The Temple of Karnak is also called the Karnak Temple Complex because it is such a vast collection of chapels, halls, temples and other buildings from an array of eras in Ancient Egypt. Started during the Middle Kingdom it continued to be added to and expanded upon all of the way into the Ptolemaic period which saw the end of Pharaonic Egypt with the death of Cleopatra.
Yet, it is impossible to ignore the significance of the Temple of Karnak and easy to recognize that it was important to the ancient rulers. As one expert has said of it, it is a monument and “history-book roll call of pharaohs who all wanted to stamp their seal on their kingdom’s most revered religious sanctuary… The Pharaonic kingdoms may be long gone, but their power lives on in this triumphant testament of stone.”
JUST WHAT IS THE TEMPLE OF KARNAK?
Today we call it the Temple of Karnak, but it was once the Temple of Amun tucked into the heart of ancient Thebes. Ancient Egyptians also thought of it by many other names, including the Throne of Two Lands and the Most Select of Places. It was established on the site it remains today because the ancients though that Thebes was the first city to emerge from the chaos before humans existed. They believed that Atum or Ptah stood on the mound of the city to finish creating the world. This is why the temple to celebrate Amun was created, and then expanded upon over time.
It is the largest religious building in the world and honors other gods of the Ancient Egyptian belief system, including Isis and Osiris, Montu and others. It has been in constant use since it began and remains one of the most sacred sites of Egypt.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN VISITING THE TEMPLE OF KARNAK
Set along the eastern shore of the Nile, it is in Luxor and just two miles from the Luxor Temple complex. The Temple of Karnak is massive, with the Great Temple of Amun as the main building. There are structures in the Northern, Southern and Eastern Temple Precincts of the Temple of Karnak complex, but they are closed to visitation.
You enter through the famous Avenue of Sphinxes, which actually ran from Karnak all of the way to the Luxor Temple. From there you can make your way into the Great Temple, which can take a great deal of time due to the complexity and sheer size of the site. Because of the immense history and many amazing sights in the Temple of Karnak, we strongly suggest that you hire a guided tour or join an organized tour of the site.
Many of the historic sites of the Luxor area are within close reach of one another, but you don’t want to rush through any of them as they are incredibly significant to Egyptian history. As they are located in ancient Thebes, they contain an immense amount of material, architecture, art and history related to the Pharaonic period. A private guide is the only way to encounter the most interesting and important things throughout Karnak. It is also a great way to get your questions accurately and fully answered, and if you don’t think you will have any questions, you will definitely change your mind upon arrival.
The volume of sights, temples, art, and buildings leaves most with a long list of unanswered questions. Though researching these sites later is fun and appealing, it can be frustrating to leave without knowing what a specific building, decorative element, statue or other figure meant.
As an example of this, not many visitors know that there were originally four obelisks at the Temple of Karnak and that two have been fully restored and put on display in the temple. A third is being restored and will be returned to its original position, but a fourth was taken out of Egypt and is now in the Place De La Concorde in Paris, France. The obelisks create an optical allusion when a visitor stands in a specific location inside of the temple walls. When positioned properly, the unevenly sized obelisks are of the same height and create a balanced scene though it is a false perspective.
BEYOND THE TEMPLE OF AMUN
Additionally, a tour guide is going to be able to help you see the parts of the temple beyond the most commonly known or visited. For example, north of the Great Temple is the kiosk of Sesostris I, one of the oldest structures throughout the entire complex. There is also the Temple of Ptah built by Tuthmosis III and even expanded on by a later, Ethiopian rule. Stand in the sanctuary at the right hour and you can see a figure of Ptah lit naturally by sunlight penetrating a hidden aperture in the roof.
East you find the Temple of Ramses II, the Temple of Osiris, and the beautifully preserved East Gate. Head south to the Sacred Lake, a highly saline body of water. Close to this is another avenue of sphinxes that lead to the Temple of Khonsu which is famous and impressive with its massive pylons, facades and carvings. It is here you find the Hypostyle Hall and its gigantic columns and a door that leads into the sanctuary with its stunning reliefs of Ramses IV.
Connected to the Temple of Khonsu is the Temple of Osiris and Opet, and its mural reliefs are also famous for their beautiful details and colors.
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR VISIT
As you can see, there is much to enjoy at Karnak. Hiring a guide is your first step towards a fantastic experience. Don’t forget to arrive early (it opens at 6AM!) and avoid crowds and heat. You can also head back after the tourists depart around 3PM each day, since the light becomes amazing at around 5PM. There is also a Sound & Light Show for evening visits, and most experienced travelers say to make at least two visits here during a stay in Egypt as it includes so much and is well worth the time.