Wednesday was our last day in Luxor and our last full day in Egypt. We left the hotel at 7am and booked a taxi with a lovely older gentleman, Mr. Mamdul, for our morning trip to Karnak Temple and our evening departure for the Luxor airport. (We avoided the horde of younger, pushier men hanging around the Winter Palace asking exorbitant rates.)
I was impressed with the many improvements at the Karnak Temple complex since the last time I visited: paved parking with lovely landscaping; clean, modern bathrooms; vendors clustered into a bazaar (instead of accosting tourists as they arrive); and even a separate, covered bazaar area where ladies were selling their handiwork. Egypt has been investing a lot of money into improving the tourist experience in Luxor and other sites with great results.
Bathroom interiors. Only those who visited Egypt more than 15 years ago can appreciate the luxury of these immaculate spaces.
The Karnak Temple complex was begun around 2000 BCE, when Luxor became a primary seat for the Egyptian ruling house. The complex was used continuously for the worship of the Egyptian gods until about 100 BCE, when the telenovela starring Cleopatra VII, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Caesar Augustus ended with Egypt’s final absorption into the Roman empire. It was dedicated primarily to the worship of Amun, who was the big cheese among Egyptian gods for more than 1000 years. Nearly every ruler during that millennium added chapels, pylons (those giant entry gates) and/or halls to the site, often appropriating the work of previous rulers as their own.
The complex is enormous:
“The area of the sacred enclosure of Amun alone is sixty-one acres and could hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big that St Peter’s, Milan, and Notre Dame Cathedrals would fit within its walls.” (This site offers some very interesting visualized reconstructions of the temple at various stages in its history.)
Like all Egyptian cult temples, Karnak’s architecture reflects the ancient Egyptian’s primary creation myth. The outer wall represents the edges of the primordial mound (picture a swamp with an island) from which life emerged. After passing through the first pylon, a worshiper would pass walk on a slight incline through halls of columns shaped like lotus and papyrus plants, entering into spaces that became more and more sacred (and off limits to the hoi polloi) as they walked. Deep in the interior, the most holy space contained the god’s cult image, which was awakened, bathed dressed and fed each day by high ranking priests. This holy of holies was dim and mysterious, in keeping with Amun’s epithet as The Hidden One. Other gods and goddesses (as well as rulers) were also worshiped at the complex in open courts and chapels. The complex also housed a variety of more mundane activities, like scribal schools, a teaching hospital, housing and workshops for priests and lay workers, and lots of storehouses for the grain and riches given to the gods by rulers, elites and ordinary folks.
Of course, time took its toll once worship ended, and the temple was a jumble of broken columns and collapsed walls until the late 19th century, when restoration began on the Hypostyle Hall (the portion behind that very large second pylon). Restoration continues today: we saw three separate restoration missions working here during our visit.
Today, the complex is a mixture of restored glory and (organized) piles of ruins.
It’s difficult to convey the enormity of the hypostyle hall without experiencing it. The columns are so large that each could hold 30 people standing on top.
I enjoy wandering through courtyards and peering around corners to discover hidden treasures.
One of the modern improvements added are these clever shade structures, which create hieroglyphs in shadow.
This obelisk was erected by Hatshepsut, later walled up an inside new structure, eventually falling over to lie on the ground for centuries. I was very pleased to see it had been re-erected (very recently).
We were fortunate to be able to watch some restoration work on a collapsed wall.
There is an open air museum on the north side of the main temple (outside the temple walls, but inside the outer walls of the complex). It’s basically a giant storehouse for bits and pieces still waiting for reassembly, along with some gorgeous reassembled chapels from the temple’s earliest days. It is a great place to wander – there is always something new.
Our evening departure schedule didn’t leave time for dinner, so, after showers and packing, we opted for the ultimate Peabody & Emerson experience: high tea in the Victorian Lounge.
We left the hotel at 7pm so we could be on time for our 9pm flight to Cairo. Unfortunately, our flight was not as on-time as we were, finally departing from Luxor airport at 12:30 am. We got to know the (small) Luxor airport all too well.
Our 2:30 am arrival at Moshira’s house made for a very short morning, since we had to be at Cairo airport in the early afternoon for our flight to London. The London flight was enlivened by Egypt Air’s clever take on those oh-so-boring safety instructions.
It was clear evening, and we had lovely views above the Alps before darkness fell.