The Sacred Lake and the Monumental Scarab at The Temple of Amun at Karnak in Egypt

The Sacred Lake and the Monumental Scarab at

The Temple of Amun at Karnak in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

The Sacred Lake at Karnak

To the south of the girdle wall of Ramesses II at the Temple of Amun at Karnak in ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) is a rectangular Sacred Lake, dug by Tuthmosis III. It is the largest of its kind, that we know of, and is lined with stone and provided with stairways descending into the water. It measures some 120 meters (393 feet) by 77 meters (252 feet). We believe that most temple precincts included a sacred lake. Water from the lake, filled with groundwater, was used by the priests for ritual ablutions and other temple needs, and was also home to the sacred geese of Amun. However, it was symbolically important in the ancient Egyptian's concept of creation, representing the primeval waters from which life arose. Like all the monuments at Karnak, according to Legrain, it to has its legend:

"On certain nights, a golden barque emerges from the waters of the lake, as resplendent as in days of yore, and the king who steers it is in pure gold, and his sailors are of silver. And when the moon shines, the barque sails, leaving behind a long wake of precious stones. At times it comes to the dock, as well, and then if some brave soul with a heart thrice bound in bronze comes forth to dare the great adventure, he climbs aboard the phantom ship, then, victorious, returns to his home laden with fabulous treasure; but everyone knows that if he makes the slightest sound, the merest sigh, the fairy barque, the gold king, and the silver sailors will sink immediately below the waves of the lake, which will engulf the foolhardy one forever....

However, the appearances of the mysterious boat are becoming more and more rare; for more than thirty years no one can boast of truly seeing it... It is not, alas! soon to reappear, for my storyteller added that it would not be seen again until there was no longer a liar or a thief within the country."

The Sacred Lake, a part of the Temple of Amun at Karnak

At the northern corner of the lake between it and the Osirian Temple of Taharqa was located a huge granite statue of a scarab dedicated by Amenhotep III and, according to A. Varille, brought from his West Bank mortuary temple. However, others believe that it actually came from Kom el-Heitan, where another funerary temple of Amenhotep III was built. The front face of the cylindrical pedestal on which the scarab rests has been flattened to form a stela, and is carved entirely in sunk relief. On it, the kneeling king makes an offering of two nu vessels to Atum of Heliopolis. The solar disk set between the two extended wings that crown the text forms part of the name of Nebmaatre that is inscribed in the vertical axis of this stela. The text carved on the side of the stela explicitly states that it concerns "Khepri who rises from the earth".

The Sacred Scarab

Among the most significant restoration projects, and being achieved totally by Egyptian restorers, is the consolidation and removal of Amenhotep III's red granite scarab, which has now been relocated to the lake's western side in order to make more space for the influx of tourists inside the temple. Before the removal comprehensive consolidation and cleaning took place. As a side note to this structure, the local guides tell tourists that if one walks around the scarab seven times, he or she will never again have love problems. So it is common to see the tourists making laps around the scarab.

The lake's rough-hewn stone edging is punctuated on the southern side by the opening of a stone tunnel through which the domestic geese of Amun were released into the lake from the fowl-yards a little further to the south. However, geese were not the only birds that adorned the surface of this lake, for a variety of ducks were also included in the aviary.

On the sacred lake is also the remains of the priests' homes, which now lie beneath the seating erected for the sound and light show. These ruins are located on the eastern side of the lake, and have been the subject of excavations since the 1970s. Recently, archaeologists have discovered here a number of ceramic fragments, tokens, seal imprints and coins dating from the reign of Shoshenq I of the 22nd Dynasty, as well as clay pots from the 26th and 27th Dynasties. Silver ingots and two silver coins, originally from northern Greece and dating from about the 27th Dynasty, were found at house number five. "This new discovery puts the emphasis on the wealth of its owner, and is much appreciated as giving a chronological fix, given that it places this treasure in history at the moment of the Persian debacle," Abdel-Aziz said. He added that the excavations revealed that the inhabitants of the houses were without doubt of high rank. Various titles of priests have been found, among them the priest in charge of opening the golden naos (shrine) of Amun.

A top view of the Sacred Scarab at Karnak

The priests of Karnak probably did not purify themselves in the water of the sacred lake directly, because its waters were not pure enough for this purpose. Rather, the water was probably itself purified before being used by the priests.

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See also:


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle) Reeves, Nicholas 2000 Thmes & Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05105-4
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Temples of Karnak, The de :Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller 1999 Inner Tradition ISBN 0-89281-712-7