The Temple Precinct of Mut at Karnak

The Temple Precinct of Mut at Karnak

by Jimmy Dunn

Aerial View of the Temple of Mut at Karnak
Aerial View of the Temple of Mut at Karnak

Mut was the consort of Amun-Re, King of the Gods, and mother of Khonsu, who was associated with the moon. Like many other goddesses, Mut had a human and a feline form. In her human guise, she was a protective mother. As the lioness-headed Sekhmet, she was a fierce defender of Egypt who could turn against humankind if angered. Many of the rituals in Muts temples were aimed at keeping the goddess content.

Main Temple of Mut

One of Mut's primary temples was located at Karnak. This temple for many years laid in ruins beyond the south gate (200 meters south of the 10th pylon of the Amun Temple) of the Karnak precinct. For some time now it has been undergoing restoration work. However, it remains today a wilderness of grass and cracking pavement. Yet, the temple retains much of its charm on this hilly land with a beautiful view of Luxor (ancient Thebes) and the Nile River.

The Napoleonic Expedition of 1798-1801 recorded one of the earliest plans of the Mut Precinct at Karnak. Another 19th century explorer who visited the site and recorded his observations was Nestor l'Hte. Interestingly, his drawings, made in 1839, recorded details not present on other plan created both earlier and later, but which have now proved to be accurate. The Royal Prussian Expedition of 1842-1845 led by Karl Lepsius and the first directors of the Department of Antiquities of Egypt, August Mariette and Gaston Maspero, also recorded the sites monuments. However, the first serious archaeological work carried out at the site was actually conducted by two English women, Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay, between 1895 and 1897. They mostly concentrated on the main temple of Mut.

Ground Plan of the Temple of Khonsupakherod

Then, for over twenty years, not more archaeological work took place until the 1920s, when Maurice Pillet, who was then working for the Department of Antiquities of Egypt, excavated the Temple of Khonsupakherod (or Khonsupakhred, Khonsu the Child), also sometimes referred to as Temple A, located in the northeast corner inside the enclosure wall, and the Temple of Ramesses III, referred to as Temple C, west of the sacred lake. The French archaeologist Henri Chevrier, also working for the Department of Antiquities, carried out limited excavations within the Mut Temple during the 1950s and, Serge Sauneron, Director of the Centre franco-gyptien des Temples de Karnak, began work on the hieroglyphic texts of the Propylon, the site's main entrance during the 1970s.

In 1976 the Egyptian Department of Antiquities granted permission to the Brooklyn Museum (now the Brooklyn Museum of Art) to begin a systematic exploration of the site and its monuments. The Detroit Institute of Arts has been associated with this ongoing archaeological project since 1978.

The temple was primarily built by Amenhotep III but other rulers, from the New Kingdom and into the Ptolemaic (Greek) Period also added and enhanced the temple. Recent excavations indicate that much, and possibly all, of the present precinct was village settlement, until some time in the Second Intermediate Period.

During the reigns of Queen Hatshepsut and King Tuthmosis III, the entire precinct probably consisted of the Mut Temple and the sacred lake, but by Ptolemaic times, it had grown to over twenty acres, including massive mud-brick walls, three large temples, smaller temples and chapels, and housing for priests and others. The Mut Temple was enlarged later in the 18th Dynasty, when the main temple building was completely enclosed by new construction, probably by Amenhotep III. The Mut temple's 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 temple's 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. Parts of the west and north walls of this precinct have been uncovered, including a gate bearing Tuthmosis III's name (possibly usurping that of Hatshepsut), an Amarna Period effacement of the name of Amun and a Seti I restoration inscription. The eastern and southern boundaries of this precinct are as yet undefined.

A block recording the marriage of Ramesses II to the Hittite princess

The temple of Khonsupakherod to the northeast of the Mut Temple was originally outside the Mut Precinct. First built during the 18th Dynasty, it was renovated and expanded by Ramesses II, who made the building a "temple of millions of years" dedicated to himself and to Amun-Re. He added a forecourt, a pylon, two colossal granite statues of himself and two colossal alabaster stelae. The first, recording his marriage to a Hittite princess, was uncovered by Maurice Pillet in the 1920s. The second was discovered by the Mut Expedition in 1979 and records Ramesses' work on a temple, most likely the temple before which the stela stood. In the Mut Temple itself, it was probably Ramesses II who added a stone facing to the south side of the temples' mud brick second pylon and new inscriptions and reliefs to the walls of the second court.

Later Ramesside kings also worked in the area of the Mut Precinct. Ramesses III erected a temple to the west of the Isheru and outside the precinct's walls, but it was later incorporated into the precinct.. This temple is on the same plan as Ramesses III's temple in the Amun precinct and bears on its outer walls the remains of the king's depictions of his Syrian and Libyan wars.

