La Description de l'Égypte: Antiquités, Volume III - Karnak and the Luxor Temple
La Description de l’Egypte (The Description of Egypt), or Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’Armée française, publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l’Empereur Napoléon le Grand is the first encyclopedia devoted exclusively to Egypt. It is a work from Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, recounting the discoveries made during this scientific voyage.
The third book of plates is La Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, Volume III. It is the third of five volumes describing ancient Egypt. Either the major part of the final work. The plates of the third book are the second ones to present the archeological sites of Thebes (Luxor).
Map of the archeological sites
The map shows the different places mentioned in this article. Click on the markers to get an overview of the archaeological sites.
Thebes 25°43′14″N, 32°36′37″E is the Greek name for the Ancient Egyptian city of Waset. Today its ruins are part of the modern city of Luxor. It is located in the middle of Upper Egypt, along the Nile, in its alluvial plain. With an area of 93 km2, it was the most important city in Egypt in terms of population during its time of prosperity. Moreover, Thebes was the Egyptian capital in the 18th Dynasty (1550 BC – 1292 BC) until the advent of Akenathon, who saw Egypt reach the peak of its power. Many of the sovereigns of this dynasty were buried in the Valley of the Kings of Thebes.
Its archaeological sites are generally divided into two parts. Depending on whether they are on the east or west bank of the Nile. The eastern sites, with renowned places such as Karnak, Luxor, the temple of Khonsu and the western sites: the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the tomb of Ramses III, the tomb of Akenathon…
La Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, Volume III presents the eastern archaeological sites: the Luxor Temple and Karnak.
The Luxor Temple 25°42′0″N 32°38′21″E is a complex located on the east bank of the Nile. The “southern sanctuary” (in ancient Egyptian dialect) is in the south of the ancient city of Thebes. Its construction began around 1400 BC, extending under the 18th and 19th dynasties. It is mainly dedicated to the worship of the god Amun, god of Thebes. It was built by the Pharaoh builder Amenhotep III, who was also responsible for the constructions on the Precint of Amun-Re. After having been abandoned during the religious reform led by Akenaten (son of Amenhotep III), other pharaohs of the 18th dynasty like Tutankhamun and Aÿ continued the works. However, it is another builder pharaoh, Ramesses II who completed its construction and also added elements. The members of the commission found him rather buried in sand. But it is still in very good condition and one of the best preserved temples in ancient Egypt.
The temple is built of sandstone from the Silsileh quarry. The architect Amenhotep, son of Hapu built a typical sanctuary temple, consisting of a succession of courtyards and rooms. After all the later modifications and extensions, the temple is about 260m long and 50m wide.
Luxor temple, Ramesses II
The present entrance is located to the north and impresses by its monumentality. It consists of a pylon, an architecture element typical of the Egyptian monuments of the New Kingdom. This monumental construction consists of two towers with a rectangular base connected by a lintel and forms the entrance door to the sanctuary. The great pylon was built by Ramesses II and is 65m wide and 24m high. In front of the pylon, six statues of Ramesses II were placed. Today there are only three of them left. Two other statues of Ramesses II are located inside the first courtyard, before the entrance to the part built by Amenhotep III. In front of the six statues are two obelisks detailed below.
Behind the pylon, was built the courtyard of Ramesses II (50m width, 56m length). It is a courtyard with portico made up of 74 columns which takes into account the chapel-repository of Hatshepsut.
When we observe the plan of the palace we may realize that the whole is made up of two parts. The northern part, built by Ramesses II, is offset from the rest of the sanctuary. It allows the temple to be connected on the same axis to the Karnak complex, located about 3km north. It is said that this change of axis is due to the angular shift between the observation points of the heliacal rising of Sirius between the times of the two pharaohs. The heliac rise of Sirius was particularly important in Ancient Egypt, it also provided information on the floods of the Nile.
