Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project
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Meaning and Function

Meaning and Function of the Great Hypostyle Hall

Mansions of the Gods: Egyptian Temple Design

Egyptians called their temples "mansions of the gods" and considered them the deities' houses. Like other Egyptian homes, most temples shared a three-part design consisting of:

  • An outer courtyard

  • A central public room

  • Private inner chambers

Visitors entered the house through a doorway in its walled outer courtyard that might have a portico porch at one end resting on columns. Opposite the main entrance was a second doorway leading to a roofed public room where homeowners received visitors and carried out important family activities such as worship of the household's deities. Even in modest houses, this public room had a high roof supported by at least one pillar and small windows set high in the walls to admit sunlight. Behind this public room lay the family's private quarters. 

Hypostyle Halls

Most Ancient Egyptian temples possessed a hypostyle hall. Hypostyle is an Ancient Greek term denoting a building having rows of columns supporting its roof. As befitting a "divine mansion," Egyptian temples were imposing structures often built of stone on a large scale. Some even had two or more hypostyles. Rather than one or two modest wooden pillars, temple hypostyles usually boasted at least four stone columns. Usually, temple columns mimicked the appearance of papyrus reed stalks, their capitals resembling either closed floral buds or massive bell-shaped papyrus flowers in full bloom. Larger hypostyles might be populated with a dozen or more columns. 
Columns along the central axis were built taller than the rest to support a higher roof in the central nave. The difference between the height of the nave and the side aisles resulted in a design similar to ancient Roman basilicas and medieval Gothic cathedrals and, like these structures, allowed their builders to insert windows in an attic space called a clerestory.

clerestory diagram

Diagram showing the layout of the Hypostyle Hall, with its columns, architraves and clerestory.


A Model of the Universe

Ancient Egyptian temples were not just homes for the gods, they were also replicas of the universe at the moment of creation. In Egyptian mythology, the universe emerged from a vast cosmic ocean of nothingness. For countless eons, the creator-sun god Atum had drifted asleep in this primordial sea which the Egyptians called Nun. Eventually, the creator god awoke and willed a small island to emerge from out of the cosmic sea. From atop this hill, which the Egyptians called the mound of the "First Event," Atum proceeded to call all things into existence starting with the male god Shu (the air) and the goddess Tefnut (moisture). Next came a third generation of deities in the form of the male earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. After further generations, every feature of nature was born, each with a god or goddess to govern it.

typical temple

Drawing of the layout of a typical Ancient Egyptian temple.


Egyptian temples were replicas of this early universe with inner sanctuaries representing the primeval hill. As visitors moved from the outer courts, through the hypostyle hall and into the holy of holies, the floor level gradually rose while the ceilings became lower. It also became darker as the open roofed courts and the hypostyle halls with their clerestory windows gave way to dark inner chambers with just one small light shaft in the inner chapel to illuminate the god's cult statue. This confined and shadowy atmosphere transported the visitors privileged enough to see the god in his home back to the very beginning of time—but just a few priests and Pharaoh himself could enter this holy of holies. Within this sacred model of space and time, a hypostyle hall mimicked a thicket of papyrus reeds that grew in the swampy edges of the primeval mound. 

  The Name of the Hypostyle Hall

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs always bestowed grand sounding names on their monuments, and Sety I was no exception. Compounding it with his own royal name, the pharaoh dedicated it as "The Divine Mansion (called): Sety-Beloved-of-Amun-is-Effective-in-the-Estate-of-Amun." In fact, this was just one of a parallel set of Sety's temple foundations sharing comparable titles. Just across the Nile River from Karnak lie the ruins of Sety I's memorial temple at Gurnah. During the New Kingdom, each pharaoh dedicated his royal memorial temple on the west bank of Thebes to his personal godhood and funerary cult, and simultaneously, to his close association with Amun-Re. Gurnah Temple bears almost the identical name as the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak, but with the added qualification "On-the-West-of-Thebes." Like other royal memorial temples, Sety I's Gurnah shrine operated as a satellite of Amun's main Karnak residence.

hall name

The name of the Hypostyle Hall in hieroglyphs:
Ax %ty mr.n-Imn m pr Imn
"Effective is Sety-beloved-of-Amun in the estate of Amun."


At Karnak, Sety emblazoned the Hall's official sobriquet at several points throughout the building. It turns up on the north gateway and in long dedicatory inscriptions on the architrave beams atop columns in the central nave, and in religious scenes on the walls and columns, various gods are said to dwell within the so-named building. 

