Luxor Temple

Temple of Luxor

Luxor temple, the southernmost of the monuments of the Theban east bank, was located in the heart of ancient Thebes and, like Karnak, was dedicated to the god Amun or Amun-Re. A special manifestation of the god was worshipped here, however. Like the Amun of Karnak he is depicted in two principal forms – as the blue-painted sky god and the black-painted ithyphallic fertility god – but maintained a kind of separate identity and was ‘visited’ by the Amun of Karnak each year. The temple was called the Southern Opet or ‘place of Seclusion’ and its god Amenemope ‘Amun of the Opet’.


Luxor temple provides a fascinating case study in the growth and expansion of Egyptian temples. While it may have been built on the site of even earlier temple structures, the history of the present structure nevertheless embraces over 3000 years of growth.


It is known that Hatshepsut built extensively in Luxor temple, but much of her work was eventually replaced. The core area of Luxor temple as it stands today was constructed by Amenophis III, the 18th dynasty’s great ‘sun king’. He built in two stages: in the first stage he constructed and decorated a multi-roomed complex on a raised platform that today is the southernmost part of the temple. Later in his reign the king added an open peristyle sun court to the north and also laid the foundations for a large colonnade to the north of that.


Work was interrupted, however, during the reign of Amenophis’ son Akhenaten who strove to diminish or destroy the power of Amun’s temple. The colonnade was thus not completed and decorated until the time of Akhenaten’s eventual successor Tutankhamun, who officially restored the worship of Amun in Thebes.


For almost half a century the temple remained in this form until it was expanded again by Ramesses II. This prolific builder constructed a huge pillared court and pylon on a new axis which swung to the east in order to align itself with Amun’s main temple at Karnak – to which Luxor temple was joined by a long processional way. The triple shrine was constructed to hold a barques of Amun, Mut and Khonsu when they visited Luxor was also built by Ramesses at this time, on the location of an earlier was station (built by Hatshepsut), when the king enclosed this southern part of the processional way in his great court.


Although no farther expansions were made on this scale in the following centuries, the late period king Sabaka seems to have constructed a large pillared kiosk before Ramesses’s pylon, and some 300 years later Nectanebo I added a broad courtyard in the same open area before the pylon and embellished the temple’s processional avenue to Karnak with hundreds of human-headed sphinxes.


The continuing importance of Luxor is also seen in the complete renewal of the central barque shrine in the name of Alexander the great shortly after the Macedonian’s conquest of Egypt. Likewise, the cult of emperor worship was established in the temple, with certain architectural features being added or modified, when Egypt became an imperial province of Rome in the 1st century BC. Later still, in the 4th to 6th centuries AD, the whole temple was incorporated into a Roman castrum or fortified military encampment, the massive stone-paved avenues and pillared stress of which can still be seen today.


After the conversion of Rome to Christianity and the Byzantine period, several Christian churches were built in and around the temple precincts. In the 6th century one of these churches was built within the Ramessid court, and on top of this same buildings, in the 13th century, the mosque of Abu El-Haggag was constructed. This mosque still remains in use today and effectively brings the history of Luxor temple as a sacred precinct from its beginnings, some time before 1500 BC, to the present day a history of well over 3000 years of change, development and growth.


Compact in plan, Luxor temple may be explored in little more than an hour; but the complexity and richness of this structure warrant many times that. The temple’s artwork includes some of the finest relief carving in Egypt and is often very well preserved because much of the temple was buried for many centuries. The present entrance is through the pylon of Ramesses II, once fronted by six colossi of the king and two obelisks. One of the obelisks and two of the statues were transported to Paris in the last century, but those that remain provide impressive examples of these monuments.


The outer walls of the pylons were decorated in the time of Ramesses with a depiction of the battle of Kadesh, and the reliefs of the inner walls of the gateway were added by Nubian king Shabaka in the 25th dynasty. Beyond the pylons, the temple’s large peristyle court is surrounded by two rows of papyrus-bud columns and contains, on the right, the tripartite barque shrine built by Ramesses for use by the visiting deities Amun, Mut and Khonsu of Karnak. The statues between the ambulatory’s columns were usurped or carved at the behest of Ramesses II; those of the southwest corner are particularly well preserved.


The imposing processional colonnade of Amenophis III, with its massive papyrus capital columns each in excess of 19 m tall, once fronted that king’s temple and was the architectural prototype for the great hypostyle hall at Karnak. Its walls were decorated by Tutankhamun and preserve scenes of the great Opet festival celebrated here. The west wall depicts the southward procession from Karnak and the east wall depicts the return sequence.


Beyond the colonnade is the great sun cult of Amenophis’ temple which received decoration from the time of Amenophis III himself to that of Alexander. The side walls retain some of their original colouring, and it was here that a spectacular cache of statuary was unearthed in 1989. At its southern end the court now blends almost imperceptibly into the hypostyle hall consisting of four rows of papyrus columns whose roof no longer survives. The hypostyle leads to a smaller eight columned halls or portico which originally opened into the inner temple, but which was transformed by the Roman legion stationed at Luxor into a chapel dedicated to the imperial cult. The hall is flanked by a chapel for Mut and Khonsu and leads to an offering hall and sanctuary in the form of a large barque shrine. In Amenophis’ temple this was originally a large, square room, but the present shrine was erected within this space by Alexander the great who is depicted on the shrine’s walls, dressed as a Pharaoh and presenting offerings to the ithyphallic Amun.


Directly behind the barque shrine are the innermost chambers of Amwnophis’ temple, including, in the central location, the original sanctuary or (holy of holies), containing the base of the block which once supported the god’s image. The surrounding rooms form the suite of private or intimately secluded chambers which gave the temple its name of Opet or (harem). Separated from the main temple, this area formed a kind of temple within the temple, apparently with special mythic significance relating to the particular nature of the Amun of Luxor. The various chambers are ranged around an unusual small hall with 12 pillars possibly symbolizing the hours of the day since depictions of the sun god’s day and evening barques appear on the room’s opposing east and west walls. These innermost parts of the temple stood on a low mound which was held to be the original site of creation so that the roles of the chief gods Amun and Re and the concepts of creation and cyclic solar renewal were here particularly intertwined.


To the east of the barque shrine is the birth room, so-called because of its decorative sequence. On the west wall is depicted the divine conception and birth of Amenophis III, along with his subsequent presentation to the gods and nurturing, as well as the determination of the further king’s reign. It is possible that the scenes depicted here in fact reflect a ritual ‘divine marriage’ that was celebrated between the king and the ‘god’s wife’ – the queen – during the Opet festival, but in any event, they affirm the overall theme of renewed royal and divine vitality celebrated in the festival. The mound on which this area of temple stood was also held to be the very site of the birth of Amun so that the theme of birth was clearly one shared by temple and festival alike.


The outer surfaces of the eastern walls of the inner temple area can be seen to contain many blocks apparently randomly decorated with unrelated images. This ‘out-of-the-way’ area represents a ‘practice wall’ where the ancient masons and sculptors learned the skills of temple decoration. The carved practice representations were then plastered over, only to be revealed again in the course of centuries as the underlying stone became exposed.


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