How did an Egyptian pharaoh rejuvenate after a demanding year? The annual Opet festival at Luxor was dedicated to renewing the semi-divine ruler’s lifeforce, but mortals will also benefit from a visit to the temple, as Matthew Symonds reveals.

When it came to keeping up with the neighbours, Luxor temple never really stood a chance. It lay near the southern end of the ancient Egyptian city now best known as Thebes, placing it only a couple of kilometres from one of the greatest religious complexes ever built: the temples at Karnak. If that was not enough, a few kilometres further – on the far bank of the Nile – a stunning set of mortuary temples for deceased pharaohs developed, while their tombs in the Valley of the Kings lay tucked into the mountains beyond. Today, this concentration of sites makes for one of the finest and most famous heritage destinations anywhere in the world. Given the scale of Karnak and the timeless grandeur of the royal tombs, it is understandable that Luxor temple can sometimes be overlooked by modern visitors. Those living at Luxor knew better, though, and a succession of Romans, Christians, and Muslims found ways to make the temple their own.

The columns of the courtyard of Amenhotep III at dusk.

The modern name of Luxor captures the sense of wonder that the Arabs experienced when they beheld the wonders of Thebes. Surrounded by gigantic ancient structures, they named the site el-Uqsor, which can be translated as simply ‘the palaces’. As is so often the way in Egypt, we have the Greeks to thank for the most commonly used ancient name for the site, and it is they that gave us Thebes. Among the Egyptian names for the settlement was niut, meaning simply ‘the city’. This was particularly popular during the New Kingdom, when the Egyptian Empire was at its height and the patronage of a local dynasty of pharaohs transformed Luxor into the greatest settlement in Upper Egypt. If an injection of royal riches breathed new life into ‘the city’, though, so too it was essential for ensuring the continued vigour of the pharaohs. Luxor temple provided the backdrop for an annual ceremony, known as the Opet festival, which celebrated the pharaoh’s renewal as the son of the god Amun.

Reliefs in the temple depict the festival in full swing, and the event seems to have been a riotous affair. The occasion called for the boat-like barque shrines of Amun, his wife Mut, and son Khonsu to be carried in procession from the temples at Karnak. On board these miniature boats were cult images of the gods, and in some periods the shrines were borne to Luxor temple on the backs of priests, and at others they sailed up the Nile in a flotilla of full-scale ships. The overland route boasted a wide avenue lined by sphinxes, but whichever path the gods took, they drew crowds. Priests, soldiers, charioteers, musicians, and dancers followed in the wake of the shrines, while the local inhabitants could sing, eat, and generally make merry. Once this boisterous company reached the temple, the shrines would be installed in their temporary lodgings. What followed for the pharaoh is less clear, but he would certainly have had some spectacular architecture to admire.

Four eras of Luxor. In the foreground are the remains of two churches and a Roman colonnade, while beyond stand the colossal columns in the form of flowering papyrus plants started by Amenhotep III and finished by his successors. To the left is the mosque.

The Egyptologist A M Blackman, writing in the early 20th century, considered Luxor temple to be the second most magnificent structure in Egypt, beaten only – and inevitably – by Karnak. One consolation for Luxor, though, was that in Blackman’s eyes it boasted the finest forecourt in the country, as its colonnades ‘form one of the fairest visions ever conjured up by an architect’s imagination.’ It is certainly a space to savour, especially if you are there as the sun sets and the floodlights set the columns glowing against the night sky. This modern flourish provides a new way to appreciate a monument over 3,000 years old, with the forecourt originally installed during the reign of Amenhotep III (c.1390-1353 BC), ‘the Louis XIV of ancient Egypt’ in Blackman’s reckoning.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 92 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

Images: M Symonds

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