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Karnak: The largest temple on Earth

The religious complex of Karnak, in Luxor, is the largest ancient religious site in the world. It was the Vatican of its day – and four millennia after its heydays, continues to dwarf all other religious buildings. Here, we are confronted with the reason what has made Egypt so enchanting.

Philip Coppens


The word “amen” is at the end of many Christian prayers. Yet few Christians are aware that the word itself is a direct reference to the Egyptian god Amen, or Amun, the chief deity of Karnak. Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world and was “the Vatican” of Egyptian religion for two millennia – hence longer than the timeframe in which the Vatican has been the centre of Christianity so far.
The area of the sacred enclosure of Amun alone – there are three other sacred enclosures at Karnak, not open to the public – is 61 acres and would hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big that St Peter’s, Milan’s and Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedrals could be lost within its walls. It literally dwarfs everything else. The Hypostyle hall, at 54,000 square feet with 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, portraying on any visitor a sense of respect and vastness no single pyramid can ever offer. Pyramids leave the visitor with the impression why and how they did this; Karnak shows the raw power, wealth and prestige this temple possessed.

The temple was founded in the Middle Kingdom by the second ruler of the 12th Dynasty, Senusret II (ca. 1971-1928 BC), and marked the ascent of the deity Amun. Virtually nothing remains of this temple. Whether the temple was new, or replaced another, is also not known; in fact, we do not when Karnak was founded; all we know is that more than one millennium into Dynastic Egypt, the power shifted from the North, to Karnak – or Ipet-Sut, “Most Select of Places” – as it was known then.
Amun himself was known as “The Hidden One” and it is a matter of record that the deity shied away from public exposure. As a temple, Karnak was constructed to shield the statue of the deity from human eyes – and, so it seems, light.
The columns of the Luxor temple are, in the forecourt, based on the papyrus plant and, near the Holiest of Holies, on the lotus flower. Echoing ancient traditions that can be traced to the Sumerian city of Eridu (dating back to the 5th millennium BC), the builders tried to build out of gigantic stone blocks a structure that was to resemble a simple reed hut. So rather than building a genuine reed hut – which must have taken a matter of hours or a few days at most – the ancient Egyptians quarried and built with gigantic stones, to create in stone what had once been created from reed. This, of course, is testimony of the original culture of the Egyptians, which was a ‘shamanic’, tribal culture; no matter what level of technical expertise they had achieved, they seemed unwilling to forget their origins.
Both the Luxor temple and the original reed huts tried to shield out the sunlight, to create dark, sacred space. One can only wonder whether this approach dates back to the time of early mankind, when caves were used as sanctuaries. What is known, is that inside this “hut temple”, the statues of the – and other – gods resided, as well as statues of the pharaohs.

At no point was the general public admitted within the temple halls and sanctuary. Even the priests had to purify themselves before being allowed entry. The inside of the buildings were constantly dim and incense-laden, and sacred rituals were almost constantly performed in front of the statues, themselves normally hidden from view, in niches. Like the Temple of Solomon, incense was key and many kings boasted of sending expeditions to exotic lands – i.e. Punt – to bring back large quantities of this product.
The chief residence of the statue of Amun was the Holy of Holies, which is now completely destroyed. It is believed to have been a room of small dimensions, containing the naos (of granite) in which was housed the god’s statue, and in whose image was believed to have rested the great creative force of the god. One naos that has been recovered was carved from a single block of black granite, measure 1.75 metres in height, fitted with folding doors or bronze, or possibly of a precious wood with gold panels. Only the king or high priest could come here, making the contact between the supreme deity and the supreme leaders a very intimate encounter.
Pharaohs of the New Kingdom regularly consulted the oracle of Amun on major decisions of state, such as going to war, appointments, building new temples, etc. The question to be put to the god was read out before the divine image by the king or a high priest, whereby the god conveyed his assent or denial by the backward or forward movements of his image within the bark.
In the temple of Kom Ombo, another popular tourist destination along the Nile, the high-priest replied to the questions of the king posed to the deity as if it was the god speaking himself. An underground passage connected the altar where the king resided to the statue of the god, so that the high priest could listen to the questions of the king and reply from below the statue of the god. Though bogus to the logical mind, to the poetic mind it created an impressive personal contact between the “gods” and the pharaohs.

