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Master Class: Tut to Ptolemy

Written by Sean Adcock

A few Sundays ago the sun peeped through the clouds for what seemed like the first time since October and so I grabbed my camera and spent the day taking slides for the Branch’s collection. One of my stops saw me at the Capel Garmon Burial chambers a couple of miles North East of Betws y Coed. This is a neolithic burial chamber dating from around 2000BC and is in its way quite impressive. It has been fairly extensively repaired – that is assuming neolithic an didn’t use mortar (which it has to he said is well hidden) – and as is my wont at times like this my mind wandered back to my holiday in Egypt a couple of years ago I had wanted to visit Egypt for as long as I can remember – to see the tombs and the temples.

I do not think it had occurred to me – except perhaps subliminally – that the temples are of course dry stone, and put Capel Garmon, The Ugly House, large granite boulders and being a modern day Master Craftsman in some sort of perspective. At times it seems you can hardly move in Upper Egypt from Qena to Aswan without coming across a temple, each offering something different from its compatriots. Perhaps the most impressive, certainly in terms of scale, is the temple complex of Karnak. This was started during the XVIII Dynasty (c.1500BC) and added to over a 1300 year period by a succession of Pharaohs including perhaps the most well known, Tut ankh amun. In total it covers over 100 acres the core of which is the Precinct of Amun covering 60 acres. It is impressive and it is hot.

All of the temples seem to have a number of features in common the most imposing of which are the Pylons. which are vast facade like gateways at the front of the temple, or in the case of  complex like Karnak scattered around delineating separate parts forecourts, halls, temples etc. – of the complex. The first pylon (first because of its location rather than its age – something in the region of 2200 – 2300 years) weighs in at an impressive height of 13 metres, and as my guidebook states is “composed of regular courses of sandstone masonry”. This does not really begin to describe these pylons. The sandstone blocks are vast – often measuring several feet across, they decrease

Part of Pylon at Luxor Temple. Photo © S.Adcock

The photo above shows the top half of one of the pylons at Luxor Temple (c.1300BC and a mere 20 something metres high) illustrates the quality of stonework involved. The stones are matched to even out the undulations within the coursing with very few smaller levelling stones used. Perhaps smaller is bit of a misnomer as these stones were inevitably at least 6’ deep. It is also difficult to see from this photograph but in many instances rather than use a levelling stone a section is cut out of one stone so that it laps onto its neighbour. These pylons are rubble filled as with a normal’ wall but in some cases even have rooms and staircases built within them.

Part of the Hypostele Hall at Karnak. Photo © S.Adcock

Another feature common ‘to most temples, and without question the most striking aspect of Karnak are “Hypostele Halls”. These are halls whore the roof was supported by ‘towering columns – the one at Karnak covers 6000 square metres and -there’s no other description, is totally gobsmacking. To quote Egypt – The Rough Guide”

The hail probably began as a processional avenue of twelve or fourteen columns. each 23m high and 15m round (requiring six people with outstretched arms to encircle their girth). To this. Seti I and Rameses II added 122 smaller columns in two flanking wings, plus walls and a roof. All the columns consist of semi-drums, fitted together without mortar. The central ones have carry capitals that once supported a raised section of roof incorporating
clerestory windows (the stone grilles of several remain in place), elevated above the papyrus -bud capitals of the flanking columns”.

Yes it is breathtaking

Colonnades can he found at all temples, normally forming walkways around courtyards. Whilst not on such a grand scale as the hypostele halls these often have ornately carved tops imitating flowering papyrus, or the whole column is fluted. There are the remains of some small (i.e. less than 10’) fluted columns at Karnak which I can only describe as delicate – Egypt really does change your perspective of stonework!

Of all the temples I visited the one at Luxor was the least complete, but this in itself had some advantages. Many of the temples have been extensively restored, parts of the Luxor temple have been, lint there are also more bits and pieces lying around than at most of the others. This included sections of what would have been smaller columns built out of complete discs of stone (rather than the semi-circles of the larger columns). Of particular interest was the fact that the centres of the flat sides of these discs have a small boss on one side and an indentation on the obverse so that they would he locked together when placed on top of each other.

The best preserved of all Egypt’s temples is the Temple of Horus at Edfu built during the Ptolemic era in the three hundred years immediately before Christ. This temple lay buried to its lintels until the 1860s and in fact had houses on top of it at one time! Its most striking aspect is its complete enclosure wall running along the three sides behind the Pylon, a total of around 200m, to a height of c.l0m.

Rear section of the enclosure wall, Temple of Horus, Edfu. Photo © S.Adcock

The carved reliefs – having been buried for so long are particularly eve-catching and I was of course as impressed as the next man. However I suspect that other tourists were somewhat bemused by the fact that I spent almost as long leaning against the wall and staring along its length as I did examining the reliefs. Its line and batter are perfect to this day. protected from the ravages of the weather and sand blasting for so long (it is still in effect in a large amphitheatre) the quality and tightness of the stone work can only be admired. I still find myself musing as to exactly how von lay the foundations for this scale of construction – and in sand too!

Whilst it is complete you are not allowed onto the roof at Edfu, the Temple of Hathor at Dendara is another matter. Built atop rooms and hypostele hall some of the stones used defy belief. The general method for roof construction would seem to he huge lintels supporting oven bigger slabs (hence the need for vast numbers of columns in the hypostele halls. Some of the slabs at Dendara must have been 3’ deep and at least 9’ by 9’. I sometimes wonder what I could achieve with several thousand slaves at my disposal.

The Temple of Isis at Aswan is on an island. Its original site – Philae island- became submerged for part of the year with the building of the first Aswan Dam. With the building of the high dam it would have been submerged forever. A coffer dam was built around Philae. The nearby island of Aglika was blasted to form roughly the contours of Philae, the blasted rock (300,000m3) used to form a causeway between Philae and Aglika, and the temple painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed on Aglika. It took 8 years and is generally regarded, along with a similar operation to save the temple at Abu Simbel, as a tribute to modern engineering. It is an impressive feat but perhaps merely serves to underline what makes all these temples so impressive. The temple to Isis has always been on an island, the 40000 blocks transported during the rebuilding were originally quarried and cut 2000 years ago. They were transported to the island and turned into a temple complex. Okay it was an ongoing process over 800 years yet all the time I was walking around these temples I found myself wondering how well, even
with all our modern technology, we would be able to imitate them today, let alone still be able to admire them in 2-3000 years time.

The content below was copied with the generous permission of the author Sean Adcock.  This Master Class article originally appeared in the March 1995 ISSUE No. 15 of STONECHAT, produced by the North Wales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Brittan.  

This entire issue of Stonechat, and many more, are available at  Thank you to Sean for allowing us to provide this content, and please donate to The North Wales Branch.

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