Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall restored

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

The Great Hypostyle Hall at the Karnak Temples in Luxor has regained its former glory after three years of restoration, reports Nevine El-Aref

Karnak Temples
Karnak Temples


In the heart of the awe-inspiring Karnak Temples stands the Great Hypostyle Hall like a forest of towering columns adorned with intricate hieroglyphs and depictions of deities that have weathered the sands of time for millennia. However, the wear and tear of centuries has taken its toll on this architectural masterpiece. 

Faced with the challenge of preserving history, a team of dedicated archaeologists and restorers embarked on a monumental journey to breathe new life into the Great Hypostyle Hall in 2021.

The project began with meticulous planning and extensive research. Scholars delved into ancient texts, examined intricate hieroglyphs, and studied the structural integrity of the Hall. Every stone tells the story of the passage of time, and the restoration team sought to honour the craftsmanship of the original builders by revealing the original vividly coloured decorations while incorporating scientific techniques adhering to international conservation standards and protocols to ensure the longevity of their work.

The Great Hypostyle Hall is an architectural marvel boasting 134 colossal sandstone columns that resemble papyrus stalks. Standing out are 12 majestic columns in the central nave towering over 20 metres in height and crowned with expansive open papyrus blossom capitals.

The main structural axis, running east to west, is dominated by a double row of 12 giant columns, surpassing the height of 122 shorter closed-bud papyrus columns on either side of the central aisle. The purpose of these great columns was to support the higher roof of the clerestory in the central nave.

Each column, meticulously inscribed by King Ramses II, represents papyrus stalks, with the 12 great ones featuring open capitals imitating feathery blossoms. The giant bell-shaped capitals, with diameters of 5.4 metres, were designed to support substantial weight.

King Ramses II’s influence here extends beyond mere inscriptions, and he adorned the 12 central columns with intricate scenes depicting offerings to the deities. Two distinct phases of reliefs on these columns reveal the evolution from raised to sunk relief, showcasing the king’s interventions over time.

The decorative scheme initially comprised a triangular leaf pattern, scenes midway up the shafts, cartouche friezes, cobras near the top, and vegetation motifs on the wide papyrus blossom capitals. King Ramses II later enhanced these with additional stereotyped decorations, including friezes of large cartouches, solar disks, and horizontal bandeaux texts with the king’s titles. His later inscriptions, carved solely in sunk relief, spanned from his first regnal year to his 21st year in power.

Decades later, king Ramses IV added his own cartouches over the leaf patterns, while a later Pharoah, king Ramses VI, claimed credit by placing his name inside the cartouches, leading to a complex layering of inscriptions covered with plaster.

The restoration not only preserves the structural integrity of the hall, but also unveils layers of historical interventions by various Pharaohs. The Great Hypostyle Hall thus stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship and the ongoing efforts to safeguard this invaluable cultural treasure.

Dozens of specialised young restorers from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and Egypt’s South Valley University accompanied by experts could be seen standing on high wooden scaffolding and busy at work. Armed with tiny brushes, they were removing the dust and sand from the hall’s columns while another group of restorers dressed in white coats like surgeons cleaned and restored the original engravings and colours of the columns with fine cotton pads.

“For the first time, visitors to Karnak’s Great Hypostyle Hall will be able to admire its columns’ original inscriptions after decades of their being concealed by accumulated dust, smoke, and bird deposits,” said Secretary-General of the SCA Mustafa Waziri, adding that 95 per cent of the restoration project has been achieved and within days the columns will recover their vivid colours. 

He explained that the project was carried out in three phases and also involved documenting and studying the hall’s inscriptions, which provide valuable information about the history and religion of ancient Egypt. 

Describing the hall as a “construction miracle” from the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, Director-General of the Karnak Temples Mustafa Al-Saghir drew a parallel with the Pyramids of Giza, considered the construction marvels of the Old Kingdom. 

Israa Hussein, one of the project restorers, emphasised the honour of working on this project that revives the spirit of the columns and sheds light on the details of the city’s monuments.

The project also aims to enhance the cultural-tourism experience in Luxor, known for its distinguished array of ancient monuments. The Ministry of Antiquities is committed to creating a comprehensive tourist destination here that caters to diverse styles of tourism and different preferences, ensuring a well-rounded and enriching visit for travellers.

