an ancient site whose name derives from that of a nearby village, refers to a large complex of temples on the eastern bank of the Nile River at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in Upper Egypt (25°43′N, 32°40′E). Early in the twelfth dynasty, Egyptian rulers who had originated in the Theban area inaugurated what was perhaps the first shrine on the site of Karnak. By the New Kingdom, the eighteenth dynasty pharaohs made Thebes the center of the Egyptian empire and Karnak the center of the cult of Amun (the principal divine sponsor and protector of the empire, with his consort Mut, their son Khonsu, and the Theban war god Montu). Karnak retained this central position throughout the New Kingdom, even after the governmental center had been moved to the Nile Delta. Karnak's status as a major sacred center then continued for at least another millennium. In the fourth century BCE, Nektanebo I ordered the construction of a gigantic mud-brick enclosure wall around the main complex centered on the temple of Amun; that wall today encloses some 60 acres (more than 100 hectares) of ruins in varying states of preservation. To the north of the main precinct is a temple to Montu, while to the south lies the temple of the goddess Mut. Excavations outside the eastern enclosure wall disclose the remains of a series of four interrelated temples, constructed at the behest of Amenhotpe IV (later Akhenaten) at the outset of his reign, in what was probably a poor residential area.

Any attempt to present a systematic description of what lies within the Nektanebo walls is complicated by the continuous additions, disassemblings, rebuildings, and alterations that more or less continued until well into Roman times, that is for well over two millennia. The Roman emperor Tiberius, for example, added his name, written in hieroglyphs, to one of the component structures. Thus, any description that proceeds from the present entrance along the central axis of the great temple of Amun runs back through and athwart the chronology of construction, for the growth of the temple was not according to any systematic master plan, nor did it proceed in one direction only.

The temple of Amun—called “most select of sites” (Eg., Ipt-swt)—was the center of the cult of Amun (“the Hidden One”); during the New Kingdom, it was transformed from the worship of a local fertility divinity to the center of the “estate of Amun,” a national religious and economic institution that, fed by the fruits of pharaonic conquests and self-promotion, became the single most powerful and influential priestly body in Egypt. Ruler after ruler trumpeted both piety and military success by adding to or rebuilding part of the complex while covering its walls with scenes and inscriptions of military victories, religious ceremonials, and benefactions to and from Amun and other members of the divine community. The temple was the scene of annual, monthly, and other ritual cycles and processions in honor of the Theban triad. Other deities were assigned areas of the complex as “guests”; thus, for example, the northeastern quadrant appears to have been the principal locus of worship for the mortuary god Osiris, said to be “resident in Ipt-swt.” Amun himself appears in several forms, including the ithyphallic Amun-Kamutef and the solar Amun-Re-Herakhty.


Karnak. Plan of Karnak.

The great temple of Amun consists of a main axis that runs from west to east through a series of six great pylons, or gateways, leading to the main sanctuary. A secondary axis runs to the south from just beyond the Third Pylon, adding pylons Seven through Ten; this axis connects the main Amun complex to the temple of the goddess Mut. From there it originally ran along a sphinx-lined corridor all the way to the Luxor temple of Amun. To the east of this series of pylons, and south of the Amun temple, lies the large “sacred lake.” Nearby is a rather intriguing edifice constructed by Taharqa of the twenty-fifth dynasty, which takes some of its influence from earlier structures elsewhere in the complex.

The ancient processional access to the temple was a canal from the Nile, which ended in later times at a quay just west of the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes that lead to the First Pylon. Beyond lies the First Court, which contains, on the north side, a tripartite way-station built by Sety II for the sacred barks of the Triad. Serving a similar function is the much larger tripartite templelike structure of Ramesses III, which protrudes into the open area beyond the southwestern forecourt wall. Access to the open area to the north of the Ramesses III building is gained through the twenty-second dynasty “Bubastite Portal,” a gateway bearing numerous ritual inscriptions and scenes. Just outside, to the east, Sheshonq I inscribed a record of his campaigns in Palestine. In the center of the First Court are the scant remains of a structure contributed by the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa (of the early seventh century BCE). Beyond the badly preserved Second Pylon (of the late eighteenth dynasty) lies the Great Hypostyle Hall, a veritable forest of 134 columns. The central aisle is defined by 12 columns some 22 meters (72 feet) high; the other 122 columns are about 15 meters (50 feet) high; the former are topped by open-bud capitals, the remainder by closed papyrus capitals. Light entered the stone-roofed hall through a series of grated clerestories high above ground level. The decoration of the walls of this room belongs to the reigns of Sety I and Ramesses II; it consists of ritual and processional scenes executed in raised reliefs under the earlier king and incised relief by his successor. In contrast to these scenes inside the hall, battle and victory scenes of Sety I decorate the outside surface of the northern wall.

