Saturday, September 5, 2015


It's a bit embarrassing to realize how little I knew about Egypt before this trip. For example, I'd heard of Karnak, but I had no concept of its size or importance in Egyptian history. I didn't know that it is the second largest religious site in the world, behind only Angor Wat in Cambodia, or that it is the second most visited site in Egypt behind the Great Pyramids of Giza. 

Part of the reason Karnak grew to such size (over 200 acres) and prominence (a pilgrimage site for over 2,000 years) is because almost thirty pharaohs added to it. I guess that when you are trying to outdo your predecessors, big things happen.

Before we entered the grounds, we took a look at this model, which was so large that I couldn't even get all of it in a single picture:
Here's an artist's drawing of the complex that gives a more panoramic view:
Picture from here
Before we went in, we stopped for a group picture. I think this is just the passengers in the Yellow Bus, which is half of our group:
The road leading up to the entrance, called The Avenue of the Sphinxes, is lined with statues that have lions' bodies and rams' heads:
Between the paws of each sphinx is a statue of the great Ramses II, depicted as Osiris:

We went through numerous entries/gates as we made our way through the temple:
Is this structure just inside the main gate a guard house, or is it a temple addendum? I'm not sure. Unfortunately, it wasn't a public restroom.
This more traditional sphinx with a human head had a blank stare that reminded me of the glassed-over look of airport security guards who hour after tedious hour examine the contents of carry-ons on their x-ray screens:

The rejects for Most Beautiful Ram-head Sphinxes are clumped together in the first courtyard. Some of them look more like elephants with trunks than rams with mini pharaohs under their chins:
A second line-up on the other side of the yard looked somewhat better. These guys must be the runners-up to the winners on the Avenue of the Sphinxes:
Crumbling walls and headless statues are everywhere:
But so are impossibly intact statues and towering columns:
I am intrigued by all the Mini-Me's that stand on the feet of the giants. This one is a woman standing between the legs of Ramses II. Perhaps it is Nefertari, the first of his several wives? 

I would think that a heavy storm or a moderate earthquake would topple this wall, but somehow it has stood for thousands of years:
These Egyptian temples would be a wonderful place for a game of hide-and-seek or flashlight tag:
On the other hand, being here in the dark with only a flashlight? *Shiver* 
Disembodied feet, a favorite motif in Egyptian ruins:
Any guy who can balance a hat of that size on his head (in both the engraving and on the statue) deserves to be Pharaoh:
We saw many oval cartouches on the wall. They are like autographs of Very Important People:

One of the most famous features of Karnak is the Hypostyle Hall (a room with a roof supported by regularly-spaced columns). It covers 50,000 square feet and is the largest such hall in the world. (By way of comparison, Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral is 52,000 square feet--but not a hypostyle hall.) The Hall has 134 columns that are meant to imitate a papyrus marsh. Twelve of the columns are topped by open-bud capitals, and the rest of the columns are smaller and have closed buds. Construction of the hall was began by King Seti I (1313-1292 BC) and completed by his son Ramses II (1292-1275 BC).

The twelve large columns form two rows in the center and are flanked by the smaller columns.
According to information at the site, "On October 3, 1899, a dozen columns toppled over in the northern part of the hall. Huge scale reconstruction started almost immediately under the direction of Georges Legrain and Mohamed Afandy, who restored them as we see them today."

However, there is always restoration work to do, and Karnak had the equipment there to do it:

The original builders didn't have the advantage of a crane to get these stone beams on top of the columns:

The density and number of columns reminded me of another hypostyle hall, the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, which was built between 784-987 AD, over 2,000 years after Karnak:
La Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain
La Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain
It was hard to comprehend the immensity of scale at Karnak or the level of difficulty for construction:

It took seven of the men in our group to encircle one of the columns:
Our guide made a big deal out of the fact that one of the obelisks could be seen through this niche in the columns. We all waited dutifully in line to take our photograph:
While the inner halls were used for religious rites, the outer walls were used to show the power and supremacy of the pharaohs:
This looks like a very early version of moving pictures, with slightly shifting features in each frame:
One wall showed rows of slaves. Each one is exactly like the others--no individuality:

The icons of Karnak are its two imposing obelisks, each cut from a single piece of stone. The one on the left is the obelisk of Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh who reigned from 1473 to 1458 BC. I had only vaguely heard of her before this trip, but I found her to be so fascinating that I came home and read a book about her. (See review at the end of this post.) The obelisk on the right was erected by the father of Hatshepsut, Thutmose I, who reigned from 1506 to 1493 BC.
Thutmose's obelisk is 65 feet tall and weighs 143 tons. Hatshepsut definitely outdid her father as her monument is 97 feet tall and weighs 320 tons.

