Situated more than 600km up the River Nile, in the north of modern-day Luxor, lie the remains of antiquity’s largest known religious sanctuary. The ancient Egyptian temple complex of Ipet-Sut – Karnak – is home to splendid architecture that stretches back millennia, from the early 2nd millennium BC to the first few centuries AD and the coming of Christianity.
During its ancient lifetime, Karnak was a sanctuary of the all-powerful Egyptian god Amun. Across the sanctuary, the legacy of this god’s worship is visible. From the sacred bark shrines dedicated to him and his immediate family to the various versions of this Theban god, such as Amun Kamutef and Amun-Ra.
Here’s the story of Karnak Temple.
The White Chapel
The earliest surviving structure at Karnak can be found a small distance away from the sanctuary’s central architecture. This is the White Chapel of Pharaoh Senusret I. A pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, Senusret reigned in the early 2nd millennium BC. Originally his ‘White Chapel’ was located somewhere more central in the Karnak complex, but it was demolished. Fortunately, French archaeologists were able to uncover most of the temple’s limestone blocks and to accurately reconstruct the Chapel at its present location, in the Open Air Museum.
The Chapel itself is rather small and square in its design. Hieroglyphs cover the Chapel’s exterior, mentioning the various regions of Upper and Lower Egypt. Within the temple itself, depictions of Pharaoh Senusret I in the presence of the God Amun are visible on many of the Chapel’s columns, alongside the accompanying hieroglyphs.
The White Chapel’s original purpose is debated. Perhaps it was a bark shrine to the God Amun, where the god’s sacred bark (boat) would be housed. Or perhaps the Chapel was constructed to celebrate Senusret’s Sed Festival. Celebrated after 30 years on the throne, the Sed Festival was an ancient Egyptian ‘jubilee’ – an official renewing of the pharaoh’s power. Regardless of its original purpose, this ‘White Chapel’ is today the oldest building still standing at Karnak, some 4,000 years old.
In the centuries following Senusret I, Karnak’s importance to ancient Egyptian rulers would only grow. Successive pharaohs would leave their mark on this sanctuary to Amun, sometimes at the expense of their predecessors. They would order the construction of new monumental buildings and they would improve the existing structures of their predecessors – or demolish them. But it would be during the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom Period that Karnak experienced its golden age.
It’s fitting that several pharaohs of the famous 18th Dynasty left their mark at Karnak, from the obelisks of Hatshepsut to the Akh-Menu (Festival Hall) of Thutmosis III to the surviving baby-faced statue of Tutankhamun near the centre of the complex. But it would be rulers of the following dynasty – the 19th – that left the most famous legacy at Karnak.
Enter Pharaoh Seti I. The second ruler of the 19th Dynasty, Seti ascended the Egyptian throne at an unstable time. Ramesses I, his father, had only ruled for one and a half years and not did come from a royal family. And so, from the onset of his reign, Seti was keen to solidify his dynasty’s hold on the Egyptian throne. One way he aimed to achieve this was through military successes; another way was through the construction of monumental buildings. Examples of both are visible at Karnak.
The main monumental construction associated with Pharaoh Seti I at Karnak today is arguably the site’s main construction: the Hypostyle Hall. Overall, the Hall contains 134 columns – 122 close papyrus columns surrounding a central colonnade of 12 open papyrus columns. Some now attribute the 12 central columns to an 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III, but construction of the rest of the hall (decoration aside) is attributed to Seti I. One of the most striking features of this hall if you visit today is the original colour on the 12 central columns. Recently cleaned by Egyptologists, the removing of the dust has revealed the original colour applied to the depictions on these columns some 3,500 years ago.
Seti’s Hypostyle Hall is the pharaoh’s greatest legacy at Karnak today, but he also used the site as a place where he could promote his military achievements. From early in his reign Seti campaigned with the army outside of Egypt, keen to secure his rule through military successes in ancient Libya and Syria. On the northern, exterior wall of the Hypostyle Hall, you can see various martial depictions of Seti and his army on campaign. You see Seti smiting prisoners; you see him in his chariot; you see the Egyptian army fighting Libyans; you see them campaigning in ancient Syria, crossing a river infested with crocodiles and approaching the town of Kadesh.
In short, across central Karnak you can see the promotion of Seti I’s martial and architectural achievements. His successor was sure to follow suit.
