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Karnak Temple Complex - Table of Contents........................Egyptian / Egyptian Revival Architecture - Table of Contents

Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Amon-Ra
Karnak Temple Complex
Near Luxor, Egypt

Hypostyle: Having a roof or ceiling supported by rows of columns

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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Unfinished columns

Bell-shaped, open capitals





Bud-shaped capitals

Hieroglyphics: Amum-Re


Part of the clerestory

Painted soffit

Part of the grill clerestory

Papyrus plant ... Lotus plant

Egyptian Columns

... the columns all have smooth shafts, but there are two different types of capitals: bud shaped and bell shaped, or campaniform.

Although the columns are structural members ... their function as carriers of vertical stress is almost hidden by horizontal bands of relief sculpture and painting, suggesting that the intention of the architects was not to emphasize the functional role of the columns so much as to utilize them as surfaces for decoration. This contrasts sharply with most Egyptian practice as well as with later Greek architecture, in which the architects emphasized the vertical lines of the column and its structural function by freeing the surfaces of the shaft from all ornament....

The post-and-lintel structure of Egyptian temples appears to have had its origin in an early building technique that used firmly bound sheaves of reeds and swamp plants as roof supports in adobe structures... Evidence of their swamp-plant origin is still seen in these columns at Karnak and Luxor, which are carved to resemble lotus or papyrus, with bud-cluster or bell-shaped capitals. Painted decorations, traces of which still can be seen on the surfaces of the shafts and capitals,emphasized these natural details. In fact, the flora of the Nile valley supplied the basic decorative motifs in all Egyptian art.

The formalization of plant forms into the rigid profiles of architecture closely parallels the formalization of human bodies and action that the Egyptians achieved so skillfully in tomb painting and sculpture.

- Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Tenth Edition, by Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner. Harcourt Brace College Pub. 1996, p. 87


Column shafts and capitals were typically formed out of stacked stone drums or half drums. These could be centered atop each course by the use of plumb lines, either aligning the drums using markings at their centers or via vertical grooves along their sides. ...

Decorative elements on shafts and capitals could be cut directly from the stacked blocks once in place. That the two elements were not usually designed and cut from separate blocks before construction is demonstrated on those columns where the springing of the capital does not align with the joint of two blocks.

Once a column was carved and topped with an abacus (the element which made direct contact with the ceiling architraves) it could then be dressed and smoothed. The remains of colorful paint on columns at Karnak, such as the tent-pole shaped columns in the Akhmenu festival hall, show that the final decoration of some columns included extensive painting.

- Digital Karnak: Construction Methods and Building Materials

Columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak was begun during the reign of King Seti I (c.1290-1279 B.C.E.) and was completed by his son, Ramesses II (c.1279-1213 B.C.E.).

The central row of 12 columns on the east-west axis are 69 feet in height, about 33 feet in circumference, and have open papyrus capitals.

The 122 columns in the side aisles are 43 feet in height, 27.5 feet in circumference, and have closed papyrus-bud capitals . Remember that the whole of this hall was roofed with stone slabs, and the interior was quite dark.

The difference in height between the central and the side aisle columns was used to provide natural light through clerestory windows which have vertical stone slats.

The huge sandstone columns are carved in sunk relief and were originally painted. The grill of the clerestory window is still visible above the columns.

- Institute of Egyptian Art and Archeology: Karnak Temple


Egyptian buildings were roofed by a limited number of methods. Most common at Karnak was the flat roof, supported by walls and columns. The distance between these supportive elements limited the size and material of a structure's roof.

Constructions at Karnak benefited from the fact that by the New Kingdom, engineers had learned to confidently span large spaces with sandstone slabs.

The ceiling blocks of the magnificent hypostyle hall, for example, measured 25.5 feet in length, 4 feet thick, and bridged up to 21.9 foot wide aisles between columns. Even larger were the lintels of the gates of the first and second pylons, possibly formed of granite blocks, which spanned 22.6 foot and 23.7 foot doorways.

The difficulty in quarrying and transporting blocks large enough to serve as architraves for wide spaces was prohibitive. The Egyptians solved this problem by stacking two or more thinner blocks together. In the hypostyle hall, architraves are composed of up to four separate blocks, arranged in upper and lower courses of two (although some architraves were single blocks of stone). While easier to transport and set up in the hall, the composite blocks would not bear the same load as a single block of the same size.

- Digital Karnak: Construction Methods and Building Materials


Natural light filled the open-air courts at Karnak. Within the temple's covered buildings, however, other means of illumination were necessary. One of the architectural solutions was the use of clerestory windows. In the temple's hypostyle hall, the raised central nave was lined with grilled windows. The high openings (280 feet above the hall's floor) allowed sunlight to enter the hall, while maintaining the privacy and secrecy of the space. The grills were composed of two sections, one stacked atop the other, and secured in place by being fitted tightly into grooves in the side of the bordering piers....

Less prominent, but very common lighting and ventilation solutions included cutting angled slits or square holes into a temple's roof slabs, allowing daylight to enter through these small gaps. Both the Opet temple and the hypostyle hall utilized this lighting method.

- Digital Karnak: Construction Methods and Building Materials

Photos and their arrangement © 2009 Chuck LaChiusa
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