The Great Hypostyle Hall at the Temple of Amun, Karnak, Part I: An Overview and the Exterior Walls

The Great Hypostyle Hall at the Temple of Amun, Karnak, Part I

An Overview and the Exterior Walls

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jim Fox

Inside the Great Hypostyle Hall in the Temple of Amun at Karnak

An Overview

It is difficult for one to think of Karnak in ancient Thebes (modern Luxor), much less the section known as the Temple of Amun, without picturing the Great Hypostyle Hall. This is the large area just behind the second pylon in the Temple of Amun, which is a veritable forest in stone, and measures some 99.4 by 51.82 meters.. At one point, it was called "The Temple of Seti Merneptah is Lumininous in the House of Amun" and was described by the ancient Egyptians as "the resting place of the Lord of gods, beautiful sojourn of the Ennead" and "the beautiful sojourn of the Ennead, where Amun rests, the place of appearance of the Lord of the gods at his annual feast". It was also designated as the "Hall of the two crowns", which perhaps points to the ceremony of the coronation being performed in it, a ritual which is depicted upon its walls. It has been described as one of the most monumental achievements in Egyptian architecture and is the largest known example of a typical hypostyle hall.

The 134 colossal papyrus columns surge into the sky in an impressive array of ancient workmanship. The center 12 columns are larger, standing some 21 meters tall, with open capitals, while the remaining 122 columns outside of these stand 15 meters high and have closed capitals. It is difficult to actually understand their size. Consider for example, that a crowd of fifty people could easily stand atop the capital of the largest of the mammoth structures.

The 12 larger columns were perhaps raised by Amenhotep III, but at the latest, by Horemheb. The other columns surrounding these are a later addition.

Originally the abacuses above the capitals, supporting stone architraves supported a massive roof, with only small clerestroy windows, of which a few survive. Purposefully, this would have provided only muted illumination for the primeval papyrus swamp which the hall represented. The taller columns represent papyrus plants that are further developed in their growth, owing to their being nearer to the daylight, while the smaller once are less developed due to their lack of access to the light. Amidst the columns stood literally throngs of statues depicting gods and kings, a few of which have been restored to this location in recent times.

Floorplan of the Hypostyle Hall in the Temple of Amun

This hall was begun by Amenhotep III, though not until Seti I were the decorations initiated. They were completed by his son, the great Ramesses II. The latter's work can be differentiated from the earlier decorations by their more hurried and less subtle sunk reliefs. The theme of these decorations include celebrated military exploits of Seti I and Ramesses II in Syria and Palestine, including the Battle of Kadesh (See also the Egyptian Account of the Battle of Kadesh), on their exterior, while inside are depictions of rituals including processional scenes and mythical topics such as the king interacting with various gods. This hall is terminated by the Temple of Amun's Third Pylon.

Excavations have revealed a foundation wall under the first row of lower columns to either side of the central nave in the Hypostyle Hall. This has lead archaeologists to believe that a foundation wall once enclosed the central alley of columns, before the hall was enlarged. Prior to this enlargement, this would have been a colonnade forming the approach between second and third pylons.

The Exterior Walls

The exterior walls (consisting of the North and South walls, not the outer pylon walls) of the Great Hypostyle Hall in the Temple of Amun at Karnak mostly portray the military actions of Ramesses II (the south wall) and of his father, Seti I (the north wall), and in this respect, historically, are some of the most important areas of this famous region at Karnak. In particular, the southern exterior wall portrays the famous Battle of Kadesh.

Southern Wall

The doorway on the exterior south wall of the Hypostyle Hall

Chapollion recounted that all the exterior southern facade of the hypostyle hall "was formerly adorned with historical tableaux relative to the conquests of Ramesses the Great; but they are almost entirely effaced and one can hardly recognize the subject of the two registers still visible above the heaped-up piles of dirt and blocks".

Today, of course, these walls have been cleared. However, little of the reliefs remain. In fact, it appears that Ramesses II may have usurped himself on these walls. Originally, scenes from Ramesses II's Battle for Kadesh were recorded upon the walls, but subsequently, the battle scenes were recarved with new scenes of Palestinian conquests, even though the textual record was largely left untouched. It almost seems as though his artists had run out of temple real estate and had to record newly commissioned scenes over older ones. After all, Ramesses II had this famous battle also recorded in the temple of Luxor and the Ramesseum. However, some of the material from the Battle of Kadesh with the Hittites and other enemies clearly remain.

Facade of the Exterior south wall of the Hypostyle Hall

There are only three registers that are visible today. The two lower registers begin at the western edge with acts of conquest, after which the king begins his return journey home as the scenes move toward the temple entrance, where he presents his defeated enemies to Amun. On each side of the doorway the scenes expand in height so that they take up the first two registers, and represent the "ritual massacre of the vanquished". At the east end of the southern wall is carved the narration of the Battle of Kadesh in a long text of vertical columns below a large scene in which the king and the princes are bringing a bound group of prisoners before Amun.

