of Hatshepsut, completely encapsulating their lower portions. He ordered the removal of the wooden wadj- columns, intending to replace them with six sandstone columns in the north half of the hall and eight in the south. The interior walls of the court were covered with a skin of stone, obscuring the original statue recesses of Thutmose I. Before his death, it appears that the king only had time to roof the northern part of the hall with sandstone slabs, supported by his network of pillars, gateway, and court walls. Amenhotep II finished the work, raising the eight southern columns and their roof. Thutmose III raised his own pair of granite obelisks between those of Thutmose I and II in the festival court before the fourth pylon. The bases of these obelisks have been discovered bordering the east side of the third pylon.” <>

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Karnak rams

Karnak Temple Under Amenhotep III

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: “Amenhotep III’s initial work at Karnak was a continuation of the activities of his father centered on the festival court of Thutmose II. He finished the decoration on his father’s shrine and likely added a northern door to the mud-brick precinct wall aligned with the hall’s north-south axis. Later, he dramatically re-envisioned the temple, tearing down the pylon erected by Thutmose II and destroying most of the festival court west of the fourth pylon. He built a new pylon to the east, the third pylon, using stone blocks of the removed structures in its foundation and fill. The western half of Thutmose IV’s peristyle, his calcite bark-shrine, the limestone White Chapel of Senusret I, the calcite chapel of Amenhotep I, and the loose blocks of the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut all fell victim to the renovations. [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“Amenhotep III began construction on a new pylon (the tenth) to the south of Hatshepsut’s eighth pylon, extending the southern processional route towards the Mut Temple. While building was still at its beginning stages, he had two colossal statues of himself placed flanking the pylon entrance. With only a few courses completed on the pylon, the king must have died, as construction halted and was not to be resumed until the reign of Horemheb. <>

“Two other important structures built by Amenhotep III, both of whose exact location within the precinct remains unknown, attest to some of the less-documented aspects of the temple’s role in the city as a center of storage and production. Sandstone blocks from the “granary of Amun” have been found reused as fill in the towers of the second pylon. Contemporary Theban tomb scenes portray the granary as a structure with multiple rectangular rooms, each heaped high with mounds of grain. A second building, a shena- wab, was the site of the preparation of temple offerings. Parts of an inscribed stone door from this building were uncovered near the ninth and tenth pylons, and the shena-wab may have been located in the southeast quarter of the precinct.” <>

Seti I and Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: “Sety I exploited the huge space created between the second and third pylons to establish a new locus for the celebration of important rituals and festivals. The pharaoh erected a massive hypostyle hall with 12 sandstone columns supporting a central nave and 122 sandstone columns filling the side aisles. It was roofed with sandstone, and light entered the hall through clerestory stone window grills. See Peter Brand’s “The Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project.” [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“That Sety I—and not any of his predecessors—originally constructed the hypostyle hall is supported by examinations of the building. Peter Brand observed that the earliest inscriptions on the clerestory windows and architraves of the central colonnade date to this king’s reign. By studying the methods by which the hall was decorated (which for these highest places was achieved before the mud-brick construction ramps were removed), Brand has shown that the original carving of the area must have been done immediately following the placement of the roof and clerestory blocks, thus during Sety I’s reign. <>

“During his lifetime, Sety’s artisans inscribed the northern half of the interior of the hall with beautifully carved relief scenes depicting cult activity. The vestibule of the third pylon, now enclosed within the hall, was altered. The smiting scenes of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten on its north wall were covered over with stone blocks. On the north exterior wall, the king’s battles against numerous foreign foes were memorialized in a series of monumental relief scenes.” <>