Luxor Temple, Amenhotep III
The other part of the temple is the one built by Amenhotep III. It opens on 14 colonnades 14m high, extending over 52m long and 20m wide. On the side walls are reliefs that date back to Tutankhamun. They represent the Opet Festival, a ceremony in which Amun supposedly used to went from Karnak to Luxor.
The colonnade then opens onto the second hypostyle courtyard. This courtyard, 52 meters long and 46 meters wide, is surrounded by a double row of 64 columns. Behind the courtyard of Amenhotep III is the first hypostyle hall. It consists of 32 columns and was illuminated by daylight. Thus, it served as a buffer space between the dark small rooms of the temple and the open courtyard. The second hypostyle hall is a four-column vestibule that was transformed into a chapel by the Romans in 301 AD.
The following rooms are of a similarly small size. First comes the Hall of Offerings, then the Hall of the Sanctuary of the Barque of Amun. In this room there is an engraving of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) as Pharaoh. Indeed, it was an admirer of Amun and he commissioned work to transform the space into a chapel to receive the barque of Amun. The last room is the Holy of Holies, decorated with divine representations.
The twin obelisks
The two obelisks in front of the giants of the entrance pylon are made of pink granite. The singularity is that the two are of different sizes. The one on the left measures 26m while the other measures 23m. They are staggered so that the difference in size is not noticeable.
In 1830, the two obelisks were offered to France, but only one of the two was transported during a long journey of six years. It is the smaller of the two, the one on the right, which is first chosen by Champollion himself. The second obelisk will be officially “returned” 150 years later, while the first one was placed in the middle of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It weighs approximately 230 tonnes and its age makes it the oldest monument in Paris.
« J’allai enfin au palais ou plutôt à la ville de monuments, à Karnac. Là m’apparut toute la magnificence pharaonique, tout ce que les hommes ont imaginé et exécuté de plus grand. Tout ce que j’avais vu à Thèbes, tout ce que j’avais admiré avec enthousiasme sur la rive gauche, me parut misérable en comparaison des conceptions gigantesques dont j’étais entouré… Il suffira d’ajouter, pour en finir, que nous ne sommes en Europe que des Lilliputiens et qu’aucun peuple ancien ni moderne n’a conçu l’art de l’architecture sur une échelle aussi sublime, aussi large, aussi grandiose, que le firent les vieux Égyptiens ; ils concevaient en homme de cent pieds de haut, et nous en avons tout au plus cinq pieds huit pouces. L’imagination qui, en Europe, s’élance bien au-dessus de nos portiques, s’arrête et tombe impuissante au pied des cent quarante colonnes de la salle hypostyle de Karnac. »
Jean-François Champollion (1829)
The religious complex of Karnak 25° 43′ 04″ N, 32° 39′ 28″ E is the largest in ancient Egypt and antiquity. The word Karnak comes from Arabic and means “the fortified village”. However, this name differs from the one given in the antiquity. It was called Ipet Isut, which meant “the highly venerated place”. It is composed of three precints and extends over more than 2km². The dfferent Precints are the one for the falcon god Montu in the north, the Amun-Re one in the centre and the last one is dedicated for Amun’s wife, Mut, in the south. But it is also composed by other buildings outside the precints.
Its construction makes Karnak a unique place in ancient Egypt. Indeed, it extends over a period of 2000 years, the pharaohs developing the complex and modifying it as they wished. Construction began in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1700 BC) and continued until the Ptolemeic times (305-30 BC). This unprecedented period makes the complex of Karnak a place of worship, with multiple influences and an incomparable size. It is estimated that about thirty pharaohs contributed to the construction of the buildings.
The first sanctuary dates from the 11th Dynasty, and the construction of the site continued with the reign of Senusret I (12th Dynasty) and his White Chapel. This sanctuary was dedicated to the cult of a local Montu deity. It was later dismantled under Amenhotep III, for the construction of the 3rd pylon.
