A Sacred Space Odyssey: the Temple of Karnak – Karnak (Luxor), Egypt

A Sacred Space Odyssey: the Temple of Karnak
Karnak (Luxor), Egypt

Tallulah Bankhead once quipped, “the entire world is my temple, and a very fine one too.” For a brief time in my life, the Temple of Karnak was my entire world and it too was a very fine one. After years of graduate study and with a smattering of archaeology (all theoretical) under my belt, I weaseled my way onto an excavation in Upper Egypt, a lesser and poorly preserved temple in the shadow of Karnak, the mother-of-all temples. Not to diminish the historical importance of our site, with the grandeur of Karnak literally looming above us and separated by a mudbrick wall, many of us felt like the black sheep of the archaeological family. This was borne out by the general lamentations and frequent sighs of envy that were emitted by our site director as he surveyed the orderly system of railway tracks and little cars that the French used to whisk away the detritus from their sites at Karnak. We used small boys.

Karnak is the largest religious complex built by human hands in the world and, over the centuries, every king worth his salt expanded, rededicated, refurbished, redecorated and even desecrated it. It became a national endowment site, a territorial hotspot where kings metaphorically lifted their hind leg and sprayed, leaving their mark for future rivals. Dedicated to the god Amun and his family, the site transformed itself from a backwater of a town in Upper Egypt (near modern Luxor). Almost 4,000 years ago, this clan set up their local god as the focal point of a new and improved religious authority. In fact, the name of the first king of this new dynasty, Amenemhet, translates as, “Amun is at the forefront” or roughly, “Amun is Number One”. Amenemhet was anything but subtle. The temple site is believed to mark the original lump of mud on which Amun stood and, with penis in hand, created the universe out of the waters of chaos.

Illuminated Hieroglyphs
Illuminated Hieroglyphs
Figuratively and literally, I lived a profane existence at Karnak, that is, to fumble with etymological metaphors; I lived “outside the temple” as the word once meant. On the nether side of the east wall (part of the high mudbrick wall that encircled the temple complex), stood the whitewashed and dilapidated dighouse that locals called Beit Canada (Canada House) and I called home. This unassuming house, with its peeling paint and exposed mudbrick walls, its ubiquitous nests of scorpions and spurious toilets was nonetheless a luxury for it provided us with a base, a sanctuary from the exigencies of Luxor, a much-needed respite from living near a tourist town.

Geography plays a role in this narrative. A few kilometers down the road from Karnak is the city of Luxor, with its own attendant temple, shops, flush toilets, market, restaurants, post office and hotels; i.e., civilization. Our dighouse was sandwiched between the walled Precinct of Amun and the small village of Nag el-Fukhani. Rather than negotiating our way to and from town through the village (few cab drivers believed you really wanted to go to there), it was easier to scale the mudbrick enclosure wall and cut through the temple complex. To ease our ascent over the wall, an arrangement had been negotiated years ago by our director and the temple guards, sealed with the continued greasing of palms over the years. By hopping over the wall and making a beeline westward through the temple, you reach the main drag, the Nile-hugging corniche that leads into Luxor: a promised land flowing with Diet Coke and Cadbury bars.

Karnak is my sacred space. Karnak inspires me to actually use the phrase ‘sacred space’ without wincing. I lay claim to it inasmuch as it has given me the closest thing to a spiritual experience I have had, before and since. In spite of its scope (it is, after all, some two hundred acres), the temple complex offers an intimacy – especially at night – that belies its breadth. Having Karnak as my right-of-way and personal space, I learned how to seek out and honour its nuances and secrets.

Karnak is best experienced in solitude. Understandably, this is difficult to pull off since it’s one of the Greatest Hits of the tourist world. But during the enervating heat of the afternoon, the “mad dogs and Englishmen” rule applies; it’s simply too hot for crowds. The tour coaches are long gone, the temple attendants nap in their kiosks, and deep in the shadows of an ancillary temple, the temple pariah dogs can’t be bothered to raise a grizzled eyebrow as you pass. In this splendid isolation, I would wander about the complex at my leisure, take gloriously unobstructed photographs of colossi, bury my hands wrist-deep in faded inscriptions and wallow in the conceit that I owned the temple.

Oh, but nighttime! During its off-hours, the temple resonates with the cadences of bat wings, nightjars, kites, and owls. It echoes with arcane unpeopled sounds that, like sonar, bounce off its lotus-form columns, guiding those of us left behind in the crowds’ wake. After an evening in town, I would often encounter a thick lineup of visitors for that night’s Son et Lumière, shifting restlessly down the Avenue of Sphinxes and along the main road, waiting to experience Karnak as no one really should. Like a plague of Biblical proportions, these Sound and Light shows, which have cropped up along the Nile at ancient temple sites, are a scourge. I was an unwilling audience to the Karnak show for months on end and in many of the world’s major languages. At night, atop our dighouse roof, we would enjoy the cool evening breezes and the heady sweetness of a waterpipe, when the audio track would erupt with a German-speaking goddess announcing, “Ich bin Isis”, her guttural voice reverberating off the hypostyle columns. Coming back one night, I got caught in the middle of a Japanese performance as I tried to sneak through the temple. I stayed hidden in the shadows of nearby outbuildings, pressing tightly against papyriform columns, following the group at a distance, wondering what anyone was really getting out the presentation. Eventually I lost interest (my Japanese isn’t what it used to be) and veered off into the moonlight like a fugitive on the run, heading for the safety of the mudbrick wall.

