Karnak Temple, located on the east bank of modern-day Luxor, was the largest cult centre in ancient Egypt. Dedicated to the prominent state-deity Amun-Re, Karnak incorporates a temple also to his son, the god Khonsu, and is connected to a temple precinct to the south dedicated to his wife, the goddess Mut. In modern times, Karnak Temple remains the largest temple site open to visitors and is one of the most frequently visited Egyptian heritage sites every year. Exploring Karnak on your own can be overwhelming, even to return visitors! For our first travel blog, the Nile Scribes have put together an easy list of things to see.
Karnak Temple’s beginnings remain ambiguous before the Middle Kingdom, but a sandstone column of the Eleventh Dynasty king Intef II may date to the earliest structure there. Amun-Re’s temple complex also incorporated smaller shrines to other deities (Egyptian religion valued synergy over exclusivity) including a Chapel of Osiris-Heqa-Djet, a Chapel of Ptah, and the recently discovered shrine of Osiris-Ptah-Neb, among many others.
1. Open-Air Museum
The Open-Air Museum at Karnak Temple is easy to miss because Amun-Re’s temple complex is so large that visitors can easily spend their entire day walking among the courts, pylons, and sanctuaries of the main temple, and still not see it all. After a quick look around the First Open Court and before you get to the Hypostyle Hall, head left through a stone gateway.
Aside from the rows of incredible blocks and stone statues displayed here, the Open-Air Museum has two major claims to fame: the White Chapel of Senusret I and the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut. Both chapels were rediscovered after having been dismantled and reused and both had functioned as barque shrines (way stations along processional routes where priests could set sacred barques). Take advantage of this quiet corner of the temple complex to see some of the best pieces Karnak has to offer.
2. Khonsu Temple
At the other end of the First Open Court is the Bubastite Portal, a gateway built by Twenty-Second Dynasty king Sheshonq I. A pathway out this gateway now leads you to a Third Intermediate Period temple dedicated to the son in the Theban Triad: Khonsu. The Temple of Khonsu, before which stands the stunning gateway built by Ptolemy III (the Bab el-Amara), is the most complete element of the Karnak temple complex. Entry to the Khonsu Temple is included with the Karnak Temple ticket and it is worth visiting both for its preservation and the historical insight it provides on the transitionary period between the end of the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period. For many years, American, French, and Egyptian conservators have worked to remove the soot from the temple walls and ceilings, revealing stunning colors underneath. It is easy to forget that all of the walls at Karnak were once brilliantly painted but have since been bleached away by the sunlight. Khonsu Temple’s intact ceiling and painted relief scenes has a way of making you feel like you stepped back in time.
3. Thutmose III’s Festival Hall
As you make your way into the central part of Karnak along the the main axis, you will pass through the fourth and fifth pylons into the inner sanctuary. Behind Karnak’s main sanctuary is a structure known as the Akh-Menu, or Festival Hall of Thutmose III from the Eighteenth Dynasty. Visitors today can still marvel at the many instances where colour is preserved on the ceilings and columns. The columns, painted in red with bands of yellow and blue at the top, feature an intriguing style and reflect poles in a tent shrine.
While there is still some debate as to its function, Thutmose III likely built the Hall to celebrate his sed-festival. Near the entrance corridor is the so-called “Hall of the Ancestors” where excavators found a king-list with over 60 rulers depicted as seated figures with their names enclosed in a cartouche above them. In the north-eastern part of the Hall is the well-known Botanical Garden. It is a chamber, which is elaborately decorated with scenes of numerous foreign plants and animals, which Thutmose III acquired during his campaigns in the Near East.
4. Egyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty
Ramesses the Great recorded his ‘defeat’ of the Hittites at Kadesh on numerous temples across Egypt, including at Luxor, Abu Simbel, and Abydos. It wasn’t until 15 years after the Kadesh battle, however, that Ramesses II and Hittite king Hattusili III agreed to a peace treaty protecting the interests of both peoples. It is preserved in perpetuity in a hieroglyphic text on the outer wall of the Cachette Court at Karnak Temple. Today, it can be difficult – if you don’t know where to look – to identify the treaty among endless wall inscriptions. Many of the portions are now badly rubbed away, but this wall stele commemorates an important moment from the history of the ancient Near East when, in 1259 BC, both kings agreed never to invade each others lands. Along with a cuneiform version on clay tablets found at Hattusa, this is the oldest surviving peace treaty in history.
5. Sacred Lake
Toward the south-eastern part of the complex is the enormous Sacred Lake, which today still holds water from an underground source. Perhaps the easiest part of the complex to find, visitors will see the famous “lucky” scarab statue beside the lake, which has garnered importance within local folklore perhaps dating back to ancient times. While the scarab itself dates to the reign of Amenhotep III, Karnak is not its original location: it may have belonged to the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III and was moved to Karnak under King Taharqa of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. The lake that we know today goes back to the reign of Taharqa, who also added a building just north of the lake. This contained a deep well to measure the level of the Nile (as a nilometer) and the building itself may have taken inspiration from other parts of Karnak.
Sacred lakes, of course, were very important in ancient Egyptian temple complexes as priests were required to performing purification rituals – in some cases, festivals would also be carried out on the lake such as the one within the Precinct of Mut to the south. Here at Karnak, the lake served for the sailing of sacred boats and as a source of water for the performance of purification rituals. Archaeologists have also discovered remains of buildings at the southern part of the lake and have determined that these must have housed the residents of various flying fauna – the goose was another zoomorphic symbol of the god Amun. The birds, of course, would have enjoyed the nearby lake.
There are endless available guidebooks to the Luxor monuments, but here are our favourite books for learning more about Karnak Temple:
Blyth, E. 2006. Karnak. Evolution of a Temple. New York: Routledge. – A very detailed history of Karnak Temple throughout the various periods.
- Shafer, B., ed. 1997. Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: I.B. Tauris. – Shafer’s edited volume provides a good overview not only of the development of Egyptian temples, but also their many functions. Karnak is mentioned prominently in the chapter on the New Kingdom.
- Weeks, K.R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor: Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. – Having worked in the Theban area for several decades, Weeks’ illustrated guide is an excellent introduction to the various monuments found in Luxor.
- Wilkinson, R.H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. – This has become a standard work in Egyptology for anyone interested in Egyptian temples.