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Exploring the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor: A Visitors Guide

Exploring the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor: A Visitors Guide

Visiting Karnak temple, the incredible ancient Egyptian monument on the banks of the River Nile in Luxor had been on my bucket list for many years.

I had previously enjoyed beach holidays to Sharm El Sheikh and, on this trip, Hurghada, but I had never before seen any of Egypt’s incredible centuries-old structures built to worship the Gods and the Pharaohs.

All this changed when I booked a two-day Luxor trip from Hurghada, which included visiting the temple of Karnak, one of the world’s most significant open-air museums and the world’s second-largest religious site after Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

I had an amazing time exploring Karnak, and in this post, I have written about the highlights of my visit, which I have to say were utterly mind-blowing.

I hope my words and photographs inspire you to visit Karnak and experience first-hand Egypt’s second most popular site after the Pyramids of Giza.

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Bite-Sized Historical Facts

Karnak Temple is over 2000 years old and stands in Luxor, once known as the ancient city of Thebes. It was built to worship the sun God Amun Ra during the New Kingdom period from 1550 to 1070 BC.

Karnak’s construction began during the reign of Senusret I around 1971 BC. Its purpose was to be a place to worship the Sun God Amun Ra, his wife Mut and his son Khonsu.

The most famous sections of the Karnak complex are in the precinct of Amun Ra.

It became a city home to 4,000 Egyptians and a place to worship, and Karnak’s priests became as important as the Egyptian kings.

It took over 1,500 years to complete the temple at Karnak, with as many as thirty successive pharaohs adding to it.

Ramses ll and Tutankhamun were two who left their mark by erecting statues of themselves around the temple and carving hieroglyphics into the walls showing them in battle and going about their daily routines.

The oldest area of the temple holds the largest obelisk in Egypt, which is also one of the two tallest standing ancient Egyptian obelisks in the world (the other is the Lateran Obelisk in Rome transported from Karnak to Italy in the early 4th century AD).  

three seated stone statues of Pharoah's in Karnak

How to visit Karnak Temple

My visit to Karnak Temple was part of a one-night/two-day private Luxor Tour from Hurghada with Egypt Key Tours.

Transfers to and from Luxor were included, as was the entry to Luxor and Karnak Temples, the Karnak light and sound show and the Valley of the Kings. Access to several of the main tombs was included.

Entry to the Tomb of Tutankhamun is extra but worth every single penny!

An Egyptologist met us in Luxor, and a driver escorted us for the 2-day tour. They were both excellent.

I booked a room with a River Nile view at the Iberotel in Luxor for one night; it was basic but comfortable. If you need assistance booking a hotel, Egypt Key Tours can help you.

I paid in full for my trip to Luxor and am not recommending Egypt Key Tours in return for a free tour. I am recommending them because I was 100% happy with everything I received from them.

If you are travelling to Luxor and want to see Karnak temple, I highly recommend pre-booking a qualified guide. Knowing what you are looking at is more rewarding than simply wandering around. Although if that is what you prefer, you will still have the most incredible experience.

Best things to see in the Temple of Karnak

  • Avenue of the Rams
  • Ramses lll Temple Shrine
  • Ramses ll Statue
  • Papyrus Column
  • Hypostyle Hall
  • Sacred Lake
  • Scarab Beetle Statue
  • Hatshepsut’s Obelisk
  • Festival Hall of Thutmose lll

A Tour of Karnak Temple

To say my excitement levels were in overdrive when we arrived in Luxor is an understatement. I had only ever read about the colossal Karnak temple or seen images of it in films. Now here I was, experiencing it for myself.

Ibrahim, our Karnak tour guide, gave us an introductory talk on this ancient Egyptian temple. He explained why it was here, how it got here and which Egyptian pharaohs had been responsible for its expansion over the centuries.

I love history and could have listened to his stories all day, but I also couldn’t wait to explore and discover the secrets of this mythical temple.

Karnak temple complex

Avenue of Sphinxes/Rams

At the Karnak temple entrance, a row of rams/sphinxes flanks the first pylon.

A pylon is a monumental structure that marks a temple entrance and originates from the Greek word pylon, meaning gateway.

The mythical Egyptian creatures have a lion’s body and a ram’s head. Between the paws of each sphinx is a tiny standing statue of King Ramses ll.

The Avenue of Sphinxes extends more than two miles and links Karnak and Luxor temples.

Row of sphinxes with rams heads and lions bodies
Row of sphinxs with temple wall behind

My first glimpse of ancient hieroglyphics was also at the entrance to the temple.

A huge sandstone slab taller than me was inscribed with animals, lines, shapes and pharaohs. To run my fingers across these ancient carvings was incredible.

A scarab (dung beetle) was also carved onto the stone representing the eternal cycle of life. I would have loved to be able to decipher what the hieroglyphs say.

Inside the First Pylon at Karnak

Once inside the temple courtyard, I was speechless. Karnak looks like a film set due to the incredible size of the statues and structures all around.

