In 1798, Napoleon paid Egypt a visit, hoping to add it to France’s empire. Troops were dispatched to secure Upper Egypt, and on January 27th, 1799, during the long march south along the Nile, the soldiers caught sight of Karnak rising defiantly from the sands. ‘Without an order being given,’ wrote one lieutenant, ‘the men formed their ranks and presented arms, to the accompaniment of the drums and the bands’. Karnak’s aweinspiring power is timeless, a tribute to those who built and understood it as the home of the gods.
Located to the north of the city center, Karnak is perhaps the largest religious complex ever constructed. Its original name was Ipet Isut, meaning ‘the most select of places’. Over the course of two millennia, it was enlarged by consecutive Pharaohs until it comprised an area of 247 acres. Centered on the Temple of Amun (begun during the 11th Dynasty, 2134-1991 BC), it served as a spiritual center but also as an economic hub, containing administrative offices, treasuries, palaces, bakeries, breweries, granaries and schools.
Karnak’s grandest feature is the Great Hypostyle Hall, but its wonders include the Chapel of Senusert, which dates back to the Middle Kingdom, the obelisks of Thutmose I and Hatshepsut, and the socalled botanical garden of Thutmose III, decorated with reliefs of the plants, trees and animals the Pharaoh brought home from his military expeditions. But the massive compound contains countless treasures beyond these. Take a walk around Karnak’s perimeter, where fewer travelers tend to venture. The ground is strewn with inscribed blocks and fragments of statues, where pieces of an age-old puzzle still await reassembly, and treasures await discovery.