Egypt: Karnak, A Feature Tour Egypt Story


By Marie Parsons

View of Karnak Temple

Karnak describes a vast conglomerate of ruined temples, chapels and other buildings of various dates. The name Karnak comes from the nearby village of el-Karnak. Whereas Luxor to the south was Ipet-rsyt, Karnak was ancient Ipet-isut, perhaps the most select of Places. Theban kings and the god Amun came to prominence at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. From that time, the temples of Karnak were built, enlarged, torn down, added to, and restored for more than 2000 years.

The ancient Egyptians considered Ipet-Isut as the place of the majestic rising of the first time, where Amun-Ra made the first mound of earth rise from Nun. At Karnak, the high priests recognized a king as the beloved son of Amun, king of all the gods. The coronation and jubilees were also held here. Staffed by more than 80,000 people under Ramesses III, the temple was also the administrative center of enormous holdings of agricultural land.

The largest and most important group in the site is the central enclosure, the Great Temple of Amun proper. The layout of the Great Temple consists of a series of pylons of various dates. The earliest are Pylons IV and V, built by Tuthmosis I, and from then on the temple was enlarged by building in a westerly and southerly direction. Courts or halls run between the pylons, leading to the main sanctuary.

Entrance of Karnak Temple

The temple is built along two axes, with a number of smaller temples and chapels and a sacred lake. The northern enclosure belongs to Montu, the original god of the Theban area, while the enclosure of Mut lies to the south and is connected with Amuns precinct by an alley of ram-headed sphinxes. An avenue bordered by sphinxes linked Karnak with the Luxor temple, and canals connected the temples of Amun and Montu with the Nile.

Kalabsha in Karnak Temple

Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten, erected several temples for his new state deity to the east of the central enclosure of Amun. The most conspicuous features of these temples were open courts surrounded by pillars and colossal statues of the king. The temples were dismantled in the post-Amarna period and the stone blocks reused in later structures, especially the pylons built by Horemheb.

The Precinct of Montu

The square northern enclosure is the smallest of the three precincts and its monuments are poorly preserved. It contains the main temple of Montu, several smaller structures, particularly the temples of Harpre and Maat, and a sacred lake. A structure thought to be a treasury built by Tuthmosis I was discovered outside the east enclosure wall.

The Montu precinct is the most significant architectural complex north of the Amun-Ra temple. It was first built by Amenhotep III, on a podium, its masonry including blocks belonging to discarded monuments from Amenhotep I, Hatshepsut-Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis IV. It includes other monuments besides the Montu temple.

Image of Montu Temple

Amenhotep III, the founder of the main Montu temple, built an enclosure wall around the Montu precinct. In its current state, the Montu precinct also includes several other temples and structures. The temple of Maat, the only one extant to this deity, leans on the rear side of the Montu temple. Largely destroyed now, it still preserves inscriptions of some of the viziers of Ramesses III and XI. A previous Maat temple apparently existed in this area, indicated by reliefs and stelae belonging to the reign of Amenhotep III. The trials of the accused tomb robbers were held in this temple.

The precinct also includes a temple of Harpre. The temple of Harpre is built along the east side of the Montu temple. The oldest part, the sanctuary on the south side, may date back to the 21st dynasty. Nepherites and Hakor of the 29th Dynasty built a hypostyle hall with Hathor capitals. A geographical procession formed part of the decoration of the hypostyle hall. An open court and a pylon were added to the north faade during the 30th dynasty. A subsidiary building in front of the pylon is known as the eastern secondary temple, and may be related to the cult of the bull of Montu.

View of Karnak Temple from lake Isheru

The sacred lake on the west side may have been dug by Amenhotep III and restored by Montuemhat, who has a biographical inscription in the Mut temple. A "high temple" was erected by Nectanebo II as a storehouse for the offerings.

Lastly, six doors in the south wall of the Montu precinct lead to six chapels dedicated by Divine Votaresses of Amun to different forms of Osiris. The chapels are of Nitoqret, Amenirdis, an unattributed one, Karomama, and one from the reign of Taharka.