Afterwards, it was during the New Empire that the site experienced its greatest expansion around the original sanctuary. Thebes gained in importance during the same period, becoming the capital of Egypt. The Karnak complex can today be divided into 4 parts: the Precint of Amun-Re, the Precint of Mut, the Precint of Montu and the Temple of Amenhotep IV (Akenaten). The latter was dismantled by Theban priests wishing to erase all traces of the pharaoh after his death. Indeed, he had set up a religious revolution that planned to abandon the cult of Amun.
Precint of Mut
The southernmost site of Karnak is the Precint of Mut 25° 42′ 42″ N, 32° 39′ 19″ E. The site covers an area of about 90,000m² and is dedicated to the goddess Mut, the wife of Amun. The temple of Mut is the main building. It was built by Hatshepsut, the queen who became the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty in 1478 BC. It was later enlarged by Amenhotep III. The members of the commission of Napoleon’s expedition will find mostly ruins. But later excavations uncovered hundreds of statues (nearly 600) in black granite of the violent goddess Sekhmet. Theoretically there would exist 730 statues of the lion-headed goddess, 365 for day and 365 for night. These date from the reign of Amenhotep III. To the south of the temple is dug a sacred crescent-moon shaped lake called Isheru.
In addition to the temple of Mut, The Precint of Mut is composed of 5 other temples. These are currently being excavated but the Contra Temple and a temple of Ramesses III have been identified. Other monuments outside the enclosure have also been discovered. Like the temple of Nectanebo II (the last pharaoh of the 30th dynasty), or the sanctuary of Amun-Kamutef.
Precint of Montu
The Precint of Montu 25° 43′ 12″ N, 32° 39′ 39″ E is located north of the Karnak site. The site covers an area of about 20,000m² but the buildings are very poorly conserved. The Precint is dedicated to the deity Montu, the falcon-headed god, much worshipped in Thebes. Its main building is the temple of Montu. This one was built by Amenhotep III on the foundations of a building of the Middle Kingdom. It was enlarged by Ramesses II and has all the characteristics of a classical Egyptian temple of the New Kingdom: pylon, courtyard, hall with columns, sanctuary.
In the Precint were also built other buildings: the temple of Ma’at (during the 20th dynasty), the temple of Harpre (during the 29th dynasty), a sacred lake and the Gateway of Ptolemy III. The enclosure was restored by Nectanebo I (30th dynasty).
Precint of Amun-Re
The Precint of Amun-Re 25° 43′ 06″ 06″ N, 32° 39′ 30″ E is the largest of the Karnak sites. It is dedicated to the main god of Thebes, Amun (in its solar form Amun-Re). The area of the site is about 250,000m² and contains many structures and monuments. Its main building is the Temple of Amun, which is sometimes wrongly associated directly with the name Karnak.
The Precint is organized along two axes. A main East-West axis, which connects the Holy of Holies (East) and the Nile (West). This is the celestial axis, which follows the course of the sun. The secondary axis, called the royal axis, is oriented North-South. It is the terrestrial axis which corresponds to the course of the Nile, it connects the Precint of Amun to the Precint of Mut.-
Temple of Amun
The temple of Amun-Re is the most emblematic construction of the Karnak site. It is mainly organized along the East-West axis, following a succession of pylons built at different times. Starting from the initial sanctuary, numerous constructions have been added, making the temple a hybrid and gigantic place of worship.
To the west of the entrance of the temple has been dug a landing basin for boats coming from the Nile, it is connected to the Precint by the dromos of Karnak which allows to arrive in front of the 1st pylon.
The construction of the 1st pylon dates from one ofthe last period of construction, during the 30h dynasty (by Nectanebo I). The pylon has remained unfinished but is remarkable for its dimensions. With its 113m wide, 15m thick and 40m high, it is the most imposing of Karnak. The members of the commission left an inscription on it in 1799.
