Once the main place of worship of the Theban Triad, the stunning Karnak Temple in the city of Luxor is the biggest religious building ever constructed. The complex is so large that it constitutes an entire city of temples built over a period of 2,000 years.
This is what you can expect from a visit to the most prominent temple in the East Bank of the Nile!
How to visit Karnak Temple
I visited Karnak Temple during my last day in Luxor, just before heading back to Cairo. The visit was part of my Essential Egypt tour with Travel Talk Tours, which lasted for a total of 9 days and covered the main highlights of Egypt from north to south. You can find the entire itinerary in my post Essential Egypt in 9 days: itinerary, arrival and first impressions of Cairo.
Karnak Temple is located right in the city of Luxor, only 3.3km north from Luxor temple. The temple can be easily reachable by foot or taxi from most hotels and has an entrance fee of 150 Egyptian pounds (approx. €8).
The temple is slightly most expensive than most other temples in or around Luxor, but considering the huge size of the complex, it is actually very worth it. You cannot leave Egypt without visiting its largest temple!
On my 7th day in Egypt, another early wake was waiting for us. We would be driving all the way north back to Cairo, which would take us a good 7h30m.
In the morning, we were offered a hot air balloon over Luxor, to contemplate its beautiful temples and the River Nile from the top. This visit involved waking up at around 3 am just before the sunset. I was extremely tired from all the previous travelling, which together with the elevated cost () put me off completely and I decided to skip this visit.
I head some mixed comments from other travel companions, as they were quite unlucky with the wind and ended up going to the opposite direction, so they could only see the city of Luxor but couldn’t enjoy any of the temples.
After a short 15 minutes drive, we arrived at the entrance of Karnak Temple.
Similar to that of Luxor Temple, the entrance to Karnak is decorated with an avenue of human-headed sphinxes, which used to connect both temples. This path was used during the Opet festival, when the Egyptians carried the statues of Amun and Mut, re-enacting symbolically their marriage.
The avenue had over 1,350 sphinxes, and its construction was begun during the New Kingdom and was finished during the 30th Dynasty (380-362 BC).
Even though the resemblance between the avenue in Luxor and Karnak temple is quite evident, the shape of the sphinxes are actually quite different, giving the entrance of each temple a very unique look. I found that the sphinxes and pavement in Karnak Temple were much better preserved than in Luxor, making it more spectacular.
After passing the avenue of sphinxes, Karnak Temple is accessed today through what is a late addition to the temple: the First Courtyard, built in front of the east-west axis leading to the sanctuary of Amun, between the end of the XIV and the IV century BC. Horemheb (1333-1306) built the Second Pylon which then became the entrance to the temple, and in front of which several monuments were installed.
Around 1200 BC, Seti II built a triple repository chapel for the sacred barques of the Theban Triad, Amun, Most and Khonsu. For the great annual processions such as the Beautiful Feast of the Valley or the Opet Festival. Ramses III then built his temple in front of the southern mole of the Second Pylon for the same repository purpose.
Under the Bubastid reign, the area in front of the temple was transformed into a closed courtyard. A large colonnade commemorating the pharaonic monarchy was placed against the enclosing north and south walls. The dorms extended at this stage from the landing tribune to the Second Pylon, passing between the barque repositories of Seti II and Ramses III.
Later, Taharka (690-664) had his monumental portico entrance installed on the axis of the courtyard and placed some of the sphinxes in front of the Bubastid colonnades. Under the 30th Dynasty, Nectanebo (350 BC) began building the First Pylon which closes the western side of the Great Courtyard. This pylon remains unfinished, explaining the presence of mud-brick remnants of the construction ramps.
The Hypostyle Hall between the Second and Third Pylons measures 103 meters in width by 53 in length. Its 134 columns imitate the primaeval papyrus marsh. The main nave is flanked by two rows of six open-bud papyrus-capital columns and was lit by clerestory windows on either side. This is the largest of the precincts of the temple complex and is dedicated to Amun-Re, the chief deity of the Theban Triad.
Conceived by Seti I as a separate temple from the Ipet-Sut where Amun met with the Ennead during the annual festival, the Hypostyle Hall is described in the texts as a “temple of millions of years”, a place where the royal cult, in association with the cult of Amun, was celebrated.