A dromos leading to a quay on a canal, which is no longer extant, completes the complex. The dromos is a stone-paved road leading from the gate of the precinct to a quay on a canal north of the site. The quay may be dated to the reign of Psamtik I. Two statues of Amenhotep III have been found broken and buried under a chapel in the middle of the temple dromos.

A copy of the "Restoration Stela" of Tutankhamun was erected here, as was a stela of Seti I, inscriptions of Ramesses II, Merenptah, Amenmesses, and Pinedjem. The eastern part of the temple collapsed at the end of the New Kingdom, and reconstruction was probably undertook by Taharka, who also built a great portico on the main faade. This was dismantled and rebuilt by the first Ptolemies.

Outside the temple precinct, a limestone gate of Hathshepsut and Tuthmosis III was usurped by Amenhotep II and completed by Seti I. Only two brick walls of the chapel dedicated to Osiris, by Taharka, where a statue of the goddess Taweret was found by Mariette. Farther west, a door of Ptolemy IV marks the entrance to a small temple of Thoth, now in ruins. In the northwest, a columned building consecrated by Nitoqret to the Theban triad has suffered. To the east of the Montu precinct, the remains of a building known as a treasury, built by Tuthmosis I, have been excavated. It consisted of a barque station of Amun, storerooms and workshops. This treasury may be the oldest building on the site.

The oldest remains on the site of North Karnak date back to the end of the Middle Kingdom and belong to urban settlements, with mud-brick houses, granaries and workshops.

All these buildings are dedicated to Amun-Ra of Thebes, even if rare mentions of Montu have been found, mainly epithets describing various kings as beloved of Montu. The dedicatory inscription of the main temple attributes the sanctuary to Amun-Ra, Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, Pre-eminent in Ipet-Sut., and this inscription is confirmed by various minor monuments such as the obelisks, the two quartzite statues of Amenhotep III and other statues.

The first dedicatory inscription to Montu appears on the stela erected by Seti I in the court of the temple. From the reign of Taharka we have a comprehensive documentation in the decoration of the portico, stating that Montu, Lord of Thebes, is the main god of the temple. Scenes on the Ptolemaic gate of the precinct confirm this rank for Montu.

Precinct of Mut

The southern part of Karnak contains the temple of Mut, on the east bank of the Nile, more than 900 feet south of the temple of Amun-Ra. It is surrounded by a crescent shaped sacred lake called Isheru, and subsidiary structures, especially the temple of Khons-pekhrod, originally of the 18th Dynasty, and a temple of Ramesses III.

Eight Pylon, Temple of Amun

During the New Kingdom, Mut, Amun and Khonsu their son became the pre-eminent divine family triad of Thebes. The earliest reference to Mut, Mistress of Isheru, occurs on a statue of the 17th Dynasty. Inscriptional evidence also links the site to Mut in the early 18th Dynasty reign of Amenhotep I. The earliest, securely dated Mut Temple remains are no later than the reigns of Tuthmosis III and Hatshepsut.

The temple of Mut was built by Amenhotep III, but here too the propylon in the enclosure wall is Ptolemaic, Ptolemy II Philadelphus and III Euergetes I, and there are later additions to the temple by Taharqa and Nectanebo I among others. Hundreds of statues of the goddess Sekhmet inscribed for Amenhotep III are in museums, but some are still on site, perhaps moved from the kings mortuary temple on the West Bank.

Recent excavations indicate that much, and possibly all, of the present precinct was village settlement, until some time in the Second Intermediate Period.

Under Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, the precinct seems to have consisted of the Mut Temple and the sacred lake and to have extended no further north than the temples first pylon. Parts of the west and north walls of these precinct have been uncovered, including a gate bearing Tuthmosis IIIs name and a Seti I restoration inscription. The eastern and southern boundaries of this precinct are as yet undefined.

The Mut Temple was enlarged later in the 18th Dynasty, when the Tutmoside building was completely enclosed by new construction, probably by Amenhotep III. The Mut temples present second pylon, of mud-brick, dates no later than the 19th Dynasty, and may have replaced an earlier precinct or temple wall. Its eastern half was built of stone late in the Ptolemaic period. The temples first pylon, also of mud-brick, has a stone gateway built no later than the 19th Dynasty, and displays at least one major repair. This pylon may also replace an earlier northern precinct wall. Also in the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses II rebuilt Temple A, which lay outside the precinct and which was already enlarged by Amenhotep III. In front of Temple A, Ramesses II erected two colossal statues, at least one usurped from Amenhotep III, and and two alabaster stelae recarved from parts of a shrine of Amenhotep II. One stelae indicates that Temple A was at that time dedicated to Amun.

