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Temples of Ancient Egypt


The great temples of ancient Egypt are where, 4,000 years ago, priests and pharaohs huddled privately with the gods. At the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, with its towering pillars and obelisks, fine carved reliefs, and aura of mystery, you get an appreciation of the sophistication of that ancient kingdom.

Complete Video Script

[53] The treasures of the pharaohs remind us that throughout history ambitious art only happens with patrons — powerful and rich people, generally with an agenda. And, until more modern times, that agenda was propaganda — to promote a political or religious idea; in this case to literally save your soul.

[54, Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt] Most of the other surviving architecture of ancient Egypt is massive temples. Egyptian temples, like the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, were not a place of public worship, but a site of sacred mysteries, where priests and pharaohs huddled privately with the gods. Reliefs show pharaohs wooing the gods with rituals and offerings. In this sprawling holy complex the Great Court, the largest single area, was used only once a year for an elaborate festival feast celebrating fertility: fertility of the land, the people, and the kingdom.

[55, Great Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Amon-Re, 1280 BC, Karnak, Luxor, Egypt] The Great Hypostyle Hall, with over 100 columns, is one of the grandest religious structures ever built. Its forest of columns represents papyrus plants — bulging stems and flowering capitals, each elaborately carved and once brightly painted. The columns once supported a massive stone ceiling.

[56] You can measure the architectural sophistication of a society by the distance it was able to span between columns. This was the best they could do 3,000 years ago: The columns were fat and close together, with wide capitals — making the gap easier to span.

[57, Temple of Karnak, Luxor] Imagine what it took to build all this: They had to design it, quarry the stones, ship 'em, stack 'em, smooth 'em, carve 'em, paint 'em — all for the glory and favor of the gods. Consider the depth of the faith: This was not for the public; it was only to be seen by the royals, the priests, and the gods.

[58, Bust of Nefertiti, c. 1345 BC, Neues Museum, Berlin] History is a succession of seemingly invincible superpowers, which all eventually fall. And so, after 3,000 years, even the great civilization of Egypt faded. But its legacy lived on in Europe. Egypt had given the world its most developed society yet: a settled agrarian lifestyle, a written language to pass knowledge on to the next generation, government, religion, and enough leisure time to create sheer beauty. The utter grandiosity of Egypt's monuments inspired later civilizations to greatness, too. Their awe-inspiring obelisks — carved out of a single piece of granite 4,000 years ago to symbolically connect earth with the gods — were eventually shipped to (or plundered by) Europe, gracing distant capitals like Paris, Istanbul, and Rome.