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Largely built by the New Kingdom pharaohs Amenhotep III (1390–1352 BC) and Ramses II (1279–1213 BC), this temple is a strikingly graceful monument in the heart of the modern town. Also known as the Southern Sanctuary, its main function was during the annual Opet celebrations, when the statues of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were brought from Karnak, along the Avenue of Sphinxes, and reunited here during the inundation.
Visit early when the temple opens, before the crowds arrive, or later at sunset when the stones glow. Whenever you go, be sure to return at night when the temple is lit up, creating an eerie spectacle as shadow and light play off the reliefs and colonnades.
Amenhotep III greatly enlarged an older shrine built by Hatshepsut, and rededicated the massive temple as Amun’s southern ipet (harem), the private quarters of the god. The structure was further added to by Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Alexander the Great and various Romans. The Romans constructed a military fort around the temple that the Arabs later called Al Uqsur (The Fortifications), which was later corrupted to give modern Luxor its name.
In ancient times the temple would have been surrounded by a warren of mud-brick houses, shops and workshops, which now lie under the modern town, but after the decline of the city people moved into the – by then – partly covered temple complex and built their city within it. In the 14th century, a mosque was built in one of the interior courts for the local sheikh (holy man) Abu Al Haggag. Excavation works, begun in 1885, have cleared away the village and debris of centuries to uncover what can be seen of the temple today, but the mosque remains and has been restored after a fire.
The temple is less complex than Karnak, but here again you walk back in time the deeper you go into it. In front of the temple is the beginning of the Avenue of Sphinxes that ran all the way to the temples at Karnak 3km to the north, and is now almost entirely excavated.
The massive 24m-high first pylon was raised by Ramses II and decorated with reliefs of his military exploits, including the Battle of Kadesh. The pylon was originally fronted by six colossal statues of Ramses II, four seated and two standing, but only two of the seated figures and one standing remain. Of the original pair of pink-granite obelisks that stood here, one remains while the other stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Beyond lies the Great Court of Ramses II, surrounded by a double row of columns with lotus-bud capitals, the walls of which are decorated with scenes of the pharaoh making offerings to the gods. On the south (rear) wall is a procession of 17 sons of Ramses II with their names and titles. In the northwestern corner of the court is the earlier triple-barque shrine built by Hatshepsut and usurped by her stepson Tuthmosis III for Amun, Mut and Khonsu. Over the southeastern side hangs the 14th-century Mosque of Abu Al Haggag, dedicated to a local sheikh, entered from Sharia Maabad Al Karnak, outside the temple precinct.
Beyond the court is the older, splendid Colonnade of Amenhotep III, built as the grand entrance to the Temple of Amun of the Opet. The walls behind the elegant open papyrus columns were decorated during the reign of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun and celebrate the return to Theban orthodoxy following the wayward reign of the previous pharaoh, Akhenaten. The Opet Festival is depicted in lively detail, with the pharaoh, nobility and common people joining the triumphal procession. Look out for the drummers and acrobats doing backbends.
South of the Colonnade is the Sun Court of Amenhotep III, once enclosed on three sides by double rows of towering papyrus-bundle columns, the best preserved of which, with their architraves extant, are those on the eastern and western sides. In 1989 workmen found a cache of 26 statues here, buried by priests in Roman times, now displayed in the Luxor Museum.
Beyond lies the Hypostyle Hall, the first room of the original Opet temple, with four rows of eight columns each, leading to the temple’s main rooms. The central chamber on the axis south of the Hypostyle Hall was the cult sanctuary of Amun, stuccoed over by the Romans in the 3rd century AD and painted with scenes of Roman officials: some of this is still intact and vivid. Through this chamber, either side of which are chapels dedicated to Mut and Khonsu, is the four-columned antechamber where offerings were made to Amun. Immediately behind the chamber is the Barque Shrine of Amun, rebuilt by Alexander the Great, with reliefs portraying him as an Egyptian pharaoh.
To the east a doorway leads into two rooms. The first is Amenhotep III’s 'birth room' with scenes of his symbolic divine birth. You can see the moment of his conception, when the fingers of the god touch those of the queen and ‘his dew filled her body’, according to the accompanying hieroglyphic caption. The Sanctuary of Amenhotep III is the last chamber; it still has the remains of the stone base on which Amun’s statue stood, and although it was once the most sacred part of the temple, the busy street that now runs directly behind it makes it less atmospheric.