KARNAK IN THE CHRISTIAN PERIOD
The temple at Karnak formed an immense complex of buildings dedicated to the worship of Amon. Today the oldest known remains go back to the Eleventh Dynasty (about 2100 B.C.) and occupy the central core known as the Court of the Middle Kingdom. From this core the temple continued to develop, principally toward the west in the direction of the Nile and toward the south, but also toward the east. This development, realized in a succession of hypostyle halls and of courts separated by enormous pylons, was only completed at the end of the Ptolemaic era.
All the great pharaohs of the New Kingdom and of the Late Period contributed to this extension, sometimes usurping the monuments of their predecessors, altering them, or occupying their places. Simultaneously with these constructions, the precincts of Amon continued to grow, enclosing a large number of minor buildings.
With the decline of the pharaonic civilization, the complex became set in the situation in which we see it today. The domain of Amon then covered 30 hectares, of which eight were built over. It was in these abandoned and partly ruined monuments that the Christian population established itself from the fourth century, remaining no doubt until the eighth, after which it gradually declined. We find this situation in all the other great Theban temples. The Christians made great use of unbaked brick in their constructions, at the same time taking advantage of the existing stone walls.
From the nineteenth century down to the middle of the twentieth, archaeological excavations aiming chiefly at investigation of the pharaonic monuments gradually caused the disappearance of the Christian remains considered of minor importance, and what survives today consists of a few architectural elements in stone, either displaced (columns, lintels) or in situ in the ancient walls (niches, traces of ceilings, etc.). The relative height of the elements in position allows us to determine the level of the floors and the height of the ceilings in the Christian installations.
An OSTRACON from Karnak mentions a church, “the holy sanctuary of Apa Stephanos in the town of Apé.” The Djeme papyri discovered at Madinat Habu mention a “monastery of St. Sergius” and a “monastery of Papnoutios in Apé.” Archaeological investigations have allowed the conclusion that there were at Karnak at least three churches and three monasteries, although we cannot identify them with the monuments mentioned above.
A monastery was constructed on either side of the first pylon on enormous masses of unbaked brick, the remains of ramps abandoned after serving for the construction of the pylon. We can see, on either side of each tower, traces of the insertion of a regular series of wooden beams representing two or three stories. The pylon has transverse passages that served originally to attach the flagstaffs. Access to these corridors was gained by flights of steps cut in the Christian period, which allowed a passage through the towers of the pylon. There was thus a relation between the buildings on the east and on the west. Two niches in the form of conches have been hollowed out in the east face of the south tower.
The second known monastery was situated in the courtyard between the seventh and eighth pylons. It, too, is marked by the insertion of beams for two upper stories, in the eighth pylon, and by a row of fifteen niches forming as many cupboards, which were equipped with wooden doors and shelves. The latter are generally thought to be linked with a refectory or a library. Remains of stone walls, a staircase, and shafts of columns were still in this court in 1922. They have now been removed.
A third monastery that occupied the court between the ninth and tenth pylons seems to have been destroyed by a fire. Here have been found shafts of columns, capitals with acanthus leaves, and decorated door lintels in sandstone or limestone, material deriving from the demolition of the temples. Excavation has yielded oil lamps, statuettes in terracotta, stelae, stands for water jars, and so forth. A niche adorned with a conch cut in the south face of the west tower of the ninth pylon proves that these installations were raised about 15 feet (8 m) above the ancient ground level.
The three churches of which it has been possible to find traces were all installed directly on the floors of the pharaonic monuments.
We can imagine that others may have existed, built higher up near the level of the known monasteries.
The church built in the so-called edifice of Amenophis II has left practically no traces apart from the defacement of the pharaonic scenes in the hypostyle hall and some mortises under the capitals of the columns at the entrance. A few lamps and statuettes were found there. However, the name that this monument still bears, “al- Kanisah” (the church), confirms the presence of Christian worship there. The church was oriented east-west. It was no doubt connected with the third monastery mentioned above.
Recent investigations, still unpublished, in the temple of Khonsu have refuted the assumption that a church was established there on a north-south axis, the principal axis of the temple. It was, in fact, in the hypostyle hall that this church was situated, on an east-west axis. The alterations necessitated by its installation involved the blocking of a door to the east, the construction of a sanctuary, the reuse as an altar of a pharaonic barkstand, the installation of an ambon, and the use of a room to the northwest perhaps as a baptistery.
The enclosure at Karnak may have contained several hamlets, identified today by remains of pottery: in its southeast corner and near the temple of Ptah, in its northwest corner, and to the northwest of the temple of Khonsu. In association with this last hamlet, there must have been an oratory or sanctuary on the roof of the temple of Opet, where there remains a niche with a conch cut into the wall.
One of the two great subsidiary complexes of Karnak, the enclosure of Montu to the north, contains no Christian traces, and the other, the enclosure of Mout to the south, has not yet yielded any.
- Anus, P., and R. Sa‘ad. “Fouilles aux abords de l’enceinte occidentale à Karnak.” Kemi 18 (1968):229-39.
- Coquin, R.-G. “La christianisation des temples de Karnak.” Bulletin de l’institut français d’archéologie orientale 72 (1972):168-78. Jullien, M. “Le culte chrétien dans les temples de l’ancienne Égypte.” Les Études 92 (1902):237-53.
- Munier, H., and M. Pillet. “Les édifices chrétiens de Karnak.” Revue de l’Égypte ancienne 2 (1929):58-88.
- Pillet, M. Thébes, Karnak et Louqsor. Paris, 1928.