Karnak the Magnificent

What Luxor, Egypt attraction is the largest place of worship ever built?

It doesn’t take a wizard to proclaim the magnificence of Karnak Temple in Luxor. After the pyramids at Giza, it’s the 2nd most visited site in Egypt. It’s really a temple complex, with multiple temples added and embellished by a long series of pharaohs over the course of 2,000 years. It was known to the ancient Egyptians as The Most Sacred Place and is reputed to be the largest place of worship ever built anywhere.

Click to see Egypt tours that include visits to Karnak Temple.

Modern Luxor is ancient Thebes, sometime capital of ancient Egypt. Prominence and power passed back and forth between Thebes in the south and Memphis in the north from dynasty to dynasty. Thebes was particularly powerful during the 18th dynasty, and even when political power shifted back to Memphis in the 19th dynasty, the cultural and religious importance of Thebes endured.

Most of the building at Karnak took place during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), made up of the 18th-20th dynasties and some of the best-known pharaohs – Thutmose III, Tutankhamen, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, and all the Ramesses, Ramesses II (the Great) being the most famous.

The New Kingdom was the most prosperous period of ancient Egypt, when warrior kings expanded their territory northeastward into the Levant, westward into Libya and southward into Nubia. New lands brought new sources of wealth, a good portion of which went into expansion of the Karnak Temple.

Karnak covers a vast area, you can easily spend several hours there. Get started early to avoid the heat of midday. You can also visit after dark for a sound and light show. I have mixed feelings about that. It’s definitely very atmospheric to be in the temple under the stars, with spot lights illuminating giant statues and relief carvings. A dramatic recording leads you through the history of ancient Egypt and the temple as you walk from the Great Court, just inside the 1st pylon, to the Sacred Lake. At the Sacred Lake, you sit and listen to more dramatic reading of the Karnak story for what seemed to me an eternity (the whole show takes about 1 hour). It’s pretty cheesy but many people really like it.

Even if you do the S&L show, don’t miss Karnak during the day. This is monumental ancient Egypt at its best. Over 60 acres of colossal statues, obelisks, relief carvings of pharaonic adventures and pylon after pylon after pylon (10 in total). The Hypostyle Hall is Karnak’s most famous feature, for good reason. The central aisle of the hall is lined with 70-foot columns, backed on either side by a forest of 30-foot columns. It’s literally jaw dropping. Relief carvings cover the columns and traces of original paint are not hard to find, especially if you look up.

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