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Karnac, by David Roberts, 1839.

Thebes and the Temples of Karnak

Thebes, ancient Waset and Diospolis, was an important city in Southern Egypt during the entire dynastic period. Located in a wide, fertile area of the Nile valley, Thebes was the trailhead for the caravan route to the Red Sea port of Al-Qusayr. In the New Kingdom, (c. 1500 BC), Thebes became the economic and sometime political capital of the Egyptian Empire, the greatest in the world at its' time. The Karnac (Karnak) temple, dedicated mostly to the ram headed god Amon (Amun, Amen), received much of the wealth of this empire and grew to where it is now considered the second largest ancient temple complex in the world. Angkor Wat is larger, but at only 800 years old isn't really "ancient". Angkor Wat was built by a population much larger than Thebes, with iron tools instead of bronze.

In 663 BC the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal conquered and sacked Thebes. The city slowly declined, standing in opposition to the Greek Ptolemies, and mostly abandoned by the time of the Romans.

The Thebes region includes Temples at Karnac and Luxor on the East side of the Nile, and the Tombs and Mortuary Temples of the Pharaohs on the Western side.


Excerpt from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
sunset at Karnac (Karnak) Temple

Karnac by David Roberts, 1839.An impalpable dust floats in a sky which scarcely ever knows a cloud. A dust so impalpable that, even while it powders the heavens with gold, it leaves them their infinite transparency. It is a dust of remote ages, of things long destroyed. A dust that is here continually. The gold at this moment fades to green at the zenith but flames and glistens in the west, for it is now that magnificent hour which marks the end of the day's decline. The still burning globe of the sun, quite low down in the heaven, begins to light up on all sides the conflagration of the evening.

This setting sun illuminates with splendor a silent chaos of stone, which is not that of the slipping of mountains but that of ruins. And of such ruins as, to our eyes unaccustomed hereditarily to proportions so gigantic, seem superhuman. In places, huge masses of carven stone-- pylons--still stand upright, rising like hills. Others are crumbling in all directions in bewildering cataracts of stone.

It is difficult to conceive how these things, so massive that they might have seemed eternal, could come to suffer such an utter ruin. Fragments of columns, fragments of obelisks, broken by falls of which the mere imagination trembles. Heads and headdresses of giant divinities, all lie higgledy-piggledy in a disorder beyond possible redress. Nowhere surely on our earth does the sun in his daily revolution cast his light on such debris as this, on such a litter of vanished palaces and dead colossi.

It was here, under this pure crystal Egyptian sky, that the first awakening of human thought began. Our Europe then was still sleeping, wrapped in the mantle of its damp forests, sleeping that sleep which still had thousands of years to run. Here grew a precocious humanity, only recently emerged from the Stone Age. An infant humanity, which saw this land on its issue from the massiveness of original matter. They conceived and built sanctuaries for gods, at first vague, such as its nascent reason allowed it to conceive them. Then the first megalithic blocks were erected, then began that mad heaping up and up, which was to last thirty centuries. Temples were built above temples, palaces over palaces, each generation striving to outdo its predecessor by a more titanic grandeur.

After many centuries of rising and falling empire, Thebes gained the height of her glory, encumbered with gods and with magnificence, the focus of the light of the world in this most ancient historic period.

The men of Thebes, if they still saw too massively and too vastly, at least saw straight. They saw calmly, at the same time as they saw forever. Their conceptions were afterwards in some measure to inspire our own. In religion, in art, in beauty under all its aspects, they were our ancestors.

Sixteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, some ostentatious kings thought fit to build on this ground. Karnak was already covered with temples, that was not sufficient. They built the most arresting marvel of their age: the hypostyle hall, dedicated to the God Amun, with its forest of columns, as monstrous as the trunk of the baobab and as high as towers. The pillars of our cathedrals are utterly insignificant in comparison.

In those days the same gods reigned at Thebes as a thousand years before, but in the interval they had been transformed little by little in accordance with the progressive development of human thought. Amun, the host of this prodigious hall, asserted himself more and more as the sovereign master of life and eternity. Pharaonic Egypt was really tending, in spite of some revolts, towards the notion of a divine unity.

After Seti and the Ramesses had built, in honor of Amun, this temple, which, beyond all doubt, is the grandest and most durable in the world, men still continued for another fifteen centuries to heap up in its neighborhood those blocks of sandstone, whose enormity now amazes us. Even for the invaders of Egypt, the Greeks and Romans, this old ancestral town of towns remained imposing and unique. They repaired its ruins, and built here temple after temple, in a style which hardly changed. Even in the ages of decadence everything that raised itself from the old, sacred soil, seemed to be impregnated a little with the ancient grandeur.

And it was only when the early Christians ruled here, and after them the Moslems, that the destruction became final. To these new believers Thebes became the haunt of false gods, which it behoved them to destroy. And so they set to work, penetrating with an ever-present fear into the profound depths of the gloomy sanctuaries, mutilating first of all the thousands of visages whose disconcerting smile frightened them. They exhausted themselves in the effort to uproot the colossi, which even with the help of levers they could not move. It was no easy task indeed, for everything was as solid as geological masses.

Karnac is a  vast plain filled with columns and blocks, some standing, some tumbled.
Karnac, Thebes - by J. Ricci and G. Belzoni, 1820.

For five or six hundred years the town was given over to the caprice of desecrators. Then came the centuries of silence and oblivion under the shroud of the desert sands. They thickened each year, burying, and, in the event, preserving for us this peerless relic.

