The temple at Karnak is a vast site – the biggest temple complex built, ever, anywhere. And when you visit it, it feels like that – overwhelmingly huge, and you only seem to have time to see a fraction of it no matter how many hours you are there. But even that isn’t the whole of the religious structures in the area: there’s more there than most tourist trips even tell you about. The bit that you get taken to is the main precinct, which is dedicated to Amun (and has all sorts of other temples inside it too, e.g. one to Khonsu, one to Ptah). But there are two more precincts – one to the north which is dedicated to Montu, and one to the south which is dedicated to Mut. The Mut precinct has only relatively recently been opened to tourists and I was lucky enough to visit in 2014 just a few months after its opening. There’s not much still standing at the site, it’s one of those places where you have to use your imagination to see what it once was. But once you do, it’s not just “another bit of Karnak” – it’s a fascinating site in its own right.
All three precincts at Karnak are dedicated to key gods in the Theban region. Montu was once the primary god at Thebes, and in the early Middle Kingdom he was the primary god for the state religion (in the era of the Montuhoteps). Amun, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the primary state god from the later Middle Kingdom onward (and even the Amarna Period is in a sense centred on Amun as it’s a reaction against him). Mut is Amun’s wife – Egyptian gods were often grouped into groups of three to form families: father, mother and child (normally a son). And when Amun was the primary god his triad or family were the most important triad – so Mut and Khonsu were also prominent gods in the pantheon. But Mut wasn’t only important because she was Amun’s wife – as a uraeus goddess and a Daughter of Re she was important in her own right. The separateness of her complex from that of her consort reflects this, and it’s not until the late 18th Dynasty that her relationship becomes the most important aspect of her. Before the time of Amenhotep III there were no images of Amun in her temple, just mentions of him by name. When the damage done by Akhenaten’s iconoclastic removal of the images of the Theban Triad was repaired (by later kings) Amun’s image was added to many scenes in the temple (including replacing Mut herself in some cases!).
As with Amun’s complex the temple of Mut does not stand in splendid isolation. Within the precinct walls there are several shrines, of which the primary one is her own temple. The complex faces north, towards the precinct of Amun along an avenue which is lined with sphinxes dating to the reign of Tutankhamun. Or at least, that’s the way they are now: ram-headed sphinxes with a statue of Tutankhamun cradled protectively between their front paws. But these statues started out life as human-headed sphinxes depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they once lined an eastern avenue towards Akhenaten’s temple of the Aten at Karnak. Tutankhamun had them re-carved as rams and his own image added, then re-dedicated them to Amun – Horemheb later usurped them and carved his own cartouches on to the pedestals.
The temple of Mut itself is also aligned in a north-south direction, with its entrance facing the compound entrance and the avenue of sphinxes. A large first pylon led to a narrow court, at the end of which was the second pylon. Behind this were the inner areas of the temple. The temple was surrounded on three sides (east, south and west) by an unusual curved sacred lake (normally they are rectangular). Its name is isheru, and Mut is referred to in this temple as “Mut of isheru” – the word derives from the name of a lion’s watering hole, which links it to the lioness form of Mut (and Sekhmet). There were two quays on the lake – one on the east and one on the west – which if you look at it now seems a bit silly as it’s quite some way from the Nile, but the course of the river once ran much much closer to the temples. And even once it had shifted away there were canals connecting these quays so that the sacred barque of Mut had direct access to the Nile allowing her to travel for festivals. These quays also have stairs leading into the water so that the priests could enter the water in order to purify themselves.
There are two other shrines still visible within the complex walls that are of a reasonable size. To the west of the sacred lake is a small temple built by Ramesses III – it’s a single room structure, again with its entrance facing north. The outer walls, as with many temples, are decorated with military scenes, some of which survive. And at the front of the temple stood two colossal statues of Ramesses III, which are now missing their heads. The other of these shrines is dedicated to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu the child, which is the form most associated with the Theban triad. This structure was mostly built from reused blocks from New Kingdom structures. Here the decoration that survives is appropriate to the nature of this god as a divine child of Amun – there are a number of birth and circumcision scenes, calling to mind the mythology of the Pharaoh also being divine child of Amun. At the back of the complex was a contra-temple that dates to much later in Egyptian history – it was built or extensively re-worked by Ptolemy II. Geophysical surveying of the precinct has also shown traces of other structures that no longer exist (and haven’t been excavated yet). There is a chapel positioned to the south of the shrine of Khonsu the Child on the same axis, as well as some sort of structural elements to the north of the Ramesses III temple.
Outside the entrance to the complex are two more structures – to the east is a temple of Amun-Kamutef (“Amun, Bull of His Mother”, the ithyphallic form of Amun), and to the west is a small barque shrine dating to the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III . The barques containing the gods “rested” at this barque shrine and others whilst the procession of the Festival of Opet was moving between Karnak and Luxor – and decoration on the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut shows her burning incense in front of these shrines.
The temple of Mut as I’ve described it and as we see now (albeit in ruins) was primarily constructed by Amenhotep III, and provided with a plethora of statues of Sekhmet! As I discussed when talking about Sekhmet there are two main reasons put forward for why there were so many of these statues. One is that Sekhmet was increasingly merged with Mut, and so the temple of Mut was an appropriate place to worship Sekhmet in addition to her primary cult centre at Memphis. The other possibility is that there was an outbreak of plague during the reign of Amenhotep III so he was dedicating many statues to Sekhmet to seek her help against the sickness. There were later additions by kings such as Taharqo of the 25th Dynasty (who built a colonnade in front of the temple and renewed the sacred lake) and Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty.
