Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Preview: Karnak

In the ancient world, Thebes was one of the great cities. It was the political capital of Egypt for most of the New Kingdom, the period between around 1570BC to 1070BC when Egypt was at its greatest. The pyramids belong to an even earlier era, the appropriately named Old Kingdom, but most of the other great and famous stuff belongs to the New Kingdom. Among the greatest of all the Egyptian "stuff", and certainly the biggest, was Karnak Temple.

Karnak is big, it's bewilderingly big. The outer walls could fit ten European cathedrals inside. A sprawling series of extensions, it existed as an active temple for around 2000 years, constantly being added to and changed. At its peak, according to papyrus documents, it employed 81,322 people and took in revenues from a surrounding 924 square miles of fields. Trying to pin it down to any one man or time is impossible. Most of the pharaohs had their say - Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis III, Seti I, Ramesses II all got stuck in, among many others. Confusing the issue, it wasn't extended in any logical, systematic manner - Karnak's sprawling layout bears no relation to its chronological development. It's a total hodge-podge; walk in a straight line from the entrance to the centre and you encounter the work, in no real order of course, of eleven different dynasties. Not kings - dynasties. It's like having a cathedral that's been built since the time of Christ, with every king and kingdom ever since continually enlarging and elaborating upon it, right up till the present day.

Karnak is sometimes called the biggest temple on earth, although I'd say Angkor Wat probably has an equally strong claim. It takes up around 90 acres to Angkor Wat's 500, although in both cases much of this is land rather than construction. Karnak fills its space a little more, so if all actual building materials were placed upon giant scales, Karnak might have the edge. It doesn't really matter - once you get to a certain level of hugeness, the description of "very, very big" will suffice, and Karnak indeed is very, very big. It's big in terms of overall area, and big in its details: some of the columns are so wide that fifty people could stand on top of them.

So, trying to make sense of this vast sprawl across space and time, it helps to know what Karnak was built for in the first place. Well, it's a temple, Egyptian style, and it's dedicated to the god Amun-Re. That's the core of it at least, the huge set of sprawling ruins that most visitors wander around; in actual fact, Karnak encompasses other surrounding temples and areas too. So the name Karnak is a little misleading, as far as we're concerned, it should really be the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, although that's not quite as catchy. The name Karnak is a (relatively) modern one, coined in the 17th Century from the nearby village of Al-Karnak, probably meaning "fortified settlement".

The Egyptians kept it simpler, they just called it Ipet-Sut - "Most Select of Places" - although that was about as far as they were willing to go with the whole "simple" concept. They certainly weren't simple with their gods - they had hundreds of them and they get very confusing indeed. It's sometimes best to imagine all their different gods as modern businessmen, vying for power and prestige, with their fortunes waxing and waning through the ages. Karnak was mostly focussed on just a few gods. The main complex was for Amun-Re, a special hydrid of the local god of Thebes, Amun, and the sun god Re, who had been the chief deity of the pyramid builders all these years back. Combining them gave them more powers, much in the way a business merger between Donald Trump and Alan Sugar, to create "SugarTrump", would. There are a couple of other, smaller temple areas still considered part of Karnak too. To the north is the precinct of Montu, who was a falcon god, and the god of the area before Amun, the Donald Trump of Egyptian mythology, moved in and ousted him. To the south is one for Mut, the wife of the pre-merged Amun, kind of like Ivana Trump I guess. And there's also a temple for Amun and Mut's son, Khonsu, which is within the overall walls of the Temple of Amun-Re. It's just like Donald and Ivana Trump marrying, having Donald Jr, then Donald Jr choosing to stay with Donald Sr after he'd become the new SugarTrump entity. I'm not sure my business analogy is really helping things.

So, Karnak is dedicated to Amun-Re and his posse, and the Temple of Amun-Re and its overall precinct is very much the focus of what we see today. And what do we see today? Well, for the casual visitor, it's a lot of vast walls, pillars, and statues, all in the state of ruin you'd expect after suffering rather a lot of neglect for the last 2000 years. It was built along two axes - north-to-south and east-to-west - in kind of a wonky T-shape. The Nile runs not too far from the western side, and in Ramesses II's day a quay was built for access.


Entering this way, you approach what is called the First Pylon. I always think of a pylon as being a large metal thing with electric cables, but in this case it is the term for the vast temple gateways of the Egyptians. The First Pylon was originally 40 metres high and had huge doors, now long gone. It still looks pretty impressive. It's thought that the pylons were a kind of visual pun, mirroring the Egyptian hieroglyph for "akhet", or "horizon". It kind of works, if you squint a little and can imagine the sun rising between them.

And from that photo, you can see a whole series of pylons. This is the top bar of the wonky T, these days offering an easy view straight through to the heart of the temple, but certainly not the case back then. The First Pylon was a late addition to the temple complex, added only in the 30th Dynasty; previously the Second Pylon was the main entrance for around 1000 years. It's beyond the Second Pylon that we start to get into the real crux of what Karnak is really about - muscle-flexing power. This is the Hypostyle Hall, a veritable forest of stone, filled with scores of massive columns (originally 134 of them) up to 15 metres tall. Originally, it would have been packed with statues and with a roof, atmosphereically lit with small windows allowing just a little light in.

And so it goes on. Obelisks, colossal statues, temples, chapels, pylons, courtyards, sphinxes, columns, porticos, shrines, even a sacred lake. Karnak is too vast to detail in any way here, as you'd expect from possibly the biggest temple ever, 2000 years in the making. Remarkably, it was still a living temple well into the Roman era, and in fact it was Christianity - naughty Christianity - that sealed its fate. After Emperor Constantine decided the Roman Empire would be Christian, Emperor Theodosius in 383AD ordered all pagan temples to be closed. Later this was even turned into active persecution of pagans and destruction of temples. Karnak, after well over 2000 years of active use, was no more. It had a stay of execution, however, as four churches were set up in its grounds, but only until the 7th Century when the tidal wave of Islam saw it deserted once and for all. Karnak became forgotten and ruined.

I've been to Karnak before, during my travels of 2001, and remember quite clearly its sprawling, almost incoherent, vastness. It has a special kind of giantness, as if the ancient Egyptians were really large people and we are Lillipudlian by comparison. This effect, I think, is probably partly due to the pillars, which are fat and inflated beyond what we're used to seeing, and the many large statues probably add to this. Karnak is not easy to wrap your head around, it's a bit like a table full of food that needs more than one sitting to digest. Fortunately, it does work fine as a casual visit, as I found 12 years ago, but this time I want to try and understand it a little more. But just a little more. People dedicate their lives to understanding Karnak, and (like much of ancient Egypt) it has profited greatly from some heavyweight archaeology. I think I'll probably happy with just wandering round with a map, feeling small. Because that seems to be the appropriate response.

I'll be visiting Karnak in December of this year, or possibly January of next, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

"The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt" Richard H. Wilkinson
"Egypt" Joyce Tyldesley
"Karnak" Elizabeth Blyth
"Art and History: Luxor" Giovanna Magi


  1. Wow. I'd never heard of Karnak. It looks stunning, like you could get lost in there all day.

  2. "as if the ancient Egyptians were really large people and we are Lillipudlian by comparison."

    Lilliputian, unless you mean tiny people from Liverpool!

    1. Oops... A quick Google search reveals 545 instances of "Lillipudlian", so evidently tiny Scousers are a known phenomenon.

  3. Kunjungan pertama nih, Terimakasih banyak atas beritanya.