Egyptologist Elizabeth Blyth adds that “what deeply veiled rituals were enacted within the secluded sanctuary, we cannot begin to guess, but in the course of these unknown and mysterious ceremonies, the king communed directly with Amun, receiving the god’s divine power, renewal and life.” What these statues looked like, is unknown, though it is known that for those statues that were made, special ceremonies – the Opening of the Mouth – were held. This ceremony was to endow statues with divine life: providing a statue the ability to speak. And it appears, judging from such texts as the Egyptian Lament, that everyone believed that these statues were indeed able to speak; that they were “possessed” by the spirit of a deity, very much like popular belief sees “possessions by demons” in Hollywood movies.
To the ancient Egyptians, the statue was alive – and we can only wonder what to make of modern newspaper accounts that related how museum staff was petrified when they noticed that some ancient Egyptian statues had moved on their own, each night, within their display cabinets.

In the Luxor Museum, there is a depiction of a female deity gently embracing the pharaoh, patting him on the back. The scene is emotional, depicting the love of the goddess for the pharaoh, who is depicted as being guided by the goddess herself in his task and role of pharaoh. The Egyptians considered their gods to be nearby, and living; they are not a distant god, unreachable by Mankind. They are gentle, guiding principles. The gods are on intimate terms with the priests and kings, and are treated in many aspects as living beings.
That the ancient Egyptians felt their statues were alive, is in evidence inside the Temple of Karnak, when they decided to install a ventilation system. The living conditions for the chief god of ancient Egypt had to be comfortable during the hot Egyptian summer months. Hence, using massive stone slabs, they built a double ceiling, through which air could flow. It is a ventilation technique that is used to this very day in our modern buildings. Though time and earthquakes have destroyed portions of the system, to this day, the building is definitely colder than the surrounding area.

As is the case in the Vatican, many pharaohs wanted to be as close to the Holy of Holies of Karnak as possible. As space was limited, various pharaohs vied for space, building temples as close to, or upon each other, some of which were carefully broken down by their successors, to be substituted with newer temples.
Senusret himself had a White Chapel built, now in the Open Air Museum, constructed by the king for his first sed-festival. Indeed, most of the temples that were built within the temple of Karnak were linked with the sed-festivals. These were ceremonies, the first of which was normally held in the 30th year of a pharaoh’s rule, whereby the king “proved” his agility to rule the nation. Each such ceremony initiated a series of building works, normally a temple, as well as a commemorative obelisk.
Tuthmosis I was the first to erect obelisks in Karnak for his sed festival. It was 22 metres high, of red granite and had its pinnacle encased in electrum or gold. Each obelisk weighed ca. 130 tonnes, and they were floated down the Nile from Aswan on a barge, itself measuring 68 metres long, 20 metres wide. Tuthmosis celebrated five sed festivals, and on each occasion, obelisks were set up to commemorate the event: the first three pairs were erected in Karnak, the fourth in Heliopolis (now located in London) and his fifth is now in Rome – the so-called “Lateran” obelisk.
The cult of the obelisk seems to have been specifically linked with the sed festival, and seems to have earned Karnak – by the time of the New Kingdom – a new name: Iwnnw-sm, “the Heliopolis of the south”, in the knowledge that the sed festivals of the Old Kingdom were held at Heliopolis, a town which at one point also seems to have been dominated by obelisks.

The extravaganza of Karnak – the various building projects sitting closely next to, if not on top of, each other – is very much like modern Manhattan: skyscrapers vying for space, close to each other, as if Manhattan is the only place on Earth where skyscrapers can be built. And just like many see Manhattan as the symbol of modern America, the temple of Karnak is seen as the pearl of Southern Egypt. G.E. Kidder Smith in his history of architecture described it as “It is doubtful if any building yet designed has attained the dramatic power of the hypostyle hall of the Egyptian temple. The hypostyle of the Temple of Amun is the most prodigious ever erected”. Though to modern eyes, the hypostyle hall might seem to be “but” an “entrance hall” to another building, it is now known that it was conceived as a temple in itself, and had autonomy, including its own treasury. It is also accepted that the hall remained part of the route taken by the processions and it is even assumed that the sacred barks were assembled here.
But apart from temples, either built on top of, as a replacement for, or as an extension to, existing older temples, other pharaohs also decided to extend the Karnak temple complex, eventually making it into the largest in the world. What Imhotep was for the pyramids (he largely invented them), Ineni did to Karnak. He was the architect that worked at Karnak under the reign of Amenhotep I, and continued for Tuthmosis I. He made Karnak architecturally what it is today: a sanctuary enclosed in screened walls, with colonnaded courtyards, its great hypostyle reception hall of the god, the monumental entrance with its pylon and flagstaffs, fronted by obelisks. It is an architectural approach that typifies most if not all of the temples along the river Nile, whether it is Edfu, Luxor or Kom Ombo.