And now, at last, Karnak is being exhumed and restored to a semblance of life. From all parts of Europe curious and unquiet spirits turn their steps again towards Thebes, to the great Temple. Men clear the rubbish from its remains, devise ways of retarding the enormous fallings of its ruins, and dig in its old soil.

Re-creation of Thebes, by Hector Horeau 1841.

This evening I have just mounted one of the portals which opens at the north-west and terminates the colossal artery of temples and palaces. Many very diverse groups have already taken their places, after the pilgrimage of the day among the ruins. And others are hastening towards the staircase by which we have just climbed, so as not to miss the grand spectacle of the sun setting. It moves always with the same serenity, the same unchanging magnificence, behind the town which once was consecrated to it.

French, German, English; I see them below. A lot of tiny figures issuing from the hypostyle hall and making their way towards us. Lost and a little ill they look in their twentieth-century travelers' costumes, hurrying along that avenue where once passed so many processions of gods and goddesses.

And yet this, perhaps, is the only occasion on which these bands of tourists do not seem to me altogether ridiculous. Among these groups of unknown people, there is none who is not collected and thoughtful, or who does not at least pretend to be so. There is some saving quality of grace, even some grandeur of humility, in the sentiment which has brought them to this town of Amun, and in the homage of their silence. Instinctively each one sits with his face to the glowing sun, and consequently to the outspread distances of the fields and the desert.

We are so high on this portal that we might fancy ourselves upon a tower. The defaced stones of which it is built are immeasurably large. Before us, under our feet, an avenue stretches away, prolonging towards the fields of the dead city. It is an avenue bordered by monstrous rams, larger than buffalos, all crouched on their pedestals in two parallel rows. The avenue continues to the temple at Luxor. It was there that the God Amun, carried and followed by long trains of priests, came every year in a solemn procession.

We can see, this evening, the old sacred Nile between the clusters of palm trees on its banks. It meanders there like a rosy pathway, which remains in this hour of universal incandescence astonishingly pale, and gleams occasionally with a bluish light. And on the farther bank, from one end to the other of the western horizon, stretches the chain of the Libyan mountains behind which the sun is about to plunge. It looms, a chain of red sandstone, parched since the beginning of the world, which the Thebans perforated to its extreme depths to fill it with sarcophagi.

Above the columns the wide fertile valley of the Nile and, rising beyond, the rugged mountains that mark the beginnings of the Sahara.
The Libyan mountains, from the roof of Luxor Temple
By David Roberts, 1838.

We watch the sun descend. But we turn also to see, behind us, the ruins in this the traditional moment of their apotheosis. Karnak, the immense town-mummy, seems all at once to be ablaze--as if its old stones were still able to burn. All its blocks, fallen or upright, appear to have been suddenly made ruddy by the glow of fire.

On this side, too, the view embraces great peaceful distances. Past the last pylons, and beyond the crumbling ramparts, the country presents the same appearance as that we were facing a moment before. The same fields, the same woods of date trees, make a girdle of green palms around the ruins. And, right in the background, a chain of mountains is lit up and glows with a vivid coral color. It is the chain of the Arabian desert, lying parallel to that of Libya. The whole length of the Nile Valley is thus guarded on right and left by stones and sand stretched out in profound solitudes.

In all the surrounding country which we command from this spot there is no indication of the present day. Here and there, among the palm trees, are the villages of the field laborers, whose houses of dried earth can scarcely have changed since the days of the Pharaohs.

By Fredrich Perlberg 1912.

Slowly the sun descends. Behind us the sandstone of the town-mummy seems to burn more and more. Soon a slight shadow of a warmer tint, an amaranth violet, begins to encroach upon the lower parts, spreading along the avenues and over the open spaces. But everything that rises into the sky--the friezes of the temples, the capitals of the columns, the sharp points of the obelisks--are still red as glowing embers.

It is a glorious hour, even for the old dust of Egypt. It savours of spices, of the Bedouin, of the bitumen of the sarcophagus. And here now it is playing the role of those powders of different shades of gold which the Japanese use for the backgrounds of their lacquered landscapes. The fine dust reveals itself everywhere, close by and on the horizon, modifying at its pleasure the color of things, and giving them a kind of metallic luster. The fantasy of its changes is unimaginable. Even in the distances of the countryside it is busy indicating by little trailing clouds of gold the faint pathways traversed by the herds.

And now the disc of the God of Thebes has disappeared behind the Libyan mountains, after changing its light from red to yellow and from yellow to green.

And thereupon the tourists, judging that the display is over for the night, commence to descend and make ready for departure. Some in carriages, others on donkeys, they go to reacquaint themselves with the electricity and elegance of Luxor. (Wines and spirits are paid for as extras, and we dress for dinner.) And the dust condescends to mark their exodus also by a last cloud of gold beneath the palm trees.

An immediate solemnity succeeds to their departure. Above the mud houses of the fellah villages rise slender columns of smoke, which are of a periwinkle-blue in the midst of the still yellow atmosphere. They tell of the humble life of these little subsisting homesteads, where once in the arc of the ages were so many palaces and splendors.

The first bayings of the watchdogs announce the vague uneasiness of the evenings around the ruins. There is no one now within the mummy-town, which seems all at once to have grown larger in the silence. Very quickly the violet shadow covers it, all save the extreme points of its obelisks, which still keep a little of their rose-color. The feeling comes over you that a sovereign mystery has taken possession of the town, as if some vague phantom things had just passed into it.

Excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
NEXT CHAPTER: Karnak at Night

Map of the Karnac Temple Complex, by Erbkam.

Additional images by David Roberts.

wings of the Sun.

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