A relative labyrinth of temples, sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons, obelisks and statuary, the Karnak Temple Complex encompasses over 200 acres of land and is the second largest religious site in the world (the Angkor Wat Temple in Cambodia is the largest). To give you some perspective here, that means you could fit about 10 cathedrals the size of Notre Dame inside the temple complex at Karnak, so yeah, in the words of Douglas Adams, “you just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
It’s also a bit like that house that’s been handed down through the generations, each family member adding a bit on here and there, redecorating from time to time, putting there own stamp on the place, expanding it, maybe tearing down things that remind them of other family members they don’t like anymore, and continuing on like that for over 1500 years.
Construction on the site was begun by Senusret I during the middle kingdom with a temple dedicated to the god Amun (considered the king of the gods by this time), he was depicted in many forms, but was often shown with a ram’s head (hence the multitude of rams headed sphinxes on site). Later, the site would also feature areas dedicated to Amun’s consort Mut (the mother goddess) and their child, Khonsu (the god of the moon and time), who together formed the Theban triad of deities worshipped in this area.
Unlike many of the other temple complexes in Egypt, Karnak unintentionally became much more than simply a religious site to the ancient Egyptians who considered it the contact point between the god Amun (the supreme ruler of the universe) and the pharaoh (the supreme ruler on Earth). Basically, while there were lots of Gods in Egypt, and the pharaoh held the role of “high priest” over all the gods’ cults in Egypt, it was to Amun that he performed the Daily Ritual at Karnak… well ok, HE didn’t usually do it himself really, he had people for that… but you get the idea. He wanted to align himself with the big guy, the king of the gods as his personal god to reinforce his position as the god king here on earth.
This link caused not only great wealth to be funneled into the coffers of the Karnak temple as thanks from a grateful pharaoh for Amun’s presumed help with his recent military victories, but also ensured that any pharaoh who wanted to have their reign remembered forever would be virtually compelled to contribute to the continual adornment of the complex. So in many ways Karnak became a repository for Egyptian history, its walls telling the stories of pharaohs rising to power, the battles they fought, and the family feuds that raged on over the centuries… like seriously… so many feuds… as they each tried to one-up each other by adding onto the temple through the centuries.
What You Need To Know
On Second Thought, Maybe We Should Erase That…
One of the stories I love most, that you can clearly see remaining evidence of throughout Karnak, is the story of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. You see Hatshepsut was an 8th Dynasty queen, wife and half-sister of king Thutmose II and daughter of king Thutmose I. However when the king died, leaving only an infant the throne, she stepped in to act as regent for her husband’s heir, Thutmose III (a son of the king by a secondary wife) until he came of age.
then in a plot twist no one saw coming, she decides to crown herself king…. not queen, but king, and rules Egypt for around 22 years. She does a pretty killer job at it too, and is widely considered one of most successful pharaohs ever to rule Egypt.
But then in a plot twist no one saw coming, she decides to crown herself king…. not queen, but king, and rules Egypt for around 22 years. She does a pretty killer job at it too, and is widely considered one of most successful pharaohs ever to rule Egypt. During her reign she was always depicted as male in all official monuments and statuary she built, and she built a lot… from her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri to her many obelisks and other additions to the Karnak temple complex. The lady loved to build things.
Understandably upon her death, Thutmose III was just a bit grumbly about the fact that his step-mom basically squatted on the throne for so long, keeping it away from him. But at first, he brushes it off and moves on with life, excited to FINALLY get to be king. However eventually his head officials keep pestering him about all these monuments and statues and obelisks his step-mom made, and that really, wouldn’t it be better if we were to maybe erase her from all that stuff so that future queens don’t get any more bright ideas about ruling the country and naming themselves king?
So nearly 20 YEARS after her death, they go on a deface, rename, reuse mission throughout Egypt to try and remove any mention of Hatshepsut. At Karnak, they erased her image from relief scenes on the 8th pylon and from rooms she built in the center of the temple. They bricked in around the base of her obelisks and dismantled and defaced her central bark shrine known as the “red chapel.” Evidence of which you can clearly see at Karnak today.
Time For The Gods To Go On A Field Trip
Who doesn’t like an excuse for a good party? And by party I mean giant religious festival where some of the gods all get to go on a little field trip to visit another temple…. but don’t worry because there is lots of food, music, dancing and booze.
