Have you ever wanted your history book or museum fascination of Egyptian pharaohs, pyramids and temples, tombs and hieroglyphs to turn into actual experiences? Well, a visit to Karnak made that happen for me.
Karnak is the largest religious building ever constructed and covers over 200 acres. For over 2000 years, Karnak was a place for a yearly gathering of pilgrams visiting the temples dedicated to the gods Amun (the ancient Egyptian god of the sun), his wife Mut (the sky goddess and mother of the world) and their son Khonsu (god of the moon and time). In addition, pharaohs built structures honoring themselves and their deeds.
Today, visitors begin their stay by walking between two rows of large ram-headed sphinxes that line the avenue to the temple complex. When new, each ram sphinx held a little pharaoh between its front paws. (One of these little pharaohs can still be seen on the fourth sphinx from the left.)
Once through these gates, sensory overload sets in. I know I felt overwhelmed, and I can only imagine the feelings of those long ago, average, Egyptians when seeing Karnak in its full opulence. Clearly, they must have felt that this is where the gods lived. At Karnak, everything is big.
The construction of Karnak started about 4000 years ago and continued until about 2000 years ago when the Romans took over Egypt. Karnak is a city of temples. All the building took place from the inside out. This means that the youngest part of this city of temples is at the front. It is called the First Pylon, and it looks like a brick wall reinforced with mud. I was so amazed to learn that the Egyptian builders constructed the simple ramps of mud and brick in order to complete the taller wall…that’s right…they climbed up to set the bricks. Time has weathered away most of these original ramps, but you can still see enough to imagine how the job was done.
Beyond the First Pylon, there are many amazing sites to see, each thing holding a different significance to the ancient Egyptians who lived, worked, loved and worshiped here. You can move further and further into Karnak and never know that you are moving from one great hall to another or from one chapel to another or from one magnificent structure to another.
Note this papyrus column to the right in this photo, so called because it looks like the plant which was so important to the ancient Egyptians. Once there were ten of these twenty-one meter high structures…now, only one remains.
Across from the column stands the sensational statue of Ramesses II. He is wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and holds the implements of power, his right hand crossed over the left. His daughter stands at his feet. You can see the dagger at his waist and the folds of his garment.
These show-stopping statues of Ramesses III are part of a chapel built by the pharaoh himself.
And just when it seems that things could not get any more dramatic, the Great Hypostyle Hall rises before your eyes. This hall is made of 134 carved columns in 16 rows.
Originally, there was a roof, but it has long since fallen in. The size of the columns and intricate carvings are grand,
and some of the bright colors adored by ancient Egyptians can still be seen.
Hatshepsut’s Obelisk cannot be missed as it looms over everything. It was built in 1457 BC, and is the second largest of all ancient Egyptian obelisks.
This obelisk is made of one single piece of pink granite and weighs 343 tons.
Just beyond the obelisk, my attention was drawn to an artifact small in size compared to others at Karnak. Here it is, sitting on a pedestal, begging for attention. This is a sacred scarab or kheper of ancient Egypt… a dung beetle… an insect that lives off the waste of herbivorous animals.
I, quite frankly, never took the scarab beetle seriously. The closest I’ve ever been to this insect was not in real life, but on the silver screen. While watching the 1999 film version of The Mummy, I had to hold my breath when, what seemed like millions of black beetles scurried all over the screen for far too long. So, several months ago, when my eldest daughter, Sarah, announced that she had a new tattoo, I was totally surprised to find a large, vibrantly colored rendition of an Egyptian scarab on her extended arm. Well, see for yourself..
As I looked at her arm, Sarah explained the life cycle of the scarab beetle and why she chose to put a permanent picture of a dung eating insect on a prominent part of her own body. The beetles eat dung balls and lay their eggs in them as well. Newborn scarabs also find nourishment on the same dung balls. Sarah said that the scarab beetle was important to her because it represents a cycle of life, death and victorious rebirth against formidable odds. My Sarah’s explanation, though eloquent, was unconvincing….until I saw this little beetle, still in existence against the ravages of time, sharing a splendid place with a mighty obelisk for over 4000 years.
Well, big is great, but sometimes small is totally amazing.
The junket continues next time, the Unseasoned Traveler
PS….tattoo art courtesy of Kelsi Steffensen IG: @tattoosbykelsi