This city of temples, known collectively as Karnak, is one of the most visited ancient sites in Egypt, second only to the Great Pyramids at Giza. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the construction at Karnak over 2,000 years, which began during the Middle Kingdom and continued into the Ptolemaic period. The complex is located on the east bank of the Nile, less than two miles from Luxor Temple.
The first thing you encounter at Karnak is an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, representing the god Amun. Each holds a small effigy of Rameses II (this guy, again) between their front paws. Today, visitors to Karnak enter through the last pylon built at Karnak, erected by Nectanebo I (380-362 BCE). The pylon was never completed and remains unadorned—remnants of mud brick ramps used in its construction can still be seen just inside of the entrance.
One of the most impressive sections of Karnak (and probably its most famous feature) is the great hypostyle hall, the construction of which was begun by Seti I and completed by his son, Rameses II. The more than 50,000-sq-ft hall contains 134 papyrus columns set in 16 rows. The columns originally supported a roof, but now stand alone with traces of their brightly colored decorations still visible. In 1899, 11 of the columns fell like dominoes, but they were restored to their upright position in 1902.
Several obelisks were discovered at Karnak and three remain standing today inside of the temple complex—built by Sety II, Thutmose I and Hatshepsut. There are some really wonderful and unique carvings and relief decorations at Karnak (including depictions of the obelisks). Part of one of the only ancient treaties for which both sides' versions have survived, the Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, is engraved in hieroglyphics on the walls of Karnak (the other part is in the Rameseum).
Egypt came under Roman rule in 30 BCE and Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great (306 - 337 BCE). The emperor Constantius II (337 - 361 BCE) closed all pagan temples in the empire, which included Karnak. Coptic Christians used the Temple of Amun as a church, and you can still see evidence of this time period in the literal defacing of some of the Egyptian gods and a statue (pictured above) that was crudely fashioned into a cross by early Christians.
As a perk of our tour, Dr. Mostafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was our guide for the temple of Khonsu, an area of Karnak that isn’t usually open to the public. He dramatically revealed some recently discovered statues in addition to taking us inside of the temple, built by Rameses III. Its elaborately decorated walls are currently undergoing a painstaking restoration process that has revealed the most brilliant colors as if they were just painted yesterday and not more than 3,000 years ago.