Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt

Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt

By Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

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Night Photo of the Luxor Pylon built by Ramesses the Great

The name Luxor represents both the present-day metropolis that was ancient Thebes, and the temple on the eastern bank which adjoins the town. "Luxor" derives from the Arabic al-uksur, meaning "fortifications". That name in addition was adapted from the Latin castrum which referred to the Roman fort built around the temple in the later third century AD. The temple of Luxor has, since its inception, always been a sacred site. After Egypt's pagan period, a Christian church and monastery was located here, and after that, a mosque (13th century Mosque of Abu el-Haggag) was built that continues to be used today.

In ancient Egypt the temple area now known as Luxor was called Ipt rsyt, the "southern sanctuary", referring to the holy of holies at the temples southern end, wherein the principal god, Amun "preeminent in his sanctuary", dwelt. His name was later shortened to Amenemope. This Amun was a fertility god, and his statue was modeled on that of the similarly Min of Coptos. He also has strong connections to both Karnak and West Thebes.

Known in ancient times as "the private sanctuary (Opet) of the south," the temple proper is located south of Karnak. The present temple is built on a rise that has never been excavated and which may conceal the original foundations. The early building may rest on a no longer visible older structure dating back to the 12th Dynasty. However, since neither the cult nor any part of the temple appears to predate the early 18th Dynasty; the few Middle Kingdom fragments found here more probably came from elsewhere and were transported to Luxor after the original buildings were dismantled.

View of the Temple complex from the South

The earliest reference to the temple comes from a pair of stelae left at Maasara quarry, in the hills east of Memphis, inscribed in regnal year 22 of the reign of Ahmose, c. 1550 BC. The text records the extraction of limestone for a number of temples including the "Mansion of Amun in the Southern Sanctuary." But structural evidence appears at Luxor only during the co-rule of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III c 1500 BC. These elements are now built into the triple shrine erected by Ramesses II, c 1280 BC, the most substantial remnant of Luxor temples Tuthmosid phase. The shrine was erected inside the first court, in the northwest corner, and reused elements from the original chapel dedicated by Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III.. This small building had been the last of six barque stations built along the road that brought Amun and his entourage from Karnak to Luxor every year during the Opet Festival.

A view of the Temple Complex from directly above

We also know that Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) built a sanctuary to the sun next to the Luxor Temple that was later destroyed by Horemheb.

The temple we see today was built essentially by two kings, Amenhotep III, (the inner part), and Ramesses II, (the outer part). The overall length of the temple between the pylon and rear wall measures about 189.89 by 55.17 meters (623 by 181 feet).

The original function of the temple of Luxor, apparently dedicated to the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu, appears uncertain. However, recent hypotheses suggest that the temple of Luxor, a collection of irregularly developed structures begun during the reign of Amenhotep III and then expanded, particularly by Ramesses II, and still further enlarged in later years, should be considered a sanctuary dedicated to the celebration of the royal ka.

Plan of the Temple of Luxor

Plan of Luxor Temple

Hence, Luxor Temple was the power base of the living divine king, and the foremost national shrine of the kings cult. This doctrine of divine kingship separated the Egyptians from their neighbors in Mesopotamia and from the later medieval "divine selection and right of kings" of Europe.

Kingship was believed to be ordained by the gods at the beginning of time in accordance with maat., the well-ordered state, truth, justice, cosmic order. The reigning king was also the physical son of the Creator sun-god. This divine conception and birth was recorded on the walls of Luxor Temple, at Deir el-Bahari, and other royal cult temples throughout Egypt.

Night Shot of the Ramesses II Courtyard

The king was also an incarnation of the dynastic god Horus, and when deceased, the king was identified with the father of Horus, Osiris. This living king was thus a unique entity, the living incarnation of deity, divinely chosen intermediary, who could act as priest for the entire nation, reciting the prayers, dedicating the sacrifices.

A road was built in the 18th Dynasty to link Karnak to the north with Luxor to the south. Although the position of this road must have coincided with the avenue seen in front of Luxor temple today, the latter, along with the sphinxes flanking it, date to the reign of Nectanebo I in the 30th Dynasty. However, we believe that Nectanebo I only refurbished the road and lined it with new sphinxes. The mudbrick ruins on either side of the road are all that remains of the town of Luxor during the later and post-Dynastic periods.

A view of tall columns within the complex

There was a girdle wall built around the temple that consisted of independent massifs of sun-dried brick abutting at their ends, built of courses set on a triple system that ran concave horizontal concave.

The gate through which one would pass from the avenue to the esplanade in front of the temple was constructed after the Dynastic period, for the brick wall around this courtyard is contemporary with the Roman fort built around the temple at the beginning of the 4th century AD. Substantial remains of the walls, gates, and pillared stone avenues, can be seen east and west of the temple. Buildings used in this transformation and which no longer exist in whole include a chapel dedicated to Hathor that was erected during the 25th dynasty reign of Taharqa and a colonnade of Shabaka, later dismantled. A modest mudbrick shrine dedicated to Serapis during Hadrians reign and which still contains a statue of Isis survives at the courts northwest corner.

