BMCR 2007.06.36

Karnak. Evolution of a Temple

, Karnak : evolution of a temple. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. London/New York: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (xxv, 258 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780203968376 $46.95 (pb).

Blyth’s (hereafter B.) book is a very well written account of the history, development and function of the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak (Jpt-swt), one of the largest and surely most complex religious sites not only in ancient Egypt but the ancient world as a whole. It was founded in the Middle Kingdom about 4,000 years ago and parts of it were even in use for Christian worship after the closing of pagan cults under Theodosius I.

The book is structured in three main parts (The Early Temple, The New Kingdom, and The Late Period) and sixteen main chapters. Following a preface by Professor H.S. Smith the book begins with a chronology chart of the relevant rulers and periods that relate to Karnak as well as a brief general introduction to the site. One of the major strengths of this book is its numerous maps, plans, and illustrations (mostly from the relevant academic publications). Photos in contrast are used rather sparingly, and then mostly to highlight an interesting detail (about 13 plates are within the text). B. limits discusses not only Karnak proper — the site within the sacred enclosure today — but also some buildings found nearby and along the processional ways to the Temple of Luxor.

The first three chapters (7-30) deal with the origins of Karnak until the Second Intermediate Period. Recent evidence from the site of a sandstone colonnade of the 11th dynasty king Wah-Ankh Intef II points to the possible existence of a shrine at that time, but the general evidence about the beginnings of Karnak is very sparse. Little of the Middle Kingdom Temple remains in situ. Among the most ancient parts of the temple still at Karnak are a Court from this period, the famous White Chapel of Senusret I (found in the Third Pylon of Amenhotep III) and a brick ramp towards the Temple of Montu to the north-west side. A major focus is on the original sanctuary of Senusret I. Not much was added to the temple during the Second Intermediate Period, of which very little remains, yet several stelae tell us about the various repairs and building activities of the XVIIth Dynasty kings.

The second part (chapters 4-13) deals with the heyday of the precinct of Amun-Re during the New Kingdom during which most of what we see as Karnak today was built. In ten chapters B. gives a detailed chronological summary of the evolution of the temple under various rulers: Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis II (33-50), Hatshepsut (51-67), Tuthmosis III (68-92), Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis IV (93-103), Amenhotep III and the Processional Ways (104-118), Amenhotep IV, Tutankhamun and Ay (119-132), Horemheb (133-142), Ramesses I and Seti (143-154), Ramesses II and to the end of Dynasty XIX (155-170), and Ramesses III and Dynasty XX (171-184). Here B. not only devotes her attention to the construction history of each king but also to the excavation of the site and the sometimes controversial scholarly discussion of the finds.

As so often in Karnak’s history, many shrines and edifices were removed to make space for building projects of later kings while their stones were sometimes re-used for the new constructions. Therefore the history of Karnak is also a history of puzzles, i.e. the numerous blocks retrieved by modern excavators who were thus able to put together large portions of shrines and wall-relief from the reigns of Senusret I, Amenhotep I, Hatshepsut and Akhenaten, to name a few. Amenhotep I added very little to the original temple of Senusret I, but it was Tuthmosis I who enclosed the Middle Kingdom Temple and a large area in front of it with a large girdle wall to which he added what is nowadays known as the Fifth Pylon. He also built a huge treasury north of the enclosure of the precinct of Amun.

Chapter five deals extensively with the additions Hatshepsut made to Karnak, primarily her obelisks and the famous Chapelle Rouge, a chapel made of red quartzite (Tuthmosis III later appropriated it as his own). Many of its dismantled blocks were found in the Third Pylon and were on display in the Open Air Museum of Karnak for many years. Over a decade ago they were reconstructed into a chapel. Hatshepsut’s successor Tuthmosis III greatly enlarged the temple. Among his numerous constructions the “Festival Hall”, the Akh-Menu, stands out. Here B. gives a detailed description of the major rooms and chambers (along with a plan). Room X with the famed botanical garden, a relief depicting flora and fauna brought back by the king from his Asian campaigns, is one of the highlights of Karnak. The foreign expansion under Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II made Egypt most prosperous and powerful and by the time of Amenhotep III the country had joined the “Club of Great Powers” and dealt with Hatti, Mitanni, Babylonia, and Assyria on equal terms. But the military expansion had also reached its limits by then and Amenhotep III was more interested in advancing international diplomacy abroad as well his own glory at home. Near Karnak he added the precinct of Mut, a separate temple from the that of Amun-Re. He also outlined the processional ways to the Temple of Luxor (Jpt-rst), the latter which he largely built new.

In chapter nine B. gives a summary of the monuments Amenhotep IV, later Akhenaten, built east of the enclosure wall of Karnak. They were later dismantled under Horemheb, who used many of its decorated small blocks (talatat) to fill his three pylons. Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten finally moved the court to Middle Egypt where he built a new city, Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) to enhance his religion of the Aten worship. Karnak was then closed and suffered damage by the destruction of divine names and images. The chapter ends with a lengthy comment on the restoration of Amun-worship under Tutankhamun and Ay.

Horemheb, the last king of Dynasty XVIII, was of non-royal descent but he helped Egypt back to its feet after the rather lethargic Amarna period, even to such an extent that he was later seen as the first legitimate king since Amenhotep III. He built the Second, Ninth, and Tenth Pylon at Karnak, thus expanding the site even more. With Ramesses I a new Dynasty came to power. But it was Seti I who pushed Egypt back to some of its former glory, foremost being the control over the Asian possessions. Seti, as B. makes clear, built the world-famous Great Hypostyle Hall, whose decoration was later completed by his son Ramesses II.

Chapter Twelve deals with the edifices and decorations that Ramesses II (155-163) “the Great” added to Karnak and the various stelae by the remaining rulers of Dynasty XIX (163-170). With Dynasty XX a period of decline began. Ramesses III was the last great ruler of Egypt. Comparatively little was added to the precinct of Amen-Re by the later Ramessides.

Part Three covers the Late Period in three chapters (14 to 16): Dynasty XXI, Dynasties XXII-XXIV (Libyan Period) and Dynasty XXV (Nubian Period) (187-208), Dynasties XXVI-XXX (209-224), and the Final Phase (225-235). One of the more spectacular additions was built during the Nubian Dynasty, the “Kiosk of Taharqa” in the First Court, while the largest Pylon constructed in Egypt — though uncompleted and undecorated — can be attributed to Nectanebo I of Dynasty XXX.

The last chapter summarizes the building activities of the Graeco-Roman period, among which the Temple of Opet by Ptolemy VIII is most noteworthy, and closes with a brief look at Christian Karnak. Several Christian sanctuaries as well as monasteries found their home within the former precinct of Amun, which were abandoned one by one after the Muslim conquest in AD 642.

A brief conclusion (236-237), a bibliography and a very helpful general index conclude the book. Karnak has no notes; abbreviated bibliographical references are inserted in the text; e.g. “(Kitchen 1973: 258, 260)” [187].

Karnak is not only fluently written but exciting. The evolution of Karnak over the ages emerges clearly with many interesting details that are sometimes not so widely known outside the Egyptological community. The author doesn’t bore the reader with lengthy descriptions but offers a welcome yet in-depth brevity that is not confined to Karnak’s construction and excavation but includes the relevant aspects of Egypt’s history as well. One of the most interesting features are B.’s commentaries on edifices which were already removed, replaced, usurped or built over in Pharaonic times. The book is an invaluable and wonderful companion for every interested visitor to Karnak, Egypt’s largest “puzzle”, especially those who can afford to visit the site on their own with more leisure and time. Then many discoveries can be made.1 For these Karnak comes handy. One may only wish for a companion volume for the other temples within the area of modern Luxor.2


1. Not all areas of Karnak are accessible and some chambers are locked to protect the relief-walls. Sometimes a Gafir can open these rooms for the interested visitor.

2. The only suggestion I would like to add for a future reprint of Karnak is a larger general plan (one to fold out or even take out), perhaps with the layout marked in color according to the period of construction.