Karnak is, without a doubt, the most complex and impressive assemblage of ancient Egyptian religious monuments. The site is divided into three major precincts, dedicated respectively to the divinities Amun-Ra (the central complex), Mut (south of the central complex), and Montu (north). Inside the temple precinct, as in the Temple of Luxor, the Theban Triad of Amun-Ra, Mut, and Khonsu were the deities worshiped. The enclosure also includes smaller sanctuaries dedicated to Khonsu, Ptah, and Opet. The various temples were continuously enlarged and restored from at least the time of the Middle Kingdom down to the Roman period. We owe the most immense and enduring structures to the pharaohs of the New Kingdom.
The 660-yard-long main axis of Karnak proceeds from west to east, oriented toward the Nile. Another axis extends south toward Luxor from the midpoint of the main axis.
An avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, protecting statuettes of Pinudjem I between their front
legs, opens the way to the entrance of the first pylon. This pylon was left unfinished by the kings of the 30th Dynasty. It is the most recent of all the pylons of Karnak, as well as being the most monumental on-site. Against the pylon, on the right side of Karnak's first forecourt, are the remains of ancient mud-brick scaffolding, used for the erection of the pylon. In the center of the court, a single open-papyrus column remains of what once was the 10-columned kiosk of Taharqa (690–664 BC), an Ethiopian pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty.
The small temple on the left side of the forecourt entrance is the Shrine of Seti II (19th Dynasty), some 1,000 years older than the first pylon. Seti II built this building, with its three small chapels, to receive the sacred barques of the Theban Triad (Amun-Ra in the center, Mut on the left, and Khonsu on the right) during the Opet processions. The barques are depicted on the walls of each chapel.
In the southeast portion of the forecourt, the Temple of Ramses III (20th Dynasty) is fronted by two colossi representing the king. It has the same structure as most New Kingdom temples: a pylon, a court with 20 Osirid statues of the king (Ramses III in the form of Osiris), and a hypostyle hall. Like others, the sanctuary is divided into three parts for the cult of the Theban Triad.
Next along the compound's main axis, the second pylon was built during the reign of Horemheb (18th Dynasty). Most of the pylon was filled with blocks dismantled from buildings of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton.
The second pylon opens onto the hypostyle hall. Before you plunge into this fantastical court, the statue of Amun-Ra, in the company of a king, is on the left. Then wander into what seems like a stone forest—with its breathtaking 134 columns. Not only are the dimensions gigantic, but the colors and hieroglyphs are remarkable. The 12 columns alongside the processional way have open-papyrus capitals, while the remaining 122 columns have papyrus-bud capitals and are smaller. New Kingdom pharaohs built the elaborate hall: Ramses I began the decoration in the 19th Dynasty; Ramses III completed it some 120 years later in the 20th Dynasty.
Amenhotep III (18th Dynasty) constructed the third pylon, which leads to the Obelisk of Thutmose I (18th Dynasty), inside the Court of Amenhotep III.
The fourth pylon, erected by Thutmose I, gives access to the colonnade of Thutmose I, where an Obelisk of Hatshepsut (18th Dynasty), one of two, still stands. The lower part of the obelisk is well preserved because Thutmose III, Hatshepsut's successor, encased it with a brick wall—probably not to preserve it, however, because in other places he usurped her monuments and tried to erase her name from history. Perhaps the intention here was to mask its presence within the temple proper.
Pass through the fifth and sixth pylons. In the vestibule that follows, look for the two Pillars of Thutmose III, before the sanctuary, representing the union of Egypt. The papyrus (left) signifies Lower Egypt, and the lotus (right) represents Upper Egypt. There is also an elegant statue of the gods Amun-Ra and Amunet, carved during the reign of Tutankhamun. Philip III Arrhidaeus, brother and successor of Alexander the Great, built the sanctuary of the sacred barques, behind the vestibule. It is made of red granite.
At the end of the main axis rises, transversely, the Festival Hall of Thutmose III, also called the Akhmenu. This unusual building was erected to commemorate the king's military campaigns in Asia. The columns are exceptional—massive representations of tent poles used during those campaigns. On the main axis behind the hall is the famous Botanic Garden of Thutmose III. The reliefs on the walls show exotic plants and animals that the pharaoh brought back from his expeditions. The hall was later reused as a Christian church. At the end of the west–east axis is one of the eight monumental gates that gave access to the complex of the Temple of Karnak. Nectanebo I (30th Dynasty) erected this one.
Southeast of the temple lies the sacred lake, which is fed by the Nile. The morning rituals of the priests included purifying themselves in this lake. At the northwest corner of the lake, a large scarab dates from the reign of Amenhotep III and symbolizes the "newborn" sun. Legend has it that a woman who runs around it three times, clockwise, will become pregnant in the near future (at this writing, the southernmost sectors are not open to the public, so it's not possible to prove the theory). Farther on the left lie the remains of the other Obelisk of Hatshepsut (its partner is back between the fourth and fifth pylons).
The north–south axis begins from an entrance between the third and fourth pylons and continues outside the Precinct of Amun with a southbound avenue of sphinxes. The Cachette Court, at the top of the axis, was so named because thousands of statues were found in it in 1903. South lie the seventh through tenth pylons, each pair separated by a court. All elements of this axis date from the 18th Dynasty but many areas are not accessible at this writing due to active archaeological research work.
Besides fragments of temples and statues recovered from the Temple of Karnak itself, the open-air museum contains the small, white, well-preserved Chapel of Senwosret I, dating from the Middle Kingdom 12th Dynasty (1938–1759 BC). It was used during Senwosret I's reign to receive the sacred barques. Its new location and reconstructed state are due to the fact that Amenhotep III dismantled the chapel and used it to fill his Third Pylon. Two other small chapels lie beside it, also found inside the pylon. One of these is the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut. The museum is rather small, and its chapels and fragments are totally swallowed up in the gigantic complex of Karnak, which by its size detracts from the beauty of the museum's elements.
Karnak's Sound & Light Show includes a walk through the temple, with several monuments illuminated successively, and ends at the sacred lake, where the second part begins. From stadium-like seating, the entire complex can be seen, with different temples lighted, music, and a narrated history of the site. On a rotating schedule throughout the week, shows are conducted in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. English shows run each night, the other languages less frequently.
It is best to visit the Temple of Karnak early in the morning for a few reasons: massive groups of people begin arriving around 9 am; the slanting light calls relief carvings into better focus; and later in the day the heat can be overwhelming.