The World's Greatest Architecture - Past & Present
Temple of Amun, Karnak
Little remains to be seen of the ancient city of Thebes, capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, but the two great temples of Luxor and especially Karnak, which stand close by on the east bank of the River Nile, are notable exceptions.
The temples of ancient Egypt were not places of worship but dwelling places for the gods. Few temples earlier than this have survived, and it can often be assumed that the surviving building, as at Karnak, replaced an earlier one, perhaps dating back to the Old Kingdom, and for about 1,500 years the style hardly changed. These temples are huge, Karnak in fact being the biggest, and are built along an axis. The main entrance takes the form of a pylon gateway, leading to a colonnaded court and a hypo-style hall. Walls bear rich decorations, typically in low-relief, representing rites of the cult, deeds of the pharaoh, and sometimes more domestic scenes. They form an integral part of the building.
The Egyptians were not interested in experimenting with interior space, and the vast hall is somewhat cramped by the profusion of columns. But it was merely a hall, in the sense of an anteroom. Beyond lay the holiest chamber, the sanctuary, comparatively dark and narrow, where the cult statue in which the god resided was housed within a shrine. Ordinary people were not admitted, but at festivals, which were extremely elaborate, the images of the gods were carried outside the temple to make contact with them. The annual ceremony at Karnak, when the image of the god was carried by water to Thebes, lasted for a month. It was conveniently celebrated during the Flood season, when no work could be done in the fields.
The great temples, something like medieval monasteries, were substantial, largely self-contained units, containing craftsmen's workshops and schools. In the 12th century BC, the Temple of Amun at Karnak employed about 10,000 people.