No matter what descriptive words I use, they can’t compare to experiencing Karnak in person. It’s almost incomprehensible!

Angie standing inside the courtyard of Karnak Temple

Ramses lll Temple Shrine

To the right, as you enter the first pylon, is the temple of Ramses lll. Two red sandstone six-metre statues flank the doorway. Eight figures of the king line the way to his inner chamber.

Statue of Ramses ll at the entrance to Karnak Temple
Row of statues in Karnak
Angie posing in front of a stone statue of a pharaoh with her arms crossed in the same position as the statue

Second Pylon at Karnak

A gigantic Ramses ll statue stands at the Second Pylon’s entrance.

It is over 50 feet tall and made of a single piece of stone. Between his legs stands his wife, Queen Nefertari.

The remains of another statue of Ramses ll are close by but with only a pair of stone feet intact.

Standing next to this gigantic pharaoh made me feel tiny. The craftsmanship of such an enormous piece of granite was incredible.

To think that this statue has been standing here since ancient times is hard to imagine and was one of those ‘pinch-me’ moments.

Close by, a mammoth 50 ft high column is topped with a papyrus flower.

Angie looking up towards a column in Karnak Temple

The Great Hypostyle Hall

The magnificent Great Hypostyle Hall is the most striking feature of Karnak temple.

It is undoubtedly a must-see for any traveller to Egypt.

The hall has 134 sandstone columns arranged symmetrically in sixteen rows. It covers an area of 4,983 square metres, making it the largest single chamber of any temple worldwide.

Massive columns reach upwards to the sky, designed to look like papyrus plants with long stalks and capped by flowers.

The job of the columns was to support Karnak’s old stone roof that once protected the temple. The top has long gone, but the supports are still visible and utterly incredible.

Each mighty stone column rises to a height of 60 feet and is decorated with pictures and hieroglyphics explaining life in Karnak over the centuries.

In ancient times, the colours on the columns would have been vibrant blues, reds, greens and yellows. Artisans would have crushed minerals and mixed the powder with water to provide this colour palette.

Red indicated power and victory. Green symbolized new life, growth and fertility, while blue represented rebirth. Yellow stood for eternal life; it was the colour of the sun god Amun Ra.

Although they have faded over time, there is still evidence of their beauty. This is thanks to the conservation work done by Unesco, who preserve and protect Karnak temple as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Sacred Lake

The Sacred Lake is where Amun Ra’s priests purified themselves and conducted religious rites. Living quarters for the priests would have stood around the lake.

Nowadays, this is the spot to watch the Karnak light and sound show.

Sacred Lake in Karnak

Sacred Scarab Statue

Ancient Egyptian belief tells us that to have a wish granted and receive good luck, you must walk around the scarab beetle three times, and if you want to be fertile, it’s seven times around. Of course, I had to have a go!

What is fact is that the scarab has significant symbolism for the pharaohs, and Amenhotep III gifted this scarab statue to his wife in honour of his love for her.

Look out for the scarab markings all around Karnak temple and the other historic landmarks in Luxor that you visit; they are everywhere.

Sacred Scarab Beetle Statue in Karnak

The Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut

Queen Hatshepsut was a formidable female pharaoh who reigned over Egypt for nearly twenty years in the fifteenth century BC.

An impressive sight in Karnak is Hatshepsut’s obelisk. Made of a single block of pink granite and inscribed with hieroglyphics, it rises to twenty-nine and a half metres.

You can also see an obelisk erected by her father, Thutmose I.

Many obelisks were gifted to other countries, including Cleopatra’s Needle, which stands on the Thames Embankment in London. It was a gift from Egypt to London in 1877 and is one of three ancient obelisks that can be seen in Paris and New York.

I didn’t realise how incredible it would be to see an obelisk in its country of origin, and I am thankful that Hatshepsut’s obelisk remained in Karnak.

Karnak temple complex

Festival Hall of Thutmose lll

One of Karnak’s most important archaeological shrines is the Festival Hall. This incredible temple was built by Thutmose lll to celebrate his jubilee and other royal ceremonies.

Much like the Hypostyle Hall, but on a small scale, the Festival Hall has 32 columns all decorated in hieroglyphs and, thanks to the restoration work done, still retaining some of the pastel colours now over 2,000 years old.

Festival Hall showing columns in Karnak Temple

The Festival Hall’s walls, ceilings and columns are covered in incredible carvings.

These show animals and plants brought back to Egypt from Africa and Asia following battles won by the Pharaohs.

Carvings of animal and plants in the Festival Hall Karnak

Look out around the temple for a figure that has been purposely scratched out. The figure was of Queen Hatshepsut, and her stepson scored it out.

Thutmose III hated her for taking away his position as heir to the throne after her husband and his father’s death. Once he became Pharoah, he erased her from memory by rampaging through the temples and scratching away her image and her cartouche (nameplate).

Maybe by doing this, he made her even more famous than if he had left her images alone.

