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ANCIENT LUXOR
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luxor temple
Connie Tindale
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Luxor Temple from the air. These photos are the most recent we have found but there have been many changes to the surrounding area since they were taken .
Luxor Temple is situated beside the River Nile on the Corniche el Nil and will, thanks to Luxor's renovations, soon be clearly visible from all sides. It is a graceful temple with gigantic columns, splendid statues of Ramses II, an obelisk and an avenue of Sphinxes that once reached all the way to Karnak Temple. Tickets are available at the site and cost 50 le each. This temple is floodlit and is open for much longer hours than the other temples in Luxor. Opening hours are from 6.00 a.m. until 9.00 p.m. in the winter and from 6.00 a.m. until 10.00 pm in the summer. This temple is worth visiting both in daylight and at night as the ambience changes with the light.
 

The first glimpse many visitors have of this temple is from the river when their cruise liner docks alongside the Corniche el Nil.  From there, it is easy to visualise the sacred barques that long ago brought the god Amun-Min and his wife Mut from Karnak for their annual honeymoon during the Opet Festival.  The temple is clearly visible from the Corniche and at night makes a spectacular sight as its courtyards and statues are floodlit until the temple closes. 

If you look carefully at the aerial photograph shown above, you can see that the layout of the temple is not symmetrical and that its axis is slightly skewed.  Amenophis III, (Amenhotep - 18th dynasty) who also built a massive mortuary temple on the West Bank and the so-called Colossi of Memnon, built the larger straighter part of the temple and Ramses II (19th dynasty) built the skewed additions.  They could have been made at an angle to incorporate some earlier sanctuaries and to align with the avenue that once joined Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple.  The avenue is thought to have covered an earlier canal which joined the temples but which could have silted up when the timing of the festival was changed. The avenue was three kilometres long but was only lined with sphinxes during the 30th Dynasty on the orders of Nectanebo.  Most of the Avenue has been lost under the buildings of modern Luxor, although an impressive line of them remains in the temple grounds.  Work to restore the avenue began in 2007. However, the change in the alignment might also have been due to the difference in the angle between the points of observation of the helliacal rising of Sirius that occurred in the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II.

The original temple was small and honoured the annual Opet Festival which was held when the Nile as in flood.  The festival lasted 27 days and was held in the month of Paapi (which was named in honour of the Nile God Hapi) starting around the 11th October on the present calendar. This early structure had shrines built by Hatshepsut which were later augmented by her brother Tutmosis III, but there are signs of a temple being there from the Middle Kingdom era.  The older parts of the temple were mainly dismantled and re-used when construction of the larger temple began and there is now little visual evidence of them.  During Amenophis's reign, the temple became known as the “Harem of the South” and it gained the magnificence that we see today.  A detailed floor plan of the temple is shown at the end of this article.

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During the festival, a carnival atmosphere would have prevailed, the temple’s massive columns would have been brightly coloured and its courtyards would be filled with music and dancing as priests performed the rituals necessary to bring prosperity to Upper Egypt.  In ancient times, ordinary people would not have been allowed inside the temple precincts and only a carefully selected audience would witness these.  This ancient festival is now mirrored in the Abu el Haggag Moulid that takes places annually in the month of Sha'aban, just before the start of Ramadan.  Abu el Haggag was a local Islamic holy man who, during the middle ages, was buried in a debris-filled shrine inside the temple.  A description of this Moulid can be found in the Religious Festivals section of the Guide to Luxor.

When the power of the priests dwindled and Thebes reverted to being a backwater, villagers made their homes inside the temple walls and brought their new religions with them.  Now, when you pass through the entrance, you not only see a colonnaded courtyard which is lined with statues of Ramses II but also a mosque which the villagers refused to destroy when they were moved out of the temple in the nineteenth century.  The mosque honours Abu el Haggag and as it is still in use, it means that if the various religions that have been practiced in the temple are combined then there has been 4,000 years of continuous worship on this site.  The mosque was rebuilt in the nineteenth century but it still has its original 11th century minaret.

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The mosque is within the temple walls and honours Abu el Haggag. It still has its original 11th century minaret.
 

In front of the temple’s first pylon, which is decorated with scenes of Ramses victory at the battle of Kadesh, is an obelisk that has four dog-headed baboons at its base.  In keeping with the temple’s fertility connections, the baboons originally had erect penises but despite surviving intact for thousands of years, they were unfortunately destroyed by over-prudish Victorian archaeologists.  The Obelisk was once one a pair but its counterpart now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris as it was given to Louis Phillippe as a gift.