TOURISM: To enhance the tourist experience at the Karnak Temples, other activities have been undertaken, among them the re-erection of Hatshepsut’s obelisk after restoration. The obelisk had lain for decades beside the sacred lake inside the temples.

The obelisk is carved from granite and was originally erected at the Karnak Temples, but a destructive earthquake in antiquity caused it to collapse on top of the debris accumulated on the hall built by queen Hatshepsut’s father king Thutmosis I. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, French Egyptologist George Legrain removed the upper part of the obelisk and laid it down beside the artificial sacred lake inside the temples complex. 

The restoration and re-erecting of the obelisk was carried out according to the latest scientific methods and in collaboration with the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces, which provided the necessary equipment.

The obelisk is 11 metres tall and weighs 90 tons. It is decorated with scenes depicting queen Hatshepsut and her relationship with the deity Amun as well as showing his different names and titles.

A replica of the Karnak King List has been also installed in its original location at the southwest corner of the Akh-Menu Hall at the Karnak Temples.

The original list is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris and was taken there in 1843. Comprising the names of 61 ancient Egyptian kings, the list was composed during the reign of the 18th-Dynasty king Thutmosis III to celebrate his ancestry since the founder of the Fourth Dynasty king Snefru.

Although only the names of 39 kings are legible, the list is valuable because it includes the names of many First and Second Intermediate Period kings not mentioned in other lists.

The open-air museum at the temples has also received a facelift as part of the restoration work, and the site as a whole has been improved by installing new seats, sunshades, and signage to provide visitors with information and directions. Paving tiles that had gone missing over past decades have been replaced, and there is improved mobility for disabled people.

New artefacts have been added to the open-air museum to enrich its displays. Among them are objects from the reigns of king Akhenaten (c1350 BCE) and King Shabaka (705-690 BCE) and others that date back to the Late Period (664-332 BCE).

The open-air museum is located in the northwest corner of the Karnak Temples. It brings together a magnificent collection of monuments scattered during archaeological excavations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


KARNAK TEMPLES: Nestled on the eastern bank of the Nile, the Karnak Temples in Luxor stand as an enduring testament to the unparalleled grandeur and architectural prowess of ancient Egypt. 

With a history spanning millennia, this sacred site has captivated the imaginations of visitors and scholars alike, offering a window into a bygone era of mysticism and cultural richness.

Encompassing a vast complex of temples, pylons, and avenues, Karnak is a sprawling testament to the religious fervour and artistic achievements of the ancient Egyptians. The heart of the site is the awe-inspiring Great Hypostyle Hall, an architectural marvel that in its towering pillars and monumental scale serves as the focal point for Karnak’s majesty.

The Karnak Temples are also remarkable for their longevity and the successive contributions of various Pharaohs across different Dynasties. From the earliest construction in the Middle Kingdom to the embellishments added by the New Kingdom Pharaoh Ramses II, Karnak is a living history book, each stone telling a story of devotion, power, and cultural evolution.

One of the most iconic features of Karnak is the Avenue of Sphinxes, a processional pathway connecting the Karnak to the Luxor Temple. Lined with imposing sphinx statues, this sacred avenue was once used for grand religious processions and ceremonies. Today, walking along this ancient path evokes a sense of reverence, transporting visitors back in time to a period when these Temples were the epicentre of religious and political life.

The Karnak Temples Complex in Luxor underwent development spanning over 1,000 years, primarily during the 12th to 20th dynasties. At its zenith, it stood as the most extensive and significant religious complex in ancient Egypt. 

The paramount structure within the complex, and the largest religious edifice ever erected, is the Temple of Amun-Ra. This temple is revered as the earthly residence of the god Amun-Ra, alongside his consort Mut and son Khonsu, both of whom also have dedicated temples within the site. The Temple of Amun-Ra gained acclaim for its expansive Hypostyle Hall constructed during the reign of Seti I.

As dynastic shifts occurred, with Memphis later assuming the role of the new capital of ancient Egypt, the significance of many temples at Luxor waned. In subsequent centuries, Ptolemaic rulers and Coptic Christians made modifications to various parts of the complex to suit their respective needs and beliefs.

The Karnak Temples Complex is intricately divided into three compounds: the precincts of Amun, Mut, and Montu. For most visitors, the sprawling precinct of Amun alone is the focus of the visit, boasting a layout that dwarfs every other site one might encounter in Egypt.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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