Karnak: the largest ancient religious site in the world

Friday 4 January 2008: We’re up early, 5 am, so we can experience Karnak before the crowds.

Situated right outside Luxor, Karnak Temple is the largest ancient religious site in the world. An impressive avenue of ram-headed sphinxes connects it with Luxor Temple.


Karnak is a place of records: everything here seems to be the biggest and tallest. Its scale defies description. The first pylon (gate) alone is 42 metres high (like a 14-storey building) and 118 metres wide. Ancient Egypt must have been in awe of its builders. But I don’t suppose these dogs care one bit.


The Great Hypostyle Hall (hall of columns) is the largest of its kind in Egypt, with more than 130 columns in 16 rows, once decorated with multicoloured paintings and reliefs. The reliefs, although no longer multicoloured, are still clearly visible. Tourists through the ages have added to the décor. It’s desecration really, yet I can’t help but be fascinated by the Victorian Era vandals.

Karnak - tagging 2 IMG_3349
19th century vandalism

Circumcision at Karnak

Men cringe at the sight of the circumcision chair, essentially a flat stone with a sunken bowl to collect blood, another flat stone mounted on top as a seat, and a long track clearly indicating where to put the relevant body part. According to Herodotus, the ancient Egyptians adopted circumcision in their search for cleanliness. It may also have been a rite of passage for teenage boys, no longer children.

Circumcision chair, Karnak
Circumcision chair

Hatshepsut, female pharaoh

Pharaoh Hatshepsut was one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt and she liked obelisks. Only at Karnak, she had six of them raised. Sadly, only one remains. Almost 30 metres high, it’s the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on earth, and its tip is said to have been covered in gold. Must have looked brilliant. The obelisk is my first glimpse of this mysterious female pharaoh. I look forward to getting to know her better.


Hatshepsut’s stepson, Thutmose III, wasn’t very keen to keep her memory alive, to say the least. He had a wall built around the obelisk, presumably to hide it. Much of the wall is still visible today.


Meanwhile, my youngest heads towards a huge sacred scarab beetle. Walk around it three times for luck, five times to get married, seven times if you’re tired of the spouse you have and want a new one… Something for everyone! Or so we’re told.

Cat at Karnak

unesco logo

Karnak is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis.

Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.


32 Responses to “Karnak: the largest ancient religious site in the world”

  1. Italian Notes 3 August 2011 0855 #

    I can’t even start to imagine the size of these monuments – let alone the wizardry needed to erect them.

  2. Mark Wiens 3 August 2011 0955 #

    Awesome Sophie! I was just in Egypt last year and the Temple of Karnak was among my favorite ancient complexes. I couldn’t get over the hypostyle hall, the hieroglyphics, graffiti and sheer scale of the hall was breathtaking! I actually missed the circumcision chair, that just sounds too painful.

  3. Barbara 3 August 2011 1012 #

    What an amazing place! I can’t wait to visit Egypt.
    I love the fact that dogs are completely umimpressed by it, though. Biggest ancient religious site in the world – meh, it’s naptime.

  4. Christian 3 August 2011 1147 #

    I love the story of pharaoh Hatshepsut. What a woman she must have been!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 August 2011 1200 #

      @Christian: I’m forever fascinated by Hatshepsut as well. What a woman indeed.

  5. robin 3 August 2011 1241 #

    I won’t be telling K about the scarab beetle. Nor do I find the circumcision chair particularly alluring.

    fantastic post though! I loved Luxor, especially the quieter and more rural west bank.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 August 2011 1324 #

      @robin – Me too! Despite its shortcomings (traffic and so on), Luxor is a place I could stay for a while…

  6. Vi 3 August 2011 1412 #

    Probably no photo can show the size of this site.

  7. Renee 3 August 2011 1544 #

    Wow…that circumcision chair looks a might bit uncomfortable. Glad to learn about Hatshepsut’s legacy too.

  8. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy 3 August 2011 1556 #

    Cool stuff, I’d love to see those up close. I think I’d stick with walking around the scarab beetle three times.

