In 1799, French soldiers trudged south along the Nile, dispatched by the Emperor Napoleon to secure Upper Egypt. With them were artists, engineers, and scientists, commissioned to sketch and record everything they saw. On January 27, they caught their first, stunning glimpse of Karnak, rising defiant from the sands. "Without an order being given," wrote one lieutenant, "the men formed their ranks and presented arms, to the accompaniment of the drums and the bands."
Karnak's awe-inspiring power is timeless, a tribute to those who built and understood it as the sacred home of the gods. Perhaps the largest religious complex ever constructed, Karnak was called Ipet Isut, "the most select of places." Over the course of two millenniums, it was enlarged and enriched by consecutive pharaohs until it comprised 247 acres on the Nile's east bank. Centered on the Temple of Amun (begun in the 11th dynasty, 2134-1991 B.C.), it was more than a group of structures dedicated to different gods. Within Karnak's precincts were administrative offices, treasuries, palaces, bakeries, breweries, granaries, and schools.
Supported by the revenue from royal land endowments, Karnak was an economic power. When Ramses iii reigned (1194-1163 B.C.), the "domain of Amun" covered 900 square miles of agricultural land, vineyards, and marshlands, in addition to quarries and mines.
Nexus. Amun's temple was probably built on a pre-existing sacred mound, like the one that rose from the primordial sea, according to creation myths. Egyptian temples embodied this cosmology: The ceiling was heaven; the floor, the fertile marsh from which life emerged. The pylons at the temple's entrance were shaped like the hieroglyph for "horizon," and the whole edifice, like the horizon, was the nexus of heaven and earth, divine and mortal, order and chaos.
The temple held these polarities together; so long as the rites were enacted by the pharaoh—the son of God—harmony and balance were maintained. But above all, the temple functioned as symbol and mechanism for renewal, the concept on which Egyptian civilization was largely based. As Richard H. Wilkinson writes in The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, "symbol and ritual together propelled the temple and thus the world through the continuum of time and created, as much as they marked, the passage of days, months, seasons and years."
The year, separated into seasons of inundation, growth, and harvest, reflected the intimate rapport with nature that characterized Egyptian beliefs. The ancients nonetheless accepted that even the gods must one day die, returning the world to its chaotic origins. The observance of sacred ritual, as upheld in the temples, could forestall that time and hold the past, present, and future in equilibrium.
The temple sanctuary, like the primeval mound, was elevated. In this most sacred room, accessible only to the pharaoh and the highest-ranking priests, the gold- and jewel-encrusted god was housed. But during two annual festivals, he left the temple to visit the people and fellow deities, transported by priests on a sacred boat. A processional avenue of ram-headed sphinxes linked Karnak to Luxor temple, a few miles to the south. Along the way, the priests rested at chapels where musicians and acrobats provided entertainment.
The ritual offering of flowers, associated with regeneration, intensified during feasts, and people presented them in holders shaped like the ankh, the hieroglyph for "life." Festival attendees scraped dust from the temple walls for healing and devotion, a practice that still exists with a slight variation, says Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at Cairo's American University. "Men drink their temple scrapings in tea to become more potent—early Viagra!'' she notes, adding that women circle the stone scarab near Karnak's sacred lake seven times as a fertility charm.
These "survivals," contiguous traditions dating to antiquity, are reflected in the Coptic calendar that still guides farmers and in Egyptian Arabic where traces of the old language remain. Egypt's ancient temples, its "houses of eternity," became a symbol of civilization's achievements, while bearing the poignant message that even the greatest empires one day fall.