Welcome to the Hypostyle Hall
Welcome to the Great Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Karnak. In antiquity, Karnak
was the largest religious sanctuary in Egypt's imperial capital of Thebes (modern
Luxor) and was home to the god Amun-Re, king of the Egyptian pantheon. For over 2000
years, successive pharaohs rebuilt and expanded the temples of Karnak, making it the
largest complex of religious monuments from the ancient world.
|View of the main axis of the Hypostyle Hall with its twelve large columns (left),
and the smaller columns (right).
At the heart of Karnak, the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaoh Sety I (reigned ca. 1291-1279
BCE) erected his Great Hypostyle Hall, a colossal forest of 134 giant sandstone columns
supporting a high clerestory roof and enclosed by massive walls that after 3300 years
remain substantially intact today. The Great Hall is vast. It covers an acre of land,
and its great columns soar to heights of 20 meters. Not only does the scale and completeness
of this monument remain a rarity among ancient Egyptian temples, but it is also the
largest and most elaborately decorated of all such buildings in Egypt. Visitors often
remark on the bewildering array of inscriptions covering every surface: the walls,
columns, and even the roof! The patchwork of artistic styles and different royal names
seen in these inscriptions and relief sculptures reflect the different stages at which
they were carved over the centuries. Successive pharaohs, Roman emperors, high priests
and common Egyptians added to its wealth of inscriptions and relief decoration, made
architectural alterations and restorations, and even left pious graffiti on its walls.
|Sety I offering two flower bouquets. Relief from the north interior wall of the Hypostyle
Sety I’s craftsmen embellished the walls and columns in the north half of the building
with exquisite bas relief sculptures of the highest quality before the king’s death.
Sety’s successor, the celebrated Pharaoh Ramesses II (reigned ca. 1279-1213 BCE),
commanded his artisans to carve the walls and columns in its southern wing mostly
in sunk relief in various phases over the course of his long reign.
|Ramesses II offering incense.
Later rulers like Pharaoh Ramesses IV (ruled ca. 1151-1145 BCE) and the High Priest
of Amun Herihor (ruled ca. 1080-1072 BCE), seeking to associate themselves with the
Hall and its illustrious builders, inserted further decoration into spaces previously
left blank or even superimposed over earlier inscriptions on the columns. Thereafter,
the Great Hypostyle Hall remained in use for seventeen centuries, down to the end
of paganism in Egypt during the fourth century of our era.
|Ramesses IV offering lettuce to Amun-Re.
Constituting a monumental encyclopedia of Egyptian civilization, the Great Hypostyle
Hall's reliefs and inscriptions attest to the richness and vitality of Egyptian civilization
at the height of its imperial power during the last two centuries of the Egyptian
New Kingdom (ca. 1300-1100 BCE). They document Egyptian religious beliefs, culture,
political history, and foreign relations.
|Relief showing Sety I attacking the Syrian town of Kadesh. Relief from the north exterior
wall of the Hypostyle Hall.
|The Egyptian and Hittite Empires during the reigns of Sety I and Ramesses II
As Sety I and Ramesses II were constructing and inscribing the Great Hypostyle Hall,
Egypt and the Hittite Empire—the two military superpowers of the 13th Century BCE—were locked in a bitter, seven decades-long war for control of ancient
Syria. Both kings left panoramic war scenes on the exterior walls of the Hypostyle
Hall that commemorate the last stages of this conflict. Hostilities ended in the 21st year of Ramesses II’s reign (ca. 1258 BCE) when he concluded the earliest known international
peace treaty in human history with the Hittite Empire. Ramesses marked the event with
a hieroglyphic copy of his treaty carved in stone on a wall just beyond the southern
gate of the Hypostyle Hall.
Karnak has long been one of the major sites for the millions of tourists who visit
southern Egypt. Thousands pass through the Great Hypostyle Hall and the rest of Karnak
on a daily basis, taking countless photos of its wonders. Yet even after two centuries
of archaeological excavation and scientific study by Egyptian, French, and American
Egyptologists, most of the Karnak complex remains scientifically undocumented today.
As one of our Egyptian colleagues puts it, Karnak is an archaeological ocean, and
we have barely dipped below its surface.
| The Hittite Peace Treaty stela of Ramesses II.
This unfathomed sea of antiquities is most profound in the Great Hypostyle Hall, a
majestic structure that overwhelms the viewer with a vast array of wall carvings and
hieroglyphic inscriptions and whose sheer scale and complexity has largely defied
scholarly efforts to record and study it. While this priceless trove of irreplaceable
inscriptions has much to teach us about Ancient Egypt, Egyptologists have only ever
scientifically recorded a fraction of them, their true significance being neither
well-understood nor fully appreciated.
Alarmingly, a combination of environmental and human-made factors have caused this
vast repository of inscriptions to decay and even threatens to destroy the building
altogether. Inscriptions and relief carvings have long suffered from infiltration
of ground water, as mineral salts in the stone draw moisture upwards by capillary
action, and this, in turn, forces the salts to crystallize on or beneath the surface,
destroying the relief.
The Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project
|The Karnak Hypostyle Hall Project team during our 2011 field season
The Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project is a joint endeavor of the University of Memphis,
in Memphis, Tennessee (U.S.A.), and the Université de Québec à Montréal (Canada). We work in cooperation with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Centre Franco-égyptien d’études des temples de Karnak (France).
Our project has three closely related aims:
- To make a complete scientific record of all the hieroglyphic texts and relief carvings
from the Hypostyle Hall.
- To make these inscriptions widely available to scientists and the world- wide public
through traditional publications and via digital technologies like the internet.
- To conduct scholarly research and analysis of the Hypostyle Hall to better understand
those aspects of Egyptian civilization reflected in its inscriptions, including its
history, religion, politics, society, and culture.
|Ramesses II offering cloth to Amun-Re Kamutef. Epigraphic drawing.
For more information about our work, visit the links for Our Project and our Field Reports.
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