Another view of the Ramesses Pylons with the Obelisk and statues

Two red granite obelisks originally stood in front of the first pylon at the rear of the forecourt, but only one, more than 25 meters (75 feet) high, now remains. The other was removed to Paris where it now stands in the center of the Place de la Concorde. These obelisks were not of the same height, and they were not on the ame alignment, probably to make up in perspective for this difference in height.

Six colossal statues of Ramesses II, two of them seated, flanked the entrance, though today only the two seated ones have survived. The one to the east was known as "Ruler of the Two Lands".

Although Amenhotep III built the temple proper, it is fronted by a 24 meter high pylon of Ramesses II. The pylon and the courtyard beyond, also built by Ramesses II, is oddly out of alignment with the axis established by the other pre-existent buildings. This non-alignment may have resulted from consideration for the small shrine built during the reigns of Tuthmosis III and Hatshepsut. Some scholars also think that the alignment may have been made so that the pylon would be on the same axis as the processional way leading to the Karnak Temple. Reliefs and texts on the outside of the first pylon relate the story, in sunk reliefs, of the battle of Qadesh against the Hittites. Other later kings, particularly those of the Nubian Dynasty, also recorded their military victories on these walls (Shabaka on the inner pylon walls). The pylon towers once supported four enormous cedar-wood flag masts from which pennants streamed.

View looking north at the back of the Ramesses II pylon with the mosque visible

Within the pylon is the Peristyle Courtyard of Ramesses II, a "feast court" (wsekhet khefet-her, "The Temple of Ramesses Meriamon united with eternity"), which is surrounded by two rows of papyrus bud columns with cylindrical shafts on all of its sides. It is not square, but rather in the form of a parallelogram, measuring 57 by 50.9 meters (187 by 167 feet). It is here, in the northeast corner, that an ancient church was located, on the ruins of which the more modern mosque was built. Also here is the shrine of Tuthmosis III and Hatshepsut, which originally consisted of three contiguous deep shrines for the barques of Amun, Mut and Khonsu, preceded by a porch with four columns. This structure was rebuilt at the same location by Ramesses II using elements from the earlier sanctuary. It was embodied in the courtyard portico, abutting on the inner face of the northwestern tower of the pylon.

A view of the Tuthmosis III and Hatshepsut shrine in the courtyard of Ramesses II

It was necessary for the columns nearest the shrine to be engaged in its walls resulting in a quite unusual type of column. On the outside walls of this court are depictions related to Ramesses II's campaigns against the Hittites in Syria.

Colossal granite statues of Ramesses II representing him striding with a diminutive Queen Nefertari were placed between the columns of the southern part of the Peristyle Courtyard. The colossus to the west was "Re'-of-the-Rulers", a name borne by other statues at Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum.

Amenhotep III built the temple proper, at the south end of the site in three phases, including the colonnade, the big second courtyard and the hypostyle hall. The processional colonnade of Amenhotep III runs for some 100 meters with seven papyrus columns on either side standing 19 meters high (62 ft 3 in). Two seated double statues of Amun and Mut are on the south side.

A view of Amenhotep III's colonnade

Here, the figure of Amenhotep III alternates with those of his successors on door-jambs and columns. Carving of the scenes and inscriptions on the walls behind the columns had barely been started when the king died and then the upheavals of the Amarna period hold. Work came to a stop at Luxor during the reign of Akhenaten, but afterwards Tutankhamun finished most of the interior carving. He died before the work was finished, and therefore Ay completed the decorations. However, Horemheb usurped these decorations so that Tutankhamun's name shows up only inte4rmittently under that of Horemheb. The few scenes still left in paint at the south end of the hall were finally completed in relief a few years later by Seti I. These scenes depict the Festival of Opet. Those on the west wall show a procession of barques from Karnak to Luxor, those on the east wall show the reverse journey. It is here that inscriptions mention the six way stations for the barque between Karnak and Luxor, each possibly having a repository chapel (men wahet, "way station"). This hall predates that of Karnak, and served as its architectural prototype.

A view of the Amenhotep III Sun Court

Beyond the colonnade is the Great Sun Court of Amenhotep IIIs temple, which measure about 45.11 by 56.08 meters (148 by 184 feet. The sun court is almost identical to the court in front of the inner part of Amenhotep IIIs funerary temple in West Thebes. Both are slightly wider at the front then at the rear. This would have enhanced the depth of the perspective of the court by an optical illusion and added to its impact. It received decoration from the time of Amenhotep himself to that of Alexander the Great. The side walls retain some of their original coloring. It was here in Luxor that in 1989 workers found a deep pit containing a large quantity of statuary, buried probably in the 4th century AD during the installation of a cult of the deified Roman emperor.

