Not only is the Great Hypostyle Hall the grandest of such halls (at Karnak and throughout
all of Egypt), it is also the most richly decorated. Pharaohs Sety I, Ramesses II,
and their successors commanded their artisans to cover its walls and columns with
hundreds of religious scenes, literally acres of relief carvings, including scenes
of historical and religious significance along with accompanying hieroglyphic caption
texts. This ritual art represents a sample of the sacred activities that Pharaoh and
Amun’s priests enacted within the temple, from the daily sacrifices to its main god
Amun-Re to yearly festivals during which Amun left Karnak and visited other temples
in ancient Thebes. In other scenes, Pharaoh appears before the gods to receive their
approbation of his earthly dominion over Egypt. They crown him with various diadems,
invest him with scepters and other insignia of rule, and even pour water over him
in a kind of pharaonic baptism.
|Aerial view of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.
Every space on the columns, the base of the walls, the gateways, and all exposed surfaces
of the architraves and clerestory roof are covered with hundreds of additional decorations,
including long dedicatory texts, stereotyped friezes of royal titles, and heraldic
devices. Many of these inscriptions are highly repetitive and stereotyped, particularly
the endless royal cartouches and strings of kingly titles that Ramesses II and especially Ramesses IV added to
Outside, on the building’s northern and southern exterior walls, panoramic battle
scenes sculpted in bold sunk relief immortalize the wars of Sety I and Ramesses II
in ancient Syria, Canaan, Lebanon, and Libya. Intended to glorify the king’s role
in warfare and to symbolize the triumph of the forces of order over chaos, these scenes
portray Pharaoh as a larger-than-life superhero singlehandedly defeating his foreign
enemies. After his inevitable triumph over the foe, the king presents the spoils of
victory and prisoners of war to Amun-Re . Although highly bombastic, such monumental
propaganda constitutes vital evidence for Egypt’s foreign relations in the 13th Century BCE, especially in the years prior to Ramesses II’s peace treaty with the Hittite Empire.
|Relief of Sety I's Libyan war from the northern exterior wall of the Hypostyle Hall.
Ritual Scenes and their Sequence
Inside the Hypostyle Hall, religious themes prevail, with pictorial scenes showing
Pharaoh in the company of Egypt’s gods. A seemingly endless progression of religious
scenes unfolds on every wall, column, and gateway, each depicting the king performing
some ritual act in the presence of one or more gods. Dense columns of hieroglyphic
texts crowd the space above the figures’ heads and sometimes between one figure and
another. But what do all these images mean? Do they form some continuous narrative
or tell a story?
On every wall, ritual scenes unfold at several levels, called registers, stacked one
atop the other. Most walls have four or five registers of individual scenes that are
contained within their own “cell,” like a comic strip. Altogether, each wall gives
the appearance of a mosaic or collage of distinct cells, but are they really like
a giant comic book or graphic novel etched in stone?
|Raised relief of Sety I offering maat to Amun-Re.
Every scene depicts a complete ritual event and stands by itself as a complete sacred
act. A collection of scenes on a whole wall, or even in a single register, do not
necessarily form a continuous narrative, yet smaller groups of episodes may link a
sequence of closely related cultic acts to describe a larger ceremony.
Visual clues underline the apparent individuality of the scenes. Not only does Pharaoh
accomplish different sacred tasks from one episode to the next, he changes his physical
appearance as well by donning different crowns and costumes. The gods he worships
and their appearance also varies from scene to scene. Such inconsistencies in the
actors and their physical description need not indicate that smaller groups of scenes
do not link together to form a broader narrative.
We can read brief sequences of events narratively from one scene to the next, as with
the king’s journey from his palace to Amun’s temple in a cluster from the south wall.
Here, Ramesses II departs from the palace where he meets the god Khnum, who purifies
him with water. Next, he is led hand in hand by the gods Atum and Monthu into the
temple, where he kneels in Amun’s shrine and receives his blessing while the god Thoth
and goddess Seshet present him with palm fronds and hieroglyphic characters symbolizing
a long reign of many years and countless jubilee festivals.
Longer ritual sequences may consist of several related episodes, as with the temple
foundation rites depicted on the west wall. Here Ramesses II conducts a series of
rites to construct and dedicate a new temple to Amun. Arranged one after the other
on the second register from ground level, these progress from right to left in six
- Stretching the Cord: a surveying rite Ramesses conducts with Seshet, the goddess of
- Scattering Gypsum Powder: Pharaoh casts powder into the foundation trench to create
a protective boundary around the temple.
- Hacking the Earth: where Pharaoh prepares the temple's foundations with a hoe.
- Molding the First Brick: using a wooden mold, he forms a mud brick.This is similar
to laying the cornerstone in modern building ceremonies.
