Far easier to explore and digest than the sprawling Temple of Karnak just downriver, the Luxor Temple (built between 1390 and 323 BC) stands near the edge of the Nile in the city center. The temple was dedicated to the Theban Triad—the gods Amun-Ra, Mut (goddess of queenship), and Khonsu (moon god)—as well as to the cult of Ka (the royal spirit). The ancient name of the 285-yard-long temple was Ipet-Resyt (Southern Harem), the southern partner of Karnak, which was the starting point of the late-summer Opet festival. This feast involved a great procession of priests bringing the ceremonial barque of Amun-Ra from Karnak to Luxor, where the god would be united with the Mother of the King to allow her to give birth to the royal Ka.
It is likely that the largely 18th Dynasty (1539–1292 BC) temple was built over a Middle Kingdom predecessor. Amenhotep III (1390–1353 BC) started to develop the temple, and then Ramses II added to it a century later. Ruins from later periods also
surround the main temple. The Avenue of Sphinxes was the creation of Nectanebo I (381–362 BC), almost 1,000 years later. The next considerable work was accomplished relatively soon thereafter, during the reign of Alexander the Great, who built, in the heart of the temple, a sanctuary for Amun-Ra's sacred barque.
During the Roman period, the temple was transformed into a fortified camp. Following the 4th-century AD (i.e., Christian) ban on pagan cults, several churches were built inside the temple. One of them, in the northeast corner of the court of Ramses II (19th Dynasty), was superseded by the Abu al-Haggag Mosque during the 12th century AD, and locals refused to allow it to be torn down to complete the excavation of the Luxor temple.
Enter the temple compound from the east, across the polished stone pavement of a wide new plaza—part of the plan to turn all of Luxor into an outdoor museum. Beyond the ticket booth, you arrive in the temple esplanade at the south end of the 3-km (2-mile) Avenue of Sphinxes, which itself is on its way to complete restoration. The 6-yard-wide avenue at one time connected the Luxor and Karnak temples. At this writing, the Egyptian government has already excavated large sections of the avenue between here and the Karnak Temples—notwithstanding any mosques or churches that have been built in more modern times.
The Temple of Luxor's massive first pylon (58 yards wide) is the work of that tireless builder Ramses II—ample evidence of whom you can see in the scenes of the Battle of Qadesh (a campaign that Ramses II waged against the Hittites in Syria) that adorn the outer face of the pylon. Two obelisks and six colossi representing the king used to stand in front of the pylon. One of the obelisks was given to France as a present by Muhammed ‘Ali Pasha; it graces the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Of the six colossi (two seated and four standing), only three are still on-site. France was also given two of these, and they are in the Louvre.
Beyond the pylon lies the peristyle court of Ramses II, a double row of papyrus-bud columns interspersed with a series of standing colossi representing the king. To the right of the entrance is a triple shrine, also called a way station, originally built by the queen Hatshepsut. Her successor, Thutmose III, usurped it—a relatively common practice by which a later ruler took credit for a monument by excising the original builder's cartouches and writing in his own. The shrines here are dedicated to the Theban triad: Amun-Ra in the middle, Mut on the left, and Khonsu on the right. The shrines' purpose was to receive their sacred barques during the Opet processions. To the left of the entrance to the court, and well above the temple's floor level, is the Mosque of Abu al-Haggag, built atop a Christian church. Al-Haggag was a holy man, originally from Baghdad, who died in Luxor in AD 1244.
To the right of the entrance leading to the colonnade, on the western half of the southern wall, a relief scene shows the dedication of Ramses II's second pylon. It provides a view of what the pylon must have looked like after its construction. In front of the colonnade, two colossal statues represent Ramses II seated on a throne, with his wife Nefertari, as the goddess Hathor, standing at his side.
The colonnade of Amenhotep III consists of two rows of seven columns with papyrus-bud capitals. The wall decoration, completed by Amenhotep's successors, illustrates the voyage of the statue of the god Amun-Ra from Karnak to Luxor Temple during the Opet festival. On each side of the central walk are statues of Amun-Ra and Mut, carved during the reign of Tutankhamun, which Ramses II later usurped.
The Colonnade of Amenhotep III leads to the solar court of Amenhotep III, where 25 superbly executed 18th-Dynasty statues of gods and kings were found in 1989. This peristyle court is flanked on three sides by a double row of columns with papyrus-bud capitals of remarkable elegance. At the far side of the solar court is a direct access to the hypostyle hall of Amenhotep III, which consisted of eight rows of four papyrus-bud columns. Between the last two columns on the left as you keep walking into the temple is a Roman altar dedicated to the Emperor Constantine.
South of the hypostyle hall are three chapels : one dedicated to Mut (directly on the east side of the central doorway) and two to Khonsu (on each side of the central doorway). The first antechamber originally had eight columns; they were removed during the 4th century AD to convert the chamber into a Christian church, with an apsidal recess flanked on both sides by granite columns in the Corinthian style. The ancient Egyptian scenes were covered with Christian paintings, which have been almost completely destroyed.
The second antechamber, known as the offering chapel, has four columns and leads to the inner sanctuary of the sacred barques. The chamber had the same divisions as the previous chapels, but Alexander the Great removed the four columns and replaced them with a chapel. This sanctuary received the sacred barque of Amun-Ra during the Opet celebrations.
On the east side of the Offering Chapel, a doorway leads to the birth chamber, dedicated to the divine conception of the pharaoh. The purpose of the scenes in the Birth Chamber was to prove that Amenhotep III was, indeed, the son of the god Amun-Ra, to strengthen the pharaoh's position as absolute ruler. On the left wall, birth scenes spread over three registers. In the first one, look for the goddess Selkis, the Queen Mutemwia (mother of Amenhotep III), and two goddesses suckling children, with two cows suckling children below it. In the second register, the third scene is the pharaoh's actual birth, in front of several divinities. In the fourth scene, Hathor presents the infant to Amun-Ra. The third register's fourth scene represents the conception of the royal child. The queen and Amun-Ra face each other, supported by Selkis and Neith.