The Hypostyle Hall of Amenhotep III

The cache, similar to one found in Karnak in 1903, included statues of gods, goddesses, queens, kings and kings as gods, as well as triads of divinities and royal groupings. The most amazing statue in this cache was a larger than life sized statue of Amenhotep III, carved from red-gold quartzite.

At the back of the Great Sun Court, at its southern end, a hypostyle hall is blended in almost imperceptibly. It is described as a hall of appearance (wsekhet kha'it). It consists of four rows of eight bundle papyrus columns that once supported a now non-existent roof. Through the center of these columns runs an aisle. On the walls of this chamber Amenhotep III is depicted before the gods of Thebes ceding the temple above a plinth of figures personifying the Egyptian nomes.

A view of the Roman era shrine

This hypostyle hall leads to a smaller eight columned hall or portico which originally opened into the inner temple, but which was transformed by the Roman legion stationed at Luxor into a chapel dedicated to the imperial cult. At that time, the columns were removed. It contained the standards of the legion, and its south doorway was blocked with an apse painted with figures Emperor Diocletian, c 284-305 BC, and his three coregents, There is also a stairway in the chamber, and it is flanked by chapels dedicated to Mut and Khonsu.

In turn, this hall leads to two square halls, each originally having four columns, following one behind the other. To the east of the first of these halls is the "birth room", so called because of its decorative sequence. It is dedicated to the theogamy or marriage of Amun with Queen Mutemuya, the mother of Amenhotep III, represented in low-relief scenes similar in subject to those of Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahari. This was the "divine marriage" that was celebrated between the god and the queen, or "God's wife", during the Opet Festival. On the west wall is depicted the divine conception and birth of Amenhotep III, along with his subsequent presentation to the gods and nurturing, as well as the determination of the future king's realm. These scenes affirm the overall theme of renewed royal and divine vitality celebrated in the festival. The mound on which this area of the temple stood was also held to be the very site of the birth of Amun so that the theme of birth was clearly one shared by temple and festival alike.

To the west of this first, four columned halls was a series of niches.

Barque Chapel of Alexander the Great

The second four columned hall originally built by Amenhotep III no longer contains its columns, though the column bases may in fact still be seen. This was a barque chapel that was later converted into a shrine built by Alexander the Great and dedicated to the ithy-phallic Amun. Its scenes represent Alexander, dressed as a pharaoh, entering, receiving the two crowns, and offering rites. To either side of this small chamber were side chambers with three columns and an outer series of four contiguous cells.

When Amenhotep III built this section of the temple, the remaining part of it at the rear, was accessible through a side doorway in the east wall of the rear hall. Later, a central doorway was opened behind the stand for the barque in the barque shrine, in the axis of the temple plan, where there was once a gigantic false door that symbolically connected the two sections. This arrangement of two separate sanctuaries, the one in front made accessible to the people and the one to the rear reserved only for the priests, is one of the characteristics of this temple The chambers beyond the barque shrine, originally separated form the front part, formed a sort of temple within the temple, apparently with special mythic significance related to its particular version of Amun.

Above the lintel of the doorway connecting the barque shrine with the rear of the temple, concealed by removable slabs and accessible by holds cut in the wall, was a small chamber probably for oracular pronouncements.

Depictions on the wall of the Offering Table Room

Directly behind the barque shrine (south) are the innermost chambers of the Amenhotep III temple. The first of these chambers is a broad "hall of the offering table" (wsekhet hetep), with twelve columns, which actually proceeds the the shrine of the statue. The twelve columns possibly symbolize the hours of the day since depictions of the sun-god's day and evening barques appear on the room's opposing east and west walls (and in fact, the chamber is often referred to as the "Hall of Hours").

The twelve column broad hall is flanked by two small rooms, the eastern one being in fact a smaller "hall of the offering-table".

Beyond the twelve columned broad hall, in the central location, is the original sanctuary or "holy of holies", containing the base of the block which once supported the god's image. The seated statue of Amun was of colossal proportions, placed on a socle abutting on the rearmost columns, like the socles of thrones in temple palaces. There were two lateral balustrades. This is represented in low relief in two scenes flanking the entrance doorway to the rear shrine.

The small temple dedicated to Serapis

About this room are other chambers that form the suite of private or intimately secluded chambers which gave the temple its name of Opet or "harem". Here, we find niches that contained the statues of other divinities. These innermost parts of the temple stood on a low mound which was thought by the ancient Egyptians to be either the original site of creation, the mound which rose from the primeval waters, or at least symbolic of that place. Hence, the roles of the chief gods Amun and Re and the concepts of creation and cyclic solar renewal were here particularly intertwined.

The outer surfaces of the eastern walls of the inner temple area can be seen to contain many blocks apparently randomly decorated with unrelated images. This area represents a practice wall where the ancient masons and sculptors learned the skills of temple decoration. These surfaces were then plastered over, only to be revealed again in the course of centuries as the underlying stone became exposed.

See also:






Reference Number

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Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011