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Karnak (Temple of Amun)

A panorama of the great hypostyle hall at Karnak.

Modern-day Karnak is the contemporary name for the ancient Egyptian Temple of Amun. Set at Thebes, the ancient Egyptian referred to the site as Ipetsut, “The Most Select of Places,” Nesut-Towi, or “Throne of the Two Lands”, Ipt-Swt, “Selected Spot” and Ipet-Iset, “The Finest of Seats.”

Karnak’s ancient name reflects the belief of ancient Egyptians that Thebes was the city founded at the beginning of the world on the primeval earthen mound emerging from the waters of chaos. The Egyptian creator-god Atum bestrode the mound and worked his act of creation. The temple site was believed to be this mound. Karnak is also thought by Egyptologists to have served as an ancient observatory as well as being a place of cult worship where the god Amun interacted directly with his earthly subjects.

Facts About Karnak

  • Karnak is the world’s largest surviving religious building
  • Cults worshipped Osiris, Horus, Isis, Anubis, Re, Seth and Nu
  • The priests at Karnak grew fabulously wealthy rivalling and often exceeding the pharaoh in wealth and political influence
  • Gods often represented individual professions
  • Ancient Egyptian gods at Karnak were frequently represented as totemic animals such as falcons, lions, cats, rams and crocodiles
  • Sacred rituals included the embalming process, the “opening of the mouth” ritual, wrapping the body in cloth containing jewels and amulets, and placing a death mask over the face of the deceased
  • Polytheism was practised unbroken for 3,000 years, save for the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s imposition of Aten worship until the temple was closed by the Roman emperor Constantius II
  • Only the pharaoh, the queen, priests and priestesses were allowed inside the temples. Worshipper had to wait outside the temple gates.

Karnak’s Sprawl of History

Today, the Temple of Amun is the world’s largest surviving religious building. It is dedicated to Amun and a host of other Egyptian gods including Osiris, Isis, Ptah, Montu, Ptah and Egyptian pharaohs looking to commemorate their contributions to the vast site.

Built over the centuries, each new king beginning with the early Middle Kingdom (2040 – 1782 BCE) to the New Kingdom (1570 – 1069 BCE) and even through to the essentially Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty(323 – 30 BCE) contributed to the site.

Egyptologists content Old Kingdom (c. 2613 – c. 2181 BCE) rulers initially built there on the site based on the architectural style of sections of the ruins and Tuthmose III (1458 – 1425 BCE) list of Old Kingdom kings inscribed in his Festival Hall. Tuthmose III’s selection of kings implies he demolished their monuments to make way for his hall but still wanted their contributions to be recognised.

During the temple’s long history buildings were regularly renovated, expanded or removed. The complex grew with each succeeding pharaoh and today the ruins sprawl across 200 acres.

The Temple of Amun was in continuous use during its 2,000-year history and was recognized as one of Egypt’s most sacred sites. The priests of Amun supervising the temple’s administration became increasingly influential and wealthy eventually subverting secular control of Thebes’ government towards the end of the New Kingdom when government rule was split between Upper Egypt in Thebes and Per-Ramesses in Lower Egypt.

The emergent power of the priests and the pharaoh’s subsequent weakness is believed by Egyptologists to be a major contributing factor to the New Kingdom decline and the turbulence of the Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 525 BCE). The Temple of Amun complex was extensively damaged during the 666 BCE Assyrian invasions and again during the Persian invasion of 525 BCE. Following these invasions, the temple was repaired.

Following Egypt’s annexation by Rome in the 4th century CE Egypt Christianity became widely promoted. In 336 CE Constantius II (337 – 361 CE) ordered all pagan temples to be closed leading to the Temple of Amun being deserted. Coptic Christians used the building for their services but the site was once more abandoned. In the 7th century CE Arab invaders rediscovered it and gave it the name “Ka-ranak,” which translate as ‘fortified village.’ In the 17th-century European explorers travelling in Egypt were told the splendid ruins at Thebes were those of Karnak and the name has been associated with the site ever since.

The Emergence And Rise Of Amun

Amun began as a minor Theban god. Following Mentuhotep II’s unification of Egypt in c. 2040 BCE, he gradually accumulated followers and his cult gained influence. Two older gods, Atum Egypt’s creator god and Ra the sun god, were merged into Amun, raising him to the king of the gods, as both the creator and preserver of life. The area around Karnak is believed to have been sacred to Amun prior to the construction of the temple. Alternatively, sacrifices and offerings to Atum or Osiris may have been performed there, as both were regularly worshipped at Thebes.

The sacred nature of the site is suggested by the absence of remains of domestic homes or markets. Only religiously purposed buildings or royal apartments have been discovered there. At Karnak inscriptions surviving on the walls and columns together with artwork, clearly identify the site as religious from its earliest times.

Karnak’s Structure

Karnak comprises a series of monumental gateways in the form of pylons leading onto courtyards, hallways and temples. The first pylon leads onto an expansive courtyard. The second pylon leads onto the magnificent Hypostyle Court a majestic 103 meters (337 feet) by 52 meters (170 feet). 134 columns 22 meters (72 feet) tall and 3.5 meters (11 feet) in diameter supported this hall.