With little innovation left to achieve, pharaohs decided to extend the complex, largely by the creation of processional ways, paved with stone and lined with sphinxes, statues and shrines, and even small temples. Specifically, the road to the neighbouring sanctuary of Luxor has become the best-known, if only because of it being lined with hundreds of sphinxes. This road was travelled during the Opet festival, a festival that possibly rose to prominence during Queen Hatshepsut’s reign. During her reign, the festival lasted 11 days; by Ramesses III’s time, approximately three centuries later, 27 days.
The festival was to celebrate the sexual union between Amun and the mother of the reigning king, which occurred at Luxor. As a female pharaoh, it is quite straightforward to divine why Hatshepsut would want to underline this festival. The statues of the two gods remained together for the duration of the festival, in the Holiest of Hollies inside the temple at Luxor.
It is this procession, which according to author Graham Hancock in “The Sign and The Seal” is the origins of the Ark of the Covenant story of the Bible and it is clear that there are quite a few parallels between the worship of Amun at Karnak and Yahweh in the Temple of Jerusalem. And whereas the likes of Ahmed Osman have proposed that Akhenaten was the biblical Moses, one should perhaps ask whether Moses wasn’t a priest of Amun who tried to safeguard the statue of Amun when Akhenaten tried to suppress the cult of Amun.

Though it is said that the statue of the god left for this procession, in truth there were two statues: one was deemed to be too sacred, so that it could never be seen by profane eyes, and was hence always kept within the temple. A second statue was therefore used for the Opet procession, when the image of Amun-Ra was carried on his sacred bark along the sacred way to Luxor. There was another annual procession, that of the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, in which the statue was carried to the Karnak temple quay, rowed across the Nile and then carried to the necropolis (the Valley of the Kings) to visit the mortuary temples of the kings, thus re-conferring eternal life upon each dead pharaoh. It underlines that Amun’s domain was not only Karnak, but extended to the West Bank, as well as Luxor. Karnak was therefore part of a sacred geography that mapped out the creation myths of Amun across its surrounding landscape.
Furthermore, the various temples that were placed along the processional routes were not only part of the visualisation of these myths, but were also “resting places” for the god – if not those priests who were tasked with carrying the statue on its bark. No wonder therefore that the preferred route was often deemed to be by the river, rather than along the processional road. Finally, though some suspected that the Nile was very close to Karnak, in December 2007, archaeologists discovered an embankment wall, which was the first evidence that the Nile once ran alongside the temple – today, the temple sits 200 metres from where the river runs today.

The modern tourist who walks through this sacred landscape will need to use his imagination on some occasion. The Sacred Lake today is a nice, welcome ingredient in the desert-like conditions that rule. How old the Sacred Lake is, is not known. We know that what is visible today was initially dug by Tuthmosis III, but it is unknown whether it was new, a replacement or an enlargement. As purification was a required preparatory practice, a purification structure of some kind would have been required in the days before Tuthmosis III created the lake. So it might be safe to assume a smaller lake existed here before.
But three millennia ago, this lake was surrounded by gardens, trees, flowers, etc. Some were ornamental, whereas other gardens were there to provide vegetables, fruit, flowers, etc. The closer to the sanctuary, the more ornamental these gardens would have been. Archaeologists have counted that the temple complexes had at least 433 of them. When we note that the ancient Egyptians believed that gardens were seen as a replica of heaven on Earth – and Karnak was seen as being heaven on Earth – the reason why there were so many gardens becomes apparent.

Just like the Garden of Eden, just like power had shifted from the North to the South, in the 4th century BC. When the Greeks conquered Egypt, power shifted away from Karnak, to Alexandria. It marked the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest religious site. In 330 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered his engineers to lower the obelisk within Karnak’s Eastern Temple and take it to Rome, but they only got as a far as Alexandria. 26 years later, they were able to transport it to Rome, where in 356 AD it was erected in the Circus Maximus. By then – in 323 AD to be precise – Christianity had been recognised as the state religion of Rome. By 400 AD, a series of raids had destroyed the “pagan worship” and no less than four Christian churches were established within the enclosure of the temple complex, as a clear sign that a new god ruled in – though not from – Karnak. The monasteries themselves closed a few centuries later as Islam grew in popularity in the region; Karnak thus became the relic of a bygone age that it still is today. But what a relic it is.

This article is based upon a much different article that appeared in Frontier Magazine 6.3 (May-June 2000)