Karnak, precinct of Mut To Karnak, temple of Amen-Re (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Karnak, precinct of Mut

The precinct of Mut at Karnak, the goddess’s main cult center, lies on the east bank of the Nile about 325m south of the precinct of Amen (25°43′ N, 32°40′ E). During the New Kingdom, Mut, Amen and their son Khonsu became the pre-eminent divine family triad of Thebes. The Mut Temple proper is oriented toward the Amen precinct and is surrounded on three sides by a sacred lake called "Isheru."

Recent excavations indicate that much—and possibly all—of the present precinct was settlement until some time in the Second Intermediate Period. The earliest reference to "Mut, Mistress of Isheru," a common epithet, occurs on a statue of the 17th Dynasty in the British Museum (EA 69536), suggesting that by then the site was dedicated to her. Inscriptional evidence also links the site to Mut in the early 18th Dynasty reign of Amenhotep I. The earliest, securely dated in situ Mut Temple remains are no later than the reigns of Tuthmose III and Hatshepsut.

While the Mut precinct was noted by the Napoleonic expedition, the Royal Prussian Expedition and individual early explorers, the first major excavations took place in 18957, led by Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay, who concentrated on the interior of the Mut Temple. In the 1920s Maurice Pillet directed the Egyptian Antiquities Organization’s excavation and partial restoration of two other temples: Temple A in the northeast corner, and Temple C (built by Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty) west of the sacred lake, which was later recorded and published by the Epigraphic Survey of the University of Chicago. In 1975 the French Institute of Archaeology in Cairo cleared and recorded the site’s main entrance. In 1976, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, under the auspices of the American Research Center in Egypt, began a systematic investigation of the site, assisted since 1978 by the Detroit Institute of Arts. By 1995 this expedition had conducted excavations in various areas to elucidate the site’s history and the interrelationships of its buildings.


Under Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III, the precinct seems to have consisted of the Mut Temple and the sacred lake and to have extended no farther north than the temple’s present first pylon. Parts of the west and north walls of this precinct have been uncovered, including a gate bearing Tuthmose III’s name and a Seti I restoration inscription. The eastern and southern boundaries of this precinct are as yet undefined, although its southern limit was probably just south of the sacred lake.

The Mut Temple was enlarged later in the 18th Dynasty, when the Tuthmoside building was completely enclosed by new construction. The ruler responsible for this work cannot be identified, but was probably Amenhotep III, even if, as some argue, none of the hundreds of Sekhmet statues at the site that bear his name was brought to the precinct until the 19th Dynasty or later. Amenhotep III may also have enlarged Temple A, which lay outside the precinct and may have originally been built earlier in the dynasty. None of its standing walls, however, predates the 19th Dynasty.

Karnak, precinct of Mut

Figure 52 Karnak, precinct of Mut

The Mut Temple’s present second pylon, of mudbrick, dates no later than the 19th Dynasty and may have replaced an earlier mudbrick precinct or temple wall. Its eastern half was rebuilt in stone late in the Ptolemaic period. The temple’s first pylon, also of mudbrick, has a stone gateway built no later than the 19th Dynasty and displays at least one major repair. This pylon, too, may replace an earlier northern precinct wall. Also in the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses II rebuilt Temple A, although it remained outside the precinct. Before it he erected two colossal statues (at least one usurped from Amenhotep III) and two alabaster stelae recarved from parts of a shrine of Amenhotep II brought from the Amen precinct. One of these stelae appears to describe the renewal of Temple A and indicates that it was then dedicated to Amen.

Extensive building at the precinct occurred during the 25 th Dynasty. Some of this work took place during the reign of Taharka and also commemorates the extremely important official, Montuemhat. A significant part of the Mut Temple was rebuilt, and the present Ptolemaic porches probably represent a rebuilding of the 25th Dynasty originals. Temple A was even more extensively renovated during the 25 th Dynasty, by which time it functioned, at least in part, as a mammisi (birth house) celebrating the birth of Amen’s and Mut’s divine child with whom the king could be identified. Structure B, a "pure magazine" east of the Mut Temple, whose present form dates to the 30th Dynasty, was probably originally built at this time as well.

