The modern bustling Egyptian city of Luxor was known by a different name back in ancient times. The ancient Greeks named it Thebes, and it sits nestled on the eastern banks of the Nile. It was once the capital of ancient Egypt and today, right in its heart, there are two sprawling temple complexes that will completely blow your mind.
Inside the temples
Karnak Temple is the largest temple complex ever built on the face of the earth, and it was built over a period of 1,300 years by more than 30 different pharaohs. Even then it was never really finished. Since I am Canadian and my country wasn’t even on any maps until at best the mid-1500s, I found this fact utterly astonishing.
Karnak is enclosed by brick walls which also envelop a sacred lake. There is also another similarly massive temple nearby called Luxor Temple, connected by a long walkway. The idea that a civilization could dedicate more than a thousand years to building these sacred sites displays a certain single-mindedness that I find hard to image in today’s era of Twitter and microwave ovens.
Of course, the walls are crumbling now, and the statues are worn and the paint is faded, but it is not hard to stand in this enormous complex and visualize how awe-inspiring this place must have been thousands of years ago.
Parts of Karnak Temple are said to be among the world’s greatest masterpieces of architecture. The Great Hypostyle Hall is astounding. It covers 5,000 square meters, and the more than 100 columns in the hall stand more than 10 or 12 meters high, ornately carved all the way to the top. In the shadows, you can still see the faint hints of long bleached colours, serving as a clue that this now sand-coloured treasure was once vibrantly painted and brightly coloured.
As you crane your neck to see the tops of these imposing pillars, you will also note that there are sandstone blocks, remnants of windows and carved latticework that stand on top of pillars, causing me to repeat over and over again “How did they do that?”
One of the other most impressive sights here is the pathway leading from Luxor Temple to nearby Karnak, which is lined by an Avenue of Sphinxes.
Every great city seems to have an obelisk. In the 19th century, it was the thing to have, and today, there are Cleopatra’s Needles in London, New York and Paris. Rome managed to get its hands on eight of them. In London, Cleopatra’s Needle sits on the banks of the Thames. In New York, it sits in Central Park. In Paris, it marks the dramatic centrepiece of the Place de la Concorde.
The Paris obelisk originally made its home here, sitting for thousands of years by the front entrance of the Luxor Temple. If you look at the entrance to the temple today, on the left you will see a beautiful towering obelisk. On your right, you will see an empty stand.
Obelisks were sacred in ancient Egypt, once considered pointers to the sun god Ra. There are many obelisks in Luxor and Karnak Temples, including the Obelisk of Hatshepsut, which stands nearly 30 meters tall and is the second tallest obelisk in the world (the tallest is in Rome). It is topped in pink marble, which is pretty, but what’s interesting is that Hatshepsut was a woman who ruled Egypt as a pharaoh. After she died of unknown causes, her brother proceeded to obliterate her name across the whole country.
On every monument she ever built, he had her name and her image hacked out, in a fit of the world’s worst case of sibling rivalry. Except in one place. He never touched her obelisk here in Karnak Temple. Instead, he built a wall around it so no one could see it. When the wall crumbled thousands of years later, Egyptologists were finally able to solve the riddle of the woman who ruled as a king.
What do you think? Do you think modern culture would have the patience to work on one construction project for more than a thousand years? More importantly, what would it look like when we got through with it?