Montu, a Theban war god, is thought to have been the original god in whose name the ground was originally dedicated. Even following the emergence of the cult of Amun a precinct in the site remained dedicated to him. As the temple expanded, it was divided into three sections. These were dedicated to Amun, his consort Mut symbolizing the life-giving rays of the sun and Khonsu their son the moon god. These three gods eventually became known as the Theban Triad. They remained Egypt’s the most popular gods until the cult of Osiris with its own triumvirate of Osiris, Isis, and Horus overtook them before evolving into the Cult of Isis, the most popular cult in Egypt’s history.

Over the years, the temple complex expanded from the original Middle Kingdom temple of Amun to a site honouring numerous gods including Osiris, Isis, Horus, Hathor and Ptah together with any deity the pharaohs of the New Kingdom felt gratitude towards and wished to recognise.

The priesthoods administered the temples, interpreted the gods’ will for the people, collected offerings and tithes and gave counsel and food to devotees. By the end of the New Kingdom, over 80,000 priests are believed to have staffed Karnak and its high priests became wealthier and more influential than their pharaoh.

From the reign of Amenhotep III onwards, the cult of Amun posed political problems for the New Kingdom monarchs. Aside from Amenhotep III’s irresolute reforms Akhenaten’s dramatic reformation, however, no pharaoh was able to significantly restrain the priest’s rising power.

Even during the chaotic Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069 – 525 BCE), Karnak continued to command respect obliging Egypt’s pharaohs to contribute to it. With the invasions initially in 671 BCE by the Assyrians and again in 666 BCE Thebes was decimated but the Temple of Amun at Karnak survived. So impressed were the Assyrians by Thebes’ great temple that they ordered the Egyptians to rebuild the city after they had destroyed it. This was repeated during the Persian invasion in 525 BCE. After the Persians were expelled from Egypt by the pharaoh Amyrtaeus (404 – 398 BCE), construction at Karnak recommenced. The pharaoh Nectanebo I (380 – 362 BCE) erected an obelisk and an unfinished pylon and also constructed a protective wall around the city.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 331 BCE, after defeating the Persian Empire. Following his death, his vast territory was divided amongst his generals with his general Ptolemy later Ptolemy I (323 – 283 BCE) claiming Egypt as his share of Alexander’s legacy.

Ptolemy I, focused his attention on Alexander’s new city of Alexandria. Here, he looked to meld Greek and Egyptian culture to create a harmonious, multi-national state. One of his successors Ptolemy IV (221 – 204 BCE) took an interest in Karnak, constructing a hypogeum or underground tomb there, dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris. However, under Ptolemy IV’s rule, the Ptolemaic Dynasty began a slide into disarray and no other Ptolemaic kings of this period added to the Karnak site. With the death of Cleopatra VII (69 – 30 BCE), the Ptolemaic dynasty ended and Rome annexed Egypt, ending its independent rule.

Karnak Under Roman Rule

The Romans continued the Ptolemaic focus on Alexandria, initially largely ignoring Thebes and its temple. In the 1st century CE the Romans sacked Thebes following a battle to the south with the Nubians. Their pillaging left Karnak in ruins. Following this devastation, visitors to the temple and the city dwindled.

When the Romans adopted Christianity in the 4th century CE, the new faith under the protection of Constantine the Great (306 – 337 CE), gained increasing power and widespread acceptance across the Roman Empire. The emperor Constantius II (337 – 361 CE) consolidated Christianity’s hold on religious power by directing all pagan temples in the empire be closed. By this time, Thebes was largely a ghost town except for a few hardy inhabitants living in the ruins and its great temple lay deserted.

During the 4th century CE, Coptic Christians living the area used the Temple of Amun as a church, leaving behind sacred images and decorations before finally abandoning it. The city and its lavish temple complex were then deserted and left to gradually deteriorate in the harsh desert sun.

In the 7th century CE an Arab invasion overtook Egypt. These Arabs gave the sprawling ruins the name “Karnak” as they thought it was the remnants of a great, fortified village or “el-Ka-ranak”. This was the name local inhabitants gave early 17th-century European explorers and this became the name the archaeological site has been known by ever since.

Karnak continues to fascinate its visitors by its sheer scale, and the engineering skill required to build such a monumental temple complex at a time where there were no cranes, no trucks, or any the modern technology which even today would struggle to construct the monumental site. The history of Egypt from its Middle Kingdom through to its eventual decline in the 4th century is writ large on Karnak’s walls and columns. As the throngs of visitors stream through the site today, little do they realise they are fulfilling the hopes of ancient Egypt’s vanished pharaohs that their great deeds recorded on the Temple of Amun at Thebes would be immortalized forever.

Reflecting On The Past

Today Karnak is a massive open-air museum drawing thousands of visitors to Egypt from all around the globe. Karnak remains one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations.

Header image courtesy: Blalonde [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Karnak (Temple of Amun)," Give Me History, March 19, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/karnak.

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