But this was not the first structure on the site. The earliest known structure dates to the Middle Kingdom and is a mudbrick platform that once supported a Middle Kingdom temple. Although not much of this structure has been excavated it’s known that it was oriented on the same axis as the currently standing temple. In the mudbrick platform the excavators found a fragment of relief that has a partial text on it – with part of the name of one of the Senwosrets (all three of whom were kings of the 12th Dynasty), and also part of the word isheru. So this means that a temple dedicated to Mut of isheru was on the site from at least the 12th Dynasty onward.
At that point the landscape surrounding the Precinct of Mut and the Amun Precinct was very different to what we see today. As I alluded to above, the course of the Nile has significantly altered over the millennia. It’s not just that it shifts from side to side exposing or covering different parts of the land, it also creates land. Islands get formed due to build up of silt during the inundation, and the main complex at Karnak and the Precinct of Mut were once on separate islands. This state of affairs lasted until the early New Kingdom – it was only in the reign of Hatshepsut that the land between the two structures (and the mainland) became dry for most of the year. So this explains the unusual shape of the isheru lake – this is remnant of the water that once flowed around the back of the island. It also explains why the processional ways aren’t developed until the New Kingdom – there wasn’t land there before to put sphinx lined avenues on! And may well be why the relationship between Amun and Mut gets less distant during the New Kingdom – theology influenced by the fact that they were no longer on physically separate pieces of land.
At the back of the precinct, to the south of the isheru there is quite a large area that is now open space. In the Second Intermediate Period this was a domestic space across the river from the temple, with lots of houses. And rather unusually also a large number of burials in amongst the houses – generally burials aren’t in the same place as settlements, except sometimes those of infants. There are a lot of unanswered questions about these burials, but one suggestion is that some sort of illness that swept through the town and for some reason people were buried in situ rather than being taken to the usual burial ground. One burial from the late Second Intermediate Period has a more obvious interpretation – a rather gruesome one. The position he was found in suggests that his feet were tied to his elbows behind his back, and then he was tied to a stake in the ground. He was then executed by having his neck broken, and covered over where he lay without being properly interred in any fashion. He might have been of Near Eastern origin, so was possibly a Hyksos prisoner from the conflict at the beginning of the New Kingdom. A physical reminder that the bound prisoners in Egyptian iconography aren’t just art, they’re a representation of something that was done. Ancient Egypt was not the New Age paradise of social harmony that some people would have you believe, it was also a place where brutal punishments like this took place.
In the early New Kingdom the rear wall of the complex enclosed much less space than the current precinct, just outside the lake boundaries on the east, west and south. So the settlement I discussed above was outside these boundaries, but the parts near the south wall become re-purposed as an industrial area for the temple in the 18th Dynasty. These facilities include granaries, grain processing areas, bakeries and breweries to serve the temple. All watched over by an overseer sitting in a raised kiosk – built directly on top of the executed prisoner!
This industrial area serviced the new stone-built temple constructed during the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. A lot of the stone of this temple has been found under the Amenhotep III temple acting as foundations. Some of the blocks that have been found were decorated, and because temple decoration tends to follow a formula more can be figured out about the structure than you’d expect for “just” a collection of blocks. One part of this iteration of the temple was large room on the western side called the “Hall of Drunkenness”, which was probably built on the site of an earlier hall as the inscriptions talk about Hatshepsut building it “anew”. It was the site of a form of worship that was unique to the goddesses who were referred to as the Daughter of Re. These were mass participation festivals, where the worshippers drank until they were drunk and fell asleep, before being woken up by the arrival of the statue of the goddess to communicate with them accompanied by drums to communicate with them. To help with the sleep and the communication the drink was laced with soporific and hallucinogenic herbs. It might also be coloured red in a reference to the myth where Sekhmet’s destructive fury is brought to an end by tricking her into drinking beer by making it look like blood. Given that Egyptian society generally frowned on public over-indulgence (judging by the wisdom literature) these festivals remind me a bit of the Lord of Misrule appointed at Christmas time in Tudor England to rule over a festival where the strict hierarchy of society was turned upside down. A release valve that kept society ticking along properly the rest of the time, as well as a means of communicating with the goddess in this case.
So I hope I’ve been convincing – not just “another bit of Karnak”, not just “where they found the Sekhmet statues” but a genuinely interesting site in its own right. I wish I’d known all this before I visited it myself!
Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. New York, NY: Routledge.
Bryan, Betsy M. 2020a. “Introduction & Excavation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, April 29.
———. 2020b. “Interpreting the Ancient New Kingdom Temple and the Rituals of the Goddess Mut.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 20.
Bryan, Betsy M., and Salima Ikram. 2020. “Bioarchaeology & Conservation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 13.
Bryan, Betsy M., Kristian Strutt, and David Anderson. 2020. “Unexpected Discovery & Geophysical Survey.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 6.
Dodson, Aidan. 2020. “Sethy I – King of Egypt.” presented to the Essex Egyptology Group, June 7, see my writeup on my other blog.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and expanded ed. British Museum.
Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press.
Weeks, Kent R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.