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.
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.
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 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!