In antiquity, an extensive complex of buildings surrounded Luxor temple. The city of Thebes was a warren of narrow streets that wound between markets, workshops, animal pens, and mud brick houses ranging from hovels to villas. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert described the temple compound as it appeared in the nineteenth century: “The houses are built among the capitals of columns; chickens and pigeons perch and nest in great (stone) lotus leaves; walls of bare brick or mud form the divisions between houses; dogs run barking along the walls.”
Thebes outside the temple enclosure probably looked very similar 2,500 years earlier. Some of the houses Flaubert saw were torn down in 1885. But, except for a small area of the Roman Period city west of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, most of the ancient urban buildings still lie beneath modern Luxor. It is unlikely they will be excavated any time soon because of the costs involved. markets, workshops, animal pens, and mud brick houses ranging from hovels to villas. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert described the temple compound as it appeared in the nineteenth century: “The houses are built among the capitals of columns; chickens and pigeons perch and nest in great (stone) lotus leaves; walls of bare brick or mud form the divisions between houses; dogs run barking along the walls.” Thebes outside the temple enclosure probably looked very similar 2,500 years earlier. Some of the houses Flaubert saw were torn down in 1885. But, except for a small area of the Roman Period city west of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, most of the ancient urban buildings still lie beneath modern Luxor. It is unlikely they will be excavated any time soon because of the costs involved. prevent their imminent collapse. The success of this work is uncertain. Carved stone walls have been so adversely affected by rising groundwater that decorated surfaces have already crumbled away. The mud brick walls of the temple’s ancillary structures have fared even worse: many have simply vanished. A burst water main in 2001 did serious damage to the Roman remains at the southern end of the site. Work to protect the temple area continues today and will likely continue long into the future. There has been talk of exposing the entire length of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, clearing the ancient city around Luxor Temple and making the area an open-air museum. But that would cut the modern city of Luxor in half and require turning the highly valuable land between the causeway and the Nile into a park or pedestrian mall. Because of costs and politics and uncertain conservation requirements, the proposal is unlikely to be implemented any time soon.
West of the temple compound, a main street, the Corniche, separates the temple from the Nile. It is lined with rows of benches beneath small shade trees where young Egyptians sit and talk in the cool evening. South of the temple stand the ugly New Winter Palace Hotel and a slowly decaying shopping mall filled with curio shops and cloth merchants. To the northwest, built atop the Roman village, two dilapidated 19th century houses, one of them the headquarters of Egypt’s National Democratic Party, slowly crumble away. The Brooke Animal Hospital, the city jail, the fire department, and a pottery dealer lie behind it, built directly atop the ancient town. To the east, Luxor’s bustling business district is filled with street vendors, grocers, restaurants, department stores, and a thriving McDonald’s. The smells of spices and grilling fish waft through the air. The shouts of men selling sweet dates, fresh juices, tins of mackerel, and a bewildering array of cheap housewares compete with shouting tour guides, honking buses, and the sirens of VIP motorcades. The market streets of Luxor are fascinating (the major weekly market is on Tuesday mornings) and well worth exploring. But to get the flavor of Luxor Temple free from modern intrusions, it is necessary to go deep inside it, where ancient stone walls block views of the modern buildings and shut out the din of the city. It is even better to visit in the evening, when the walls are illuminated and the temple is engulfed by surrounding darkness.
Visitors to the temple today enter from the Corniche on the west. There was an entrance very near here in ancient times, too, and below street level on the edge of the Nile one can see the stones of the landing quay built to receive sacred barks and other vessels that arrived and departed the temple on festival days.