During the 25 th Dynasty there also seems to have been an expansion of the Mut precinct to encompass Temple A and an area north of the Mut Temple, and a processional way was created from Taharka’s newly constructed west gateway to Temple A. Taharka’s north precinct wall is buried beneath the present enclosure wall, but part of the west wall and the gateway survive.

In the 25th and 26th Dynasties a proliferation of small chapels began that continued into the Ptolemaic period. These include at least two chapels dedicated by Montuemhat; a magical healing chapel dedicated by Horwedja, the "Great Seer of Heliopolis"; a chapel in Temple A related to Divine Votaresses (high priestesses of Amen); a small Ptolemy VI chapel in the Mut Temple; and Chapel D, just inside the Taharka gateway, built by Ptolemies VI and VIII. Chapel D is dedicated to Mut and Sekhmet, and perhaps to the Ptolemies’ ancestor cult as well.

The massive enclosure walls built by Nectanebo II of the 30th Dynasty gave the precinct its present shape and size, incorporating not only Temple C (which appears to have been used in the 25th Dynasty as a source of building stone), but also a large area south of the sacred lake that has yet to be explored.

Besides the works already mentioned, the Ptolemaic period was a time of considerable activity in the Mut precinct. The small Contra Temple abutting the south wall of the Mut Temple was at least redecorated, if not rebuilt. The Mut Temple and Temple A were again partially rebuilt and some of their decoration was recarved, and the present main gateway to the precinct (the "Propylon") was constructed. The Ptolemaic texts on this gateway and other buildings at the site are major sources for understanding the goddess and her cult.

Inscriptional evidence commemorates early Roman period construction by Augustus and Tiberius that may be represented by the present wall around the Mut Temple. However, during the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods habitations were built within the precinct, between the 30th Dynasty walls and the older precinct walls. When precisely the precinct ceased to function as a religious center is unclear, but by the fourth century AD, houses had been built against and inside the site’s temples.


Karnak, temple of Amen-Re

The development of the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak (25°43′ N, 32°40′ E) can only be understood as a function of its extraordinary religious significance for the ancient Egyptians. The Thebans considered Karnak as the place of "the majestic rising of the first time," where the creator god Amen-Re made the first mound of earth rise from Nun, the primordial ocean. The qualities of Amen, the ancient, local god of Thebes, and Re, the sun god of ancient Egypt’s great spiritual center and legendary capital in the north, Heliopolis, were combined in the entity Amen-Re.

Both transcendent and immanent, Amen-Re was believed to be all things at once. Having brought about his own existence at the beginning of time, he was called the "Kamutef" (bull of his own mother), and he presided over the creation of all things. Amen-Re was also the "king of the gods," sometimes termed the "unique one." His name, Amen, means the "hidden one."

It was believed that the world he had created could survive only as long as the observance of his cult in the temple of Karnak fully main tained his original powers as the supreme god. In the rituals there Amen was called upon to perpetuate and repeat his action of "the first time," thereby insuring the continued cohesion of the world. This was a victory, achieved again and again over the indestructible forces of chaos. It guaranteed the everlasting survival of the basic principle incarnate in the goddess Ma’at, which comprised the concepts of order, truth and justice.

The extraordinary role played by the temple of Amen-Re is linked to its two major functions. Karnak was unique: first, as the divine temple and principal earthly residence of the highest god, and second, as the Dynastic temple and source of legitimacy for all the kings of Egypt. The temple of Amen-Re thus played a considerable part in the spiritual, political and economic affairs of Egypt. It was in this temple that the high priests recognized a king as the "beloved son of Amen." The coronation and jubilees (heb-sed) also took place there. The true intermediary between god and man, the king was the only "priest" in title: the other members of the priesthood were simply "servants of Amen." The "first prophet of Amen" (high priest) was witness to all important decrees of the kingdom. Staffed by more than 80,000 under Ramesses III, the temple was also the administrative center of enormous holdings of agricultural land.