- Dedicating the Temple to its Lord: where Ramesses dedicates the completed temple to
- Presenting a hecatomb: here the king presents a greatoffering of meat products to
celebrate completion of the temple.
|Ramesses II scattering gypsum around the temple in the presence of Amun-Re and Amunet.
|Ramesses II molding a brick before Amun-Re.
|Ramesses II presenting the temple to Amun-Re.
Amun is present in every case to witness Ramesses II’s acts, yet in the final episode
of the foundation ritual, neither appears. Instead Sety I dedicates a hecatomb offering
to the Memphite god Ptah. With this sequence, Ramesses never intended to commemorate
actual events, either to show current acts or imagine future ones. Instead, these
scenes illustrate timeless and idealized ritual acts that any king might perform at any time. In other temples, the foundation ritual sequence
can include various numbers and groupings of these and related scenes.
Varieties of Ritual Scenes
Modern visitors are easily overwhelmed by the confusing jumble of religious scenes
on the walls and columns of the Hypostyle Hall. They seem to have little observable
relationship to each other except the repetitive appearance of Pharaoh before the
gods. Even for Egyptologists, these sequences too often appear random. Smaller groups
can be read together as a narrative, but the larger “order of service” of these rites
across whole walls or the entire building often still eludes us. Nevertheless, we
can discern larger themes in the decoration including: festival celebrations; the
daily cult ritual enacted on behalf of the god in his shrine; and themes centering
on rites of pharaonic kingship.
Even when there is no clear relationship between one episode and the next, nearly
all of them share a common iconographic structure or pattern of activity. Most can
be classified based on what the king is doing on behalf of the gods, or vice versa.
A few distinct categories form the bulk of what we see according to the ritual event
and while details vary widely, most scenes fall into a limited range of basic themes
in which Pharaoh does one of the following:
- He offers incense in a cup or with an incense wand.
- He pours a libation of water from one or more jars or vases or he dedicates several
vessels at once.
- He simultaneously offers incense and libation.He gives bread or cakes of various shapes
- He offers bouquets of flowers and fresh green.
- He presents two bowls of wine or jugs of milk.
- He anoints the god's cult statue or donates ointment vases.
- He elevates a tray of food offerings.
- He dedicates piles of offerings or a hecatomb with or without a ritual wand.
- He offers a symbol of Maat (truth, order) or his own royal name.
- He lays hands on the god or embraces him.
|Column scene of Ramesses II burning incense and pouring libation.
|Sety I offering an elaborate ointment jar (left) and flowers (right).
While there are literally dozens of other categories of ritual scenes, including the
foundation rites or special acts connected to festivals or the daily service on behalf
of the god’s cult image, the largest percentage will belong to the groups listed above.
Yet within these relatively few categories, there will be endless variety in the mix
of gods, royal costumes, hieroglyphic texts, offerings, and ritual paraphernalia.
Scenes related to festivals, both real and idealized, also bulk large in temple wall
art. Processional scenes involving sacred barks of the Theban Triad tend to be the
most elaborate of these, as Pharaoh escorts the bark of Amun and its cortège of bearer-priests
while those of Mut and Khonsu follow behind, or as he makes various offerings to the
barks once they are installed in the temple’s holy of holies. Other rites seem to
be of a celebratory nature, but texts accompanying them do not refer to any specific
festival like Opet or the Valley Feast as with the bark procession scenes. This collection
of miscellaneous acts includes:
- Pharaoh performs a ritual race in the presence of the gods between sacred boundary
markers while holding various objects. Sometimes he runs with a bull cal.
- Pharaoh drives four calves before the god; that is, one each of red, white,black and
- Pharaoh waves a scepter to consecrate four sacred Meret-chests to the god.
|Ramesses II driving four calves into the presence of Amun-Re Kamutef.
Egyptian temple worship was based on the idea of a mutually beneficial relationship
between humanity and the gods. Pharaoh was the ultimate intermediary with one foot
in the divine realm and another in the human world. Just as he built temples and performed
ritual acts for their “care and feeding,” the gods in turn could do good turns for
his benefit. These divine benefactions on behalf of the king are symbolized by a class
of scenes intermixed with the rest. In all of these, the gods are the actors and Pharaoh
is the recipient of their blessings:
- The god clasps Pharaoh’s hand and touches symbols of life to his nose.
- The god or goddess grants Pharaoh symbols of long life, millions of jubilee festivals,
life, dominion and similar benefactions.
- The god affixes crowns to Pharaoh's head and/or gives him scepters and kingly regalia.
- Two gods, usually Horus and either Thoth or Seth, purify Pharaoh with ritual water
by pouring it over him from libation vases.