A stone path leads eastward from the entrance across an open area recently cleared of many inscribed stone blocks, alongside remains of the Roman fort, Roman temples and, farther south, a Christian church. A broad stairway leads to a courtyard built by Nectanebo I between the First Pylon and the Avenue of the Sphinxes. Several monuments were built here during the Roman Period. Nearly all of them are destroyed, but an interesting small chapel still stands in the northwest corner, built by Hadrian and dedicated to Serapis early in the second century AD. This is just one of the major building projects the Romans undertook in the Luxor compound when they converted the entire area into a fortified garrison about 250 AD. Luxor Temple itself lay at the center of this defensive complex and served as a temple to Roman emperors who saw themselves as the divine inheritors of Egyptian kingship. In fact, the name Luxor comes from the Arabic al-Uksur, meaning “fortification,” which in turn derived from the Latin word “castrum,” the word for a fortification. The temple was also called the “Temple of Amen of the Opet,”
“Amenemopet,” or “The Southern Sanctuary.” Like the temples at Karnak, Luxor Temple has undergone numerous changes and additions over the past three millennia. Undoubtedly, an earlier Middle Kingdom temple once stood on the site, perhaps even an Old Kingdom temple before that. There is certainly evidence that Queen Hatshepsut built here in the 18th Dynasty. But the earliest structures visible today were erected by Amenhetep III, and he and Rameses II were responsible for most of the temple’s huge colonnades and courts. Later, substantial redecorating was undertaken by Ptolemaic and Roman rulers, Christian priests, and Moslem sheikhs. The architectural history of Luxor Temple is less complex than that of the monuments at Karnak, but we are again forced to work our way backward through time as we enter the temple and explore its many parts.
Throughout its long history, Luxor Temple served as the dwelling-place of an ithyphallic form of the god Amen closely associated with ideas of fertility and rejuvenation. Each year, a statue of Amen of Karnak was carried in a procession to Luxor Temple to greet Amen of the Opet, Amenemopet, in a ceremony called “The Beautiful Festival of the Opet.” The ceremony was one of the most important in Egypt’s religious calendar. The procession between the temples and the ceremonies held at Luxor are shown on the outer walls of the shrine/temple of Rameses III in the Great Court at Karnak and on the walls of Amenhetep III’s Colonnade at Luxor Temple. Among its several functions, the festival was meant to reaffirm the authority of the king, his ties to the royal ancestors, and his bonds to the gods. It was a ceremony of royal rejuvenation and a reassertion of the gods’ power over Egypt. The festival was celebrated in the second month of summer, during the annual inundation of the Nile.
This ancient Luxor tradition of processions and festivals has survived. The modern Festival of Abu-el-Haggag has retained, in modified form, many ancient festival activities. Abu-el-Haggag was a venerated Moslem sheikh whose mosque and tomb lie within the temple compound and who is said to have brought Islam to Luxor eight centuries ago. To celebrate Abu-al-Haggag, each year in the Moslem month of Shaban, Luxor is transformed into a three-day-long carnival. Fruits and nuts are sold on the streets, minstrels and magicians perform, horses race up and down the Corniche, men dress as women, and women wear their fanciest clothes. At the height of the partying, thousands of people watch as a model bark filled with gaily dressed children is paraded through town on a horse-drawn wagon from Luxor Temple toward Karnak. Children scream, women ululate, men chant as the bark passes by. It is a different century, a different religion, a different culture, but the Festival of Abu-el-Haggag continues the traditional forms of the Festival of Opet.
The First Pylon
The earliest part of Luxor Temple consists of the assemblage of chambers at its southern end. The buildings at the northern end are later, and include substantial structures built in the 19th Dynasty by Rameses II. Those additions, consisting most prominently of the First Pylon and Great Court, form the entrance of the temple today. In front of the First Pylon, Rameses II erected two red granite obelisks. The one still standing here is 25 meters (82 feet) tall and weighs 254 tons; the other, removed in 1835 to the Place de la Concorde in Paris, stands 22.5 meters (73 feet) tall and weighs 227 tons. Each was erected on a base with four baboons carved on its face.
The story is told that Josephine bade farewell to Napoleon with the words, “While in Egypt, if you go to Thebes, do send me a little obelisk.” After several years of negotiations, the French received permission to do just that. Both Luxor Temple obelisks were originally to have been shipped to Paris, but the work was judged too costly, and the French elected to ship only the better-preserved of the two. The west (right) obelisk was loaded onto a great barge and sailed to Alexandria, then on to France.
It arrived in Paris in October, 1833, and its re-erection was witnessed by the king and queen and 200,000 onlookers. The Place de la Concorde is an especially impressive place because of the obelisk that now stands proudly in its center but, as one observer has remarked, Luxor Temple now resembles an elephant with one tusk missing. In 1846, in a gesture of thanks for being given the obelisk, the French king sent an elaborate clock to Egypt, where it was installed at the Citadel in Cairo, in the courtyard before the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. It is still there. It has never worked.