In the photograph below, you can see that she was flanked by Horus, the falcon-headed God of Power and the Ibis-headed Moon God Thoth.

Notice all the Ankh symbols in the carving. This is the sign of life, and you will see it in every temple in Egypt.

The one-of-a-kind Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut lies near the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank on the opposite side of the Nile to Karnak Temple.

Monumental Sized Ruins in Karnak

Being with our guide, Ibrahim, meant we could see some other remarkable sights away from the main tourist areas of the Karnak complex. We got to go into some smaller temples only accessible with a nod and firm handshake with the temple guard. It was a dream come true!

I was asked not to photograph inside these restricted temples, but my memories of these magical interiors are good enough for me.

And look at the fragments of statues scattered around Karnak. This Royal finger and ring were taller than me!

Part of a colossal stone statue in Karnak of a finger with a ring on it

Karnak Temple Light and Sound Show

After dark, Karnak Temple has a 75-minute light and sound show each evening. Make sure you book the show in the correct language you require.

The show begins at the colossal statue of Ramses ll at the entrance to the Great Hypostyle Hall and tells the story of Ancient Thebes (Luxor) through narration, music and projected images.

Visitors are then led around Karnak to the outdoor seating by the Sacred lake. Take a warm coat with you as it can get very chilly sitting outdoors, as I found out, even in March!

Here the story of life, death and Ancient Egypt is told through recorded narration and lighting.

I would say that the sound and light show starts well, but the storytelling around the sacred lake is too long and didn’t grab my attention enough. Nevertheless, I enjoyed experiencing Karnak at night, away from the crowds.

The Karnak light and sound show was included in my tour. If you are an independent traveller to Luxor, you can book online tickets to the Karnak light and sound show.

Entrance to Karnak Temple lit up at night

Visiting Karnak on a Guided Tour 

If you want to visit Karnak as part of a 2-day tour from Hurghada, then as previously mentioned, I would recommend Egypt Key Tours.

If time is short, a one-day tour of Luxor from Hurghada, including the main temples and tombs, can be done but will be pretty rushed, and you won’t get to spend too long at each location. However, any time spent in Karnak and around Luxor is worth it, so don’t miss out!

My thoughts on doing a private tour of Karnak

I have travelled to many unique places around the world, but Karnak, along with the temples of Cambodia, is one of the most amazing places I have ever experienced.

I urge anyone considering a holiday to Egypt to book a tour to Luxor to see and learn more about this ancient civilisation that shaped the rest of the world.

Please Pin for Future Travel to Egypt

Maria Veloso

Friday 13th of January 2023

Old historic buildings are my favorite types of destinations to visit. People ought to travel there more often since these locations are timeless, prominent, and worth seeing. Due to the variety of sights it offers, the Karnak Temple is truly phenomenal. My favorite section is the majestic Great Hypostyle Hall. I'm excited about visiting the temple, and I've put it on my travel list.

Puloma Bhattacharya

Thursday 12th of January 2023

Egypt has been in my bucket list for years, since I read about the Egyptian civilization in my school curriculum. The land of the sphinxes and pharaohs is mesmerizing! You itinerary to the Karnak temple complex is full of gems to explore. The mind blowing sand stone sculptures like the Avenue of Sphinxes, the Temple shrine of King Rameses III, the tomb of Tutankhamen and the obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut. The colorful hieroglyphics inscribed on the walls with glimpses of their every day lives and the tall columns shaped as papyrus flowers is marvellous. And I would definitely love to watch the light and sound show bringing back ancient city of Thebes to life .

WhereAngieWanders

Thursday 12th of January 2023

I was mesmerised by learning the history of Egypt at school, and now to see it in real life is a dream come true. I hope that you get your wish also to visit Luxor one day.

Arnav Mathur

Thursday 12th of January 2023

Seems like you had an amazing experience, reminiscing with the history of Egypt. Have been to Angkor Wat, but never knew that the Karnak Temple Complex is the 2nd largest in the world. Found the article to be quiet intensive, perfect not only for history buffs, but for anyone who is about to visit Egypt. After all, reading about the Karnak Temple Complex, before visiting will surely enhance the relatibility quotient.

WhereAngieWanders

Thursday 12th of January 2023

I am glad you enjoyed reading my article. I too have visited Angkor Wat, and while in size they are relative they are very different in content.

Clarice

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

Wow! This is also part of my bucket list. It would be awesome to see those carved hieroglyphics up close. I would love to visit the tomb of Tutankhamon. I have only read them in books. Happy to know the trip is worth every single penny. Now, I am just excited to go. :)

WhereAngieWanders

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

I hope you get there one day!

Anne

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

As a very independent traveler I still respect that some places need the help of good guide to fully appreciate them. That's great you found an excellent tour and learned so much. I can't believe the temple was 1,500-year project!

WhereAngieWanders

Tuesday 10th of January 2023

I know, it's almost incomprehensible!