Walking through Karnak temple in Luxor is like going through the pages of a history book. To understand the importance of Karnak is to know a bit about Luxor. This Nilotic Egyptian city was known as Thebes in the olden times and it was the capital of Upper Egypt during the New Kingdom era (16th century to 11th century BC). Incidentally, the New Kingdom era was the most prosperous time and marked the peak of Egypt’s power. Upper Egypt at that time stretched from the southern portion of Egypt and was composed of the lands on both sides of the Nile that extend downriver between Nubia – until modern Khartoum in central Sudan and Lower Egypt -until modern-day Cairo and Dahshur in the north. Long story short, Luxor was the glorious capital of a very powerful and important kingdom at a time when its power was at its peak. Thebes was so important that it was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra, the most prominent deity of the Egyptian pantheon. And Karnak temple was the crown jewel of Thebes.

Entering the Karnak Temple complex

Karnak Temple is actually a massive complex

To begin with, my nomenclature of the Karnak temple is incorrect. Karnak although most popularly termed as a temple is, in reality, a massive complex of sanctuaries, temples, pylons, and obelisks. It was developed over more than 1,000 years and is the largest and most important religious complex in ancient Egypt. Although the monuments within the complex are mostly dedicated to the Theban triad they also represent the power and importance of their patron pharaohs. Hatshepsut, Tuthmose III, Seti I, and Ramesses II, all contributed significant additions to the complex and the construction continued into the Greco-Roman Period with the Ptolemies, Romans, and early Christians all leaving their mark there. Over the centuries, every pharaoh worth their salt added or amended their constructions to the complex, thus stamping their seal on the kingdom’s most revered religious sanctuary. For Karnak was the house of the gods, and its glories were to be feted by all.

The Pharaonic race to glory

It was like the royal dynastic ‘to do’ thing to build or amend something inside the Karnak temple complex and I believe the choice of locations and grandeur of the structures represented the dynasty’s power. If I think in crude real estate terms, then the more prominent the location, the more money it cost and of course, the monument itself had to be magnificent. Thus, the Karnak temple complex represented a competition in which the pharaohs competed with each other in building the more magnificent complex than his predecessors. Now if I, as a pharaoh invest so much money, time, and effort to create a monument, I would like to cram it with as many details – real – and sycophantic make-belief – about my beliefs, my achievements, and the things I like. Karnak’s patrons did just that and hence it is no wonder that the complex was in constant development and use between the Middle Kingdom (2080–1640 B.C.) and the early Christian period. The immense size of the Karnak temple complex is filled with various architectural, artistic, and linguistic details making it an invaluable historical site and resource for understanding the evolution of ancient Egypt. Because of its long history of construction and functionality, the gods worshipped at the Karnak temple complex range from some of the earliest Egyptian deities to some of the latest, thus offering an impressive presentation of ancient Egyptian religious practices and beliefs.

Karnak Temple is Ipet-Isut “The Most Select of Places”

The site was first developed during the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 B.C) and was initially modest in scale. However, as the importance of Thebes increased, the Karnak temple complex also expanded. It was known as Ipet-Isut “The Most Select of Places” in ancient times and was not only the location of the cult image of Amun and a place for the god to dwell on earth but also a working estate for the priestly community who lived on site. The main precinct alone had as many as twenty temples and chapels and additional buildings included a sacred lake, kitchens, and workshops for the production of religious accouterments. The main temple of Amun-Ra had two axes—one went towards north/south and the other extended east/westwards. The southern axis went all the way towards the temple of Luxor and was connected by an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. Karnak temple complex was sacked by the Assyrian and Persian armies and looted and pilfered by early explorers and travelers, who carted off statues and masonry, it still withholds many unique architectural features. For example, the tallest obelisk in Egypt stood at Karnak and it was made of one piece of red granite. Dedicated by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut who ruled Egypt during the New Kingdom, it originally had a matching obelisk that was removed by the Roman emperor Constantine and re-erected in Rome. Another unusual feature was the Festival Temple of Thutmose III, which had columns that represented tent poles, thus showcasing the various war campaigns of this pharaoh.

The three precincts of Karnak Temple

Karnak temple complex is divided into three compounds: the precinct of Amun, the precinct of Mut, and the precinct of Montu. Built on a leviathan scale to house the gods, these three separate enclosures cover nearly three square kilometers. The grandest is the Precinct of Amun and it is a structure large enough to accommodate ten great cathedrals. During those days, it was believed that the god lived there on earth with his wife Mut, and son, Khonsu, who also have temples at the site. The Temple of Amun-Ra is particularly famous for the vast Hypostyle Hall – a spectacular forest of giant papyrus-shaped columns. It was constructed during the reign of Seti I and the hall has 134 massive sandstone columns with the center twelve columns standing at 69 feet. Like most of the temple decoration, the hall was originally brightly painted and some of this paint still exists on the upper portions of the columns and ceiling today. Not every ancient Egyptian had access to this hall, since the further one went into the temple, the more restricted access became.

