What is the Temple of Karnak?

Columns of Hypostyle Hall in Karnak - courtesy ninahale - CC-BY

Columns of Hypostyle Hall in Karnak - courtesy ninahale - CC-BY

The Temple of Karnak is the largest temple site in Egypt.  Karnak Temple is actually composed of three main temples, several smaller enclosed temples, and several outer temples. The temple complex was built and enlarged over a a span of 1300 years and stands on 247 acres of land. Around thirty different kings contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity and diversity not seen elsewhere.  The Montu, Karnak and Luxor Temples together were known to the ancients as Waset.  That name also applied to the ancient city which the later Greeks renamed ‘Thebes.’

Only one of the main areas is accessible to tourists and the general public. This is the “main” temple which is by far the largest section and is known as the Temple of Amun.  This temple is dedicated to the principal god of the Theban Triad, Amun, in the form of Amun-Re. Rather differently from other Egyptian temples, it is built along two axis running both east-west and north-south.

Today, visitors normally approach the temple from the west on a quay built by Ramesses II.  During the temple’s glory days, this quay would have connected the temple to the Nile River. Then a short avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leads from the quay to the temple’s first pylon.  This first entrance pylon is actually unfinished. That is evident because of the unequal height of its towers, with uncut blocks that project from its undecorated surfaces, and because of the remains of a mud-brick construction ramp that is still found on the pylon’s interior side.

Beyond the second pylon stands the most famous area of the temple, the hypostyle hall. A total number of 134 columns stand in the hall, including 12 taller central ones. Standing to a height of 69 ft, they dwarf their counterparts that reach a mere 49 ft.

The central 12 larger columns have open papyrus capitals which symbolized the ‘Mound of Creation’ and other 122 smaller columns have closed capitals and represent the swamp that surrounded the mound.

Both Seti and Rameses left us fine examples of temple ritual and the relationship of the kings to their gods. Accounts of their battle exploits are carved around the outer walls. It was Rameses who added a roof of stone slabs to the hypostyle hall.

Karnak is a confusing place, with its buildings spanning a long period in Egyptian history. Most visitors have very little time to see much of the temple, and many visits are needed to get even a brief idea of what all is there.

For more information about ancient Egypt

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