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Must-See UNESCO Sites: Egypt's Karnak Temple Complex

The massive Karnak Temple Complex, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site at Luxor, Egypt, was once thought to be the connection between the Egyptian Gods and mortals—or so the myth goes. The 4,000-year-old site was built during the Early Middle Kingdom as a sanctuary for Amun-Ra (the god of sun and air, but also referred to as Lord of All), and his wife and son. Amun’s 60-acre Temple includes over 130 columns that once bore the legendary roof of the portico that represented the link between heaven and Earth.

 

Over centuries, dozens of pharaohs from Tutankhamun to Ramses II, have added their own flair to “The Most Select of Places” (Ipet-isut), creating a 200-acre domain for the priestly community. These rulers also constructed a series of pylons, or gateways, to connect various temples at Karnak. Add to that the Muslims and Coptic Christians incorporating their own archeological treasures, and Karnak has become the country’s largest single gathering of temple ruins. It is an epicenter for understanding not only ancient religious practices, but architectural, artistic, and linguistic endeavors that evolved over time. These are just a few of the stand-out sites to spot when you're there.


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The Avenue of the Sphinxes

After years of excavation, the Avenue of the Sphinxes is finally open to the public. Set on the east bank of the Nile River, this magnificent 250-foot-wide promenade is lined with more than 1,300 sphinx statues—some bearing ram’s heads. Construction first started during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, and this 1.7-mile-long road, which connects Karnak Temple Complex to the Luxor Temple, would become an integral part of the Opet Festival. During the celebration ancient Egyptians paraded with statues of the gods, re-enacting the marriage of Amun and his wife, Mut, with a ritual procession from Karnak to Luxor. Restoration efforts also found Cleopatra’s royal seal (a cartouche), implying that the legendary Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom stopped by the temple during her Nile River journey with Marc Anthony. 

 

Photo: David Vargas

The Colonnade of Amenhotep III

Seven pairs of 52-foot-high open-flower papyrus columns are the oldest segment of this temple, which was started during the reign of Amenhotep III in the 18th Dynasty. Amehotep III appreciated splendor, and erected double statues of Amun and Mut on the south side, as well as those of himself and his wife. While the colonnade wasn’t complete under Amehotep’s watchful eye, the construction continued during the reign of Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb. “It is one of the few places King Tut has made a significant contribution to,” says Bill Robison, director of Expedition Development Charter Ships for Lindblad Expeditions. The Colonnade was to serve as a processional entrance for musicians, dancers, and priests during the Opet Festival. Today, walking through the 32-foot-wide space inspires awe, but it was truly sacred in its original form when the walls rose up to the roof, only allowing slits of sunlight to seep through clerestory windows.

The Luxor Temple Pylon of Ramses II

Up until the 1880s, the grand gateway entrance at the end of the Avenue of the Sphinxes was half buried in sand. Today, two impressive King Ramses II statues greet visitors as they near the Luxor Temple, along with one 82-foot obelisk carved with sunken reliefs of the battle of Kadesh. A second 3,300-year old obelisk no longer holds its post at Luxor, but instead stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. As Amun passed through this entrance, it's said that he transformed into Min, the god of fertility, making it a significant landmark in the complex.

 

Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins 

The Abu’l Haggag Mosque at Luxor Temple

By the 13th century, the mosque of Abu'l Haggag was erected in the court of Ramses II, surrounded by the ruins of earlier Christian basilicas. “It was built at ground level at the time, but now sits high above the ruins,” Robison says. “This is particularly interesting because it shows just how much of Luxor Temple was under the city.” The mosque is named after Youssef, a sheikh who was spreading the word of Islam and became known as The Father of Pilgrims (Abu Haggag). Whether he actually built the mosque is disputed, but legend has it that Youssef saved the mosque from demolition. As a currently functioning place of worship, it is a testament to the temple’s importance as a hub for continuous devotion for almost 35 centuries.

The Court of Amenhotep III

One of many accolades of Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt for four decades, is his eponymous court which leads to the famous Hypostyle Hall. The court spans more than half an acre and is adorned with double rows of 50-foot-high papyrus columns, once punctured by statues. Amenhotep himself called the white sandstone complex "a fortress of eternity,” embellishing it with gold, silver floors and electrum (gold and silver alloy) doorways. Early-Ptolemaic-style reliefs were a mark of Alexander the Great. Between the 4th and 6th century CE, an apse was added to the vestibule celebrating Roman emperors, though the work is severely damaged. Earthquakes, Nile floods and looting led to the temple’s ruin—that is until archeologists started massive excavation and preservation efforts about 20 years ago to help return this important site to its former glory.

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