Amun-Re and the Theban Triad

Amunwas the chief god of ancient Thebes, and Karnak Temple was the most important of several temples in the city dedicated to his worship. During the New Kingdom period (ca. 1550-1100 BCE), Amun was the most important deity in the Egyptian pantheon. His name means "The Hidden One" and prior to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2055-1650 BCE), he was relatively obscure. To mark his new prominence, his identity merged with that of the ancient and prestigious sun god Re of Heliopolis in the north. The composite god Amun-Re then became "King of the Gods," "Lord of Heaven" and "Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands" to give only three of his many impressive titles. 

  amun re     amun re

Examples of representations of Amun-Re in the Hypostyle Hall, with remnants of paint showing his original blue skin (right).

Amun-Re appeared in two humanlike forms. In one he wears the typical costume of male deity with a knee-length kilt and a corselet supported by shoulder straps. From the top of his helmet-like crown emerge a pair of tall feathers, while a long red ribbon dangles behind it. As with most gods, he grips a staff in one hand and an ankh symbolizing his life-giving powers in the other. Amun's skin could be red, although by the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1300 BCE), it was usually blue and sometimes black; to the Egyptians, both colors symbolized the abundant fertility of the Nile Valley's rich soil. 

In his alternate form, Amun closely resembles the fertility god Min. Like Min, he appears wrapped in a tight fitting white garment and resembles a mummy. Both gods personify masculine sexual potency. Reflecting his procreative aura, this fertile avatar is often entitled Amun-Kamutef, meaning "Amun-the-Bull-of-His-Mother." In other words, he is the self-created god who metaphorically impregnated his own mother! 

  amun re ithyphallic  amun re ram head

Amun-Re in his ithyphallic form (left) and as a ram-headed deity (right).

Projecting from his wrappings, his erect penis is Amun's most unique attribute in this incarnation, underlining his fertility. Resembling a mummy, his legs and feet are bound so closely together that he seems to have just one. Amun-Kamutef holds one arm aloft, which in two-dimensional wall scenes appears to be raised behind his head; in reality, he extends it to his right side as three-dimensional sculptures make clear. His hand points straight up, balancing a flail-scepter on his fingertips. His headdress is identical to that of his alter ego, with tall plumes as its defining feature. Sometimes he lacks the helmet crown and has a skullcap. A headband then secures the quills of his tall plumes to his head, fashioned from the same long ribbon that dangles behind him. 

Amun, Mut, and Khonsu 

Ancient Egyptian priests often divided their many gods into family groups of three, called Triads. In ancient Thebes, the local Triad consisted of Amun-Re along with his consort goddess Mut and their son Khonsu. Mut-the-Great, "The Great Mother," was par excellence a maternal goddess while her son Khonsu personified the moon. Mut resembles a human female wearing a tight-fitting dress, long wig, and the vulture cap of a queen. Resting atop her vulture crown, a royal Double Crown is Mut's defining attribute, a combination of the Red Crown of Upper Egypt and the White Crown of Lower Egypt, otherwise restricted to Pharaoh himself. Mut sometimes appears as a woman with a lioness's head wearing a large solar disk encircled by a uraeus-cobra as her crown. 

amun mut khonsu  mut

The Theban Triad: Amun-Re enthroned, accompanied by a lion-headed Mut and their son Khonsu (left), and an example of Mut in her more common human form (right).

       mut R4   mut lioness

Relief of Ramesses IV showing Mut in her human form, with a vulture headdress and Double Crown (left) and Mut with the head of a lioness wearing a solar disc (right).

Khonsu possesses a variety of forms. Most often he is mummiform man with a shaved head and side-lock of hair symbolizing his youth. He may also appear as a falcon-headed man, but in any case he wears both a crescent moon and a full lunar disk on his head. Less commonly, he may appear in the guise of the moon god Thoth with an Ibis head or as a clone of the falcon god Monthu, a falcon-headed man with a solar disk, two tall ostrich feathers and a pair of uraeus-cobras on his head.

    Khonsu human form Khonsu with falcon head

 Different representations of the god Khonsu, in his more common human form (left) and as a falcon headed deity (right).

Amunet     

Amun-Re had a second female consort separate from the Theban Triad. This "other woman" in his life was a female alter-ego called Amunet, "The Female Amun." She appears in a typical goddess dress wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Unlike Mut and Khonsu, Amunet did not enjoy a separate temple of her own within the Karnak complex.



Amunet with her characteristic Red Crown.

Festivals and the Royal Cult

Like the public room in any house, the Great Hypostyle Hall provided a venue for an assortment of activities. Dedication texts on the architraves provide us with terms the Ancient Egyptians used to describe the Hall and its function. Although the main sanctuary buildings pertaining to the cult of Amun-Re—mostly dating to the Eighteenth Dynasty—lay further to the east, the Ramesside kings considered the Great Hall to be a "divine mansion," or temple, in its own right. What, then, was its purpose? The Great Hypostyle belonged to a class of temples the Egyptians called "Mansions of Millions of Years." In such buildings they celebrated not just the cult of gods like Amun-Re, but that of the pharaoh deified. 

sety 1 basrelief

Sety I receiving jubilees from Re-Horakhty and Weret-Hekau.