  9. Marie R. 3 August 2011 1620 #

    Egypt has such a draw on me. Whenever I leave that country, I want to go back right away. Karnak is absolutely awe-inspiring, though I find the smaller, more intimate temples to be just as interesting.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 August 2011 1629 #

      @Marie – Yes, I know what you mean. It’s easier to picture people of the past in a place that’s quieter, more intimate. Although we were at Karnak by sunrise and had it more or less to ourselves for a while… But still, the smaller sites, Edfu, Philae and Luxor Temple were easier to take in somehow. Easier to let the imagination flow…

  10. Ana 3 August 2011 1636 #

    How interesting! I enjoyed your elegant description of the circumcision chair. I showed it to my husband and he duly cringed 🙂

  11. I haven’t been to Egypt but am very interested in seeing all the history it has to offer. It is amazing how ancient people erected such huge buildings without modern equipment! I liked the scarab. Had no idea all they could do for me!

  12. Cathy Sweeney 3 August 2011 2011 #

    Oh how I’d like to visit Egypt someday and Karnak Temple looks like an amazing place to see there. Funny about walking around the scarab beetle!

  13. Andrew Graeme Gould 4 August 2011 0120 #

    A very enjoyable series. The sacred scarab beetle certainly is versatile!

  14. Sailor 4 August 2011 0205 #

    I always wanted to Visit Egypt and is next on my list. You have some beautiful pictures too.

  15. Theresa Torres 4 August 2011 0446 #

    Hi Sophie,
    What an interesting place! Those sphinxes look awesome. They really like it huge back then.
    Funny about the dogs, must have been used to everything by now.
    I got goose bumps looking at the circumcision chair.
    I would love to visit this place. This is the first time I’ve heard of a female pharaoh, sounds mysterious and intriguing. And it might be fun to walk around that sacred scarab beetle.
    Thanks for sharing!

  16. David Bennett 4 August 2011 0924 #

    Thank you – it is always good to learn something – and it’s great to learn that ‘pylon’ means ‘gate’.

    I wonder how it transmuted into its modern meaning of a structure for holding high-tension wires? Maybe to feed power to the stargate? 😉

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 4 August 2011 0956 #

      @David – Very interesting question. Had to look it up, of course. According to wiki, the term “pylon” (in electrical transmission tower) has to do with the structure’s shape, which is like an obelisk, tapering toward the top.

  17. Muza-chan 4 August 2011 0951 #

    Interesting article 🙂

  18. Christina 4 August 2011 1354 #

    Fascinating history and pictures. Egypt has always captured my imagination, and I hope to visit one day. And the 19th century vandalism! Thanks for those pictures.

  19. Andrea 4 August 2011 1355 #

    Circumcision as a teenager?? Ouch!

  20. Raymond @ Man On The Lam 4 August 2011 1557 #

    Egypt is one of my most favourite places in the world and I would go back in a heartbeat! Loved Karnak temple!

  21. Michael Figueiredo 5 August 2011 0524 #

    Ancient Egypt is so fascinating to me. I can’t wait to visit there someday. Great shots!

  22. Randy 5 August 2011 1738 #

    Great story! I love finding out about places like this. It’s crazy to think about how this ancient city looked when it still had color.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 August 2011 1747 #

      @Randy – It really is. And we were there so early, hardly anyone was about, so we had the necessary peace and quiet to imagine Karnak of the past – colours, people and all.

  23. Christy @ Technosyncratic 5 August 2011 2147 #

    Are you currently in Egypt now? I want to visit so badly (and soon!), but everyone (including my partner, who is traveling with me) is telling me I’m crazy for even considering it.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 August 2011 2330 #

      @Christy – No, I was in Egypt a while ago. Apart from the heat, I think now would be an excellent time to visit. Just had a look at the official travel advice from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they don’t discourage travelling to Egypt, only to be aware and exercise caution. Common sense, really. No doubt, the crowds will come back this winter.

  24. Cheryl Howard 8 August 2011 2222 #

    It is one of my lifelong dreams to visit Egypt. Stunning pics.

  25. Adam 19 October 2011 1227 #

    I remember visiting this temple while in Egypt last year! It was a sweltering hot day to be exploring the largest temple but well worth it!


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