Egypt: Luxor Temple

The entrance to the Luxor Temple feels much more complete than that of Karnak. There is the usual Pylon of stone on either side but with an obelisk added and two seated pharaohs guarding the entrance with two more standing pharaohs on each side. Luxor has so much more ‘stuff’ than Karnak. The reason for the difference is easy to explain.

Karnak is a shrine to the gods – Amun, Mut, and Khonsu specifically with a plethora of shrines to other gods added over the centuries. Whereas the Luxor Temple is specifically a temple to the Pharaohs and the yearly rejuvenation of their rule. So, it seems to me that the pharaohs went out of their way to make sure everyone knew what big powerful kings they were.

Ramses II in particular left his mark on the temple. He added the grand pylons at the entrance. The statues guarding the entrance, two seated and four standing, are stylized depictions of him. Ramses II also added the first courtyard with seventy-four Lotus bud columns and even more statues of himself. As I said, this is a temple to the Pharaohs by the Pharaohs – look how great we are!

At one time a grand scene of Ramses II going into battle decorated the Pylons. You can just make out the remnants of the carvings that were originally painted in bold bright colors. Also, there were originally two obelisks set at the entrance, but the smaller of the two was gifted to France in 1829 and is now in the Place de la Concorde in the center of Paris. We drove past it on our stop-over in Paris.

The city of Luxor was built on the ruins of Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt. The power of the pharaohs was centered around the worship of the Gods at Karnak and rejuvenated every year at Luxor during the flooding of the Nile with the Festival of Opet. They were then buried in the Valley of the Kings across the river on the west side of the Nile. Thebes was the site of more than sixty festivals and feasts annually. It was the center of both religious and political power for centuries.

Alexander the Great recognized this and had a shrine built here after he conquered the country. He had his image stylized as a pharaoh and carved into the walls depicting him receiving his power from Amun. This is the Amun-Min version of the god with one arm, one leg, and a massive penis! On our visit, there was a line of people to see this carving. Apparently, massive penises are very popular with tourists!

The Luxor temple complex has been an important religious site for more than 3000 years. The original temple was dedicated to Amun, the God of the Air. Romans used it as a church and monastery that was then converted into a Mosque that is still in use to this day.

Our personal guide Ahmed knew that I was an engineer and writer. At Karnak, he pointed out the temple of Ptah – the god of architects and engineers. At Luxor, he showed us an image of the goddess of writing and knowledge – Seshat. (My new favorite goddess.) The image is carved into the back of the throne of one of the seated Ramses II statues inside the temple. You would never notice it unless someone pointed it out.

The central aisle through the galleries will take you to the most important room in the temple: the room where the god’s barq was kept. They have a replica displayed inside, but again there was a line to peek in and no lighting, so it was impossible to get a good picture of it.

All the professional guides in Egypt are required to be Egyptologists. Seriously, they are experts at the stuff. Our guide, Ahmed, had a PhD in Egyptology. When we visited the temples, he flooded us with information. The history of the sites and the narrative of the stories carved into the stone is so vast that it would take a PhD to absorb it all. We did our best to retain and understand as much as we could, but it did not take long before it was a blur of names and symbols. This was when I stepped away and began just looking for great photos.

Ancient temples and the world’s tourists surrounded us. I was literally eating up the culture and the atmosphere. I loved it. I took hundreds of pictures here and got my first taste of the monumental architecture of Egypt.

As an avid photographer, I love looking for the perfect picture of a scene. I tend to see what I want in my mind’s eye and then attempt to recreate it. Egyptian temples are a treasure trove of photo ops. I love a good space and the massive stone construction provided some great shapes and shadows to work with.

In the back corners of the temples, you will run into locals that have staked out prime locations and will point out extra special photo ops for a few dollars. I am sure they make a pretty good living during the tourist season.

When I travel, I like to step away from the group to explore and absorb the atmosphere of a place. I did that here. I avoided touching any carvings, but not everyone is so careful. However, I did place my hand on the rock of the temple and even hugged one of the massive columns. I always hope to feel something – such as an energy reaching down 3500 years to somehow connect with me. There was nothing there to feel, but it was still thrilling to be able to place my hand in the same place another person had touched hundreds of generations ago.

That is how travel can really put your life into perspective. Compared to the age of this place, my life is a grain of sand. How could my daily stresses mean anything in comparison?  

Gute Reise!


Egypt: Karnak Temple

Our first thought on entering an Egyptian temple was: Damn that’s big! Particularly when you realize that everything is built of cut stone and with manual labor. Massive props to the engineers and workmen!

As an engineer myself, I tend to analyze the possible building techniques before I even notice the art and aesthetics. But beyond the amazing architecture, they are beautiful, well-built structures and I was duly impressed.

Gate Pylons at Karnak Egypt

Our first temple was Karnak, one of the most iconic Egyptian temples. This is the most visited temple after the Pyramids at Giza. Karnak has appeared in many movies and is usually the one pictured when they want a generic ‘Egyptian temple’ in the media. However, what they don’t show is that the temple is right next to the river Nile and surrounded by a modern city.

Both the Karnak and Luxor temples are located in the city of Luxor and most of the economy is driven by the tourist trade generated by the temples.

The Avenue of Rams at Karnak

Our first approach to Karnak was down the Avenue of the Rams, which appeared in one of my favorite movies: The Mummy Returns (2001). The first thing you notice is the different heights of the two pylons of the gate. These were a late addition to the temple and ultimately unfinished and undecorated. The remains of the mud-brick ramps used for construction are still in place. This detail got me pretty excited. …Engineering-nerd, what can I say.

The temple is dedicated to the worship of the god Amun, the sun god, and was added onto for over a thousand years.

During the Opet Festival when the Nile floods, a statue of Amun would be carried on a symbolic barge from the temple of Karnak down the Alley of Sphinxes 3km to the Luxor Temple where he would be ceremonially married to the pharaoh, thus promoting the fertility of Amun and the pharaoh and all of Egypt.

The Alley of Sphinxes is still extant and walkable. I was unable to talk my wife into the hike, so we were shuttled to the Luxor, just down the road.

The Temple of Karnak is iconic and absolutely beautiful, and yet a little of a letdown.  This is a working tourist site and has a worn-in and trampled feel that can take away from the experience. However, I found that I could ignore that and turn my mind inward to experience the atmosphere. I could almost feel time hanging in the air like cobwebs.

The Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak

The most famous and photographed part of Karnak is the Great Hypostyle Hall. It is 50,000 square feet of COLUMNS!! I love me some columns! Karnak is a column farm. 134 of them. Most are 33 feet tall with another twelve 70 feet tall! There are several examples that are not completed showing how they were constructed. The unshaped rock was stacked and mortared into place, then craftsmen shaped the column, followed by artisans that would carve the art and hieroglyphs into the stone. Finally, everything was painted in bright colors. Most of the paint is now faded and gone, but there are places where it can still be glimpsed.

At Karnak, I first encountered the ramps used in the construction of the temples. For some reason, these are never mentioned in any of the books I’ve read. The stones were cut, roughly shaped, and placed on barges at the quarries in southern Egypt. Then when the Nile flooded, the barges would be floated down the river and into preconstructed canals leading right up to the building site. They used the same technique for the pyramids. Amazing engineering!

The Ramps at Karnak