Behind the pylon is the Forecourt des Bubastides built during the XXIIth dynasty. It includes a resting temple built by Ramesses III (1217-1155 BC). With more than 8000 square meters of surface, it is the largest courtyard of all Egyptian temples.
Behind the second pylon (98m wide) closing the courtyard, opens the Great Hypostyle Hall. It is one of the iconic places of the temple and the site of Karnak. The hall was built during the 19th dynasty by Seti I and completed by Ramesses II. 134 papyriform limestone columns are installed in a gigantic hall (102m long and 53m wide). The two rows of columns in the centre were higher than the side columns. The central papyrus columns have a circumference of 10m for a height of 24m. The central stone roof was pierced with a claustra, creating a light atmosphere in the centre and dark on the sides.
After the third pylon, lies a courtyard containing several obelisks. It is also the entrance to the secret dwelling of the god and the crossroads between the earthly and celestial axis. After a 5th pylon also built by Thutmose I comes the 6th pylon.
It was built by Thutmose IIII (1482-1425 BC) like almost all the buildings in the first enclosure and behind the second enclosure of Thutmose I. To the east, he built the Festival Hall of Thutmose III or Akh-Menu. Firstly it was a place of celebration of the pharaoh but it will be later included in the Opet festivities. Also, it is there that the botanical garden of Thutmose III is represented.
Finally, in the heart of the successive enclosures, behind the 6th pylon, lies the temple of the Middle Kingdom (2022-1784 BC). It included the sanctuary of the sacred barque of the god Amun. The sanctuary is open to the East and West so that the divine sun can illuminate the boat. The present shrine, which replaced the previous ones, was built under Philip Arrhidaeus (359-317 BC), brother and successor of Alexander the Great.
North-South axis and other monuments
The North-South axis is a succession of pylons up to the enclosure of Nectanebo I and the 10th pylon. This alley of processions consists of 4 pylons. The 10th pylon opens on a domos leading to the domain of Mut in the south.
The Precint of Amun, in addition to the temple, includes other buildings and a sacred lake. Behind the east side of the temple was built the sanctuary of Thutmose III. To the east of it is built a temple for Ramesses II even though the constructions of the temple precedes the pharaoh. Two other temples, located in the south-west were discovered during the expedition of the commission. The Opet Temple and the Khonsu Temple.
Temple of Khonsu
The construction of the temple of Khonsu began under Ramesses III (1217-1155 BC). It is rather modest but its architectural elements inspired until the Ptolemaic dynasty in particular for the construction of the temple of Edfu. The large south gate is of the Ptolemaic period. It is one of the best preserved buildings on the site. It is oriented along the North-South axis, on a processional path leading to Luxor Temple.
Temple of Opet
The temple of Opet dates mainly from Ptolemy VIII (182-116 BC) and was built on the site of a monument commissioned by Thutmose III. It includes two basement chapels dedicated to Osiris. One represents his tomb and the other his resurrection. It is oriented along the East-West axis. The temple itself was only drawn in its built, closed part by the comission. Its courtyard is not included in the survey.
The Karnak site also has a particularity that adds to the monumental character of the site. The different Precints are linked by dromos. This term, meaning path in Greek, refers to a path generally lined with sphinxes. The idea of such an arrangement is to extend a building outwards and mark an access to another temple or to the Nile. In this case, Karnak owns several of them.
The dromos of Karnak initiates from the 1st Pylon of the Precint of Amun to reach the landing basin. It allows the sacred boats to reach the canal and the Nile during the Opet processions. The dromos is composed of criosphinx, sphinxes with lion’s body and ram’s head.
The Precint of Montu has one facing north. Another dromos connects the Precint of Amun and the Precint of Mut. While a third one follows the temple of Khonsu and the Everget gate and joins the last dromos on a length of more than 200m.
The most monumental is certainly the dromos linking the site of Karnak and the site of Luxor. It is bordered by 700 sphinxes over a straight length of 2.5km. This reinforces the importance of the two major sites on the east bank of the Nile at Thebes.