The temple of Karnak was known as Ipet-isu—or “most select of places”—by the ancient Egyptians. It is a city of temples built over 2,000 years and dedicated to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. This derelict place is still capable of overshadowing many wonders of the modern world and in its day must have been awe-inspiring.
For the largely uneducated ancient Egyptian population, this could only have been the place of the gods. It is the largest religious building ever made, covering about 200 acres (1.5 km by 0.8 km), and was a place of pilgrimage for nearly 2,000 years. The area of the sacred enclosure of Amun alone is sixty-one acres and could hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big that St Peter’s, Milan, and Notre Dame Cathedrals would fit within its walls.
The Hypostyle hall, at 54,000 square feet (16,459 meters) and featuring 134 columns, is still the largest room of any religious building in the world. In addition to the main sanctuary there are several smaller temples and a vast sacred lake – 423 feet by 252 feet (129 by 77 meters). The sacred barges of the Theban Triad once floated on the lake during the annual Opet festival. The lake was surrounded by storerooms and living quarters for the priests, along with an aviary for aquatic birds.
To accomplish this magical regeneration the Opet festival was held yearly at Karnak and Luxor. It lasted for twenty-seven days and was also a celebration of the link between pharaoh and the god Amun. The procession began at Karnak and ended at Luxor Temple, one and a half miles (2.4 kilometres) to the south.
The statue of the god Amun was bathed with holy water, dressed in fine linen, and adorned in gold and silver jewellery. The priests then placed the god in a shrine and onto the ceremonial barque supported by poles for carrying. Pharaoh emerged from the temple, his priests carrying the barque on their shoulders, and together they moved into the crowded streets. A troop of Nubian soldiers serving as guards beat their drums, and musicians accompanied the priests in song as incense filled the air.
At Luxor, (right) Pharaoh and his priests entered the temple and ceremonies were performed to regenerate Amun, recreate the cosmos and transfer Amun’s power to Pharaoh. When he finally emerged from the temple sanctuary, the vast crowds cheered him and celebrated the guaranteed fertility of the earth and the expectation of abundant harvests.
During the festival the people were given over 11000 loaves of bread and more than 385 jars of beer, and some were allowed into the temple to ask questions of the god. The priests spoke the answers through a concealed window high up in the wall, or from inside hollow statues.