Next to the Luxor obelisks, two seated statues of the king, seven meters (23 feet) tall, flanked the gate between the pylon’s two towers. There are also traces of four striding statues of the king (one of them now in the Louvre). The seated statue on the east (left) shows a princess and Queen Nefertari, carved at much smaller scale, next to the king’s legs. On both statues, the sides of the king’s throne are decorated with figures of Nile-gods binding together the Two Lands of Egypt. The towers of the First Pylon stand 24 meters (78 feet) high and 65 meters (211 feet) wide. The façade is carved in sunk relief with scenes of Rameses II’s battle against the Hittites at Kadesh, fought in the fifth year of his reign. Many scenes in many temples depict this event. Unfortunately, the façade of the pylon has been badly eroded and this record of the event is difficult to see. On the west (right) tower, the king holds a conference on tactics with his princes and advisors. Nearby, he drives a war chariot into battle. On the east (left) tower, the battle rages, and dead and dying enemies lie strewn across the field. On the jambs of the gateway, Rameses II stands with various gods.
The Great Court
Immediately behind the First Pylon, the Great Court measures 57 meters (185 feet) deep and 51 meters (166 feet) wide. This is a peristyle court, with a double row of 74 columns around its four sides supporting a narrow roof around its perimeter. The northeastern (left front) quadrant of the court is unexcavated; a deep layer of debris and the remains of an early Christian church lie beneath the mosque and tomb of Abu-el-Haggag. The minaret of this mosque was erected in the 13th century, and the mosque is so important a monument in its own right that it is unlikely this area will ever be cleared to its dynastic levels.
The walls of the court are decorated with scenes of the king censing, making offerings with chanting priests, and of Thoth recording gifts. The most interesting scenes are on walls in the southwest (right rear) corner of the court. Here, on the west (right) wall, a collection of beautifully garlanded bulls is led to the temple for sacrifice. Walking in the procession before them, on the south (rear) wall, seventeen sons of Rameses II approach the temple. Their names and titles are given beside each figure, and the sons appear in birth order, the oldest (Amenherkhepshef) standing first at left. Before them is a finely drawn representation of the First Pylon of Luxor Temple that shows it with flags flying, obelisks and statues clearly and accurately depicted.
In the southeast (left rear) corner of the court, an imposing statue of Rameses II and Queen Nefertari is one of several originally carved for Amenhetep III and usurped by Rameses II. This one shows the king powerfully and confidently striding forward, the ideal well-muscled and perennially youthful ruler. Equally well-carved seated statues of the king flank the door into the next room. In the northwest (right front) corner of the court stands a small Triple-Shrine of the Theban Triad, Amen, Mut, and Khonsu. Originally built by Hatshepsut and usurped by Thutmes III and then by Rameses II, four graceful papyrus-columns stand on its portico. The three shrines belong (left to right) to Mut, Amen, and Khonsu. In each, the king kneels before the god. Scenes of sacred barks cover the walls. The building was the southernmost of the bark shrines used in processions between Karnak and Luxor temples and played an important role in the ceremony. It may originally have stood in a more central position near the entrance of the temple, then moved here by Rameses II.
This is one of the most impressive spaces in any Egyptian monument. Built by Amenhetep III to be the grand entrance to the Temple of Amen of the Opet, the Colonnade was the third stage in the king’s elaborate building plan. It chronologically precedes the Great Court but follows it geographically. The two rows of columns he erected may have been intended as the main axis of what was to become a great hypostyle hall, similar to that at Karnak. If so, that work was never finished. Only the Colonnade was completed after the death of Amenhetep III by Tutankhamen, Ay, and Horemheb.
The axis of the Colonnade and chambers south of it is noticeably different than the axis of the Ramesside additions that precede it. The change was made necessary when Rameses II sought physically to join Luxor Temple by causeway to the Temple of Khonsu in Karnak, which had a different axial alignment.
The Colonnade has fourteen columns with open papyrus capitals that supported a roof 21 meters (68 feet) above the ground. The room is narrow, only ten meters (32 feet) wide and 26 meters (85 feet) long. Originally, its walls rose to the full height of the roof, and the only light came from small clerestory windows cut at ceiling level.
