Thursday, October 2, 2008

Temple of Amun: The Hypostyle Hall

On the east bank of the Nile at Thebes, 440 miles (700 kilometers) south of the site of modern Cairo, stood the most extensive temple complex in ancient Egypt. From the time of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 b.c.), the northern end of this religious compound (near the modern village of Karnak) was dominated by the great temple devoted exclusively to the worship of Amun-Ra, “King of the Gods” and one of the most important Egyptian cults. Like all dynastic temples, it provided a platform upon which the pharaoh enacted rituals to ensure the annual flooding of the river and maintain life on earth. The idea of a virtual universe raised Egyptian architecture from the function of shelter to a metaphysical plane. It was, in that sense, an architecture of altered states. Other major temples in the complex were consecrated to Amun’s wife, Mut, and Monthu; there were smaller shrines for Khons, Oper, and Ptah. The hypostyle—the word is derived from the Greek, “resting on columns”—of the Temple of Amun is the building’s most remarkable feature, ranked by many among the world’s architectural masterpieces.

The temple was built over twelve centuries under the patronage of many pharaohs; the last additions were made in the Ptolemaic period (ca. 332–30 b.c.). The walled precinct was approached from the west along an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. A gateway between two massive, battered, pylons (never finished) gave access to an open forecourt, measuring about 230 by 260 feet (70 by 80 meters). In its northwest corner stood the Temple of Seti II, and close to its southeast corner the Temple of Ramses III. The courtyard provided the setting for public ceremonies and festivals. The processional way continued along the main axis of the temple complex, and beyond the eastern gateway, through a second pair of pylons, was the hypostyle hall. It was in effect a forest of 134 columns, covered in painted bas-reliefs, filling a room 338 feet wide by 170 feet deep (102 by 53 meters).
Its central corridor, defined by twelve gigantic sandstone columns, formed a processional way into the inner parts and sanctuary of the temple, where only the kings and priests could go—“a preparatory passage from this world to the next” (Smith 1990, 14).

Amun-Ofis III commissioned the central columns on the hall’s east-west axis in about 1408 b.c. They were 33 feet (10 meters) in circumference, and their papyrus-flower capitals towered 69 feet (21 meters) above the floor, supporting the stone roof slabs of the central nave. Seven aisles on either side of the hall were defined by a total of 122 stone columns with papyrus-bud capitals; these columns were 27.5 feet (8.4 meters) in circumference and 43 feet (13 meters) high. The difference in the general ceiling height and that of the central nave allowed for the provision of clerestory windows formed with vertical stone slats that allowed air and some light to enter the hypostyle hall: most of the space was kept in mysterious shadow. The brilliantly colored, painted decoration of the interior walls and columns was initiated by Ramses I (reigned 1292–1290 b.c.), continued by Seti I (1290–1279), and completed by Ramses II (1279–1225). The external walls are decorated with battle scenes.

To the east of the hypostyle hall, another pair of pylons led to a narrow central court, and yet another pair (although somewhat smaller) to the transverse hall that subsumed the earliest sanctuary. A new sanctuary was built by Philip Arrhidaeus (323–316 b.c.), brother of Alexander the Great. Southward from the transverse hall, a walled enclosure at right angles to the main axis led through a succession of four pairs of pylons to the Temple of Mut and from there to the temples at Luxor 2 miles (3 kilometers) further south.

The Temple of Amun is presently endangered because of foundation failure and erosion of the sandstone at the base of walls through the Nile’s annual flooding. Funded in part by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology from the University of Memphis, Tennessee, is recording the inscriptions in the great hypostyle hall.

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