Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt
The obelisk is one of the most recognisable symbols of Ancient Egypt. The tall, thin stone monument that tapers into a pyramid shape at the top was generally used to represent the sun god, Ra, and normally placed at the entrances of temples.
Although the Ancient Egyptians erected dozens of these incredible monoliths (even more impressive when you consider the challenge of carving one into a single piece of rock and then transporting it across the country), very few remain today.
Most of the obelisks were taken centuries ago by the Ancient Romans and they are now spread across the world in countries like Italy, the UK, Poland, and Turkey. Three of the ancient obelisks were taken in the 19th century to London, New York, and Paris.
In Egypt, there are just seven obelisks remaining. Two of them are at Karnak Temple in Luxor. And one of these, the Obelisk of Hatshepsut, is the tallest surviving obelisk anywhere in the world, at 28.5 metres high.
It’s just one of the many impressive features at Karnak Temple, which is a true masterpiece of Ancient Egypt. For people who haven’t visited Egypt, it’s maybe not as famous as the Giza Pyramids, or Abu Simbel, or the Valley of the Kings. But once you’ve seen it for yourself, it takes its rightful place amongst the other main icons of the tourist trail.
Visiting Karnak Temple
I visit Karnak Temple as part of this great G Adventures tour of Egypt – a convenient way to see the highlights of the country but still have some flexibility for independent exploration.
As we begin to explore the enormous complex, our guide, Adi, describes Karnak Temple as “an open book of Ancient Egyptian history”.
What he means is that, as you walk through the different layers, you’ll see the influences from various eras. If you could read the hieroglyphs that have been carved on the walls and the columns, they would tell the stories of centuries of pharaohs.
You see, Karnak Temple was not a single temple built by one ruler. It is more like a city of temples that each pharaoh has added to, expanding it outwards in at least one direction, leaving their own mark.
In that sense, you could say that it took about 2000 years to build Karnak Temple from the first section to the last. It’s said to be the second largest temple in the world (after Angkor Wat in Cambodia).
Precinct of Amun-Re, Karnak Temple
When you visit Karnak Temple, you’ll probably come in from the western gate, which is the main entrance these days. To get to the first main structures, you will walk down a path known as the Avenue of Rams because of the rows of ram-headed sphinxes on either side.
Continuing in a straight line from here takes you to the most important sections of Karnak Temple, each one revealing itself as you pass through the central gateways of the large walls, known as pylons.
Because you should also explore the areas off to each side, I recommend going straight until the end, and then deviating to the north and south as you make your way back.
The first pylon opens up onto a wide court with smaller rooms around the edges. Head to the right to find the small dark area of the Temple of Rameses III with a dramatic beam of sunlight that shines through in the morning.
Past the second pylon, you’ll come into the Hypostyle Court. It has 134 large columns within it, each decorated with intricate hieroglyphs. As you weave your way between the columns, the angles create a stunning sliding vista.
As you continue, you’ll find the Obelisk of Hatshepsut in the Central Courtyard. Further on, you’ll reach the sanctuary and find you can’t go any further and need to turn around. But you should be able to look through to the Central Court and maybe the Festival Hall of Thutmose III, which is largely in ruins these days.
Taking the north-south axis from here, past the Sacred Lake, will lead you through the seventh, eighth, and ninth pylons until you reach the tenth pylon. Although this section may not have specific items which are famous, there are some beautiful viewpoints – and it’s much less crowded.
Other Karnak precincts
All the areas I have just described are in the Precinct of Amun-Re, which is the main and largest (by far) part of Karnak Temple. For most tourists, it’s all they’ll see, and that’s probably fine.
The Precinct of Amun-Re is large enough to spend a few hours exploring properly and taking photos, and it has the best things to see at Karnak Temple. If this is all you go to when you visit Karnak, don’t be disappointed.
But it’s important to understand that there are other sections of Karnak Temple. Not all of them are easily accessible by tourists, but you might want to make a bit of an effort to see more than just the standard tourist route.
Just to the north is the Precinct of Montu, which was dedicated to the son of Amun-Re, Montu. It has just a few small temples and is normally not open to the public.
To the south, along a marked avenue, is the Precinct of Mut, dedicated to the mother of Montu. In size, it is somewhere between the other two precincts, with several temples and its own sacred lake. Many of them are in disrepair.
The Precinct of Mut can be accessed by tourists but it’s a little tricky. You need to buy a ticket at the main Karnak complex and then make your way to a separate entrance (you can’t go directly between the Precinct of Amun-Re and the Precint of Mut).
And, as well as these three main precincts, you’ll find some smaller temples sprinkled throughout the complex that seem to be unconnected to the main areas. Try to find Khonsu Temple, just south of the Temple of Rameses III, which is included in the price of your main Karnak admission ticket.
If you want to visit Luxor and Karnak Temple from other parts of Egypt with a guide, you might want to consider one of these tours:
Should you visit Karnak Temple?
Travelling through Egypt, there were times when I wondered if I was getting a bit ‘templed-out’.
What the Ancient Egyptians left us is incredible and, when it comes to world history, we should cherish the fact that so much has been preserved or restored in Egypt. But seeing these ancient structures day after day – they can start to lose their significance as the statues and symbols blur into one.
Karnak Temple was the antidote to this feeling. It was a reminder – at just the point that I needed one – why I was here. It was a reminder that this was one of the greatest civilisations of all humanity and it is a privilege to be able to walk amongst one of its most spiritual complexes.
If you’re doing some travel in Egypt, you will undoubtedly come to Luxor anyway, to see the Valley of the Kings and some of the other remnants of the great city of Thebes that once covered the land here around the River Nile.
But I think Karnak Temple will be the highlight of your stay in the city. To make the most of it, try to arrive very early before the tourist crowds come, or visit in the late afternoon when it will be a bit quieter and (especially good for photographers) you’ll have the warm glow as the sun heads towards the horizon.
After all, it is all about the sun here, in the complex built to worship the sun god Amun-Re, and home to two remaining obelisks – which were built with their pyramidal tops so they would catch the sun’s rays, wherever it was in the sky.