Superimposition of Amun and a scene of struggle
Superimposition of Amun and a scene of struggle

In addition to the reliefs concerning the Battle of Kadesh, there is also, on the wall protruding from the exterior southern wall of the Hypostyle hall, reliefs that depict the surrender of the fortress of Askalon. This was a city about ten miles north of Gaza and about 40 miles south of Joppa. This scene depicts the pharaoh's soldiers staving in the doors of the fortress with axes, while others scale it by means of ladders. Also, on a nearby hill, Egyptian soldiers are exterminating the fleeing enemy.

Northern Wall

This wall, divided by a doorway, depicts combat at both of its extremes, and then converge toward the center doorway with the king's victorious return to the temple of Amun.

Seti I returning to Egypt from Kheta

The southern exterior wall of the Hypostyle hall, perhaps because it was for the most part not reused as was its northern counterpart, is perhaps somewhat better in condition. It records several military campaigns of Set I into the Levant, as well as one battle with the Libyans in the west.

In the lower half of the eastern section of the wall, we see scenes depicting the taking of the fortress of Pekanan. They begin on the east edge of this wall with the king's departure from Raphia (now Rafah or Rafiah) for the desert road. This is followed by the Bedouin's ambush and scenes depicting the waterholes along the desert path. The next scene heading west depicts return of Seti I to the Egyptian boarder, followed by the offering of booty to Amun. Beyond this and next to the doorway is a scene, taking up both upper and lower registers, depicting the ritual massacre of the vanquished.

The upper part of the wall scenes on the eastern facade of the wall, beginning on the eastern end, depict the "new version of the great chieftains of Lebanon". The eastern most upper section depicts the capture of Yamoam, followed by the binding of the vanquished. Next comes a scene showing the capturing of prisoners, followed by the offering of booty to the Theban triad.

On the western half of the northern wall, the lowest of three registers on the western end, begin by depicts an archery battle against the Kheta (Hittites), followed by the return to Egypt with Khetan captives. Further east we find the offering of booty to the gods, Amun, Sekhmet-Mut, Khonsu and Ma'at. This in turn is followed by another portrayal next to the doorway, two registers high, of the ritual massacre of the prisoners before Amun, which mirrors that on the western half of the doorway.

Seti I offers the sacred lettuce to Amun-Re, here the ithyphallic prince of Thebes, who is followed by Isis - on the west door jam of the northern wall

The next level of scenes, beginning on the far western edge of the wall represent javelin combat against the Libyans. This is followed by the return to Egypt with Libyan captives, and the offering of booty to the Theban triad.

Above these scenes is another register, which begins on the western extreme of the western part of the wall with archery combat at Kadesh, the land of Amor. Finally, above the scene depicting the ritual slaughter of the vanquished next to the western edge of the doorway is a scene depicting tribute that is being presented to this temple.

In this final scene of slaughter, which is depicted on both sides of the northern doorway, the king wears the red crown of the North, and holds a dozen prisoners tied together by their hair. The king holds them secure with his right hand, while with his left he brandishes the white hedj club. Before him stands the god Amun, presenting the harpagon in his right hand while in his left holding the key of life and the bonds of the prisoners with the escutcheons representing the conquered towns. Amun speaks the words:

O my son of my body...
I bring to thee the chiefs of the southern countries...
(I turn) my face to the north, I work a wonder (for thee), snaring the rebels in their nests...
I turn my face to the east, I work a wonder for thee,
I bind them all for thee, gathered in thy grasp...
I turn my face to the west, I work a wonder for thee,
consuming for thee every land of Tehenu...
I turn my face to heaven, I work a wonder for thee....The gods of the horizon of heaven acclaim to thee when Ra is born every morning...
I turn my face to the earth, (I work a wonder for thee, I appoint for thee victories in every country).

On the west door jamb of the northern entrance to the hypostyle hall, on the upper register the king has removed his warrior attribute and is now clad in a triangular apron and wears upon his forehead a diadem. Here, he offers the sacred lettuce to Amun-Re, here the ithyphallic prince of Thebes, who is followed by Isis.

Below, on the lower register, the king is clad in a long linen robe and presents bouquets of lotus flowers to Amun, who walks before Ptah. These sunk reliefs were completed by Ramesses II. On the door splay, the king wears the blue war helmet and is depicted as he enters the doorway with the key of life in his left hand and his right hand extended towards Amun. This carving has been reworked on several occasions.

Back Home Next

See Also:






Reference Number

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C.

Badawy, Alexander


University of California Press

LCCC A5-4746

Luxor, Karnak and the Theban Temples

Siliotti, Alberto


American University In Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 641 1

Ramesses II

James, T. G. H



ISBN 1-58663-719-3

Temples of Karnak, The

de Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller


Inner Tradition

ISBN 0-89281-712-7

Thebes in Egypt: A Guide to the Tombs and Temples of Ancient Luxor

Strudwick, Nigel & Helen


Cornell University Press

ISBN 0 8014 8616 5

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011