In Upper Egypt, on the eastern bank of the Nile, stand the remains of the most extensive temple complex of the Dynastic Egyptians. The entire site was called Wast by the Egyptians, Thebai by the Greeks, and Thebes by the Europeans (the word Thebai derives from the Egyptian word Apet, which was the name of the most important festival held each year at Luxor). A large proportion of the ruins of ancient Egypt are situated here, divided between the temples of Luxor (from the Arabic L’Ouqsor, meaning ‘the palaces’) and the temples of Karnak (this name deriving from the Arab village of Al-karnak). The ruins of both these temple complexes cover a considerable area and are still very impressive. Nothing remains, however, of the houses, markets, palaces and gardens that must have surrounded the temples in ancient times. The principal feature in Egyptian social centers, and usually the only one to have survived, was the temple. Not a place for collective worship but rather a house of the gods, only the temple’s priests and the high nobility were allowed to enter the inner sanctums. The temple did however, act as a cohesive focal point for the local community, who participated in the numerous pilgrimage festivals and processions to the temple.
Recent excavations have pushed the history of Karnak back to around 3200 BC, when there was a small settlement on the bank of the Nile where Karnak now stands. The great temple complex at Karnak is, however, mostly a Middle Kingdom creation. Archaeological excavation reveals that the complex was in a near constant state of construction and deconstruction, and that almost every king of the Middle Kingdom left some mark of his presence at Karnak. The central temple at Karnak was dedicated to the state god, Amon, and is so oriented to admit the light of the setting sun at the time of summer solstice. Just north of this temple are the foundations of an earlier, but also central and primary, temple dedicated to the god Montu. Little remains of this temple, not because it was weathered by the elements, but rather because it was systematically deconstructed and its building stones used in the construction of other temples. According to Schwaller de Lubicz, this mysterious dismantling of temples, found at Karnak and numerous other places in Egypt, has to do with the changing of the astrological cycles. The supplanting of the bull of Montu with the ram of Amon coincides with the astronomical shift from the age of Taurus, the bull, to the age of Aries, the ram; the earlier temple of Montu had lost its significance with the astronomical change and thus a new temple was constructed to be used in alignment with the current configuration of the stars.
The photograph shows an obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut (1473-1458BC). It is 97 feet tall and weighs approximately 320 tons (some sources say 700 tons). An inscription at its base indicates that the work of cutting the monolith out of the quarry required seven months of labor. Nearby stands a smaller obelisk erected by Tuthmosis I (1504-1492 BC). It is 75 feet high, has sides 6 feet wide at its base, and weighs between 143 and 160 tons. Hatshepsut raised four obelisks at Karnak, only one of which still stands. The Egyptian obelisks were always carved from single pieces of stone, usually pink granite from the distant quarries at Aswan, but exactly how they were transported hundreds of miles and then erected without block and tackle remains something of a mystery. Of the hundreds of obelisks that once stood in Egypt, only nine now stand; ten more lay broken, victims of conquerors, or of the religious fanaticism of competing cults. The rest are buried or have been carried away to foreign lands to dwell in the central parks and museum concourses of New York, Paris, Rome, Istanbul and other cities.
The use of the obelisks is even more of a mystery than their carving and means of erection. While the obelisks are usually covered with inscriptions, these offer no clue to the function, but are instead commemorative notations indicating when and by whom the obelisk was carved. It has been suggested that the erection of the obelisk was a gesture symbolizing the ‘djed’ pillar, the Osirian symbol standing for the backbone of the physical world and the channel through which the divine spirit might rise to rejoin its source. John Anthony West notes that the obelisks were usually erected in pairs, one obelisk being taller than the other, and that the dimensions of the obelisk and the precise angles of its shaft and pyramidion cap (originally plated in electrum, an alloy of silver and gold) were calculated according to geodetic data pertaining to the exact latitude and longitude where the obelisk was set. “The shadows cast by the pair of unequal obelisks would enable the astronomer/priests to obtain precise calendrical and astronomical data relevant to the given site and its relationship to other key sites also furnished with obelisks.” Readers interested in the fascinating subject of obelisks should consult The Magic of Obelisks by Peter Tompkins and the Orion Mystery by Bauval and Gilbert.