Wednesday 11 October 2000
After being confined to our West Bank apartment for several days, followed only by one or two local forays to the monument area, today I felt more than ready for a day out. Jenny had gone for an early morning ride so I went to meet her at 9.00am at the Gezira horse stables and together we crossed the river on the local ferry to Luxor. The sun was warm and the River Nile as still as a millpond. As I sat on the ferry’s upper deck my heightened senses took in all the vivid colours of the riverbanks that were of such an intensity that only the clear light of Upper Egypt can produce. As often happens after recovering from sickness, I felt extraordinarily well and glad to be alive and here in Egypt. I was also desperate to make up for my lost time.
Our destination this morning was Karnak Temple, the Ipet -Isut of ancient Egypt. Having visited the Qurna Temple of Seti I a couple of days ago, I wanted to re-visit his hypostyle hall at Karnak, to have a detailed look at the reliefs there. The artists of Seti I produced, in my opinion some of the finest art in the land. At his memorial temple at Abydos, the reliefs are unsurpassable. There they are carved onto limestone, a fine-grained stone which allows the artist to produce an incredible amount of intricate detail. At Qurna and Karnak, the stone is sandstone which has a coarser surface, but nevertheless the Seti reliefs at Karnak are unmistakable from his reign.
The hypostyle at Karnak is the largest pillared hall in Egyptian architecture and one of the biggest in the world, covering 5500 sq metres. Its three ‘naves’ contain a dense forest of columns, all intricately carved. Two rows of six central columns, each 21m high, are the tallest and have open papyrus capitals which support the huge stone lintels for the ceiling. At the sides, a further 122 shorter, smooth-sided columns have closed papyrus capitals and the light from the high clerestory windows cut into the central walls barely penetrates the deep shadows cast by them. It is usually understood that construction of Karnak’s hypostyle was begun during Seti’s reign but the decoration was completed after his death, like many of his monuments, by his son Rameses II. The raised reliefs of Seti are in the northern half of the hall and contrast greatly with the more crudely-worked sunk reliefs of Rameses in the southern half. Even though today the hypostyle is still dark and shady and full of atmosphere, it is hard to imagine a time when brightly coloured paint covered the magnificent images on the walls and the raking sunlight from the high windows would cast deep pools of shadow around the hundreds of private statues which once populated the hall.
Many of the scenes in the northern half of the hall depict offerings to various deities, by Seti I, some in memory of his father Rameses I and some usurped by Rameses II. One of my favourite reliefs, in which the detail is breathtaking, is Seti I kneeling before the Ished tree, with tiny cartouches containing his name inscribed on the leaves of the tree. Seti can be seen wearing many different forms of crowns and wigs, all carved with elaborate attention to detail. Shaven-headed priests in long pleated robes carry the divine barques of the gods around the hall in representations of some of the main festivals. Temple ritual is enacted by the King and again, as at Qurna, I saw the ‘Bringing the Foot’ ritual where Seti is sweeping away his footprints from the temple sanctuary. Another of my favourite offering scenes shows the King presenting an image of a baboon to the goddess Mut. Consulting my ‘bible’, the ‘Topographical Bibliography…’, by Porter and Moss, I found this little device is a water-clock, or clepsydra, which was used for measuring time in ancient Egypt.
One aspect of the reliefs I noticed today, that were different from many other royal New Kingdom ritual scenes, was that Seti is very often shown kneeling in front of deities, bowing in a pose of devotion rather than standing upright as an equal before the gods. Thinking about this, I realised that the king is also shown in this position in his Qurna temple, suggesting that Seti must have wanted to be remembered as a pious king. After a couple of hours in the northern side of the hall I walked around the southern part, decorated by Rameses, taking note especially of the order of the temple foundation ritual. Although still superb, these reliefs are not a match for those of Seti. Standards were already slipping!
Next I went to look at the way-stations in the First Court, in which rested the divine barques of the Theban Triad for the rituals of their arrival or departure during the festivals. In the north-western corner, the shrine of Seti II has three chambers, one for each of the barques, with niches set into the walls for statues. At the other end of the court is the barque-station of Rameses III, guarded by two royal colossi. This structure is not just a barque-station, but a complete temple in miniature, with a court lined by large pillars with mummiform statues of the King. It reminded me of the courts at Medinet Habu, with texts and scenes of festivals deeply carved onto the walls. Behind the court is a portico, a miniature hypostyle hall and three very dark barque shrines for the Theban Triad. Around the back of this little temple on the exterior wall there is an important scene depicting the procession by river to Luxor Temple for the Opet Festival.
The day passed all too quickly. At lunchtime I met up with Jenny for a drink at the cafeteria, but it was extremely crowded, so we didn’t stay long. We had gone our separate ways today to look at different things, and before I knew it the time was already 5.30pm and time to leave Karnak. Taking a taxi back into Luxor we shared a pizza at the Amun restaurant. This was my first proper food for a week and it tasted wonderful!