In practice, Egyptian devotion to Amun and Pharaoh were not separate, but intimately linked through complex theology and ritual practice. Annual religious celebrations best exemplify this sacred connection, chief among them "The Beautiful Festival of Opet" and "The Beautiful Festival of the Valley." During both of these grand yearly feasts, Amun, Mut, and Khonsu left Karnak to "visit" nearby shrines. 

opet festival

Ramesses II censing before the divine bark of Amun-Re.

Sacred Barks and Divine Rest Stations

Central to these festivals were magnificent processions in which priests transported the golden, bejeweled cult statues of the gods within a type of portable shrine. Taking the form of miniature boats called sacred barks, these model vessels were covered in gold foil and encrusted with precious gemstone inlays of lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian. Each deity had his or her own sacred bark which priests transported over land on platforms with several long carrying poles. Two impressive figureheads at the prow and stern of each bark identified its owner. Amun's bark had ram's head figureheads since that animal was sacred to him, Mut had a woman's head fore and aft, each wearing the Double Crown, and Khonsu had falcon's heads with lunar crescents and disks. 

 amun bark red chapel

The procession of Amun-Re's divine bark. Relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut.

Festival processions departed from the inner sanctum of Karnak and advanced along sacred avenues towards Luxor Temple or to waiting river barges that conveyed them further upriver to Luxor or across the Nile to the royal memorial temples on the West Bank of Thebes. Occasionally, the gods—not to mention the priests supporting them—needed to rest from the heat and dust of their tiring journeys. Many pharaohs, therefore, kindly provided them with convenient resting shrines along the way. Never missing a chance for self-promotion, the king would name the wayside shelters after himself and would remind the gods of his piety in temple inscriptions and representations describing them. For example, scenes on the "Red Chapel" of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (ruled ca. 1473-1358 BCE) at Karnak depict several wayside shrines that she erected between the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor.

hatshepsut waystation

Depiction of a wayside shrine built by Hatshepsut. Relief from her Red Chapel.


Egyptian gods and priests were apparently never in a hurry to reach their destinations, nor did they pass up any opportunity for taking advantage of these resting areas. Scarcely had Amun-Re left his sanctum when he came to rest from his exertions on his very own front doorstep. The great First Court of Karnak possesses at least three resting shrines built by the pharaohs Sety II (late 19th Dynasty 19), Ramesses III (early 20th Dynasty), and Taharqa (25th Dynasty) for the use of sacred barks and their priestly cortège. The first of these resting shrines both in date and location was built by Sety I, who intended that his Great Hypostyle Hall should grant Amun-Re a rest stop before he had even left his own "living room." Architrave dedication texts in its nave describe the Hall as "a resting place" and a "place of appearance for the Lord of the Gods (i.e. Amun), with Mut and Khonsu following him, to rest in his monument." Sety claims he built it as "a beautiful resting-place for the Divine Conclave in which Amun may repose and as a place of appearance for the Lord of the Gods during his yearly festival." Inscriptions such as these emphasize the key role the Great Hypostyle Hall played in the grand sacred promenades at the heart of major celebrations like the Opet and Valley Festivals. 

The Royal Bark

Accompanying the sacred barks of the Theban Triad on these festival outings was a fourth shoulder-borne model vessel consecrated to the reigning king. Pharaoh himself possessed an indwelling divine spirit closely linked to Amun-Re who, it was believed, had actually fathered him. Although every pharaoh was considered Amun-Re's progeny, this mythology was articulated most explicitly in the "Divine Birth" inscriptions of King Amenhotep III (ruled ca. 1390-1352 BCE) at Luxor Temple and those of Queen Hatshepsut in her memorial temple at Deir el-Bahari in Western Thebes. As with the gods themselves, perambulation of the king's cult statue in his sacred bark was integral to the Opet Festival and Valley Festival, both of which celebrated the mystical connection between Amun-Re and the king. At Luxor Temple during Opet, their spirits temporarily melded as one, recharging both of their mystical energies for another year. 

bark aegis horemheb

Representation of the king's processional bark, as indicated by its aegis showing a king's head wearing a nemes head cloth and an elaborate hemhem crown. Relief from the Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple.

Sety I and Ramesses II commanded elaborate scenes to be added to the Hypostyle Hall's walls depicting the journey of the divine and royal sacred barks during these festivals. Accompanying them are hieroglyphic captions describing their royal piety in carrying Amun's bark on their own shoulders during processions and in constructing the Hypostyle Hall as monumental infrastructure for these festivities.

Back to top.

Egyptian Temple Design

Hypostyle Halls

A Model of the Universe

Name of the Great Hypostyle Hall

Amun-Re and the Theban Triad

Mut and Khonsu

Festivals and the Royal Cult

Sacred Barks and Divine Rest Stations

Royal Barks

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Last Updated: 1/14/14