The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., was modeled after Egyptian obelisks, but without any hieroglyphics. At 555 feet, it is 5 1/2 times the height of Hatshepsut's obelisk and is the tallest obelisk in the world, but it also wasn't carved from a single block of stone.
Picture from here
Before the plans for the Washington Monument were drawn, Congress first considered building a pyramid-shaped mausoleum for Washington in the Capitol rotunda. When they decided on the obelisk instead, the original plans also included a statue of Washington driving a horse-drawn chariot. It is interesting to equate George Washington with the Egyptian pharaohs. Actually, however, the Americans probably based their design on what would have been more familiar to them: Roman obelisks (which, of course, were based on Egyptian obelisks).  

One such obelisk is this one in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. The Vatican actually got it from Egypt during the rule of Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD):
Photo from here
There are authentic Egyptian obelisks all over the world, including a couple in Paris. two more in Rome, and even one in New York City's Central Park. Who can blame these important cities for wanting a piece of the action? 

The two obelisks in Karnak convinced me that I'd like to have one myself. What do you think, honey? Maybe a couple in the garden? I like that the female pharaoh Hatshepsut's is the taller of the two. 
This field of columns reminds me of a petrified stone orchard:
I'm not sure what our Egyptian guide is doing here, but it was nice to see him being so humble:
. . . in contrast to these two Egyptians whose hard-as-rock arms hold ankhs, symbol of eternal life:
This one seems to have lost his head:

What is this? A high chair? A student desk in a college classroom? An ancient airplane seat with the tray table down? A slave serving the wrong thing for dinner, which led to his head being lopped off?
Ramses II is everywhere. At first I didn't notice the block he was sitting on here, and I thought he was doing that tortuous exercise we had to do in middle school where we sat against the wall for an hour (or five minutes, whichever came first):
A few odds and ends were scattered here and there:
I tried to read the hieroglyphs. I'm pretty sure this one says, "Be wary of both those who peck and those who sting."
And I think this one reads, "Beware of levitating snakes":
The person who carved the pillar on the left must have just returned from a cactus-spotting trip to Phoenix:
Although it was Sunday, it must have been a school day because there were lots of chaperoned groups of school-aged children wandering around:
They were doing the same thing we were doing, including taking pictures of us as we took pictures of them:
They definitely haven't seen as many American tourists during the last four years as they normally do:
A beautiful rainbow of head scarves:
Note the clothing contrast between the woman in green and the woman in brown:
Effervescent, friendly people--the image I have of Egypt:
Yes, this looks like a water purification plant, but it is actually the Karnak Temple Sacred Lake, dug by Thutmose III and used in ritual washings, as a home for the sacred geese of Amun, and to symbolize the waters of creation:
Nearby stands a monument topped with a giant scarab (a fancy dung beetle that is symbolic of the heavenly cycle of sunrise and sunset as well as of the idea of rebirth or regeneration). The carvings on the front of the stele show a purification ritual:
Six of our group of eight:
Time to head back to the bus.

Next up: Luxor Temple

In The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, the author Kara Cooney, a renowned Egyptologist and professor of Egyptian art and art history at UCLA, traces the rise of Hatshepsut from her birth into a royal family to her unprecedented ascension to the throne of Egypt in the 15th century BC as co-regent with Thutmose III, her husband's son with a lesser wife. To get and hold on to that level of power required Hatshepsut to become a rather androgynous figure (e.g., she often dressed as a man), but as pharaoh rather than a queen, she wielded much greater power. She ruled from 1473-1458 BC, longer than any other indigenous Egyptian woman. Cooney includes a lot of research about Hatshepsut's role in building Karnak, and also discusses how after Hatshepsut's death her image was systematically removed from Karnak and other religious sites.

Warning: Sexual imagery, behavior, and incest were key features of Egyptian society at the time, and Cooney does not mince words in describing them. 


  1. I'd never thought about the Washington obelisk being model on the Egyptian prototype. Too bad we didn't get that Pharaoh Washington to go with it. Once again, fun to see your pictures of the place--some I definitely missed.

  2. Interesting. Argentina has a big obelisk marking the center of their capital too.

  3. For some weird reason Karnak wasn't as exciting for me as some of the other temples, such as the Ramses III Temple or Philae. Maybe because it was so overwhelmingly big, but I think perhaps because it had so much grand bigness and less of the intricate hieroglyphics that I really loved.

  4. I think that one sitting statue is of a student in a community college classroom, right after working all night long to make their minimum wage so they can make their car/cell phone payment. Beautiful statuary, everywhere!