Originally there were six statues of Ramses II at the front on the temple – four standing and two seated - but now only the two seated and one badly damaged standing statue remain.  The seated statues sit either side of the entrance and stare towards Karnak.  To the left of the obelisk, mounted on a plinth, is an impressive stone head of Ramses II.

The first courtyard is surrounded by a double row of papyrus bud columns that once supported a roof, which would have provided the temple with darkness and a secretive air.  Between many of the columns are fine statues of Ramses standing with one foot forward, giving him stability and grace.  Reliefs, which were added later, show his funeral procession where he is attended by many of his numerous sons.  Also, there is an unusual relief of the temple itself showing its obelisks and banners.  This part of the temple is linked to the older part through the second pylon, which is flanked by colossal statues of Ramses seated.  Beyond this pylon, is a magnificent Colonnade of pillars, which was started by Amenophis III and added to by his grandson Tutankhamun and his successors, Ay and Horemheb.

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There are impressive statues of Ramses II throughout the temple and the Colonnade is still awe-inspiring.

At 21 metres high (68 feet), even today the Colonnade is impressive; when it was erected it would have been completely awe-inspiring.  The Colonnade has fourteen columns, all, with open papyrus capitals, that would have supported a roof.  This, together with the decorated walls, would have created an enclosed dark tunnel leading from darkness into light, which could have invoked religious ecstasies.  Only the base of the surrounding walls has survived but it gives a detailed account of the progression of the Opet festival, the purpose of which was to rejuvenate the King's powers as well as to honour the Gods.

Beyond the Colonnade is a large open-aired courtyard, which may have been dedicated by Amenophis III to the sun disc Aten.  This courtyard is innovative as it moves away from the usual secretive ambience, towards a celebration of light. The Solar Courtyard is unpaved and in 1989, workmen accidentally discovered a cache of statues that had remained hidden for nearly two thousand years.  The statues had been buried during the Roman occupation when new Emperors had greater importance than old Pharaohs and somewhere had to be found to store surplus statuary.  Burying the statues preserved them and they now represent some of the finest examples of Egyptian craftsmanship.  Many of these statues are on display in Luxor Museum.

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The ambience of the solar courtyard and the Colonnade changes with the light.


At the rear of the solar courtyard is a hypostyle hall that has thirty-six remaining columns, some of which are badly damaged.  Beyond that is a warren of some fifty chambers and sanctuaries that have been usurped, enlarged, embellished and in some cases plastered over as various monarchs left their mark.  At one time, it was thought that part of this area might have been used as a Christian Chapel, but this is now considered unlikely. 

This part of the temple is actually its heart, the place where the barques of Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu were kept during their stay brief stay.  Here also lies the birthing room, which proves the Pharaoh's divine is link with the gods.  Either Amenophis or Alexander is shown here being formed by the gods on a potter's wheel.  The sacred barque of Amun was housed in the Third Antechamber and four pillars marked the place where the barque was placed.  These pillars were replaced with a chamber during the reign of Alexander the Great and the change in building style is quite evident.

 

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At the rear of the solar courtyard is a hypostyle hall and a multitude of chambers. There are some fine reliefs in this part of the temple.

All around the temple are ruins of priests'' quarters and a garrison.  Piles of carved blocks salvaged from fallen walls lie waiting for reconstruction; which is a task that might be completed on a computer screen if not in real life.  However, with the new excavations that are taking place, their original positions might still be located.

In November 2005, work started to clear the way for making Luxor Temple part of the biggest open-air Museum in the world.  Millions of pounds became available to preserve the Temple from the rising water level, which was destroying the structure, and causing stonework to crack and decay.  This work is still ongoing. In 2007 and wonderful piazza replaced the gardens to the side of the temple and in 2008 many of the surrounding buildings were demolished so that further excavations can be made and work on restoring the avenue of sphinxes can be completed. This has caused some disruption to the town but its effect will be stunning when the work is finished.

The best time to see this temple is just before at dusk when the fading light gives an impression of how the temple would have looked when it had its roof.  The temple is floodlit and as the glow of the lights increases the true beauty of this temple becomes more evident. 

 
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