The blog for this week is written by Marissa Lopez, who holds a degree in anthropology with a focus on archeology. She spent a year studying Egyptology at the American University in Cairo where she worked directly with Dr Kent Weeks and Dr Salima Ikram. She currently lives in Maine, USA, and takes unsuspecting friends to the Boston Museum of Fine Art to lecture them about the Egyptian exhibit.
There are many sights from ancient Egypt that are awe-inspiring, but few that make you feel minuscule at the same time. The Karnak temple complex in modern day Luxor is a required stop for anyone with even a passing interest in ancient Egypt. Built, modified, deconstructed, and expanded within 250 acres for over 2,300 years, it is probably the most sizable ancient temple complex in both space and time. Although invaders, locals looking to reuse the blocks, the ravages of time, and an earthquake have caused considerable damage to the many buildings, statues, columns, and obelisks, tireless work from various Egyptian and foreign missions have restored as much of the temple as possible, and their work is ongoing. This includes the massively impressive Great Hypostyle Hall (fig. 1).
|Fig. 1: Columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall (Photo by Marissa Lopez)|
Seti I started building what would be known as “Seti-is-beneficial-in-the-House-of-Amun” (the Great Hypostyle Hall) in his second year. It was built to be a temple with its own priesthood and not just another addition to the larger complex. Seti is clear in one inscription; after many sleepless nights, this was his idea, his thoughts, and his instructions for this temple. Little did he know that his son would also impose his thoughts on the temple as well.
Walking through the Second Pylon, visitors are greeted by a forest of huge columns that seem to touch the sky. They are easily the first thing to capture your attention. There are 134 in total. Traveling west to east from the Second Pylon to the Third, the path is flanked by twelve 22.4m columns with a few slabs up top, which are all that’s left of the roof. Looking up, one can see stars decorating the underside of the roof slabs, the color still visible in some places. On the north and south side of the colonnade are the remaining 122 columns, each at almost 15m tall. In ancient times, a roof would have covered the entire hall on both levels, while clerestory windows above the center of each pylon let in some light (fig. 2). Carved under the central window is an ankh symbol flanked by the bulrush (South) and bee (North). The central twelve columns were thus exposed to light. As ancient Egyptians observed and were inspired by the natural world, the capitals are depicted as blooming papyrus flowers, particularly because the plant buds stay closed in the dark and flower in the sun. The columns are surrounded by walls filled with inscriptions and depictions of pharaohs and the gods.
|Fig. 2: Clerestory windows in the Hall|
It seems almost impossible for so many columns, each with a circumference of 15m, to be erected in an area that is 103m wide by 52m deep (fig. 3). The current hypothesis is that the area was slowly filled with sand as the column stone slabs were put in place. After the columns were completed, the sand was removed and scaffolding was used to carve and paint each one. The columns were completed during the time of Seti with his cartouches inscribed at the top, although they were recarved by Ramesses II.
|Fig. 3: A congested hall (Photo by Marissa Lopez)|
There are two types of columns in the hall, 122 monostyle columns aligned with each other in rows of nine and seven, and the 12 campaniform central columns. The campaniform columns were likely erected by Amenhotep III or Horemheb, although it is unknown by whom. Each column has a ring around the top depicting the cartouches of Ramesses II, although research has shown his name replacing that of Seti I (fig. 4). Ramesses II had a long history of usurping the monuments of his ancestors and those of his father was no exception. The other reliefs show tribute and the worshipping of the Theban Triad by Ramesses II on the campaniform columns, and Ramesses IV on some outer columns. The papyrus stalk imagery is completed with leaves carved on the bottom register of the column.
|Fig. 4: Cartouches of Ramesses II recarved over those of Seti I|
There are quite a few interesting scenes on the walls. The exterior north wall depicts war scenes including taking of a fortress in Pekanan, an ambush by Bedouins, tributes of booty to Amun, Sekhmet-Mut, Khonsu, the Theban Triad, the capture and massacre of prisoners, and of course, Seti’s triumphant return (fig. 5). The west jamb of the northern entrance doorway is carved for Ramesses II, an addition he liked to make when door jambs were available. The exterior south wall is heavily damaged, yet is thought to recount the military expeditions of Ramesses II to Palestine and Kadesh, much like the north wall, and with an emphasis on duality. For example, Ramesses is compared to Horus and Seth, and is seen trampling over two defeated enemies, bringing back two rows of enemies with their arms bound behind their backs.
On the internal walls, the Persea tree is depicted twice. Once on the northern wall where Thoth writes the duration of Seti’s reign on the tree leaves in a beautiful and intricate raised relief. In comparison, on the Southern wall, Ramesses II is depicted kneeling in the Persea tree as Thoth stands behind him, writing his name on the leaves as Amun extends to him the symbol for the Sed-festival (fig. 6). The scene continues onto the coronation of Ramesses II and the race of the Apis Bull, in which Seti is represented as walking behind the sacred barques, suggesting he has rejoined with the one who created him.
|Fig. 6: Persea tree scene (Photo by Marissa Lopez)|
The eastern interior wall shows Seti in the different phases of the Ritual of the Daily Divine Worship. This includes breaking clay seals to open the doors to heaven, making a fire for offerings and libations, and holding the ankh while presenting a list of offerings.
You can’t help but notice the inscriptions during the time of Seti were beautiful and intricate raised bas-relief carvings while Ramesses II quickly moved towards the faster sunk relief method. Ramesses even had the southern wall recarved in sunk relief so he could take credit for the scene. Perhaps he was trading quality for quantity, or making it more difficult for future kings to recarve his own cartouches, there are many possibilities.
The Great Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temple complex has fascinated people for millennia. It was repaired during the Graeco-Roman Period and other kings added their name, such as Ramesses IV. That fascination continues even today and I can promise you, from the scenes on the walls to the dizzying heights of the columns, it is a wonder to see!
For the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project website, with its extensive bibliography, see https://www.memphis.edu/hypostyle/
Blyth, Elizabeth 2006. Karnak: evolution of a temple. London: Routledge.
Schwaller de Lubicz, R. A. 1999. The temples of Karnak. Photographs by Georges de Miré and Valentine de Miré; translated by Andrè Vanden Broeck. London: Thames & Hudson.