Temple A was more extensively renovated during the 25th Dynasty, during which time it functioned at least in part as a birthhouse, celebrating the birth of Amun and Muts divine child, with whom the king was identified. A significant part of the Mut Temple was also rebuilt.

In the 25th and 26th Dynasties a proliferation of small chapels began. These include at least two dedicated by Montuemhat, an official in the reign of Taharka, a magical healing chapel dedicated by Horwedja, Great Seer of Heliopolis, a chapel related to Divine Votaresses, a small Ptolemy VI chapel, and Chapel D dedicated to Mut and Sekhmet, built by Ptolemies VI and VIII.

The massive enclosure walls built by Nectanebo II of the 30th Dynasty give the precinct its current shape and size, incorporating Temple C and a large area south of the sacred lake as-yet unexplored.

Karnak, Temple of Amun-Ra

Pylon I, the entrance to the temple complex, is preceded by a quay, probably reconstructed during the 25th Dynasty and an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, most of which bear the name of the high priest of Amun, Pnudjem of the 21st Dynasty. This pylon, which is unfinished, was probably built in the 30th Dynasty by Nectanebo I, though an earlier pylon may have stood here. South of the avenue are several smaller structures, including a barque shrine of Psammuthis and Hakoris, and parapets of the 25-26th Dynasties.

The court which opens behind this pylon contains a triple barque shrine of Seti II made of granite and sandstone, consisting of three contiguous chapels dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khonsu. In the center of the forecourt there are remains of a colonnaded entrance of Taharqa, one of the columns of which has been re-erected. A small temple or barque station, of Ramesses III faces into the forecourt from the south. This temple was a miniature version of the mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.

Two Colossal Statues of Ramesses II

The doorway on the north side of this court leads to an open-air museum, where a number of small monuments have been reconstructed, including the limestone barque chapel of Senusret I and Hatshepsuts Chapelle Rouge.

Pylon II, probably a work of Horemheb, is preceded by two colossal statues of Ramesses II. Only the feet of one remains. A third statue of the king includes Princess Bentanta standing between his feet. Behind the pylon, the now lost roof of the Great Hypostyle Hall, the most impressive part of the whole temple complex, was borne by 134 papyrus columns. The relief decoration of the hypostyle hall is the work of Seti I and Ramesses II. The exterior walls depict military campaigns of these kings in Palestine and Syria, including the Qadesh battle against the Hittites.

Pylon III was built by Amenhotep III, but the porch in front of it was decorated by Seti I, and Ramesses II. Numerous blocks from earlier buildings were found reused in the pylon: a sed-festival waystation of Senwosret I, the White Chapel, shrines of Amenhotep I and II, Hatshepsut, the Red Chapel, and Tuthmosis IV, and a pillared portico of the same king. The four obelisks which stood behind the pylon were erected by Tuthmosis I and III to mark the entrance to the original temple, but only one obelisk of Tuthmosis I is still standing Pylons IV and V, both built by Tuthmosis I, and the narrow once-pillared area between them, are the earliest parts of the temple. Two obelisks of Hatshepsut made of red quartzite can be seen here, one still standing.

Obelisk in Karnak Temple

Further east is the Festival Temple of Tuthmosis III. One room in this temple is known as the "Botanical Garden", because of its representation of exotic plants, birds, and animals., It may have contained the core sanctuary of the temple.

In the 20th Dynasty, Ramesses III built a triple barque shrine in the western court and undertook the construction of the temple of Khonsu.

Taharka in the 25th Dynasty built the large sacred lake with a temple, the lake edifice, at its north-west corner. He also built columned pavilions leading to the eastern and western entrances of the temple and in front of the temple of Khonsu. The small pylon of the temple of Opet was also begun during the 25th Dynasty.

