Karnak Temple, Luxor - Egypt
Karnak Temple is a lasting tribute to the ancient Egyptian pharaohs quest for immortality. And as a powerful religious institution it is arguably more representative of life in ancient Egypt than the Giza pyramids which. despite their impressive size, are ultimately tombs for the dead rulers of the Old Kingdom. The temple's influence, which lasted for more than 1300 years, was central to the power of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, including Seti I and Rameses II.
The Great Hypostyle Hall, which is more than 3500 years old, covers an area of 6000 square metres and contains a forest of 136 stone pillars, each 23 metres tall and 15 metres in circumference. Many of these have been extensively renovated, but are still covered with deeply carved hieroglyphics and elaborate bas-relief depictions of Egyptian gods, especially Amun to whom this precinct of the temple is dedicated. Some of the pillars still bear traces of the original colouring. dating back to around 1300 BC.
In the days of the pharaohs the whole of the hall would have been roofed over, and the remains of some of the lintels that supported the roof can still be seen. The interior would have been in semi-darkness, punctuated by shafts of light from grilled windows along the central aisle. It is easy to imagine processions of priests passing through its hallowed halls, and even Pharaohs coming to admire the bas-reliefs of gods in their own image.
The Precinct of Amun is the largest and most complete of the three enclosures that make up Karnak Temple. The other enclosures, the Temple of Mut and the Precinct of Mont, are largely ruins. Whilst the Great Hypostyle Hall is Amun's most impressive structure, there is a great deal more to see in the complex. From the entrance, an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leads up to the first pylon, a 43-metre-high wall with a gap in the middle to allow entry. Inside the courtyard beyond the wall is a colossal statue of Rameses II, and a small temple devoted to Rameses III. There are a number of sphinxes outside this temple and more tall statues inside.
Beyond the next pylon lie the pillars of the Hypostyle Hall, and beyond that the rest of Karnak Temple, which you could easily spend a couple of days exploring. I would recommend employing the services of a local guide, if only to save you from the temple guards and their constant demands for baksheesh, a small tip.
Karnak tends to get very crowded during the day, but if you arrive as it opens at six in the morning it is often deserted. Take the correct entrance money as the gate seldom has change at this time, and leave by 9 am to avoid the worst of the crowds. If you can cope with the afternoon heat, it's worth returning after 3 pm when the tour groups have left and the temple is quiet again. You can sometimes use the same ticket in the morning and afternoon, especially if you mention at the gate when you leave that you will be returning.
You can return to town by walking along the Avenue of Sphinxes, once the route of a procession in honour of Amun. Nowadays, many of the sphinxes are missing and the avenue disappears briefly on the outskirts of Luxor. It can be picked up again at the back gate to Luxor Temple, where it joins a more impressive avenue of sphinxes linking the temples of Karnak and Luxor just as they were linked in the time of the pharaohs.
Luxor is easily reached by internal flights from Cairo or you can catch the very comfortable night train from the capital. The most famous hotel in Luxor is the old Winter Palace in the centre of town, but the Nile Hilton Hotel is more convenient for Karnak. Official guides can be hired from the ticket office but agree the price first. Taxis are very cheap but, as with everything in Egypt, haggle hard. You can also take a horse-drawn caleche, but choose only healthy-looking horses and stop the driver from galloping them. Do not leave Luxor without visiting the Valleys of the Kings and Queens across the Nile.