The relationship between god and king was founded on a principle of exchange: the sovereign made offerings, and Amen continued or renewed his beneficence. Each of the monuments built at Karnak is intended as a son’s grateful gesture to his divine father. The act of making the offering was more essentially valuable than the finished work per se. That is why, during the temple’s many centuries of existence, kings did not hesitate to tear down the works of their predecessors. Much use was made of old blocks, usurped and placed in new buildings dedicated to Amen.

As a result, the long architectural history of Karnak is difficult to delineate. The order in which the halls, courts and pylons were built is problematic, as stone blocks were quarried and inscribed in different periods but became intermingled in rebuilt constructions. Old stones were reused in the foundations and walls of more recent monuments. Consequently, the restoration of Karnak by periods is like an immense jigsaw puzzle, requiring great care and patience.

Amen and his temple no doubt owe their particular good fortune to the fact that the city of Thebes (Ouaset) twice became the capital of the unified kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt. Although no trace survives at Karnak of the 11th Dynasty monuments, the continuous evolution of the temple can be followed beginning with the reign of Senusret I (12th Dynasty). This king used large limestone blocks to build the central sanctuary and its subsidiary halls, which would be the heart of the temple throughout its long history.

Subsequently, Karnak’s role increased significantly, especially during the 18th Dynasty when Thebes was the capital of a reunified Egypt. Around Senusret I’s complex of buildings, the temple developed along two perpendicular axes. Along the east-west axis, symbolically the direction of the sun’s path, are the main halls and courts, and most of the obelisks. Along the other axis, which is the direction of the flow of the Nile (south-north), is a great processional walk, essentially a sequence of courts and pylons. At the intersection of these two axes is the entrance to the house of the god.

The temple complex’s main stages of development are as follows.

18th Dynasty

(1) To the original temple, Amenhotep I added a court with a pylon (a large gateway; VI in the numbering system employed by archaeologists) at its entrance. In the middle of this court was the famous "alabaster chapel," the first known shrine of the image of the sun bark, which played a central role in all ceremonies.

(2) Tuthmose I built an enclosure wall and, to the west, two pylons (IV and V) forming the sides of a jubilee hall (the wadjit, "hall of columns"). In front of the west fagade of the temple he erected the first pair of obelisks.

(3) Tuthmose II created a great "festival court" in the open area in front of the temple, and placed two more obelisks there.

Plan of the temple of Amen-Re, Karnak

Figure 53 Plan of the temple of Amen-Re, Karnak

(4) Queen Hatshepsut made some major changes. She demolished Amenhotep I’s works in the heart of the temple and replaced them with offering halls and a second sun bark shrine, which together were called the "Palace of Ma’at." On the western side, she removed the roof of the wadjit hall, which became a court where she placed two enormous obelisks. A new jubilee complex was then undertaken, east of the temple. Finally, along the north-south axis, she constructed a pylon (VIII). It was also during her reign that sandstone blocks systematically replaced the limestone ones used earlier.

(5) Tuthmose III, wishing to destroy the queen’s work, restored the wadjit hall’s roof, which then hid her obelisks from the ground view. Before the temple’s west fagade he erected a pair of his own obelisks. The vast jubilee complex of the akhmenu ("sacred images" of the gods) was constructed to the east and a second, tall stone enclosure wall was built around the whole temple. He also built Pylon VII on the north-south axis and erected its two obelisks.

(6) Tuthmose IV gave the festival court a portico to the east of the akhmenu complex, in which he erected a single obelisk, the largest of all Egyptian monoliths. It is placed on the central axis of the temple, at the extreme east, and makes an end point for the plan.

(7) Amenhotep III destroyed the festival court of Tuthmose II and in its place built Pylon III with the reused blocks of many earlier buildings. Most of the blocks on display now in the open-air museum at Karnak were found during the excavation of this edifice. Along the north-south axis, Amenhotep III began to build the southernmost pylon (X), and in front of its facade he erected immense royal colossi.