One of the many statues of Sekhmet

Under King Taharqa of the 25th Kushite Dynasty, the Mut Precinct grew dramatically. This work apparently overseen by one of Taharqa's most important officials, Montuemhat, Mayor of Thebes and Governor of Upper Egypt. Taharqa and Montuemhat rebuilt much of the Mut Temple using blocks from the earlier temples as building material for their expansion. Blocks of relief and inscriptions from 18th through the 20th Dynasties are visible today in the foundations of Taharqa's temple. They also added two long columned porticoes to the north of the Mut Temple's first pylon.

It was also in the reign of Taharqa that the Mut Precinct was expanded to include the Temple of Khonsupakherod. By the 21st Dynasty, this temple may have already become a mammisi, a temple celebrating the divine birth of a god (in this case Khonsu, son of Amun and Mut), and of the king himself. Apparently the temple of Ramesses III was no longer in use, for the second pylon of the Temple of Khonsupakherod seems to have been constructed in part of stone quarried from Ramesses III's temple, including the feet, torsos and heads of colossal statues that once stood in its court. As part of the precinct's expansion and the rededication of the Khonsupakherod Temple, Taharqa created a processional way leading from a gate in the newly built western wall of the precinct to that temple.

Head of a statue of Montuemhat discovered in the Mut temple complex but now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum

Montuemhat and his work did not go unrecorded. A small chapel dedicated to him was created in the eastern wall of the Mut temple has long been known, and in recent years, the remains of at least two other private chapels that relate to Montuemhat and to his son Nesptah have been uncovered. In fact, there seems to have been a proliferation of small chapels in the precinct beginning in the 25th Dynasty and continuing into the 26th Dynasty. One 26th Dynasty chapel was dedicated to Nitocris, God's wife of Amun, and was built in the first court of Temple of Khonsupakherod. Another was a magical healing chapel dedicated by Horwedja, Great Seer of Heliopolis, It was probably during the 30th Dynasty that the precinct achieved its present size and its distinctive trapezoidal shape.

However, the Mut Precinct continued to prosper under the Ptolemies. During the Ptolemaic Period the precinct was given a new main entrance gateway and significant parts of the Mut Temple and the Temple of Khonsupakherod were rebuilt. Elsewhere, Ptolemies V and VII built a chapel, only recently excavated, just inside the Taharqa gateway and dedicated to both Mut/Sekhmet and possibly to the Ptolemaic ancestor cult as well.

Even after the conquest of Egypt by Rome in 30 B.C., the Mut Precinct remained an important site. Two stelae record work at the site carried out under the auspices of the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius and this is evident in the temple walls. It seems, however, that beginning in the first century A.D. the Mut Precinct began to decline. The Taharqa gateway was blocked off and a village grew up outside the gate but within the protection of the massive enclosure walls. By late Roman times the Mut Temple had ceased to function. When worship of the goddess died out, people even built houses within some of the temples. Over the centuries, the Mut Precincts buildings were a convenient source of pre-cut stone, and as a result, few of its buildings now are taller than six feet. In fact, in 1840, a large part of the temple was dismantled for the erection of a factory.

An avenue of sphinxes leads one through Karnak village to the temple. However, prior to entering the gate of the enclosure wall, there are two small temples located to either side of the avenue of sphinxes. On the eastern side of the avenue is the temple of Amun-kamutef, an ithyphallic god whose name means "Bull of his Mother", and to the east side was a barque shrine built by Tuthmosis III and Hatshepsut. It should also be noted that outside of the eastern section of the enclosure wall is a very small temple built by Nectanebo II.

The overall plan of the Mut temple complex

The overall plan of the Mut temple complex

Inside the enclosure wall, which measures some 250 by 350 meters, were at least six sanctuaries. However, pausing to examine the gate dating to the Ptolemaic era and probably built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes I, we find on the east doorpost of the passage a sistrum player, a harpist and a tambourine player who are standing in the presence of Mut who sits upon a throne. Since the earliest of times, music, song and dance played a part in many if not most sacred ceremonies. The harp is very ancient, known from tombs of the 5th Dynasty, and the sistrum, a sort of rattle, is also very old. However, the rhythm of the hymns and dances was usually accompanied by hand clapping and so the tambourine made a rather late appearance in such religious ceremonies. Below these scenes is a long text that relates to the feasts of the temple of Mut. On the east doorpost, we find a frieze of flowing papyrus and buds emerging from a base of wavy lines that signify water, in a style that was typical of the Ptolemaic Period.

