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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrBuilt between the Middle Kingdom and the Ptolemaic period, Egypt’s Karnak is the second-largest ancient religious site in the world, after Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Set across two square kilometers, this complex of temples, precincts, and sanctuaries is now an open-air museum and Egypt’s second most-visited site after the Pyramids of Giza.
The name ‘Karnak’ means ‘fortified settlement’ in Arabic and it was built over many generations on an area known in ancient Egypt as ‘Ipet-isut’ or ‘The most selected of places’. It evolved into the primary worship site for the 18th-dynasty Theban Triad .
ConstructionKarnak was built over a period of around 1,500 years, beginning during the reign of Senusret I in the Middle Kingdom around 2000BC, and finishing around the Ptolemaic Period in 305-30BC. The majority of buildings, however, date from the New Kingdom Period between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. It is believed that around 30 pharaohs oversaw its construction, resulting in not only its diverse make-up of structures, but also its impressive size. Its religious use is confirmed in the deities depicted, some of the earliest to be worshiped in the culture of ancient Egypt, while the paintings of saints and Coptic inscriptions, particularly in the Festival Hall of Thutmose III, are testament to the site’s use by Christian churches from around the 4th century AD.
European RecognitionIt wasn’t until 1589 that an unknown Venetian first acknowledged the existence of Karnak, with it believed to be previously unknown to the European world. It was named ‘Karnak’ by two Capuchin missionary brothers, Protais and Charles François d’Orléans in 1668 and first sketched by Paul Lucas in his 1704 travel journal titled ‘Voyage du Sieur Paul Lucas au Levant’, although these drawings are now known to be highly inaccurate.
Visiting KarnakKarnak consists of four main parts - the Precinct of Amun-Re, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the Temple of Amenhotep IV, all of which are connected by smaller temples and sanctuaries. It is only the Precinct of Amun-Re, however, which is currently open to the public. The largest place of worship to be built within the complex, the Precinct was dedicated to the chief deity of the Theban Triad, Amun-Re. It was built from sandstone transported along the Nile River from Gebel Silsila, 99 miles (100 miles) to the south.
Precinct of Amun-Re and Temple of AmonThe Precinct is spread over around 250,000 square meters with the main temple, the Temple of Amon, covering around 61 acres. It comprises a collection of structures and monuments, some of which are closed or semi-closed to the public due to current restoration or excavation which is ongoing at the site.
Hypostyle HallPerhaps its most famous structure is the Hypostyle Hall, covering an area of 5,000 square meters and boasting 134 immense columns, some as tall as 69 feet. There are also a number of impressive statues, such as that of Pinediem I which stands more than 33 feet tall, and an imposing obelisk believed to weigh more than 300 tonnes.
Open-air MuseumThe northwest corner is home to an open-air museum where reconstructions of some of the Precincts earliest structures can be found, including the Chapelle Rouge of Hatshepsut and the White Chapel of Senusret I. This area requires a separate ticket for entry.
Temples of Khons and OpetIn the southwest of the Precinct, a little-visited area, lie the temples of Khons and Opet, as well as the remains of the now dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV. Millions of stone fragments, carefully laid out in long rows, can also be found in this area. These are sections of monuments yet to be reassembled and are a visual reminder of the continual restoration of this immense jigsaw.
Precinct of MutTo the south of the Precinct of Amun-Re lies the Precinct of Mut, dedicated to the Mother Goddess. While this area is not yet open to the public, it houses its very own crescent-shaped sacred lake, as well as a number of small remaining temples. Its original main temple was partially destroyed and restored by successive pharaohs and its sacred area considerably altered.
Precinct of MontuThe Precinct of Montu, dedicated to the son of Mut and Amun-Re, Montu, the war-god of the Theban Triad, is located to the north of the Amun-Re complex. It is considerably smaller in size than its southern counterpart and is still closed to the public.
Karnak and Popular CultureFor many, the ancient site of Karnak may be more familiar than you would first think. The Hypostyle Hall featured in ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, while the James Bond film, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ was filmed throughout the site. For video gamers, Lara Croft visited the complex in three levels of ‘Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation’: ‘The Temple of Karnak’, ‘The Great Hypostyle Hall’, and ‘Sacred Lake’.
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Author: Pip Strickland. Last updated: Mar 29, 2015