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A Journey Through The Land Of The Pharaohs

Position 56 - The Great Court Of The Karnak Temple Seen (southeast) From The Top Of The First Pylon; Thebes

EgyV7_0068r What a scene of desolation! Do you wonder that the destruction of this great city stirred the peoples to the ends of the earth and called forth from a Hebrew prophet a stinging warning to Nineveh that a like fate awaited her? The vengeance of Assyria, Persia and Rome, and the earthquake of 27 B. C. have wrought the ruin before us, and brought low a work which was the pride of the Pharaohs and the greatest architectural achievement of oriental history, perhaps the greatest of all time.

We are standing upon the northern tower of the first pylon, and looking down the length of the temple toward the east (Plan 11). Behind us is the Nile, on our right is Luxor, and on our left are the cities of the lower river, Abydos, Assiut, Benihasan, Memphis, and the rest, which we passed on our voyage hither. Under our feet, then, is the latest portion of the building, before us the “great court” of somewhat earlier date, leading to the “hypostyle hall” of the 19th Dynasty, behind which you see the obelisk which marks the beginning of the works of the 18th Dynasty. Those two shapeless masses of tumbled stone on either side of that door, once formed the two towers of the second pylon, built by the Pharaohs of the 19th Dynasty as the front of their great hall.

They took some of the material, that is, the stones which you see there, largely from the temple of the great heretic Amenophis IV (Ikhnaton), the arch enemy of Amon, who had attempted to exterminate his worship. (See history, pages 30-31.) This overthrown pylon is one of the most eloquent witnesses of the ruin which overtook the works of Amenophis IV, for you may find on some of these blocks the name of the great reformer's successors, who sympathized in his movement. The last vestiges of their sanctuary to Aton were thus employed by the 19th Dynasty kings in extending the temple of the very god whom the reformers had been trying to exterminate. They turned the hated names of the heretics inward; but the fall of the towers has now exposed them in a number of places.

This second pylon, when perfect, formed the front of the state temple, sacred to the state god Amon. It was nearly 350 feet wide, while the door between the towers was once crowned by a lintel block 40 feet 10 inches long, and weighing over a hundred tons. Leading to the door is a kind of vestibule, before which stand two colossal statues of Ramses II. The one on the right is, you see, nearly perfect, but the other has almost disappeared, only one leg and the base still surviving.

In Ramses II's time, then, none of these columns before the door had yet been erected, but in all probability the avenue of rams, which we saw leading up from the river, was continued to this door. Then in the days of Solomon's son, Rehoboam, the kings of the 22nd Dynasty, about 950 B. C., began a vast court here in front of this pylon. We cannot now sweep its full width, but it is 338 feet wide, and from the pylon on which we stand to the other before us it is 275 feet.

The Ethiopians of the beginning of the 7th century B. C. (25th Dynasty) then erected a double row of five columns each, in this court before the door. One of them on the right, is still standing, and you may see the fragmentary remains of eight others. It is not clear just what they were intending to make, but it is possible that they planned an enormous hypostyle hall, of which these columns were to form the two rows of the nave; and that they, of course, failed to complete it. For the column still standing is 69 feet high, and a hall of such proportions would be quite beyond the resources of the weak Ethiopian Dynasty.

If you will look over the fallen tower on the right, beginning over the capital of the standing column, you may observe the long, horizontal architraves that supported the roofing blocks of the hall behind the first pylon. Now those architraves are supported upon columns; but the columns at the sides of the hall are not so high as those which you see as you look down the central aisle or nave. You saw the capitals of these lower side columns in our first view of the temple from behind (Position 53).

On the left, but now out of our range of vision, is the other half of the hall, corresponding to that of which we see the roof on the right. On the morning of the third of October, 1899, between eight and nine o'clock, two of the watchmen of the temple were standing outside this hall on one of the heaps of rubbish to the north of it, now out of range on our left, when they were startled by a thunderous fall in the temple, and turning toward it, they saw the capitals and architraves at the back of the hall on the north (or left) side toppling over toward the pylon before us.

As the falling columns struck their fellows, these in turn fell, and the two watchmen running wildly toward the scene of the catastrophe, arrived just in time to see the last pair nearest the pylon crashing against it as they were hurled down in their turn. In all eleven columns fell, three were drawn partially over, and seventeen massive architraves were brought to the ground. You may gain some idea of the weight of these architraves if you will look at those still resting upon the tops of the columns on the opposite side or right of the central aisle.

The cause of the catastrophe was partially the insecure foundations, and the age of the columns, but chiefly the mistaken policy of allowing the waters of the inundation to penetrate into the temple, a policy due to the French Service des Antiquitiés, then, as now, in charge of the temple. The débris from the fall has now been removed from the hall, and the government is spending large sums of money in replacing the columns as they were before, an undertaking which will cost several hundred thousand dollars before it is completed.

The cost of resetting these eleven columns and raising to their places the seventeen architraves in modern times, will serve to give you a hint of what it meant for an Egyptian king to erect such a hall as this with its 132 columns, of which twelve in the middle are vastly larger than those which fell. The shock of these falling columns as they struck this second pylon was such as to endanger its already unstable masonry still standing on either side of the door, and hence the engineers have inserted the timber braces which you see in the doorway.

The great hall and the middle portions of the second pylon nearly shut out from view the older works of the 18th Dynasty beyond, but we have already called your attention to the obelisk of Thutmosis I, seen down the middle aisle. The other obelisk, the taller of the two, may, however, be seen peeping over the top of the left tower of the pylon. We shall look at these monoliths more closely later on (Position 59). Back of the fallen right-hand tower you observe the sundried brick wall which encloses the entire temple.

You will remember that we saw the “east gate” of this wall as we looked down the central axis of the temple from in front of the first pylon, our last position; but that gate is now hidden by the left tower of the pylon before us (Plan 11). Outside the wall you see the fields and groves of the peasants, just as they must have been in the days of the old Thebes, and behind them rises that other wall, which we have seen so often, the distant wall of the cañon, which encloses all Upper Egypt . And now we shall take our station in the great hall, the architectural wonder of Egypt.

We shall stand at the other end of the central aisle or nave, with the smaller obelisk just behind us and a little to the left, and look through the nave toward this pylon on which we stand. This position is given only on Plan 12. You find our standpoint near the centre of the plan, the encircled number 57, with the red lines extending toward the left or northwest.

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