Karnak frieze

Karnak Temple Under Ramesses II

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote: “Ramesses II completed and altered Sety I’s unfinished decorative program on the walls and columns of the hypostyle hall. Battle scenes of the king were added to the hall’s southern exterior wall, paralleling the military decoration of his father on the north wall. The girdle wall enclosing the temple on its southern and eastern ends, built by Thutmose III, was now adorned with deeply carved relief scenes and inscriptions. [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“In the eastern section of Karnak, the king added a small shrine to the “unique” obelisk of Thutmose IV. The shrine, called “the temple of Amun-Ra, Ramesses, who hears prayers,” consisted of a gateway and pillared hall with a central false door. Two lateral doors led to the object of veneration, the “unique” obelisk. A number of the column drums used for the hall were clearly taken from an earlier Thutmoside structure, and there is some evidence that there had been a shrine in this location previously. The chapel seems to have functioned similarly to a contra-temple, as it was accessible to the public who visited for oracular judgments. Further east, along the temple’s east-west axis, Ramesses II added an entrance to eastern Karnak, marked by two red granite obelisks and a pair of red granite sphinxes. <>

“To the west of the Amun-Ra Temple’s main gate, the second pylon, Pinedjem may have placed a line of 100 or more criosphinxes on stone pedestals. This sphinx avenue is traditionally assigned to Ramesses II, whose titles are inscribed on the small statuettes between the animals’ paws. A new theory, however, argues that the sphinxes, which stylistically appear to have been carved under Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III, stood at Luxor Temple in the 18th and 19th Dynasties. When Ramesses II modified that temple, he usurped the statues and rearranged them before his new court at Luxor. According to the theory, they were only moved to Karnak in the 21st Dynasty, when Pinedjem added his own name and inscriptions to the socles. The exact length and terminus of this avenue remain unknown, as it was later reorganized when new constructions changed the front of the temple in the 25th Dynasty, but it likely extended up to the (later) first pylon, or to a quay beyond.” <>

Karnak Temple After Ramesses II

Elaine Sullivan of UCLA wrote:“Sety II was the next pharaoh to add significant structures to Karnak. In front of the second pylon (the west gate of the temple at the time), he placed a three-roomed quartzite and sandstone bark-shrine oriented perpendicularly to the north of the processional route. Its sanctuaries were dedicated to Amun, Mut, and Khons, and the barks of these gods would have paused here during festival journeys outside the temple. [Source: Elaine Sullivan, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“Building activity at Karnak at the start of the 20th Dynasty showed no signs of slowing down. Ramesses III added his own bark shrine to the area in front of the temple, opposite that of Sety II. This shrine took the shape and size of a small temple, including a small pylon, a court with colossal statue pillars, a hypostyle hall, and a sanctuary. Immediately north of the Amun-Ra Temple proper, Ramesses III renewed the inscribed stone gate of Amenhotep III in the mud-brick enclosure wall just north of the third pylon. To the south, Ramesses III built a temple to the child-god Khons. Study of the temple’s foundations showed that its design and construction began under Ramesses III, although some of the building elements may have been completed by later kings. The date and form of the earlier temple of Khons on this location is unknown, although reused blocks in the bark sanctuary suggest to some scholars that such a cult building was present at least by the reign of Amenhotep III. However, these blocks, as well as the sphinxes of Amenhotep III creating an avenue to the south of the temple, may instead have been quarried from the mortuary temple of that king on the west bank of the river. <>

“Ramesses IV continued construction on the Khons Temple, additionally inserting his own cartouches and decoration to the innermost areas. Within the Amun-Ra Temple proper, he drastically altered the appearance of the hypostyle hall by appending his cartouches to the columns, as well as carving new relief scenes on most of the shafts. <>

“But the later Ramesside kings could not maintain the feverish pace of construction sponsored by the wealthier New Kingdom rulers, and building activity tapered off sharply. Ramesses IX built the only significant structure, gracing the door to the southern processional route with a monumental inscribed gateway. The most substantial contributions of the last king of the dynasty, Ramesses XI, and Herihor, his “High Priest of Amun,” were the scenes and inscriptions in the Khons Temple’s forecourt and hypostyle hall.” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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