Karnak is much more than just a temple, it was also an important intellectual sentre, a spectacular complex of temples, chapels, pylons, obelisks and sanctuaries, covering more than 400 ha (900 acres) – enough space for 10 cathedrals. Every pharaoh of note built, destroyed, enlarged, embellished or restored part of the complex to express his devotion to Amun. In the process, Karnak became one of the largest and most magnificent temple complexes in the ancient world.
The most accessible part of Karnak is the Precinct of Amun, which seems like an endless succession of massive pylons (temple gateways), monumental statues and grand hypostyle walls. The precinct is approached from the “Processional Way of ram-headed sphinxes (Amun was often represented as a human wearing ram horns), which connected with the temple of Luxor. This leads to the First Pylon which, at 43m (141 feet) high and 130m (426 feet) wide is the largest in Egypt, even though it was never finished. In the forecourt you’ll find Seti II’s shrine, which housed the sacred boats of the triad and, in the south corner, the superb Temple of Ramses III (20th Dynasty), also thought to be a way station for the sacred boats. The walls of this small temple, which follows the perfect plan of the classical temple, are decorated with scenes of the annual Opet festival. In front of the Second Pylon rises the granite colossus of the ubiquitous Ramses II with one of his many daughters beside him.
Behind the Second Pylon lies the most spectacular sight of all, the 13th-century BC Great Hypostyle Hall-an amazing “forest” of more than 140 tall papyrus pillars covering 5,500sq m (59,200sq feet), built by Seti I and his son Ramses II. Beyond the Hypostyle Hall lies a rather larger and more confusing section of the temple, built during the 18th Dynasty (1550-1295 BC). In the courtyards beyond the Third and Fourth Pylons are the finely carved obelisks of Tuthmosis II and, farther on, of the female pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut (1473-58 BC). The tip of her fallen obelisk lies on the way to the Sacred Lake.
Past the Sixth Pylon stand two elegant pillars carved with lotus and papyrus flowers, symbolic of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the granite Sanctuary of Amun, built by Philip Arrhidaeus, the half-brother of Alexander the Great. This is where Amun’s effigy was kept and where, as the images on the walls show, daily offerings were made in his honour. Beyond lies a large Central Court and the Jubilee Temple of Tithmosis, where the king’s vitality and authority was symbolically renewed during the jubilee. It’s interesting that this huge temple complex was only entered by the powerful priesthood; lay Egyptians were excluded and used intermediary deities, whose shrines they built against the temple’s enclosure wall. One such series of chapels, known as the Chapels of the Hearing Ear, lies at the back of the Jubilee Temple.
Between the Third and the Fourth Pylons the temple spreads southwards along the side of the Sacred Lake. In 1903, in the Cachette Court in front of the lake, some 17,000 bronze and 800 stone statues were uncovered. The finest of them are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The Open Air Museum houses a few reconstructions of earlier buildings, twofine barque shrines and an elegant 12th Dynasty white chapel with fine carvings.
-The temple can get very crowded with tour groups from 10:30 am to 3 pm, but earlier or later, when the light is at its best, you could have the place more or less to yourself.
-A splendid 90-minute son et lumiere show is held three or four times, in different languages, each evening. The first part of the show is a walk through the floodlit temple, the other part is viewed from a theatre beyond the Sacred Lake.