While Thebes hosted numerous religious festivals throughout the year, the big one was the annual Opet Festival, which you could sort of relate to a mash-up of the American holidays of Thanksgiving, Easter & a Presidential Inauguration.
Occurring annually in the second month of the inundation season (the time when the nile river would swell and flood it’s banks) the priests would load up the little statues of Amun, Mut and Khons that lived in their respective chapels at Karnak temple, onto ceremonial barges and then carry them overland down an avenue lined by around 1350 human-headed sphinx statues, to visit nearby Luxor temple (with much pomp and all the circumstance).
For the Egyptian people who weren’t a priest or the pharaoh, this all simply meant a few days or weeks off of work, and a lot of feasting and celebrating with their family and community.
When the procession from Karnak had reached it’s destination, the statue of Amun and the Pharaoh would enter the furthest recesses of the hosting temple and enact a series of ceremonies. When the king emerged, he would have been imbued with the powers of the royal ka (aka life force or spirit), giving the pharaoh the might of Amun-Ra, and thereby renewing his divine kingship. Tah, da!
Afterwards, the whole party (along with the little statues) would pack up and sail back up the nile from Luxor temple to the Karnak complex again. The whole thing could last anywhere from 11-27 days.
For the Egyptian people who weren’t a priest or the pharaoh, this all simply meant a few days or weeks off of work, and a lot of feasting and celebrating with their family and community. There are records in fact that show large endowments given to the temples for the celebration of this state-sponsored festival for huge amounts of food and drink (usually bread, beer and meat). One of these three-week festivals included the production of over eleven thousand loaves of bread and cakes.
To Hire A Guide Or Not, That Is The Question
Ok, so while we did have a guide for this temple as part of our tour on the steam ship Sudan, and he was great, if you do your homework and bring the necessary resources along with you, you could probably get around this site without a guide. But you’d have to be the type of person who likes to do their homework. Online you can find a wealth of information on Karnak, I found this site useful, also this one. You’d probably also want to make sure you were fairly up on your basic Egyptian history before you went by listening to this great courses series (totally worth the time commitment), and have a good guide book with a map, my lonely planet guide had a great map and detailed breakdown of the site.
If that sounds like more work that you are wanting to invest in, I’d say to hire a guide, as not much around the complex is marked in any way. Although there’s usually enough tour groups visiting the site (seriously, it’s the second most visited site in Egypt after the pyramids of Giza, so it’s busy), you’d probably be able to overhear a lot of information while you were just wandering around the complex on your own.
One of the reasons I say you *could* potentially do this site on your own without a guide, is that it is so much easier to get here than many of the other temples and sites in Egypt (where a guide is mostly needed just to get you to the site and back practically). The Karnak temple complex is located just north of central Luxor, and was only about a 2mile/40min walk from our Luxor hotel, The Winter Palace. (obviously you could also catch a hantour (aka horse drawn carriage) if you feel like haggling for one, we personally tried to avoid this and just walked everywhere on the East Bank, or grabbed an uber ride every once and a while)
A Note On Temple “Gaurds”, Photos & Baksheesh
Honestly, this really applies to any site you visit in Egypt, but is especially true at places like Karnak that are so highly visited.
And that is that, it’s important to keep in mind that the “Gaurds” you see around aren’t really “Gaurds” in the strict sense of the word. Many of them don’t even work for the sites. What these men do is that they will come to the site, dressed in a traditional Egyptian galabiya and turban and offer to point out things around the site to you, or be in photos, in exchange for baksheesh (aka a tip).
it’s important to keep in mind that the “Gaurds” you see around aren’t really “Gaurds” in the strict sense of the word. Many of them don’t even work for the sites. What these men do is that they will come to the site, dressed in a traditional Egyptian galabiya and turban and offer to point out things around the site to you, or be in photos, in exchange for baksheesh (aka a tip).
While I don’t recommend having them show you anything (as most of them speak little to no english and don’t really know anything about the site itself and will only point at obvious things and say words like “mama, baby, Hathor”) or guide you around, I did enjoy snapping their photos from time to time. In which case you’ll need to make sure to have some small change on hand to pay them with (most of the time they were more than happy to get 20LE, which is like $1 and I was happy to pay $1 for my photo souvenir).
I’ve read how this practice annoys some visitors, and leaves them frustrated at yet another thing that you need to tip for in Egypt… but to be honest, if tourists shoved a camera in my face and wanted to take my picture all day every day, I’d probably like to collect a dollar from each of them too if I could.