(8) The reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten was marked by the construction of a large, separate complex of temples to the east, near Tuthmose IV’s obelisk. These temples were dedicated to the worship of the Aten. They were made with small modular blocks of stone, known today as talatat, which allowed very rapid construction.

(9) At the end of the dynasty the temples in Akhenaten’s complex were systematically destroyed by Horemheb, who reused thousands of talatat for the foundations and filling of his own buildings. Horemheb erected Pylon II to the west of the one built by Amenhotep III. He also built all of Pylon IX and finished Pylon X.

19th Dynasty

(1) Seti I began the great Hypostyle Hall between Pylons II and III; it was later completed by Ramesses II. The latter king also laid out the plan of the great western causeway and quay (when the temple was approached by water), and, in the complex’s eastern part, built the temple named "Amen-who-hears-prayers," enclosing Tuthmose IV’s obelisk in its sanctuary. Farther east along the central axis a monumental gateway was erected, with two obelisks at its entrance.

(2) Seti II built a triple shrine for the barks of Amen, Mut and Khonsu west of the temple.

20th Dynasty

In the western court, Ramesses III built a triple bark shrine which is of such enormous size that it appears to be a temple. He also undertook the construction of the temple of Khonsu.

Third Intermediate Period

(1) During the 22nd Dynasty the last festival court was laid out. It was bounded on the north and south by a colonnade, and on the west by Pylon I.

(2) The most remarkable subsequent works are those of Taharka (25 th Dynasty), the Kushite (Nubian) king who built the large sacred lake with a temple, the so-called "lake edifice," at its northwest corner. He also built columned pavilions leading to the eastern and western entrances of the temple, and in front of the temple of Khonsu. The small pylon of the temple of Opet was also begun during the 25 th Dynasty.

Late period

Nectanebo I (30th Dynasty) gave the temple a huge enclosure wall made of horizonally curved courses of mudbrick (thought to resemble the primeval waters of Nun). He began, but left unfinished, two stone piers for Pylon I, and he built secondary gates outside the enclosure wall to the north, east and west.

Ptolemaic period

The large gate of Ptolemy III Evergetes was built in front of the entrance of the temple of Khonsu and at the back of the temple of Opet. During this period extensive repairs were made to the bases of walls that were damaged where ground water had percolated up, through capillary action. The foundations of the Hypostyle walls were repaired, and the eastern and western gateways were entirely redone. Likewise, all the inner rooms of the temple show signs of repair, during which many of their statues and offerings were removed. They were buried, level by level, in the famous "Karnak cachette," where they were discovered at the beginning of this century during Georges Legrain’s spectacular excavations.

Roman period

Few buildings were undertaken during the Roman period. For example, there is a modest, baked-brick chapel for the cult of the Emperor to the west of Pylon I, near the temple’s main entrance.

During the time of Constantine I (circa AD 330), Karnak’s decline, apparently already complete, was punctuated by the removal of the two largest surviving obelisks (Tuthmose IV’s huge obelisk and one in front of Pylon VII). The final abandonment of the religion of Amen is also indicated by the establishment of a Roman camp around the temple of Luxor. After this only a few monks’ cells and some modest mudbrick buildings occupied Karnak. During the centuries of abandonment, many limestone blocks from temple walls disappeared into the lime kilns of the inhabitants.

Having vanished from memory, Karnak was not identified as the ancient cult center until the eighteenth century. Its true scientific rediscovery would not come until Napoleon’s expedition in 1799. The pioneering work in the nineteenth century of Jean-Frangois Champollion, Richard Lepsius, Auguste Mariette and Gaston Maspero, and, in the twentieth century, the work of Paul Barguet, the Office of the Directorship of Works at Karnak, and later the Franco-Egyptian Center for the Study and Restoration of the Temples of Karnak, have all made possible this broad outline of development of the most important complex of temples in ancient Egypt.

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