Like a good son of the Nile, I headed to Luxor to visit the ‘Hidden One’ and to pay tribute to the immortal Theban Triad. The attendants of stars had explained to me how the Temple of Karnak, being a solar temple, was aligned with the winter solstice sunrise; they had explained all about the heliacal rising of Sopdet (the name given by the Ancient Egyptians to the star Sirius), but I had to see it for myself. I had to come and meet Amun, Mut and Khonsu.
I walked into the Temple of Karnak as a pilgrim of passion, just like many other times when I sleepwalked into Karnak in some of my dreams. Ancient Egyptian temples were more than just symbols of power or places of worship; they represented a microcosm, a realm of order in an ocean of chaos embodied by the outside world. The pylons (entrance gateways) marked the transition from chaos to order, but it does not end here. The monumental gateway is reminiscent of the hill that emerged from the primordial lake; the one on which the ancestral god Atum created himself. And because one layer of meaning is never enough, you can also think of the two flat towers flanking the gate as symbols of the two hills between which the sun first rose. How many pylons have I walked through in Karnak? I lost count, but I knew I was walking right into a time machine, as the innermost pylons are the oldest.
Then came the most splendid part of the temple, charged with cosmological symbolism: the Great Hypostyle Hall. A forest of 134 pillars, this mammoth structure commissioned by the XIX Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I utilized a New Kingdom signature element: the papyriform columns, all with closed-bud capitals except for the two central rows which, standing higher than the other columns, end in open-umbel capitals at a height of 21 meters. Closer to the sun, they are blessed with the gift of Ra, and the buds are no longer closed, but are rather open to embrace the sunlight. The papyrus plant must have grown around the primordial pond, the way they still grew along the shores of the Nile.
Architecturally, the difference in height between the two central rows of columns and the rest allows for opening clerestory windows that let in just the right amount of light that would respect the mystery of the temple’s interior, off limits to the public. Whatever happened inside the temple was the priests’ business and theirs alone (and the Pharaoh’s). Is it any wonder that the name of Amun means ‘the occult’?
Long gone is the roof that the columns once supported, but fortunately, some of the architraves are still there, giving us an idea of how the roof was once supported. What was once the most sacred part of the Temple (Holy of Holies) is now empty; the god no longer resides here.
Another clear solar symbol in Karnak are the obelisks of Thutmose I and Hatshepsut (the later weighing over 300 tons!). These are ‘petrified sunrays’ that adorned Ancient Egyptian temples, usually staged in pairs.
Rows of ram-headed sphinxes mark the processional avenues outside the temple. How many devout followers must have petitioned these rams (representations of Amun) to convey their prayers to the great Amun? How many times must have these rams witnessed the procession of the sacred barque carrying the statue of Amun during the annual Opet Festival?
Many are the Pharaohs that embellished this complex, each leaving his/her mark on this eternal and sacred cult centre from the XI Dynasty onward: Seti I, Ramses II, Ramses III, Merenptah, Nectanebo I, and the list goes on. Only during the reign of Ramses III, the Pharaoh dedicated 240,000 hectares to the cult of Amun, as well as 32 tons of gold, 1000 tons of silver and 2400 tons of copper to the Temple of Karnak.
Returning to the Temple at night for the Sound and Light Spectacle, one wonders whether this Temple was built or whether it had descended from heaven. On a clear night, the priests must have been able to observe the night sky reflected on the still surface of the Sacred Lake. I thought nothing would impress me more in Luxor. Luckily, I was wrong.