Karnak: Supersize Me!

I guess I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we decided to visit this area of Egypt. In our local southwestern United States culture, Luxor is most commonly associated with a cheesy plasticized casino in Las Vegas. In my mind Luxor and Karnak were the same place. And maybe in a sense they were. People have lived in the area since prehistoric times. Temple structures were built here as early as the 3rd Dynasty (Old Kingdom). It’s kind of like the temples at the Karnak enclosure outgrew their real-estate, leaving pharaohs and the priesthood nowhere else to build. So they started building up other sites in the area and connecting them to Karnak. It was the religious power hub of the ancient world, growing in importance from the Middle Kingdom and reaching its apex in the New Kingdom.

Karnak is so huge that you could fit ten of the largest European cathedrals inside it. The enclosed area covers 1.6 square miles. Its temple to the principal god of the region, Amen-Ra, is the largest religious structure ever built. It is a bit like the proverbial “House that Jack built,” with each successive pharaoh adding on his or her own set of temples to their favorite gods. There is little rhyme or reason to the layout and it feels as though every square inch of this walled worship center is covered, sometimes several layers one on top of another, with temples and shrines. The wealth and power of the times cannot be overstated. During the New Kingdom, priests at the Temple of Amen had over 81,000 slaves and servants (about the population of the city of Santa Barbara), 421,000 head of cattle, 691,000 acres of farmland, and 65 cities. When Ramses III was pharaoh, the temple received over 70,000 pounds of gold and over 2,000,000 pounds of sliver. Dude! That’s a lot of baksheesh!

Two aspects of Karnak need to be mentioned specifically. The Hypostyle Hall was designed to look like an enormous papyrus pond, complete with Nile River water flowing across its floor in the summer months. The idea was to recreate the “primeval mound” of Egyptian mythology from which all of life began. There are 134(!) massive stone columns carved and decorated to create this marshland. The problem is that of perspective. You need to imagine yourself the size a mouse in comparison to a bundle of life-sized papyrus. The room was built for giants. We all agreed that we could easily spend the entire day here just gazing around this room from the comfort of a reclining beach chair with an endless supply of shai.

The second standout piece was the obelisk of Hatshepsut. It stands just a short ways outside of the Hypostyle Hall and can be seen from just about any place in Karnak. It is one solid piece of granite standing 97 feet tall and weighing over 323 tons. When it was finished she had it sheathed in electrum, a mixture of gold and silver. Can you imagine the brilliance of this piece in the never-ending sunshine of this area? There used to be two of these. After Hatshepsut’s death, her successor Tuthmosis III, tried to hide her accomplishment by having these beautiful obelisks walled up in stone. I, for one, am glad that he did. By covering them in stone he helped preserve them. Well at least one of them. The other was later destroyed and scattered around the Karnak grounds.

There is so much to see here that I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. Sam said it well again on this day. “It’s even more too much! But I think I’m getting used to it.”

Karnak Temple


linnie said...

I was utterly blown away by the immensity of size and intricacy of the artwork in both of your last two posts. I don't think I had any idea before how beautiful the architecture/art was from this area before. The video really captures the grandeur of the architecture as well. It certainly gives a whole new light on the real estate term, "high ceilings". I am in awe. I would love for you to blow up some of these stills for the wall. Just breathtaking! I want to visit Luxor and Karnak now.

Julianna said...

Those are huge colloms! They must of taken a long time to build!