- The god confers his blessing as the king stands or kneels before him.
- Atum and Monthu lead Pharaoh into the presence of Amun.
- While Pharaoh sits or kneels beneath the sacred Ished-tree, Thoth inscribes his name
on its leaves
|Ramesses II receiving jubilees from Amun-Re accompanied by Neith (behind Amun's throne)
and Mut-Weret-Hekau (behind the king).
Most of these rites can appear separately or be combined together, as shown on the
east wing of the south wall where Ramesses II kneels to receive years and jubilees
from Amun-Re, Mut, and Khonsu while Thoth inscribes his name on the Ished-tree.
Structure of Ritual Scenes
Despite their infinite variety of iconographic details and combinations of hieroglyphic
texts, all these ritual scenes possess a common structure allowing the viewer to decode
them. Pharaoh appears on one side of the scene, confronting one or more deities who
face him. Normally, the artists carefully designed the image so that the king appears
to have arrived from outside the temple and faces towards its interior, while the
gods resting within it face towards the outside world. The principal deity always
faces the king directly, while secondary divinities stand behind him. Attendant deities
are often female or are males that are somehow subordinate to the premiere one. Less
often, another deity stands behind the king and always faces in the same direction
that he does.
In the middle of most ritual scenes, an altar bearing offerings stands between the
king and the main god. These vary from heavily laden tables piled high with an assortment
of bread, meat, fruits, flowers, and incense pots to a single hourglass shaped table-stand
bearing a libation vase and small bouquet of flowers. While such offering tables may
be the central focus of the king’s cultic act, when he dedicates them, in other cases
they are incidental to his rite and serve mainly as “space fillers.” Offering stands
can even be entirely absent due either to lack of space or when they are replaced
with other bulky objects crucial to the ritual as when Pharaoh drives the four calves
or consecrates Meret-chests.
Above the king’s head, except where space is lacking, there usually hovers a raptor
or solar symbol as manifestation of a protective deity. Vultures commonly represent
the goddesses Nekhbet of Upper Egypt or Wadjet of Lower Egypt. Nekhbet’s primary form
was as a vulture while Wadjet was a serpent goddess, sometimes with a cobra’s head,
but who also appeared as a vulture. Falcons always represent the Behdetite, a form
of the kingly god Horus. Solar disks, often with two uraeus cobras and sometimes with
hieroglyphic signs for life and dominion suspended from them, are further incarnations
of the Behdetite.
|Raised relief of Wadjet in her vulture form hovering above the king (left) and of
the Behdetite shown as a disc with two ureai (right).
In the upper half of the scene, one finds columns of hieroglyphic texts grouped by
theme. Above the pharaoh himself, the texts contain one or more of his five royal
names and titles, especially his two cartouche names enclosed within their distinctive ovals and sometimes his Horus name inside
a tall rectangular “box” on which a falcon hieroglyph rests.
|Prenomen and nomen cartouches of Sety I preceded by a serekh enclosing his Horus name.
Accompanying texts can also give various other titles and epithets. In most scenes,
further texts connected to Pharaoh express wishes for divinely-given benefactions,
describing him as one “given life, prosperity and health (etc.)…like the sun god forever.”
Behind him might be a column of hieroglyphs expressing a further wish that “every
protection of all life, stability and dominion, all health, and all joy might surround
him like the sun god.”
A separate text frequently appears in the lower middle part of the scene between the
king and god. Called a “label text,” this inscription serves as the title of the scene
itself, referring to the king’s ritual act. Label texts announce what the king is
doing and for which god. They further assert that he obtain some benefit in exchange
for his gift to the deity, such as to be “given life.” Typical examples include:
- “Giving incense to Amun-Re that he (the king) might achieve ‘given life.’”
- “Making incense and libation.”
- “Presenting ointment to his father Amun-Re that he might achieve ‘given life.’”
- “Offering milk to his father Amun-Re.”
- “Driving the calves towards Amun.”
- “Dedicating a hecatomb-offering to his father Amun-Re that he might achieve ‘given
- “Giving every sort of fresh flowers that he might achieve ‘given life.’”
Above and around the gods and/or goddesses in the scene are hieroglyphic texts bearing
their names and epithets, followed by brief speeches in which they confer their blessings
on Pharaoh in exchange for his cultic acts on their behalf. Divine speeches frequently
begin with the phrase “words spoken” or “words spoken by god N.” Since Egyptian texts
lacked punctuation, these formulae are essentially quotation marks but also remind
the priest or even the gods themselves to recite these favors aloud. A few of these
brief formulaic statements include:
- “To you I have given life, prosperity and health.”
- “To you I have given all valor and all victory.”
