At the Center

Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt

A statue of Ramses III and his queen towers in the courtyard at Karnak Temple, near Luxor, Egypt
Family Portrait
Tourist stream along the path through the pylons at the entrance of Karnak Temple, near Luxor, Egypt.
The Hall

Touring Egypt 25: Here we are at Karnak Temple, just outside of the modern town of Luxor. Several generations of pharaohs built onto this temple as the center of the ancient Egyptian religion (and therefore government). Karnak is probably the most significant temple complex in Egypt. One can get lost in Karnak for a day or more, and probably never find all the things to see there. In fact, the temple and its precincts are so grand that it really can’t be captured in one photo (at least not from ground level).

Massive unfinished columns and shadows create a looming feel at the back of the hypostyle hall at Karnak Temple, near Luxor, Egypt.
Towering Maze
A remarkably well-preserved statue of Ramses III stands in the courtyard (with his queen standing before him, scaled to reflect relative importance in the ancient Egyptians’ religious pantheon). But that is just a start: This is a sprawling complex that could easily absorb the enthusiast for days, discovering new places and experiences that evolved over its centuries of tradition and construction. Passing through the first courtyard, one quickly comes to the massive, grand columns of the Hypostyle Hall. Exploring the outer reaches at the back of the hall, one can find evidence of columns that were never completed by the last pharaoh to build here. (Or so says our guide, but maybe it is just incomplete reconstruction work.) A wide angle shot here in the shadows at the back of the hall makes for looming shadows and perspective.

Most people visit Karnak with a daytime tour group, which limits their experience here. There is also a remarkable nighttime sound-and-light show here, which many feel is better than the more famous show at the pyramids up north in Giza. Traveling with a group on a schedule necessarily limits exposure to this vast site. It is definitely worthwhile to visit on your own or with a personal guide for several hours to explore some of the lesser-known sights beyond the usual reach of the tourist hordes.
Visiting on your own instead of following a group, you have the option to turn left in the center of the great hypostyle hall to exit that structure and proceed to the small shrine of Ptah at Karnak’s outer wall. It does not get much tourist traffic, so may be locked when you arrive. An attendant will admit you in return for some small bakshish. Inside you will find a small, pitch-dark chamber. As you wait in the dark, the attendant climbs onto the roof and uncovers a small opening, reflecting a single shaft of brilliant daylight to illuminate a jet-black statue of the Egyptian war god, Sekhmet. Lit this way, the statue glows with the power of centuries. This is only one of many unique experiences available at Karnak. Most tourists miss it entirely.

Finally, at the end of the day I emerged from the main entrance with the very last of the tourists being shooed out by the harried guard force, eager for prayer and their evening meals. As I reach the middle of the square in front of the temple, I turn back and catch the last glow of sunlight on the massive first pylon of a newly emptied, resting Karnak Temple.
A black statue of Egyptian goddess Sekhmet is illuminated by a ray of sunlight in the Shrine of Ptah at Karnak Temple, near Luxor, Egypt.
Power of the Goddess

Sunset illuminates the front of Karnak Temple, near Luxor, Egypt, with a warm glow.
Temple at Rest

(Top left [“Family Portrait”]: Nikon D200, Nikkor wide zoom at 20mm, ISO 400, f/3.5 at 1/80 sec.)

(Top right [“The Hall”]: Nikon D70s, Nikkor wide zoom at 26mm, ISO 500, f/9 at 1/250 sec. with circular polarizer filter.)

(Center left [“Towering Maze”]: Nikon D200, Nikkor wide zoom at 14mm, ISO 400, f/4 at 1/250 sec.)

(Center right [“Power of the Goddess”]: Available natural light shot with Nikon D70s, Nikkor VR zoom at 90mm, ISO 1400, f/5.3 at 1/30 sec.)

(Bottom [“Temple at Rest”]: Nikon D200, Nikkor wide zoom at 26mm, ISO 400, f/11 at 1/250 sec. with circular polarizer.)