The Third Pylon, built by Amenhotpe III, is of interest not only because the remains suggest its original imposing monumentality and the quality of the decoration but also because of its core, formed of blocks taken from earlier monuments of the twelfth dynasty king Senwosret I and from those of Amenhotpe I, Hatshepsut, and Thutmose IV of the eighteenth dynasty. These earlier structures have been largely reconstructed and now stand in the open area north of the Hypostyle Hall. In similar fashion, Horemheb subsequently dismantled the Aten-temples of Akhenaten on the east of Karnak and used the blocks (talatat) in constructing the Ninth and Tenth Pylons on the north-south axis.

The Fourth and Fifth Pylons, built by Thutmose I, originally had pairs of obelisks standing before them; only one of Hatshepsut's and one of her father's remain standing. Beyond the Sixth Pylon of Thutmose III lies the central court that served as the principal sanctuary of the complex. An original shrine of the latter ruler was replaced in the late fourth century by a red granite bark shrine, set up on behalf of Philip Arrhidaeus, the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great. The last important structure along the main axis of the Amun temple is the Festival Hall of Thutmose III, a building designed to celebrate the king's sed-festival. In the northeastern quarter of the Karnak enclosure are a number of chapels to Osiris, dating mostly to the twenty-third and twenty-fifth dynasties; notable among these is the chapel of Osiris-Ruler-of-Eternity, begun in the twenty-third dynasty and augmented in the twenty-fifth. Along the northern enclosure wall is a small temple of the god Ptah.

The four pylons that run to the south of the main temple were built by Thutmose III (VII and VIII) and by Horemheb (IX and X). Some of the side walls were built by later Ramessid rulers, and some traces of twelfth and early eighteenth dynasty structures have been discovered there. Built into the side wall between the Ninth and Tenth Pylons is the sed-festival chapel of Amenhotpe I. In the southwestern corner of the enclosure are the remains of a temple dedicated to the moon god Khonsu and a smaller building for the goddess Ipet. A large number of statues was found in a cachette between the Seventh and Eighth Pylons.


Karnak. Papyrus and lotus columns of the court of the sixth pylon. The papyrus and lotus are emblems of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, respectively. The columns are made of red granite. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

To the north of the Nektanebo enclosure is the precinct of the Theban war god Montu, which, in addition to the temple dedicated to that god, contains a smaller structure for the cult of the goddess Maat. Built by Amenhotpe III, and later augmented by Ptolemaic rulers, the Montu enclosure is somewhat unusual in that the access is from the north. The remains of a small temple of Thutmose I have been unearthed just outside the southeastern corner of the enclosure. To the south of the south line of pylons lies the enclosure of the temple of Mut, with its atypical horseshoe-shaped sacred lake. Excavations have yielded a large number of statues of the goddess Sekhmet. To the west of the sacred lake are the remains of a temple of Ramesses III.

Karnak is a treasure trove of reliefs and statuary, much of it executed with great skill and aesthetic sensitivity. The subject matter of the reliefs ranges from imperial combat to the relationships between the king and the gods, from religious processions to processions of royal sons, from lists of conquered territories to zoological and botanical themes. The statuary of gods, goddesses, kings, and their wives form a rich repertory; indeed, the long history of the temple makes it an archive of subjects and styles that reveals the richness of Egyptian religious art and allows the critical eye to see the outlines of development and change over the millennia.

See also TEMPLES.


  • Azim, M. Karnak et sa topographie. Cairo, 1998.
  • Badawy, A. A History of Egyptian Architecture. Vol. 3. Berkeley, 1968.
  • Baines, J., and J. Málek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, 1980.
  • Barguet, P. Le temple de d'Amon-Re à Karnak. Cairo, 1962.
  • Lauffray, J. Karnak d'Egypte. Domain du divin. Paris, 1979.
  • Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The Temple of Khonsu. Chicago, 1979–1981.
  • Shafer, B. E., ed. Temples of Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, 1997.
  • Trauneker, C., and J.-Cl. Golvin. Karnak: résurection d'un site. Freibourg, 1984.

The principal work on the Karnak temples, carried out by the Centre franco-égyptien de Karnak, has been published in a series of monographs:

Gerald E. Kadish