The coloured decoration on the inside portrays the ceremonies carried out here, such as the sacred barque festival or the daily religious rituals, whereas the decoration on the outside walls portrays the military victories of Seti I on the north side and Ramses II on the south side.
Amenhotep III completely re-organised the festival courtyard adding the Third Pylon as a new monumental entrance. The architecture of the temple at this period is clearly represented by the wooden flag-poles that adorned the façade of Neferhotep’s tomb, the Third Pylon with Thutmosis IV’s golden porch in front of the Fourth Pylon, and the lone pair of Thutmosis I obelisks.
The decoration of the north mole of the eastern face of the Third Pylon depicts the navigation of the sacred barque of Amun. The pylon itself is filled with a multitude of blocks from dismantled monuments.
The narrow area between the Fourth Pylon and the Fifth Pylon was known to the Ancient Egyptians as the Wadjet, because of the wadj (papyrus) columns that held up its roof. The wadjet is situated in the very heart of the Amun sanctuary, and traces of numerous modifications are visible, such as remnants of calcite columns bases from an earlier phase of the temple.
The Fourth Pylon, whose white limestone ornamentation disappeared into lime-kilns in modern times, marks the western limits of the hall. Decorated with four cedar flag poles, hit remained the entrance to the Temple of Amun for over a century at the beginning of the New Kingdom.
Hatshepsut probably finished the Wadjet, placing Osirian statues representing her father in jubilee attire, in the niches of the Fourth Pylon. At this period, the courtyard was probably a coronation hall before being enhanced by adding a pair of 28 meter high obelisks, only one of which remains standing over the ruins.
The term Barque Sanctuary refers to the complex of chambers found east of the Fifth and Sixth Pylons designed for the Sacred Barque of Amun. Two red granite pillars in front of this sanctuary portray the heraldic symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt: the lily flower and the papyrus stalk.
This sanctuary replaced the previous one dating from the New Kingdom. Around 1500 BC, Hatshepsut modified the central area and added a podium to the western façade of a temple that occupied the so-called Middle Kingdom courtyard. She built her new sanctuary, the Red Chapel, on this podium and surrounded it with offering chambers.
The portable sacred boat of Amun remained in the barque sanctuary chapel. Twice a year, on the occasion of important popular celebrations, the sacred barque was carried by the priests out of the Temple of Karnak. During the Opet Festival, celebrated during the second month of the flood, Amun was united with Mut and Khonsu and carried along the alley of sphinxes to the Temple of Luxor.
Once regenerated, the barque came back to Karnak via the Nile. When the harvest approached, during the first moon of the summer, the sacred barque left Karnak for the west bank for a period of twelve days. The sacred barque visited the “temple of millions of years” and was stationed in front of the chapels of the tombs. On this occasion, Amun was presented to the feasting population present all along the route.
On the south-eastern side of the complex, the Seventh Pylon gave access to the Sacred Lake, a vast rectangular basking 200m long and 117 wide situated in the area delimited by the Amun sanctuary in the North and the first two courtyards on the North-South processional axis in the west.
Filled by the water-table, the lake for Ancient Egyptians was in direct contact with Noun - the primal ocean where all life originated.
Our final stop was the Cachette Courtyard, located on the north-west of the Seventh Pylon. Over 700 statues in stone and 1700 in bronze were unearthed in 1903 after digging made difficult by the infiltrations from the water table. Most of the statues ended up in Cairo Museum.
The ‘cachet’ is an extraordinary source of information on the clergy and the ritualistic evolution of Karnak. Genealogies can be reconstituted from the statues of various generations from the same Theban families. The value of this find in terms of history of art is just as important since a large number of different types of statues are present, especially block-statues, where only the head emerges from a cubic body shape, offering greater surface for inscribing autobiographies, ritual scenes, or requests to priests to pursue offerings for effigies of deceased colleagues.
Visiting Karnak Temple was the perfect closure to our time in Luxor, by far my favourite city in Egypt. The complex was so big, that we spent hours wandering around and we still couldn’t see everything!
It was time to leave Luxor behind and continue our way to the city of Cairo, where we would spend our last day in a Cairo city tour, visiting the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel of Saladin, the Coptic neighbourhood as well as Kahn el-Khalili bazaar!
Travel Talk Tours were kind enough to sponsor part of my trip, but as usual, all opinions are my own.