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

Sphinxes, Temple of Amon-Ra
Karnak Temple Complex
Near Luxor, Egypt

This temple complex honors Amen-Re, a combination of Re, the Sun, and Amun, the first and greatest of the Egyptian gods.

Alternate spellings: Amen /Amun/ Amon
Alternate spellings: Re/ Ra
Alternate spellings: Amen-Re/ Amen-Ra/ Amun-Re/ Amun-Ra/ Amon-Re/ Amon-Ra

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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Sphinxes and pylon entrance

Sphinxes outside the pylon entrance.


Row of sphinxes in front of columns

Row of sphinxes in front of columns

Row of sphinxes in front of columns

Row of sphinxes in front of columns

Left: Battered wall

Note cavetto cornice

Cavetto cornice

Karnak and Luxor

In ancient times, religious processions moved between the Karnak Temple complex and Luxor Temple along a 2.5ˇkilometer-long paved Avenue of Sphinxes. The causeway was lined with a thousand larger-than-life-size ram-headed sphinxes backed by gardens and pools. Six bark shrines, similar to those now in KarnakÝs Open-Air Museum, were built at intervals along its length, structures in which priests carrying the statue of Amen from the one temple to the other could pause for rest and ceremonies. The northernmost of these shrines lay just outside the Bab al-Amara at Karnak; the southernmost lay in the First Court of Luxor Temple.

Early in the New Kingdom, before the Avenue of Sphinxes was built, a water-filled canal apparently ran here and sacred barks sailed on it between Karnak and Luxor. By the later New Kingdom, however, as lunar-dated festivals progressed through the calendar and began to fall outside the season of the annual flood, there was too little water to float the barks and the canal was filled in and paved over. Henceforth, processions moved overland or on the Nile.

- The Illustrated Guide to Luxor, by Kent R.Weeks

Karnak Temple Complex

The ancient Karnak Temple Complex comprises a vast conglomeration of ruined temples, chapels, pylons and other buildings, notably the Great Temple of Amen and a massive structure begun by Pharaoh Amenhotep III (ca. 1391-1351 BC).

The complex is a vast open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. It is probably the second most visited historical site in Egypt, second only to the Giza Pyramids near Cairo.

It consists of four main parts (precincts), of which only the largest, the Precinct of Amun-Re, is open to the general public.

The key difference between Karnak and most of the other temples and sites in Egypt is the length of time over which it was developed and used. Construction of temples started in the Middle Kingdom and continued through to Ptolemaic times. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features are overwhelming.

- Wikipedia: Karnak


Pylons are a monumental gateway to an Egyptian temple, consisting of a pair of tower structures with
battered walls flanking the entrance portal.

Supposed to represent the akhet (horizon) hieroglyph.

Pylons are the largest part of the temple and were mostly built last.

battered pylons resisted earthquake shocks.

Pylon Temples

Distinct from the mortuary temples [e.g., the three Great Pyramids at Giza] built during the New Kingdom were the edifices built to honor one or more of the gods and often added to by successive kings until they reached gigantic size.

These temples all had similar plans. A typical pylon temple plan (the name derives from the simple and massive gateway, or pylon, with sloping walls), like that of the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak, is bilaterally symmetrical along a single axis that runs from an approaching avenue through a colonnaded court and hall into a dimly lighted sanctuary.

The Egyptian temple plan evolved from ritualistic requirements. Only the pharaoh and the priest could enter the sanctuary; a chosen few were admitted to the great columnar hall; the majority of the people were allowed only as far as the open court, and a high mud-brick wall shut off the site from the outside world. The conservative Egyptians did not deviate from this basic plan for hundreds of years.

The corridor axis, which dominates the plan, makes the temple not so much a building as, in Oswald Spengler's phrase, "a path enclosed by mighty masonry." Like the Nile, the corridor may have symbolized the Egyptian concept of life. Spengler suggests that the Egyptians saw themselves moving down a narrow, predestined life path that ended before the judges of the dead.

- Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Tenth Edition, by Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner. Harcourt Brace College Pub. 1996, pp. 85-87


Karnak is one of the main sources of information for understanding the construction of monumental stone pylons typical of the more elaborate Egyptian temples. Around the temple's unfinished first pylon, vestiges of large mud brick ramps are still visible today, despite partial removal of the brickwork in the nineteenth century. These ramps stood against both the internal and external faces of each tower, providing access to the upper courses of stone as the next layer would be put in place. As the walls grew in height, workers raised the neighboring ramps, about one meter at a time.

To prevent the crushing weight of the pylon from damaging the first pylon's central door, the stone gateway was left unbonded to the towers themselves. While the heavy towers sank into the soil over time, the gate's lintels and doorjambs were not affected. Such methods were not used in every case, however, and the eighth pylon and its gateway were bonded.

The pylon gateways, providing open sight lines through the temple today, in ancient times would have been equipped with large wooden doors. These doors, made of woods imported from countries to the north east of Egypt, were usually hinged to open inwards against the gate's interior thickness. While adding to the splendor of the temple with decoration in bronze, silver, gold, or electrum, they also functioned to restrict access to the sacred space both physically and visually.

The façades of a number of pylons at Karnak were ornamented with huge wooden flagstaffs (reaching 98 feet in height) capped with colorful cloth flags. Like obelisks, temple flagstaffs were often tipped with precious metals that reflected the rays of the sun. The flagpoles were carved from individual beams shipped to Egypt from the forests of the modern-day Lebanon or northern Syria.

The staffs were erected on a stone base, like the thick granite blocks that supported the heavy weight of these poles before the second pylon. Recesses in the façade of a pylon allowed the poles to stand flush with the base of the structure, and large holes in the upper portion of the pylons show that the masts were stabilized along their lengths with giant wooden clamps. - Pp. 14-15

- Digital Karnak: Construction Methods and Building Materials

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

See also: Institute of Egyptian Art and Archeology: Karnak Temple

Photos and their arrangement © 2009 Chuck LaChiusa
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