March 21, 2011

Karnak Complex and Luxor Temple in Ancient Thebes

The Karnak Complex is the largest ancient religious site in the world. This sprawling complex of temples, columns, and ruins was built by Ramesses II around 1350-1390 BC. This complex was built in honor of the Theban Triad, let by the head honcho god Amun.

Two rows of sphinxes greet you as you enter the front "door"

Karnak is really huge and you could grow exhausted just walking through all of its various little niches and chambers. But, there are some amazing sites within it you can not miss.

There are at least two well preserved obelisks within the temple. While quite a number of Egyptian obelisks were transported around the world during the colonial era, if you see one in London, Paris, Rome, or New York, you will see that most of the engravings have faded away from the corosive effects of acid rain and pollution. Not so here in this dry climate. They look like they were carved 100 years ago, not 3500!

Min, my buddy and the namesake of our tour company. You have got to respect a God so willing to put it all out there for the public to see. Unlike most Neolithic and older cultures whose fertility gods are buxom females, in Egypt fertility was clearly all about the male package down below.

There are numerous reliefs about various battles, trade missions, and events in Egyptian history. Here you can see a line up of Nubian women (From Sudan/Ethiopia) coming to pay their respects. Or, perhaps they were slaves captured from numerous raids and wars down south. Who knows, I am not an Egyptologist.

One of the most amazing parts of Karnak Temple is the Great Hypostyle Hall. This giant complex, whose roof has collapsed, was held up by 134 absolutely massive columns that were 33 feet in circumference and 80 feet high. They are really packed close together, so it is difficult to capture the site with a camera. Due to how close together the columns are, this would not have exactly been a spaceous building to spread out in. It is amazing how much work it was to put something like this together.

Nearly all columns in Egypt are built in the style of the papyrus plant

Papyrus was a very important plant to the Ancient Egyptians. It, of course, was made into paper and scrolls of papyrus that survived thousands of years in this dry climate. These papyri have been critical to understanding the history of the ancient world. In addition, parts of papyrus can be eaten and it was used to build boats and baskets.

Luxor Temple was built around 1400 BC and is located in modern day downtown Luxor. It was also dedicated to the Theban Triad led by Amun. Luxor and Karnak were major places of celebration during the annual Opet Festival, which celebrated the flooding of the Nile in late summer (from monsoons in the Ethiopian Highlands) and the fertility brought to the soils for agriculture brought by the silt.

During the festival, cult statues of Amun, Khonsu, and Mut were paraded down the Avenue of Sphinxes that connected the two temples in a celebration for the life-giving waters and sediment of the Nile floods. The Pharoah and other dignitaries would recieve the statues, conduct religious ceremonies, and then take off by boat down the river to return to Karnak.

After the New Kingdom declined and other forces began to control Egypt in the later period, Luxor Temple was used for a number of purposes.

A relief showing the plowing of the soil following the annual Nile floods

Ptolemaic (Greek) rules converted a number of the buildings for their use and then the Romans came in and covered a number of the walls with frescoes similar to those seen in Pompeii.

A Roman fresco on a wall within Luxor Temple

Later, early Christians converted many temples in Egypt into churches and then in the 7th century mosques were built in many of the temples as well. Oh well, I guess it is just a way of recycling. The good news for us in the modern era is that at least this procession of peoples left these monuments intact enough for archeologists and historians to study and for visitors to explore and learn about our ancient past. Unfortunately there are so many places and sites where people did not consider the cultural past and simply dismantled or destroyed ancient sites for their own purposes. But, for the most part in Egypt, they have tried to preserve their ancient past, despite the difficulties of being a poor nation.

A mineret of a mosque within Luxor Temple

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