I know Karnak best at night because I was forced to learn my route in the dark. Like a blind person, my remaining senses became heightened to my surroundings so that, eventually, I could navigate without light. My path to the dighouse represented the shortest distance between two points and encompassed a fraction of the temple sprawl. Starting at the First Pylon or main gate, my task each night was to steer my way as directly as possible along its northern flank or main axis. Karnak is a geometric mess and there exists very few straight lines, even along its axes. Entering through the portals of the First Pylon (modern road pylons give you an idea of their general shape), I would walk past the shrine of Sety II and through the ruined kiosk of Taharqa. Taharqa has the best name of any Egyptian ruler, and would lend itself well to a tropical locale, a resort where cruise ships dock for a two-day excursion. “We’re wintering in Taharqa this year. We considered Monte Carlo but we much prefer Taharqa.” Not surprisingly, one of his sites was named Taharqa-by-the-Lake.

From here I’d pass through the Second Pylon into the Hypostyle Hall, which under cover of darkness is a court forested with columns and permeated with an unspeakable but palpable enchantment. It’s no wonder that this vestibule (a space that could contain Nôtre Dame Cathedral) has occasioned travellers over the years to pause, to sit and lean against a column and try to capture its imposing yet eerie essence in watercolour or poetic verse. During the day, light is admitted into the roofed hallway through clerestory windows (narrow slits of light positioned high near its roof) but at night, the hall is bathed in virtual darkness. Lightly touching the inscribed columns (what was it like when all of its 134 columns stood?), I would wind my way through the maze, venturing to choose a different route every night, until I found my path out of this columned labyrinth. Rather than continue through the main temple of Amun, I would veer left past the Third Pylon and begin my journey on the temple’s periphery: a veritable obstacle course, littered with the detritus of two thousand years of construction. This part of the journey offered the greatest delights as the terrain was fraught with uneven ground, architectural fragments jutting out of the long grass and large mud holes that required creative fording.

Fruits of Labour: Nerfertit's Cartouche
Fruits of Labour: Nerfertit’s Cartouche
What initially took me thirty minutes to manoeuvre (the threat of breaking a leg was very real), I could eventually accomplish in ten. Like an alley cat (was not the cat sacred in ancient Egypt?), I would circumnavigate low-lying bits of wall, scale masonry blocks, hop onto columns used to bridge marshy areas with a grace and dexterity that belied my innate clumsiness (I fall up stairs), until I had passed through the Temple of the Hearing Ear. From here it was a disappointingly quick walk to the east mudbrick wall. My journey, like Amun whose nocturnal voyage through darkness into light was reenacted on the nearby sacred lake, would inevitably come to an end as I scaled the wall. My quotidian life existed on its other side. But like Amun’s nocturnal journey, it would be repeated the next evening.

As I mounted the wall I would stop, look back – the queen of all she surveyed. From this vantage point the temple lay before me in all its quirky irregularity, its additions radiating out from its centre (the oldest part of the complex), seeking new directions, forming new axes. During the day, the crescent-shaped sacred lake to the south of Amun’s temple was a welcome respite from the afternoon sun; the water level is still significant enough to cool the air. At night, it not only reflects the austerity of the desert moon, but in its shape emulates the lunar attitude of the moon-god Khonsu, Amun’s adopted son. Symbolic of the primordial ocean, its surrounding walls are layered with zigzagged stones which mirror the hieroglyph for water (three horizontal wavy lines).

On the lake’s far side are the remains of the fowl-yard for the god’s sacred geese. The goose was both associated with and (confusingly) thought to be the actual manifestation of Amun who, in an alternate version of the first act of creation, laid a cosmic egg. From this yard, his geese were driven through a stone tunnel, still visible today, into the sacred lake – a waterslide, if you will, for the god’s pets. The priests performed their daily ablutions by the lake, possibly plucking goose quills out of their morning wash water. Although somewhat marred by the sight of the viewers’ stands erected for the Sound and Light show, the area’s ambience is still evocative of what daily life may have been like for the temple priests. In my mind, it is a precarious balance of irony and blasphemy that the living quarters of the very individuals who tended to their god in all matters religious and mundane are now overlaid by bleachers. Amun’s priesthood numbered among the most powerful men in Ancient Egypt; now they’re eclipsed by the posteriors of the world’s tourists. Perhaps this sense of theatre is a hanger-on from ancient times (archaeological predestination as it were) for this was the site of Amun’s long-night-of-the-soul ritual, signaling the transition from night into day.

One evening, as I approached the retaining wall, I caught sight of a small desert fox weaving its course along the serpentine enclosure wall, padding soft and low in its tracks. In the beguiling shadowplay of moonlight – the fox metamorphosed from silhouette to luminescence as the moon darted among the clouds, obscuring its movements, revealing its shape. In this state of near-rapture, I was conveyed back to my childhood and could once again hear the deep bass tones of my father’s voice as he sang me to sleep:

The fox went out on a chilly night,
He prayed to the moon to give him light,
For he’d many a mile to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o,
He’d many a mile to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o.

Mesmerized I watched as the fox dissolved into the inkiness of the night where, in sh’allah (if Allah willed it), it fulfilled its nocturnal mission under the veil of desert darkness. Humming to myself, I climbed the enclosure wall, my feet blindly but expertly finding purchase in the footholds made by countless colleagues and temple guards before me. I waved to the night watchman, startling him, I think, from his reverie, and wished him a good night. I felt at peace with this micro-sphere, this temple-world I inhabited so effortlessly – as hopelessly unreal and ephemeral as it was. Since Amun’s sacred geese are long gone, I felt no qualms at offering up a brief prayer to the moon god that this little desert fox would bring a fat bird home to its den so that the little ones could chew on the bones-o.