It is difficult now to appreciate just how impressive this room must have been, because the walls are preserved only a few meters high. But to have walked into this dark and forbidding colonnade in antiquity, passing from the open and brightly-lit courtyard into a dimly-lit space proportioned like a great European cathedral must have been an awe-inspiring experience. The scenes in the Colonnade are the best sources available for the study of the Opet Festival, one of the most important religious ceremonies in the New Kingdom. They include details of the processions from Karnak to Luxor and return. Their “compositional unity” and carefully-followed sequential ordering indicate that they had been laid out according to a single, comprehensive master plan drawn up before actual work began. This “cartoon” was prepared by artisans of Amenhetep III—men like Hor and Suty, “Overseer of Works of Amen in the Southern Opet”—working with the senior priests responsible for the Opet Festival. Their design survived Amenhetep III and the Amarna Period, and was acted upon later by artisans of Tutankhamen and Ay. Thus, the scenes represent a decorative scheme that had been laid out before the Amarna Period but only realized two decades later when post-Amarna artists tried to restore earlier traditions. Later, under Seti I, further additions were made to the decoration. These are easy to distinguish from the earlier work by the greater height of the raised relief and the more meticulous modeling of figures.
The Opet scenes can be divided into twelve parts: five scenes on the west wall deal with the procession from Karnak to Luxor and initial ceremonies in Luxor Temple; five others, on the east wall, treat further festivities in Luxor Temple and the return to Karnak. In addition, there are scenes on the northern and southern end walls. In the northwest (right front) corner of the Colonnade, the procession begins with the king, Tutankhamen, greeting the gods at Karnak. He then makes offerings to the barks of the Theban Triad and joins the procession of those boats from their shrines to the Nile. Flags fly from staffs before Karnak’s Third Pylon. From Karnak, the barks are towed south against the river’s current by men on shore and by rowboats, then carried by priests from the quay and placed in bark shrines in the First Court. On the south end wall, the king greets Amen, Mut, and Amenet in Luxor Temple.
The Colonnade reliefs are difficult to see in diffuse light, and it is best to concentrate on the parts of the walls that are exposed to raking sunlight or, in the evening, on the parts that are floodlit. In such light, wonderful details emerge: one can admire the finely modeled facesand detailed costumes of priests and officials, the minutiae of the nautical rigging and hardware, the agile movements of young acrobats, the gestures of musicians with elaborate drums, lutes, and sistra. Only the lowest registers on these walls have been preserved, but Egyptologists have identified hundreds of stone blocks from the upper parts of the walls that now lie about the perimeter of Luxor Temple. They are working to reconstruct, on paper at least, the subject-matter of those upper scences
The Sun Court
South of the Colonnade stands the beautifully-proportioned Sun Court of Amenhetep III. It is a peristyle court measuring 45 meters (146 feet) deep and 51 meters (166 feet) wide with a double row of sixty papyrus-bundle columns on three sides. The walls of the court are poorly preserved, but traces of scenes showing Amenhetep III and Amen, and others with Alexander the Great, can still be seen on the east (left) side.
In recent decades, ceremonies have continued to be performed in this court. They have included a “crossed-oar ceremony” that preceded Nile races between rowing crews from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Cairo, and Cairo Police. Children from Luxor dressed in pharaonic costume scattered flower petals before the oarsmen. Rock concerts were held here, too, until officials began to worry about the effects of vibrations on the columns.
In 1989, workmen sweeping the unpaved floor of the court exposed a large, filled-in hole found to contain twenty-six statues buried in Roman times by priests anxious to devote more temple space to statues of their emperors than to those of ancient Egyptian kings. The perfectly preserved statues, some of them among the finest examples known of Egyptian sculpture, are now in the Luxor Museum of Art.
Hypostyle Hall - Sanctuary Other Chambers
Beyond the Sun Court lie the rooms of the original Opet Temple. This area has a complicated plan and contains twenty-three chambers and twenty-seven small chapels. All were built atop a socle, a low stone platform that served as an architectural model of the primeval mound of creation.