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Seti’s son and successor was none other than Ramesses II: one of ancient Egypt’s most renowned pharaohs. He too was sure to leave his mark on Karnak. Construction of the Hypostyle Hall’s architectural elements (the walls, the roof, the 122 closed papyrus columns) was completed during Seti’s 11 year reign, but the hall’s decoration remained incomplete when Ramesses ascended the throne. It was Ramesses II that oversaw the decorating of the hall’s 134 columns. Cartouches of the pharaoh remain visible on the columns today. Meanwhile, colourful depictions of Ramesses II in the presence of Amun are visible on the 12 central columns.
Like his father, Ramesses II was also sure to promote his military successes on the hall’s exterior sides. Whereas the military achievements of Seti are visible on the Wall’s northern, exterior wall, you can see the military achievements of Ramesses on the hall’s exterior, southern wall.
The achievement in question is Ramesses II’s ‘victory’ against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. Looking at the faded reliefs, the battle is portrayed as an Egyptian victory, but in reality the clash was much more of a stalemate. Most interesting of all, however, is a series of hieroglyphs written near one corner of the exterior wall. Easy to overlook today, this writing is the text of the peace treaty with the Hittites that followed the Battle of Kadesh: the first recorded peace treaty in history.
Several remarkable details in the treaty itself are worth briefly highlighting. Not only does it include the year in Ramesses’ reign in which the treaty was agreed (Year 21), but it also includes mentions of Pharaoh Ramesses II and his Hittite counterpart Hattusili III. A copy of the treaty is stored at the headquarters of the United Nations.
But why did Seti and Ramesses promote their martial achievements on the exterior walls of the Hypostyle Hall? A key reason is likely due to who could access the hall itself. Only the most senior priests and the pharaoh were allowed in the Hypostyle Hall, but people were free to walk around its outside. These exterior walls were therefore visible to the public – to the pharaoh’s subjects. They could marvel at the military achievements of their rulers.
Yes, on the one hand Karnak was this great religious centre for the god Amun, but these depictions also show how Karnak served a PR role for pharaohs too. It was a pharaonic noticeboard. A place where pharaohs promoted their achievements to their subjects.
Karnak’s non-Egyptian rulers
Karnak experienced a golden age during the latter stages of the 2nd millennium BC, but it was during the 1st millennium BC where activity there gets even more interesting. During this millennium, Egypt witnessed a series of invasions and a series of ‘non-native’ Egyptian pharaohs. From the Kushites and Libyans to the Persians and Macedonians. Nevertheless, Karnak’s importance remained. Some stunning structures remain visible at the sanctuary, built by some notable non-Egyptian pharaohs.
One of the most striking of these structures you can see very near Karnak’s main entrance today (the gigantic First Pylon). This is a towering, isolated column: the Kiosk of Taharqa. Originally this 19-metre-high column was part of a roofed structure, but all that remains today is this one column. Taharqa was a pharaoh of the Kushite 25th Dynasty and his legacy remains visible to this day at Karnak.
The non-Egyptian pharaoh who arguably has the most striking legacy at Karnak however is an unusual, albeit extraordinary one. Right at the centre of Karnak, the holiest of sites, is a granite bark shrine to the great god Amun. Several pharaohs have constructed a bark shrine there over the centuries, for instance Hatshepsut, as they aimed to closely associate themselves and their rule with Amun. But the granite bark shrine that endures to this day is associated with a Macedonian ruler: King Philip Arrhidaeus III.
Philip Arrhidaeus’ reign is a turbulent, albeit fascinating one. He ruled during the early, chaotic aftermath of the death of Alexander the Great, used largely as a pawn by ambitious generals vying for power in this new post-Alexander world. During his reign, Philip Arrhidaeus only ventured to Egypt once – when he accompanied the regent Perdiccas on an ill-fated campaign against Ptolemy in 320 BC. Safe to say, Philip Arrhidaeus almost certainly never visited Karnak himself. So what is a bark shrine, dedicated by him to Amun, doing at Karnak?
A likely explanation is that the bark shrine is the work of the then governor of Egypt, Ptolemy. A plausible argument was recently suggested by Dr Ian Worthington. Ian suggests that Ptolemy, keen to show his loyalty to King Philip Arrhidaeus in the wake of Perdiccas’ failed Egyptian venture, had this bark shrine constructed. It makes sense, especially as this was a time (c.319/320 BC) before Ptolemy was powerful enough to declare himself a king in his own right. That would come later.
Overall it is fascinating that today, in the centre of a site often labelled the largest religious complex in the ancient world, you have a building associated with the often-overshadowed half-brother of Alexander the Great. A fact made even more remarkable by the fact that, just down the road at Luxor Temple, the central room of that temple is dedicated to Alexander the Great himself. The Macedonian legacy is clear to see, even at the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt.