Our guide called it “the Vatican of ancient Egypt.” From the scope of the 1.6 square mile complex it is easy to see why. Karnak was the seat of the gods on earth. It includes an assemblage of temples, several avenues, a holy pool in which sacred offerings, sacrifices, religious implements, and priests themselves would be washed. The entire complex took at least 2,000 years to complete. Archaeologists are not sure because kings and pharaohs had a long history of one-upmanship–tearing down original structures, building new ones with the blocks, rewriting hieroglyphs and pictures, and replacing names of previous rulers with their own. Despite its convoluted history, we know that, in its prime, Karnak comprised of 32,000 rooms in over 200 separate structures. Its priests owned almost 700, 000 acres of agricultural land, 46 shipyards, 65 cities, 420,000 head of cattle, and almost 100,000 slaves or servants, not including any gifts that were bestowed upon them and the temples annually by the public.
The avenue of the rams is in homage to the god Amun, from whom originated all things in ancient Egyptian mythology. There is an inscription near the entrance of his temple that says in hieroglyphs, “I came into being before beings came into being. When I came into being all beings came into being.” A ram was venerated in ancient Egypt for its ability to impregnate huge numbers of sheep. It makes sense, then, that the god of all creation is symbolized by a ram.
Alexander the Great reportedly spent 7 days here with the priests of Amun-Ra. As much as a gesture of interest in local culture and a display of sensitivity to the religion, it was rumored that the priests knew the secrets to achieving immortality.
The complex goes on forever.
A flood in 1887 came up about 12 feet within the complex and destroyed almost 90% of the structures still standing, on top of the destruction levied by centuries of visitors. A massive renovation and reconstruction project is underway.
Fun fact! A James Bond movie (The Spy Who Loved Me), 3 levels of Lara Croft (Tomb Raider: the last revelation), a Transformers movie (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), and an Agatha Christie novel (Death on the Nile) take place here.
The Temple of Amun-Ra, shown in the next seven photos, is the largest religious structure ever built (source) at 61 acres. Within it there are 134 columns, each almost 50 feet tall.
Workers were ordinarily not allowed to leave any mark except what was instructed to them, but in this temple there is a notable exception; at the base of one of the enclosure walls is written in hieroglyphics, “It took 200 lamb oil to finish the temple but after finishing the ceiling most of us had a stiff neck.”
The place was packed with tourists. I saw for the first time an entire group of Dutch tourists and an Egyptian guide speaking articulate and idiomatically correct Nederlands (Ja hoor!), alongside Arabic, Chinese, Korean, German, Polish, and English-speaking groups.
It’s always a funny feeling being the non-tourist tourist here (I wouldn’t call 3 months of living in Egypt, learning the language, and absorbing the culture a tourist activity per se) especially when I am surrounded by people like those I saw in Karnak. There were a lot of people in khakis and shorts with wide sun-hats and cameras, but also plenty of those wearing ethnic prints, jangly earrings, and a loose attempt at a hijab–as if to say “See? I am sensitive to your culture but maintain my own perceptions of it while buying my postcards, plaster sphinxes, and hand-tooled leather slippers. I will probably go home and tell everyone who cares to listen that the five days I spent in Egypt changed my life, especially that camel ride.” I still don’t know how to take that brand of tourism that bears many similarities to Orientalism, a very us-versus-them mentality.
The truth is that Egypt is complicated. Yes, there are mummies. Yes, most women wear the hijab. Yes, there are cars and cellphones and Twinkies, but Egypt is not any one of those things in its entirety.
We said our goodbyes to the boat and our guide, made our way to the Luxor airport, and took off for Cairo.