The large gate of Ptolemy III Euergetes was built in front of the temple of Khonsu and at the back of the Opet temple. Extensive repairs were made to the bases of walls damaged where ground water had risen. Repairs were also made to the Hypostyle hall walls, and the eastern and western gateways were entirely redone.

The court north of Pylon VII is known as the Cachette Court: Here a deposit of thousands of statues which originally stood in the temple was found in 1903.

Near the northwest corner of the temples sacred lake is a colossal statue of the sacred scarab beetle on a tall plinth, dating to Amenhotep III.

The temple of Khonsu stands in the southwest corner of the enclosure. Its propylon in the main enclosure wall, built by Ptolemy III Euergetes I, is approached from the south by an avenue of ram-sphinxes protecting Amenhotep III. The pylon was decorated by Pnudjem I , the forecourt by Herihor, an the inner part by various Ramessids. There is also some Ptolemaic relief work.

Nearly 20 other smaller chapels and temples are within the precinct of Amun-Ra, including one of Ptah built by Tuthmosis III, Shabaka, several Ptolemies and Tiberius. A good example of these small temples is that of Osiris Hek-Djet.

The Akhenaten temples

Akhnenaten was second son and successor to Amenhotep III. He spent the first five years of his reign in Thebes, and he favored the sun shrine characteristic of the Heliopolitan center of solar worship, which featured open courts on a central axis. Smaller stones were used which a single man could carry. Tens of thousands of these in the best sandstone were quarried at Gebel el-Silsila, about 100 km south of Thebes.

These small blocks were recycled later as the sun temples were reduced, and used as fill or foundation in walls and pylons of the 19th Dynasty. Some have been found in Horemhebs Pylons II and IX at the Amun temple at Karnak, as foundation blocks beneath the hypostyle hall of the Amun temple, and in Ramesses IIs pylon and outbuildings in the Luxor temple. Some survived to be used as late as the reign of Nectanebo I, and some turned up at Medamud in Ptolemaic period constructions.

Akhenaten erected four major structures at Karnak during the first five years of his reign. The major building was called "the Sun-disk is Found", built in anticipation of the jubilee; then there were the "Exalted are the monuments of the Sun-disc", and "Sturdy are the movements of the Sundisk." The smallest of the four was the Hwt-bnbn, "Mansion of the benben stone". A Hwt-itn, "Mansion of the Sun-disk", mentioned in tombs on the west bank, has not as yet turned up in the scenes on these blocks.

Only one of the four structures has been located and partly excavated. The main Aten temple was built to the east of Karnak. From the center of its western side ran a columned corridor 12 feet wide that led west to connect with the 18th Dynasty royal palace which lay just north of Pylons IV, V and VI of the Amun temple. There were probably life-size statues made of red quartzite representing the king, arms crossed, though other statues may have included the queen as well. Reliefs show the king with one arm outstretched and being caressed by the rays of the sun-disc.

In the Aten temple, the consistent theme was the celebration of the jubilee, or heb-sed. Scenes in the entrance corridor coming from the palace show the approach of the royal party, courtiers kissing the earth, men dragging bulls, etc. Turning right along the west wall, to the southwest corner and then east along the south wall, are reliefs depicting the ritual of the "days of the White Crown," when the king made offerings dressed as the monarch of Upper Egypt. It is presumed that similar scenes were depicted showing the King in the same ritual for the Red Crown and Lower Egypt.

The Hwt-bnbn, though to-date not found, is reconstructed in the scenes on the blocks featuring tall graceful pylons and walls. But the identity of the celebrant of the offering to the sun-disc is not Akhenaten, but instead, his wife Nefertiti.

The relief decorations of the two temples called "Exalted are the monuments of the Sun-disc," and "Sturdy are the movements of the Sundisk," both structures also as-yet undiscovered, show domestic apartments, rewarding of officers, and other scenes from domestic life.

After the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten moved from Thebes to Amarna, the new city he had built, and work on Karnak ceased. The name of Amun was obliterated throughout Karnak and the Theban area.


  • Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt ed by Katharine Bard
  • Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson
  • The Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek

Also See Tour Egypt Main Karnak Pages

Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves.

Last Updated: June 8th, 2011