Karnak; a stone forest, immense against a cloudless blue sky

Karnak; a stone forest, immense against a cloudless blue sky

The stunning series of temples that unfurl along the east bank of the Nile collectively stand as mute, timeless testaments to the determination, ingenuity and sheer devotion of the ancient society that brought them to life. Even in their current, partially ruined and faded stances, they still have the power to instill awe and wonder in the modern traveller.

Egypt venerated over seven hundred different deities across the epochs of the great pharaohs, and the most significant of these had temples erected to them along the east bank of the Nile. For the Egyptians, the east bank was synonymous with eternal life; by contrast, all of the tombs are across the river, where the sun sets in the west.

Each major temple was devoted to one, specific god (with one notable exception that we’ll visit later). They were built in a near perfect, symmetrical form, from the inside out.

This began with the sanctuary; an absolute ‘holy of holies’ that, once completed, could be entered only by the high priest and the pharaoh himself. This would usually accommodate a plinth that held a ceremonial boat, to allow the god to sail on the Nile whenever he/she desired.

Leading into this would be a series of antechambers, used for rituals and special ceremonies. Backing further outwards, there would be a large, open air courtyard for the ordinary people, largely composed of massive, circular hypostyle columns, built of sandstone and engraved with top to bottom hieroglyphics, often telling the story of the deity concerned.

Pylon at the approach to Karnak

Pylon at the approach to Karnak

Just the construction of these columns alone is a staggering feat. Great Egyptian architects such as Imhotep deserve to be right up there with the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Ismbard Kingdom Brunel in terms of their reputations for sheer ingenuity, and their grasp of the laws of science and physics. Raising each one of the huge columns (each one weighed a minimum of several hundred tons) was a magnificent feat; assuring the near perfect, timeless symmetry these magnificent relics still exhibit was nothing short of miraculous.

You can still see the greatest example of this in the petrified stone forest of the temple of Karnak, where no less than one hundred and thirty four such columns loom against the powder blue sky. At night, floodlit at their bases, they seem almost otherworldly. Imagine what they must have looked like when brand new.

As new, all of these temples were a swathe of fantastic colours; technicolor triumphs on an undreamed of scale. Centuries of exposure to a pitiless Egyptian sun has largely faded these, but you still can see traces of colour on the undersides of plinths, and the upper levels of shaded columns.

At the outermost extent, a pair of massive, adjacent pylons would give entrance to the temple complex. These massive sandstone structures look like nothing so much as the bulwarks of medieval castles. And their smooth, perfectly proportioned walls often contain the most mind blowing of all the giant engravings; a heroic melange of gods, pharaohs, battle scenes and tributes. These mute, massive murals were the equivalent of propaganda for the rulers of ancient Egypt.

Some temples, such as Karnak, are approached via an avenue lined on both sides by hundreds of ram headed sphinxes, leading to enormous, intricate obelisks and huge, seated statues of  the pharaohs. Others, such as the smaller, stunning Philae, are on an estuary in the middle of the river.

Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo, Egypt

Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo, Egypt

One of the few still accessible sites to be devoted to two gods is the temple of Kom Ombo,  sacred both to the falcon god, Horus, and to the evil crocodile god, Sobek. It is the only temple to have mirror images on both sides, one dedicated to each god.

Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis and, as slayer of his evil uncle, Set, he was platinum chip stuff  as far as ancient Egyptian deities go. The problem was Sobek.

In those days, Kom Ombo  was a feeding ground for thousands of ferocious Nile crocodiles. They took a huge toll of animals and humans alike. In an ultimately vain attempt to appease the evil Sobek, the Egyptians raised a joint temple to him. Today, falcon and crocodile gods still sit in uneasy, albeit aesthetically perfect symmetry.

The Egyptians even installed a sacred pool, where they nurtured and hatched crocodile eggs, returning the small snappers to the Nile as a futile gesture of appeasement. Thankfully, the descendants of those same crocodiles are now prevented from coming this far upstream by the impassable barrier of the dam at Aswan.

So, there you have it. Just a little insight into how these amazing structures came to be created. Intrigued? Go see for yourselves. Amazed? You will be…..


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