The Hypostyle Hall is damaged, but thirty-two papyrus-bundle columns stand inside, some inscribed with the names of their usurpers, Rameses IV and VI. The east (left) wall of the hall is decorated with scenes of the king offering milk, ointments, birds, and fish to Amen and Amenet, and other scenes of the king and his ka driving calves and consecrating boxes of cloth. In the southeast (left rear) corner of the Hypostyle Hall stand two small, rectangular chapels for Khonsu (far left) and Mut, and in the southwest (right rear) corner there is a second chapel for Khonsu and a staircase leading to the temple roof.
Along the main temple axis south of the Hypostyle Hall, low steps lead up to a room originally with eight columns, whose bases can be seen in the floor.
Called the First Antechamber, or, more properly, the “Chamber of the Divine King,” it served as a bark shrine but was converted to a chapel for the Roman imperial cult. Scenes of Amenhetep III and Amen were covered over with plaster and painted with scenes of Roman officials. However, Amenhetep III and Amen-Ra can still be seen on the south (rear) wall, where the plaster has fallen away. Also on this wall, an apse with flanking columns was built in what had been a doorway and painted with standing figures of Diocletian and Maximillian and two Caesars. (The doorway through the apse was cut by the Antiquities Department in the 1950s.) The long-held belief that this room served as a Christian church is no longer accepted. Indeed, it is here that Christians were forcibly made to declare their allegiance to the Roman god-emperor.
A four-pillared Second Antechamber, called the “Offering Vestibule,” lies beyond the apse, and here the principal temple offerings were made to Amen. On the walls, Amenhetep III drives cattle to the temple to be slaughtered before the god, and the king offers flowers and vases and incense.
The “Bark Shrine of Amen-Ra” lies immediately behind the vestibule, inside what is sometimes called the Third Antechamber. Scenes show Amenhetep III or Alexander the Great standing before figures of the ithyphallic Amen. Originally, four pillars defined the spot where the sacred bark of Amen of Karnak was placed during the Opet Festival, but these were replaced by an inner shrine in the time of Alexander the Great. (Above the doorway into this antechamber a small room was built into the wall just large enough to accommodate a man. Some scholars believe that a priest concealed himself here during religious ceremonies and acted as the voice of Amen when priests asked questions of the god. Others, less cynical of Egyptian religion, think it was a secret store for ceremonial objects. To the east (left), a doorway leads into two rooms: the first is called the “Coronation Room,” the second the “Birth Room.” In the latter, scenes showing the divine birth of Amenhetep III is depicted on the west wall of the chamber and are to be read right to left, bottom to top. At bottom left, the god Khnum fashions Amenhetep III and his ka on a potter’s wheel. Small chapels line the eastern walls of these rooms and held either statues of deities or temple furniture.
South of the shrine, a series of four pillared halls, the first and largest of which, with twelve columns, served as the room in which the statue of Amen of Opet resided. The doorway into this suite of rooms is not original. In dynastic times, this was in effect a separate temple-within-a-temple, and its entrance was through the west wall. In each room, scenes show the king offering to Amen—bread, milk, wine, meats, and a score of other foods. This is the temple’s “holy of holies,” the most sacred part of the temple complex.
Let us put all this together. The Temple of Luxor was above all meant to serve the Opet Festival; the various architectural and decorative changes it underwent were made as priests sought to perform this service more effectively. Recently, Egyptologists have studied the reliefs and inscriptions in Karnak and Luxor temples and have reconstructed the Opet Festival’s procession from the one temple to the other. Here is how they think the ceremony went.
Early in the morning of the first day, the king, high priest, and many others gathered in Karnak’s Akn-Menou and walked to the sanctuary of the sacred bark of Amen-Ra. Carrying the bark, they proceeded into the Hypostyle Hall, then south along the north-south temple axis through pylons 7 and 8 to Khonsu Temple where Khonsu’s bark and representatives of his priesthood joined the group. They then continued on to the Mut Temple where her bark and representatives of her priesthood joined the procession. By now a large group, the procession moved south along the Avenue of the Sphinxes, stopping at the six way-stations en route. At each of these stops, prayers would have been said and offerings made. Along the way, crowds of locals lined the avenue, chanting and cheering, perhaps throwing flowers. Musicians and dancers, acrobats and colorfully attired offering bearers gave a festive air to the procession.
From" The Illustrated Guide to Luxor" by kent R.Weeks ,published by the American University in Cairo Press. Copyright © 2005 White Star S.p.a