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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
-- A TWENTIETH-CENTURY EVENING AT THEBES --
sunset at Karnac (Karnak) Temple
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
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
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
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, 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
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.
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.
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