November 6 – 17
Later, arriving at Karnak Temple, we walked to the entrance, entered, and began our tour. As he has throughout the tour, Mahmoud spent the first hour or so with us explaining the significance of the temple complex, going into great detail in the areas with hieroglyphics that told a particular story.
Commonly known as Karnak (from Arabic Khurnak meaning “fortified village”), the site comprises a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons (gates), and other buildings. Construction at the complex began during the reign of Senusret I in the Middle Kingdom (1975-1640 BC and Dynasties XI-XIV) and continued into the Ptolemaic period, although most of the extant buildings date from the New Kingdom (1520-1075 BC and Dynasties XVIII-XX).
The area around Karnak was the ancient Egyptian Ipet-isut (“The Most Selected of Places”) and the main place of worship of the eighteenth dynasty with the god Amun as its head. It is part of the monumental city of Thebes. Believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt, only the Giza Pyramids near Cairo receive more visits, it consists of four main parts, of which only the largest is currently open to the general public.
The term Karnak often is understood as being the Precinct of Amun-Ra only, because this is the only part most visitors see. The three other parts, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are closed to the public. There also are a few smaller temples and sanctuaries connecting the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amun-Re, and the Luxor Temple.
We walked through the main outer gate or First Pylon (gates are known as Pylons) and entered a large courtyard full of columns and sphinx like statues and then encountered the Hypostyle hall in the Precinct of Amun Re (In architecture, a hypostyle hall has a roof which is supported by columns). Construction of the Hall may have begun during the Eighteenth Dynasty (although most new building was undertaken under Seti I (Ramses II Father) and Rameses II in the Nineteenth, 1290–1224 BC).
It covers an area of 54,000 sq. ft and the roof, now fallen, was supported by 134 columns in 16 rows; the 2 middle rows are higher than the others, being 33 feet in circumference and 79 feet high. The 134 papyrus columns represent the primeval papyrus swamp from which Amun; a self-created deity, arose from the waters of chaos at the beginning of creation. It is hard to describe the power this complex exudes and trying to capture its scope proves fruitless. One just stands in wonder, dwarfed by the magnificence of the experience.
A series of succeeding pharaohs added inscriptions to the walls and the columns in places their predecessors had left blank, including Rameses III, Rameses IV and Rameses VI. The northern side of the hall is decorated in raised relief and was mainly Seti I’s work. The southern side of the hall was completed by Rameses II, in sunk relief although he used raised relief at the very beginning of his reign before changing to the sunk relief style and re-editing his own raised reliefs.
Rameses II also usurped decoration of his father along the main north-south and east-west processional ways of the hall, giving the casual observer the idea that he was responsible for the building. However, most of Seti I’s reliefs in the northern part of the hall were respected.
We then walked outside of the hall and examined a number of external walls, all decorated with inscriptions, many depicting scenes of battle, Seti I on the north and Rameses II on the south. Although these reliefs had religious and ideological functions, they are important records of the wars of these kings.
From there we moved on to a smaller temple devoted to the Hatshepsut, the second historically-confirmed female pharaoh, the first being Sobekneferu. She came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC. and her rise to power was noteworthy as it required her to utilize her bloodline, education, and an understanding of religion. Her bloodline was impeccable as she was the daughter, sister, and wife of a king.
Toward the end of the reign of Thutmose III and into the reign of his son, an attempt was made to remove Hatshepsut from certain historical and pharaonic records. This elimination was carried out in the most literal way possible as her cartouches and images were chiseled off some stone walls, leaving very obvious Hatshepsut-shaped gaps in the artwork. We saw evidence of this in the small temple and would see more of it as we resumed the balance of the tour.
Finally, we walked out to take a look at the sacred lake, used by the resident priesthood to purify before performing religious rituals. We continued on through Pylons Eight and Nine, reaching the Tenth which was the outer wall of the Temple.
Here we could contemplate, the Sphinx Allee, a long avenue, constructed around 380 BC and intended to link Karnak to Luxor Temple, roughly two miles away. As its name suggests, it was, and still partly is, lined with statues of a sphinx and a multi-year effort is currently underway to restore it for use by pedestrians.
On the way back out to the entrance to meet up with our group, Marty encountered one of the many vultures lurking about the site who encouraged us to follow him into the Ninth Pylon to ascend a stairwell for a view of that part of the complex. This of course led to the grift which was followed by an additional contribution to the machine gun toting guard who watched us casually defiling this ancient monument. Or something like that. It was just another one of those only in Egypt moments.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a Papyrus shop for a demonstration on how this ageless process of making of this paper like product from the pith of the papyrus plant. It is first known to have been used in Egypt (at least as far back as the First Dynasty), as the papyrus plant was once abundant across the Nile Delta. Apart from a writing material, ancient Egyptians employed papyrus in the construction of other artifacts, such as reed boats, mats, rope, sandals, and baskets.
The demonstration was interesting, and the products produced would have made a nice souvenir for someone, but Joanna and I already had a small one at home that my parents had brought back to us from one of their cruises in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Actually, no one in the group bought any of the products, likely because it was the end of a long day and all we wanted to do was return to the hotel for some down time.
With a dinner out on tap that evening and then one of the highlights of the trip, our journey to Valley of the Kings scheduled for the next morning, I was glad to hit the lobby of the hotel and enjoy a cold beer before eating. It had been another long and rewarding day, with just a couple more to come. I looked forward to our remaining time in Egypt with regret and some relief, but that is a note for another post.
Karnak Temple: https://discoveringegypt.com/karnak-temple/