Karnak was originally the site of a shrine erected in the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.E.), but many rulers of the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.) repaired or refurbished the structure. It was designed in three sections. The first one extended from the northwest to the southwest, with the second part at right angles to the original shrine. The third section was added by later rulers and completed the complex.
The plan of the temple dedicated to the god Amun, evident even in its ruined state, contained a series of well-coordinated structures and architectural innovations, all designed to maximize the strength of the stone and the monumental aspects of the complex. Karnak, as all other major temples of Egypt, was graced with a ramp and a canal leading to the Nile, and this shrine also boasted rows of ram-headed sphinxes at its entrance. At one time the sphinxes joined Karnak and another temple of the god at LUXOR, to the south.
The entrance to Karnak is a gigantic PYLON, 370 feet wide, which opens onto a court and to a number of architectural features. The temple compound of RAMESSES III (r. 1194–1163 B.C.E.) of the Twentieth Dynasty is located here, complete with stations of the gods, daises, and small buildings to offer hospitable rest to statues or barks of the various deities visiting the premises. The pylon entrance, unfinished, dates to a period after the fall of the New Kingdom. Just inside this pylon is a three-chambered shrine erected by SETI I (r. 1306–1290 B.C.E.) of the Nineteenth Dynasty for the barks of the gods Amun, MUT and KHONS (1).
The shrine of Ramesses III of the Twentieth Dynasty is actually a miniature festival hall, complete with pillars and elaborate reliefs. The so-called BUBASTITE PORTAL, built in the Third Intermediate Period, is next to the shrine. The court of Ramesses III was eventually completed by the addition of a colonnade, and a portico was installed by HOREMHAB (r. 1319–1307 B.C.E.), the last ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty.
The second pylon in the structure, probably dating to the same dynastic era and refurbished by the pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty, is graced by two colossi of RAMESSES II (r. 1290–1224 B.C.E.), and a third statue of that king and his queen-consort stands nearby. This second pylon leads to a great HYPOSTYLE HALL, the work of Seti I and Ramesses II, where 134 center columns are surrounded by more than 120 papyrus bundle type pillars. Stone slabs served as the roof, with carved stone windows allowing light to penetrate the area. The Ramessid rulers decorated this hall with elaborate reliefs. At one time there were many statues in the area as well, all removed or lost now. Of particular interest are the reliefs discovered in this hall of the “Poem of PENTAUR,” concerning military campaigns and cultic ceremonies of Egypt during its imperial period. The HITTITE ALLIANCE is part of the decorative reliefs.
The third pylon of Karnak was erected by AMENHOTEP III (r. 1391–1353 B.C.E.) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The porch in front of the pylon was decorated by Seti I and Ramesses II. At one time four OBELISKS stood beside this massive gateway. One remains, dating to the reigns of TUTHMOSIS I (1504–1492 B.C.E.) and TUTHMOSIS III (1479–1425 B.C.E.) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. A small area between the third and fourth pylons leads to precincts dedicated to lesser deities. The fourth pylon, erected by Tuthmosis I, opens into a court with Osiride statues and an obelisk erected by HATSHEPSUT (r. 1473–1458 B.C.E.). Originally part of a pair, the obelisk now stands alone. The second was discovered lying on its side near the sacred lake of the temple complex. Tuthmosis I also erected the fifth pylon, followed by the sixth such gateway, built by Tuthmosis III.
These open onto a courtyard, a Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.E.) sanctuary, the Djeseru-djeseru, the holy of holies. Statues and symbolic insignias mark this as the core of the temple. The sanctuary now visible was built in a late period, replacing the original one. A unique feature of this part of Karnak is the sandstone structure designed by Hatshepsut. She occupied these chambers on occasion and provided the walls with reliefs. Tuthmosis III added a protective outer wall, which was inscribed with the “annals” of his military campaigns. This is the oldest part of Karnak, and much of it has been destroyed. The memorial chapel of Tuthmosis III is located just behind the court and contains chambers, halls, magazines, and shrines. A special chapel of Amun is part of this complex, and the walls of the area are covered with elaborate reliefs that depict exotic plants and animals, duplicates in stone of the flora and fauna that Tuthmosis III came upon in his Syrian and Palestinian military campaigns and called “the Botanical Garden.”
A number of lesser shrines were originally built beyond the limits of the sanctuary, dedicated to PTAH, OSIRIS, KHONS (1), and other deities. To the south of the sixth pylon was the sacred lake, where the barks of the god floated during festivals. A seventh pylon, built by Tuthmosis III, opened onto a court, which has yielded vast amounts of statues and other relics from the New Kingdom. Three more pylons complete the structure at this stage, all on the north–south axis. Some of these pylons were built by Horemhab, who used materials from AKHENATEN’S destroyed temple complex at ’AMARNA. A shrine for Khons dominates this section, alongside other monuments from later eras. A lovely temple built by SENWOSRET I (r. 1971–1926 B.C.E.) of the Twelfth Dynasty was discovered hidden in Karnak and has been restored. A shrine for the goddess Mut, having its own lake, is also of interest.
Karnak represents faith on a monumental scale. Each dynasty of Egypt made additions or repairs to the structures, giving evidence of the Egyptians’ fidelity to their beliefs. Karnak remains as a mysterious enticement to the world of ancient Egypt. One Karnak inscription, discovered on the site, is a large granite stela giving an account of the building plans of the kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty. A second stela records work being done on the Ptah shrine in the enclosure of the temple of Amun.
The Karnak obelisks vary in age and some are no longer on the site, having been moved to distant capitals. Those that remain provide insight into the massive quarrying operations conducted by the Egyptians during the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.). The Karnak pylon inscriptions include details about the New Kingdom and later eras and provide scholars with information concerning the rituals and religious practices as well as the military campaigns of the warrior kings of that period.
A Karnak stela, a record of the gifts given to Karnak by ’AHMOSE (r. 1550–1525 B.C.E.), presumably in thanksgiving for a victory in the war to oust the Asiatics, is a list of costly materials. ’Ahmose provided the god Amun with golden caplets, lapis lazuli, gold and silver vases, tables, necklaces, plates of gold and silver, ebony harps, a gold and silver sacred bark, and other offerings. The Karnak King List, discovered in the temple site, is a list made by Tuthmosis III. The document contains the names of more than 60 of ancient Egypt’s rulers, not placed in chronological order.
Suggested Readings: Amer, Amin. The Gateway of Ramesses IX in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. New York: Aris & Phillips, 1999; De Lubicz, Schwaller. The Temples of Karnak: A Contribution to the Study of Pharaonic Thought. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1999; Road to Kadesh: a Historical Interpretation of the Battle Reliefs of King Sety I at Karnak. Chicago: Oriental Inst., 1990.