The up and downward journey of Karnak

While the Pyramids of Giza is the poster child for Egypt, in reality, it is dwarfed by the Karnak temple complex in importance and archaeological details. There is no doubt that Karnak’s magnitude and complexity are due to 1300 years of aggrandizement. At the zenith of its glory, Karnak’s wealth was staggering. A list of its assets during the reign of Ramses III includes 65 villages, 433 gardens, 421,662 head of cattle, 2395 square kilometers of fields, 46 building sites, 83 ships, and 81,322 workers and slaves. Yet only the pharaoh or his representative could enter Ipet-Isut, god Amun’s precinct. After Memphis became the new dynastic capital, Luxor’s temples declined in importance. In later centuries, Ptolemaic rulers and Coptic Christians altered parts of the Karnak complex for their own purposes.

A walk through history pages

A walk through the Karnak temple is seemingly confusing. The great Temple of Amun recedes in an overwhelming succession of pylons, courts, columned halls, obelisks, and colossi, all of which span some thirteen centuries of ancient history. The ruins get denser and more jumbled the further one goes inside the convoluted interiors of the complex. The main thing to remember is that the temple’s main axis is perpendicular to the Nile, with a subsidiary axis running parallel to the river, the two of them forming a T-shape. According to experienced tour guides, the best way to explore the massive Karnak temple complex is to follow the main axis all the way back to the Festival Hall. Make sure to see the Cachette Court of the subsidiary axis. A break for refreshments by the lake is advisable and avoid the sweltering midday heat and mass crowds of day-trippers visiting from the resorts by heading to the temple complex for early morning or the evening. Dawn and dusk provide spectacular lighting around the majestic ancient structures. Keep at least two hours to explore the Karnak complex. Be sure to wear a hat and drink lots of water, as there’s little shade at the site.

Highlights of the Karnak Temple Complex

The Temple of Amun

  • Entering the temple – Cross over the dry moat to enter the Precinct of Amun. A signboard will announce that you are passing the remains of an ancient dock, from where Amun sailed for Luxor Temple during the Optet festival. Keep walking to go through a short Processional Way flanked by ram-headed sphinxes (after Amun’s sacred animal) enfolding statues of Ramses II, which once joined the main avenue linking the two temples.
  • The First Pylon and Forecourt – The gigantic First Pylon lies at the end of the Processional Way. Its massive gateway shows a seemingly endless vista of receding but equally huge portals. The 43-meter-high towers are composed of regular courses of sandstone masonry and the unfinished, unembellished northern tower is the largest pylon in Egypt. Although a later addition, the Forecourt encloses three earlier structures. In the center stands a single papyriform pillar from the Kiosk of Taharqa, an Ethiopian king.

    Karnak Temple

The Temple of Ramses III and Second Pylon

  • Temple of Ramses III – The first impressive structure in the precinct is the columned Temple of Ramses III. Beyond its pylon, flanked by two colossi, is a festival hall with mummiform pillar statues behind which are carvings of the annual Optet festival of Amun-Min. Here the pink granite Colossus of Ramses II immediately grabs attention.
  • Second Pylon – Pass through the Second Pylon, one of the structures begun by Horemheb, the last king of the 18th Dynasty. The cartouches of Seti I (who completed the pylon) and Ramses I and II (Seti’s father and son) can be found inside the doorway.

The Great Hypostyle Hall

  • A forest of gigantic columns covering an area of 6000 square meters, its grandeur is best experienced early in the morning or late in the afternoon when diagonal shadows enhance the effect of the columns. During the Pharaonic times, the hall was covered with a sandstone slab roof, its gloom interspersed by sunbeams falling through windows above the central aisle. The roof, now no longer visible, was supported by 134 columns in 16 rows, the 2 middle rows being higher than the others. All the columns consist of semi-drums, fitted together without mortar. They are beautifully carved and their carvings depict the king making offerings to Theban deities, most notably Amun. The 134 papyrus columns represent the primeval papyrus swamp from which Atum, a deity, arose from the waters of Nun at the beginning of creation. The hall was built entirely by Seti I who engraved the northern wing of the hall with inscriptions. Decoration of the southern wing was completed by the 19th dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II.

The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth pylons

  • The Third Pylon was intended by pharaoh Amenhotep III to be a monumental gateway to the temple. Like many other pharaohs, he demolished earlier structures to serve as core filler for his pylon.
  • Walk through the Fourth Pylon to see numerous columns which probably formed another hypostyle hall. It featured the rose-granite Obelisk of Hatshepsut, the only woman to rule as pharaoh. Two obelisks were erected by the female pharaoh to mark her 16th year as a ruler although today, only one remains intact. The fallen obelisk is scattered throughout the Karnak temple complex and its carved tip can be seen near the Osireion and Sacred Lake. On the way there, one can see a beautiful granite bas-relief protruding from the Fifth Pylon. It depicts Amenhotep II target-shooting from a moving chariot. The Fifth Pylon is built of limestone and is attributed to Hatshepsut’s father, Tuthmosis I.
  • Although the Sixth Pylon has largely disintegrated, sections of either side of the granite doorway remain. Its outer face is known as the Wall of Records and contains a list of peoples conquered by Tuthmosis III: Nubians to the right, Asiatics to the left.