- “To you I have given millions of Jubilees and years of eternity.”
|Ramesses II offering wine to Amun-Re. The texts above the scene between the two figures
list the many blessings the god is bestowing upon the king.
Dozens of other benefactions in countless arrangements appear in divine caption texts
throughout in the Great Hypostyle Hall. As wall space allows, both the primary and
secondary deities pronounce similar blessings, and columns of texts listing their
invocations may be sandwiched between or behind them. In more spacious tableau, the
gods give longer, less formulaic speeches. Often praising Pharaoh’s achievements as
a builder of temples and for donating rich offerings, they are more effusive—and detailed—in
promising him endless blessings for his piety.
|Ramesses II receiving jubilees, the crook and the flail from Amun-Re in the company
of Mut and Khonsu.
Finally, brief caption texts beside the protective raptor or Behdietite solar disk
above Pharaoh feature the god’s name and epithets, often with the phrase “as he/she
gives life, prosperity, etc…”
Marginal Decoration, Graffiti and Popular Religious Practices
A confusing patchwork of inscriptions blankets every surface of the Hypostyle Hall,
especially on most of the 134 columns. Responsibility for the density of this embellishment
lies not just with the Hall’s builders, Seti I and Ramesses II, but with a number
of their successors. Disregarding the balance between inscribed and blank surfaces
which would allow inscriptions to be seen to advantage, Ramesses IV, Ramesses VI and the High Priest of Amun Herihor filled empty spaces on columns, walls, and gateways with new texts. They applied
bandeau texts listing strings of their royal titles and formulaic dedication texts
on gateways and at the base of the walls. Ramesses IV systematically embellished large
portions of most of the 134 columns with bandeau texts and friezes of his royal cartouches,
all repeated endlessly. Indeed, his cartouche names appear literally thousands of
|Examples of the large cartouches and Horus names added by Ramesses IV to the decoration
at the base of the large columns, showing later usurpation of Ramesses VI.
|Example of a column with a row of cartouches at the top and a part of an offering
scene, both parts of the decorative program of Ramesses IV in the Hall.
The Ancient Egyptian practice of adding new inscriptions to older buildings, even
at the cost of erasing the name of the original builder, is strange to modern viewers
who are likely to accuse the offending pharaoh of theft. Imagine if a modern American
president tried to add his name to the Washington Monument or replace Lincoln’s statue
with his own in the Lincoln Memorial. The public would be outraged! But such practices
were considered perfectly legitimate, even normal, in Egyptian antiquity. Egyptians
added new inscriptions to existing monuments for a variety of reasons. As with most
of Ramesses IV’s inscriptions, a king might do so without actually removing the name
of his predecessors.
Midway through his 67 year reign, Ramesses II added hundreds of new inscriptions to
the columns and nave of the Hypostyle Hall, sometimes erasing the names of his long-deceased
father Sety I in the process. Yet Ramesses acted not out of spite or hatred of his
father, but in celebration of his own great series of jubilee festivals. His successors,
including Ramesses IV and the High Priest of Amun-Re Herihor, added marginal inscriptions
on undecorated parts of the columns, seeking to associate themselves with their illustrious
predecessors Sety I and Ramesses II, but without erasing their names. In some cases,
however, Ramesses VI reinscribed Ramesses IV’s cartouche names with his own, but more
often, he left them untouched.
Even the common people of Egypt left their mark on this great monument. They scratched
images of the gods on the Hypostyle Hall’s exterior walls and gateways. Along with
the “official” icons of the gods carved by the pharaohs’ artists, pious visitors sometimes
carved their own private ex voto images of gods and sacred objects, and these often became objects of worship by religious
pilgrims. Most visitors were rarely permitted entry into the Hypostyle Hall and not
at all to the inner sanctum, yet they could approach the outer walls, courtyards,
and gateways to express their devotion to the gods within.
Another common manifestation of their piety are countless rows of vertical oval grooves
carved on the walls and columns (as shown in the image to the right), which testify
to the popular magical practice of tapping the shrine’s power by scraping off bits
of stone for personal use. To protect the icons carved on the outer walls and gateways
from over-zealous pilgrims, temple priests ordered protective veils attached to the
walls to screen holy images from view. These veils consisted of wood panels or perhaps
cloth screens mounted on wooden frames. The veils have long since disappeared, but
sets of holes drilled into the walls that encompass certain divine images indicate
where these screens were once erected against the temple’s walls. It is possible that
veiled icons were occasionally revealed to pilgrims on certain holy days. On the north
wall of the Hypostyle Hall, Pharaoh Ramesses III erected a more elaborate lean-to
shrine to envelop an image of the Theban Triad once these icons had developed a special
cult following among pious visitors.
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