In ancient times the temple at Karnak was known as Ipet-Isut -‘most divine of places’. The temple housed the cult of Amun-Re, the most important deity in Thebes and dedicated to various gods and goddesses.
Egyptian cult temples all share a similar design. However, as Karnak began to grow in importance, the edifice grew larger and more complex. Each pharaoh extended the temple in an attempt to outdo their predecessors in personal piety. Eager to impress the gods, each king embellished the temple with beautiful masonry and enormous pylons – they decorated the complex with elaborate imagery and military texts. The temple acted as a ‘generator’ of spiritual energy. It was seen as a bridge between the Earth and cosmic realms. Highly visible to the populace, its walls were designed to promote both awe and fear.
At Karnak, a religious ceremony would have commemorated the establishment of the first temple stone. The foundations consisted of sand-filled trenches; although primitive, these proved highly substantial. The temple pylons (weighing thousands of tons) are still standing. Pylons, columns, subsidiary temples and chapels were crafted in sandstone, basalt and granite. Mined from established quarries, the stones were removed in blocks using stone-tipped drills and pounders. Monolithic blocks (used for colossal statuary) were excavated in one single piece. The building materials themselves were transported to the temple by river.
The temple walls consisted of large slabs of stone that were chiselled with mallets and hammers; they were then inscribed with religious and military scenes that were designed to promote the pharaoh as a devout ruler and warrior.
Each eighteenth-dynasty pharaoh added extra buildings to the temple – for example, the long-lived Ramesses II created the enormous Hypostyle Hall that dominates the site today. In most cases the stone walls were erected in a series of decorated blocks that were interlocked, the craftsmen using very little mortar.
The masons employed metal chisels and wooden set squares; they laid out their blocks checking angles and corners. The Egyptians didn’t use pulleys to construct columns or colossal statuary, but employed levers and rollers to raise large stone monuments. As the eighteenth dynasty progressed, the temple complex began to extend across the East Bank at Thebes. Construction workers erected obelisks, enormous statuary and a sacred lake.
Karnak typifies the ancient Egyptian temple. It bears the standard features of most ancient Egyptian religious buildings, yet surpasses all others in terms of grandeur and scale, remaining an incredible sight to behold.
Amun is one of Egypt’s oldest gods. During the eleventh dynasty he became associated with Thebes, the religious capital. Amun was known as the “Hidden One’. Thus named, his physical forn remains a mystery. During the eighteenth dynasty, he was amalgamated with Re, the sun god, and became known as Amun-Re. Amun, a war deity, acted as protector and benefactor to the king. He was often depicted as the queen’s lover, ensuring the ‘divine birth’ of her son and heir. Amun is depicted on the walls of all Theban temples shown both in human and animal form, appearing as a goose or a ram.