On the banks of the Nile, between the ancient cities of Luxor and Thebes, lie the remains of Karnak, one of the most magnificent temple complexes ever constructed. In ancient Egyptian, Karnak means "the most select of places," and it became a religious center during the period known as the New Kingdom (founded c. 1550 b.c.e.). Dedicated to the sun deity Amon-Ra (also Amun-Re) and built around 1500 b.c.e., Karnak consists of massive pillars, towering columns, avenues of sphinxes, and a remarkable obelisk that stands 97 feet tall and weighs 323 tons. The Great Hypostyle Hall, one of the largest single chambers ever built, covers an area of nearly 54,000 square feet. The entire Cathedral of Notre Dame could fit comfortably within its walls.
Nearby ruins suggest that Karnak was considered a sacred site much earlier than the time during the New Kingdom when it became the center of worship for Amon-Ra. The remains of temples dated c. 1971 b.c.e. prove that predecessors of the devotees of the ram-headed Amon-Ra also found the area to be a special place to honor their gods.
The worship of Amon-Ra and the influence of Karnak remained strong until Akhenaton's reign in 1379–1362 b.c.e., when the pharoah decreed all Egyptian gods banished but one supreme being—Aten, the god of the fully risen sun. Throughout all of Egypt the images of all the gods were defaced and the temples of Amon-Ra were desecrated or destroyed. In addition to denigrating the ancient gods of Egypt, Akhenaton moved his capital city to Tel el Amarna, thus denying the region of Thebes and Karnak their prestige as sacred ground. Akhenaton's crusade against the plurality of Egyptian religion was short-lived, however, and when he died, the boy-king Tutankhamen (c. 1370–1352 b.c.e.) spent his brief reign restoring the hierarchy of the old gods, including Amon-Ra.
Construction on the Great Hypostyle Hall was begun during the reign of Ramses I (reigned 1320–1318 b.c.e.), continued by his son Seti I (reigned 1318–1304 b.c.e.), and completed by Ramses II, one of the longest-reigning of Egyptian pharaohs (1304–1237 b.c.e.) and a devotee of Amon-Ra. Ramses II also extended the temple of Amon by adding a series of courtyards and ceremonial halls.
At the time of Ramses III (reigned 1198– 1166 b.c.e.), the size of the temple estates covered almost 700,000 acres of land, from the Nile Delta in the north to Nubia in the south. Eighty thousand servants and slaves were designated to serve Amon-Ra in Karnak, and more than 5,000 statues reflected his glory throughout the vast temple complex. Large numbers of animals considered sacred to Amon were kept on the site at Karnak, including thousands of geese and rams and over 421,000 head of cattle.
From about 1080 b.c.e. onward, Egypt suffered a number of invasions from the Nubians, Libyans, Kushites, and Assyrians. Many of the conquerors respected the sacred site at Karnak and some, such as the Kushites, even added some buildings of their own. However, even those invaders who sought to carry away some of the stone to implement building projects of their own or even to deface some of the statary had not removed or destroyed enough of Karnak to spoil the magic of the place for the generations yet unborn. The whole of the ancient site remains in good condition today, and each year convinces thousands of tourists from all over the world that Karnak is indeed "the most select of places."
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