Journal: Saturday 16 October 1999
In my experience, the best time to visit Karnak Temple at its least crowded is in the afternoon, when the coaches have taken the weary tour groups away for lunch. By 12.00pm the temple becomes, if not deserted, then a little quieter than in the morning. Unfortunately this is the hottest time of day when the sun is at its highest, so not perfect for photography. In Egypt there always has to be a compromise.
Jenny and I took a taxi from the Sonesta to Karnak just as most of the crowds were leaving and I was loaded down with books, notebooks, cameras and tripod, keen to do some work. Just as we were walking up to the ticket office, me with my student card in hand, I realised to my horror that I’d left one of my cameras in the taxi which by then was speeding down the road back into Luxor. I’ve always wanted to take part in a car chase and this was my big moment. Jumping into the first taxi in the queue, the driver and I hightailed it back to the hotel where my previous taxi had just pulled up. Happily I was reunited with my camera and all was well with the world. Both taxi drivers got a decent tip too.
Back at Karnak again, I got out my list of things I wanted to look at, but first I would seek out Jenny. I found her quickly as she hadn’t even got past the First Court, like everyone who visits Karnak for the first time she was overwhelmed by it all. We decided we would take a quick walk-through so that Jenny could get her bearings and then we would separate, so that I could wander around the Saite shrines on the northern side for an hour or two. But it’s no use planning anything in Egypt and we both ended up spending a long time in the Festival Temple of Tuthmose III, called in ancient times, the ‘Most Splendid of Monuments’. This temple was built as a memorial temple to Tuthmose and his ancestral cult. The pillars inside the hall are said to imitate the ancient tent poles of a pavilion, unique in Egyptian architecture, being fat and sqat, unlike the stately columns of some other temples. There is still a lot of paint on the ceiling and architraves with the names and titles of the King standing out in glorious colour. To the southwest of the pillared hall, one of the chambers once contained a table of kings which listed the names of 62 kings but this is now in the Louvre in Paris, with nothing left to see here. The area to the north of the hall, was used as a church in the Coptic era and there are several ruined statues. Behind the columned hall is a suite of rooms dedicated to Amun and beyond this, a large vestibule is sometimes known as the Zoological Garden, or Botanical Garden, because it contains superb delicate carvings representing plants and animals which Tuthmose is said to have encountered on his Syrian or Palestine campaigns. These are exquisite and every time I go to Karnak I take a few pictures here because the light is always different depending on the time of day.
We climbed up a flight of wooden stairs leading over the wall behind the festival temple. Towards Karnak’s east gate is a small ‘Temple of the Hearing Ear’, built by Rameses II. Here local inhabitants of Thebes would bring their petitions to the gods of Karnak, or rather to the priests who would intercede. This was a tradition suggested by earlier niche shrines that we saw built against the back of the Tuthmose complex.
It was still very hot, so we wandered around to the Sacred Lake and as usual, ended up in the cafeteria for a cold drink. Afterwards we looked at other bits and pieces, but Karnak is not somewhere that you can see in one go. Leaving at 5.00pm as the tourists were coming back into the temple we knew that we too would be back soon.