An early photograph of the Osirian Statue at the Temple of Khonsupakherod

Upon entering the precinct, we might first wish to take a brief look at the temple of Khonsupakherod. Notable is the Osirian Statue which is attached to a stela whose edge bears the titles of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great). Curiously however, the vertical band that descends beneath the two crossed fists of the figure is a combination of the names of Ramesses II and Tuthmosis IV, which are superimposed together in the reverse direction. The inscription reads, "King of Upper and Lower Egypt, master of the Two Lands, usermaatre Setepenre, Son of Ra".

The second cartouche belonging to Ramesses II is not visible, but the inscription is, and may be translated as "Neter-nefer, master of the Two Lands, Menkheperre, Son of Ra, of his breast, Tuthmosis IV, endowed with eternal life.

Within this small temple, on the northern wall, is an unusual scene depicting the circumcision ceremony. Herodotus tells us that:

"They (ancient Egyptians) drink only from copper vessels, which they polish and clean every day with a great deal of care... They wear clothes of linen that are always freshly washed and that they take pains never to stain. They have adopted circumcision in their search for cleanliness, and appear to think more highly of a perfect physical purity than any other adornment."

The circumcision scene in the Temple of Khonsupakherod

The circumcision scene in the Temple of Khonsupakherod

Of course, birth scenes of the king and Khonsu are also present.

The main Mut temple is surrounded on three sides by a sacred lake, called the Isheru, that could contain the fierce Sekhmet. Isheru is a term used to describe sacred lakes specific to precincts of goddesses who can be leonine in form. The Mut Precinct's Isheru, fed probably by an underground spring, is the largest in Egypt that is preserved.

The temple consists of an entrance pylon which is fronted by a kiosk of Tahraqa, followed by a court with eight central columns, which in turn is followed by a second pylon and an inner court with Hathor pillars and Sekhmet statues. Afterwards, there is a small hypostyle court flanked by two chapels, which is followed by the sanctuary surrounded by a number of small chambers. A small addorsed temple stands against the back of the main structure. However, the ruined condition of the structure precludes a detailed knowledge of its original form and decoration. The whole of the main temple is oriented towards the Temple of Amun, more or less facing north.

Relief of Bes in the pylon entrance of the main temple of Mut

In the remains of the entrance pylon, which was built by Seti II, there is a relief of the dwarf-god Bes and Ptolemaic texts of a Hymn to Mut.

Within the temple, we find a great quantity of statues with the body of a woman and the head of a lion, though many of these statues have been removed and now stand in a number of museums. In fact, most of the statues of Sekhmet that inhabit the museums of the world came from this temple, where it has been estimated that 700 such statues originally stood around three sides of the first court. While mostly identical, these statues of the goddess Sekhmet were dedicated by various individuals, including Ramesses II, as well as the High Priest Pinedjem (who actually ruled southern Egypt) and Henuttawy. However, most bear the name of Amenhotep III. Each of them reveals different inscriptions, such as, "Sekhmet, beloved of Ptah", "Sekhmet, mistress of the western desert", "Sekhmet in the house of Bastet", "Sekhmet the great" and "Sekhmet, beloved of Sobek". Each of these is connected with the myths surrounding this goddess. For example, the first is attributed to Sekhmet as the feminine principle of Ptah.

One of the many statues of Sekhmet in the temple of Mut

Most Egyptologists now believe that most if not all of these statues did not originally stand in this district but rather in the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III on the West Bank. They were probably brought to the Mut precinct during the 19th Dynasty when Mut and Sekhmet became more closely associated and rituals involving both with the Isheru first appear to have gained prominence.

Though the temple built by Ramesses III is almost gone, two ruined colossal statues of the king with his queen remain at its entrance, and it still retains some of the military scenes on its outer walls.

Otherwise, not much remains of this great temple complex. Sometimes it seems that more of its artifacts are scattered about in museums than remain in place. However, excavation continues in this area under the direction of the Brooklyn Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts, and doubtless we will learn much more about it in the future. In fact, finds continue to make news every so often.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A Hart, George 1986 Routledge ISBN 0-415-05909-7
Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, The Arnold, Dieter 2003 Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-11488-9
Luxor, Karnak and the Theban Temples Siliotti, Alberto 2002 American University In Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 641 1
Sacred Sites of Ancient Egypt Oakes, Lorna 2001 Lorenz Books ISBN (non stated)
Thebes in Egypt: A Guide to the Tombs and Temples of Ancient Luxor Strudwick, Nigel & Helen 1999 Cornell University Press ISBN 0 8014 8616 5
Temples of Karnak, The de :Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller 1999 Inner Tradition ISBN 0-89281-712-7


Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011