Journal: Sunday 13 July 1997
That afternoon, after lunch and a short siesta, Robin, Jan and I decided to see if we could visit the Temple of Mut, which is a part of the Karnak Temples complex not normally open to visitors. Well, it was worth a try! We met at the entrance of the hotel and were about to set off when Jan fell off the pavement and hurt her ankle. I should explain that the curb stones in Egypt are very high and we are often unaware of the extra care required when stepping off them. I can only imagine the reason for such high curbs is because there are no surface drains and the high pavements would keep any light flooding in the road. Poor Jan, her ankle instantly started swelling and looked like a bad sprain, so I went off to a pharmacy to find a bandage and seek advice while Robin went back inside to help her bathe the foot. Needless to say, Jan decided not to go out again that day.
Robin and I took a caleche to the end of Sharia Karnak, past the bridge and through Karnak village to the Mut Temple. We spoke nicely to the guards, who agreed to let us in to have a quick look around, as restoration work had finished for the day. They were very friendly and helpful and were obviously proud of the remains in their care, offering to guide us around the various areas. We gratefully accepted because all we could see from the entrance was cracked paving and long grass and scrub. It was difficult to make out any kind of plan, and we had forgotten to bring our copy of Porter & Moss with us. We knew that the temple was first constructed in the 18th Dynasty by Amenhotep III and had been added to by many other pharaohs.
Mut is the great mother goddess, who with her consort Amun and their son, Khons, is part of the holy trinity of Thebes, where she was thought to have ‘brought all things into existence‘. Her hieroglyph is the vulture, a symbol of protection and the goddess is often depicted with folded vulture’s wings or headdress. It was from this temple that her image was carried to Luxor to unite with Amun in the annual festival of Opet. The temple was in ruins, its stones tumbled haphazardly over the pavements, but to my delight I saw a large well-preserved relief of the little dwarf-god Bes on an entrance gateway. We passed through into a wild and eerie area with little shade and the blazing sun was still very hot in the late afternoon. Here, in the overgrown court, stood dozens of large stone statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, which was the main reason I had wanted to visit the temple.
I had bought a lovely statue of Sekhmet on my last visit to Luxor, after my first powerful meeting with her image in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak. Since then I had read everything I could about the goddess who had such an ambivalent nature. Like everything in Egypt, duality is the key to understanding her character. She is usually described as a blood-thirsty, violent goddess who accompanied the king into battle. Her body was said to control the violent heat of the sun and her breath was the hot desert wind. But she is also an aspect of other goddesses, especially Hathor and Bastet, and also was known as a healer because of her knowledge of magic. This would explain why she can look both fierce and benign. She was an appropriate figure to encounter in this sun-scorched temple. Amenhotep III, who began building the Temple of Mut, though probably on earlier remains, was known to have had hundreds of Sekhmet statues carved for his mortuary temple on the West Bank and several of these found their way here to Karnak. A huge number have been excavated over the centuries around the Theban area (about 700 at the latest count) and many of them can be seen in museums around the world. I thought the statues here in the temple were hauntingly beautiful.
The Temple of Mut was surrounded on three sides by a crescent-shaped lake which can still be seen at the southern end of the enclosure, although it too was overgrown with grass and weeds. On the western side of the lake we saw a small temple of Rameses III, where two ruined colossal statues of the king still stand in situ. On returning to the entrance, we were shown a famous relief of an unusual circumcision scene, in the remains of a small temple of Khons, before we were offered a very welcome cup of tea with the guards. By the time we left it was almost dark, the guardians had been very patient with us and had earned their baksheesh.