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Temple of Amun-Re and the Hypostyle Hall, Karnak

by Dr. Elizabeth Cummins
View of sphinxes, the first pylon, and the central east-west aisle of Temple of Amon-Re, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt (photo: Mark Fox, CC: BY-NC 2.0)
View of sphinxes, the first pylon, and the central east-west aisle of Temple of Amun-Re, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt (photo: Mark Fox, CC: BY-NC 2.0)
The massive temple complex of Karnak was the principal religious center of the god Amun-Re in Thebes during the
New Kingdom
(which lasted from 1550 until 1070 B.C.E.). The complex remains one of the largest religious complexes in the world. However, Karnak was not just one temple dedicated to one god—it held not only the main precinct to the god
Amun-Re
—but also the precincts of the gods
Mut
and
Montu
. Compared to other temple compounds that survive from ancient Egypt, Karnak is in a poor state of preservation but it still gives scholars a wealth of information about Egyptian religion and art. 
Google Earth view of Karnak
Google Earth view of Karnak

"The Most Select of Places"

The site was first developed during the Middle Kingdom (2055–1650 B.C.E.) and was initially modest in scale but as new importance was placed on the city of Thebes, subsequent pharaohs began to place their own mark on Karnak. The main precinct alone would eventually have as many as twenty temples and chapels.[1] Karnak was known in ancient times as “The Most Select of Places” (Ipet-isut) and was not only the location of the cult image of Amun and a place for the god to dwell on earth but also a working estate for the priestly community who lived on site. Additional buildings included a sacred lake, kitchens, and workshops for the production of religious accoutrements.
Model of the Precinct of Amon-Re, Karnak (photo: Rémih, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
Model of the Precinct of Amun-Re, Karnak (photo: Rémih, CC: BY-SA 3.0)
The main temple of Amun-Re had two axes—one that went north/south and the other that extended east/west. The southern axis continued towards the temple of Luxor and was connected by an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes.
"Tent pole" columns, Festival Temple of Thutmose III, c. 1479-25 B.C.E., sandstone, mud brick, paint, Karnak, at Luxor, Egypt (photo: Dennis Jarvis, CC: BY-SA 2.0)
"Tent pole" columns, Festival Temple of Thutmose III, c. 1479-25 B.C.E., sandstone, mud brick, paint, Karnak, at Luxor, Egypt (photo: Dennis Jarvis, CC: BY-SA 2.0)
While the sanctuary was plundered for stone in ancient times, there are still a number of unique architectural features within this vast complex. For example, the tallest
obelisk
in Egypt stood at Karnak and was dedicated by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut who ruled Egypt during the New Kingdom. Made of one piece of red granite, it originally had a matching obelisk that was removed by the Roman emperor Constantine and re-erected in Rome. Another unusual feature was the Festival Temple of Thutmose III, which had columns that represented tent poles, a feature this pharaoh was no doubt familiar with from his many war campaigns. 

Hypostyle Hall

One of the greatest architectural marvels of Karnak is the hypostyle hall (a space with a roof supported by columns) built during the
Ramesside period
. The hall has 134 massive sandstone columns with the center twelve columns standing at 69 feet. Like most of the temple decoration, the hall would have been brightly painted and some of this paint still exists on the upper portions of the columns and ceiling today. With the center of the hall taller than the spaces on either side, the Egyptians allowed for
clerestory
lighting (a section of wall that allowed light and air into the otherwise dark space below). In fact, the earliest evidence for clerestory lighting comes from Egypt. Not many ancient Egyptians would have had access to this hall, since the further one went into the temple, the more restricted access became. 
Hypostyle Hall, c. 1250 B.C.E. (hall), 18th and 19th Dynasties, New Kingdom, sandstone and mud brick, Karnak, at Luxor, Egypt (photo: Blalonde, public domain)
Hypostyle Hall, c. 1250 B.C.E. (hall), 18th and 19th Dynasties, New Kingdom, sandstone and mud brick, Karnak, at Luxor, Egypt (photo: Blalonde, public domain)

Temple as cosmos

Conceptually, temples in Egypt were connected to the idea of zep tepi, or “the first time,” the beginnings of the creation of the world. The temple was a reflection of this time, when the mound of creation emerged from the primeval waters. The pylons, or gateways in the temple represent the horizon, and as one moves further into the temple, the floor rises until it reaches the sanctuary of the god, giving the impression of a rising mound, like that during creation. The temple roof represented the sky and was often decorated with stars and birds. The columns were designed with lotus, papyrus, and palm plants in order to reflect the marsh-like environment of creation. The outer areas of Karnak, which was located near the Nile River, would flood during the annual inundation—an intentional effect by the ancient designers no doubt, in order to enhance the temple's symbolism.[2]
Plan of the Temple of Amun-Re, Karnak
Plan of the Temple of Amon-Re, Karnak
[1] R. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (New York, Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 154.
[2] R. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (New York, Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 77.
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Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis (UNESCO/TBS)See video transcript
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Additional resources

Essay by Dr. Elizabeth Cummins

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    how much of what we see in the photos is reconstruction (not restoration or repair, but reconstruction)? I ask because the bottoms of some of the columns seem to be covered in smooth plaster or concrete, and the upper parts look as if things have been stood back up and rebuilt so we can get an idea of what the complex looked like before it crumbled.
    (12 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user smahar
    The article here is not making sense to me based on the images. In the above it is written "The southern axis continued towards the temple of Luxor and was connected by an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes." However, it seems that the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes are along the processional on the western side, leading to the Nile. And that that axis leading to Luxor is the southern one.
    (8 votes)
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  • old spice man green style avatar for user Joel
    "Festival Temple of Thutmose III, ... had columns that represented tent poles"

    What is it about these columns that makes them represent tent poles? To my untrained eye they seem like any other.
    (6 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Look here: http://www.touregypt.net/kartuth.htm#ixzz4JOE7cEJO
      where you'll find the following, and more
      This festival temple has a revolutionary style of architecture. A double row of columns that support the central roof of the temple is higher than the square side pillars which support unique pentagonal roofing slabs over the aisles. Even the columns have a unique design. They are tapered in reverse and narrower at the bottom than at the top. The capitals are reversed calyxes which give the whole temple a tent-like look. Legend says that king Thutmose III envisioned his eternal life to be a desert campaigner. The king was obsessed with the beauty of the desert. He ordered his architects to design his temple in the shape of a tent and what a fine job they did.
      (4 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Squishy
    How did they manage to take down and transport a 900,000 pound obelisk to Rome?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby purple style avatar for user Yoon, Evan
    what are the measurements of the temple and things inside.(such as pillars.)
    (3 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Tiffany Nicole B
    wow! i think its amazing how these old structures are still standing.
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user trek
    What is the significance of criosphynxes (The Most Select of Places paragraph)?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gavin.bardin
    would the nile river quite of ten flood
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user eammo330
    Dude, I thought it was Amun Ra.
    Bruh.
    (0 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      When spelling out things originally written in a language other than English, there are several different systems. For example, the capital city of China. Is it Peking, or Beijing? Both systems yield the same English pronunciation if you understand the system for "spelling out" that is used. I resided in Kaohsiung for 25 years, but in a different system, that is written out GaoXiung. Which is correct? Both. As is so with Amun-Re and Amun Ra.
      (1 vote)