Around the Sanctuary

  • The section beyond the Sixth Pylon is a mishmash of many structures dating from different eras. There are a pair of square-sectioned heraldic pillars, their fronts carved with the lotus and papyrus of the Two Lands, their sides showing Amun embracing Tuthmosis III; two Colossi of Amun and Amunet; a seated statue of Amenhotep II.
  • Then there is a granite Sanctuary built by Philip Arrhidaeus, the half-brother of Alexander the Great. It is exactly on the site of a Tuthmosis-era shrine which similarly held Amun’s barge. The interior bas-reliefs depict Philip making offerings to Amun in his various aspects, topped by a star-spangled ceiling.
  • There is also an open space named the Central Court. It is believed to be the site of a 12th century Amun temple, whose foundations remain today.

The Jubilee Temple of Tuthmosis III

At the rear of the Central Court lies the Jubilee Temple of Tuthmosis III, a personal cult shrine of the king. The original entrance is flanked by reliefs and broken statues of Tuthmosis and the Festival Hall, with its unusual tentpole-style columns, have their capitals adorned with blue-and-yellow chevrons. During Christian times the hall was used as a church, hence the haloed saints on some of the pillars. A chamber in the southwest corner contains the replica of the Table of Kings (the original is in the Louvre). It depicts Tuthmosis making offerings to previous rulers although Hatshepsut is strangely omitted. A section of the Jubilee Temple of Tuthmosis III is called the Botanical Garden. It is a roofless enclosure that contains painted reliefs of plants and animals which Tuthmosis encountered on his campaigns in Syria. Across the way is a roofed chamber decorated by Alexander the Great, who appears before Amun and other deities.

Around the Sacred Lake

A short walk from Hatshepsut’s Obelisk or the Cachette Court brings you to Karnak’s Sacred Lake. Its main attraction is a shady and expensive cafe that does roaring business since the complex provides very little relief from the burning Luxor noon sun.

Karnak Temple complex travel tips

  • Karnak Temple Complex is on the east bank of the Nile River in Luxor in Egypt. Driving to the Karnak Temple complex from the city center takes around 15 minutes and it takes only 6 minutes to drive between Luxor Temple and Karnak. So combining the two is simple and easy. However, I suggest not doing so because each of the complexes leaves immense impressions, and combining them in one day may be an overwhelming experience.

How to Reach

  • Walk along the Corniche: If it’s not too hot or if you start early, then walk from downtown Luxor along the Corniche (Nile-side road) to Karnak.
  • By Private Taxi: All taxi drivers in town can shuttle you to and fro from the site. Agree on the price before starting your ride.
  • Horse Carriage: Luxor has a huge number of horse and carriage operators that can be used as transport within town. All of them can take you to Karnak. Once again, agree upon a price before starting your ride.
  • Public Transport – You can get a microbus to Karnak Temple. These are easily available and very cheap. Just flag one down, ask if they are heading your way, and hop in. The price per ride is usually 1-2 EGP per person. Grab one from behind Luxor Train Station or from Luxor Temple to reach the Karnak Temple complex.
  • Guided Tours – There are plenty of guided tours to Karnak Temple. These are usually full-day trips of Luxor attractions or day trips from Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada.

Entrance Fees and Opening Hours

  • Karnak Temple complex is open daily is between 6 am and 6 pm except for public and national holidays.
  • The Light and Sound show runs in the evenings: 7 pm, 8 pm, and 9 pm in winter and at 8 pm, 9 pm, and 10 pm in summer.
  • Adults: 120 LE ( 6.80)
  • Students: 60 LE ( 3.40)
  • Light and sound show: 100 LE ( 5.70)
  • Visiting Karnak independently is possible, but given the vast size of the temple complex, it makes sense to hire a guide. This usually costs around 50-100 EGP, and their tour lasts for an hour and a half. A guide can show you the most important parts of Karnak Temple, explain exactly what everything is, and show you the very best photo spots.

Other Tips

  • Sound and Light Show – Karnak’s Sound and Light Show plays two shows nightly with the first show always in English and the second show in either German, Italian, French, or Spanish depending on the day. As well as booking tickets independently, you can also opt to take a tour. The Karnak Sound and Light Show tour include pickup and drop-off from any hotel or cruise ship in Luxor, with an English-speaking driver and tickets for the show.
  • Best Time to Visit – Karnak opens at 6 am. Go as early as possible to avoid both the heat and the crowd. Avoid 10 am to 3 pm when the majority of tour buses from the Red Sea disgorge huge groups into the temples.
  • Best Tip for Photographers – Try to get here at 5 pm to see the stonework glow in the late afternoon sun and the grand shadows of statuary cast atmospherically against the walls.
  • Things to Remember – Carry lots of water and snacks. Wear a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunblocks. There is hardly any shade inside and the Luxor sun gets hot very fast.

P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will take on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.

Follow the rest of the Luxor series