Karnak: Where the Digital Age Meets Ancient Egypt

By Lawler, Andrew | Humanities, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Karnak: Where the Digital Age Meets Ancient Egypt


Lawler, Andrew, Humanities


"OH THAT THE EARTH WOULD CEASE FROM NOISE, and tumult be no more!" This was a prayer said daily in the temple complex of Karnak in ancient Egypt. The priests may have been asking for respite from the ringing of chisels and the shouts of stone masons. Karnak, situated on the east bank of the Nile, was their sacred place of worship. It was also a site with periods of near constant construction.

Egyptian rulers after 2000 BCE made their mark here, as did the Greeks and Romans who followed, turning what began as a modest temple into the ancient world's largest and most impressive complex of religious buildings which, even today, inspires awe.

The first work, begun around 1950 BCE, was followed by five centuries with no known additions. But endless construction, destruction, and renovation over the next millennium and a half has proved challenging to modernday researchers. Each change at this vast site can illuminate a political, religious, or social aspect of ancient Egypt, a text in stone chronicling the levels of prosperity, nature of beliefs, and the power of central authority. But, until now, the best that scholars could do to visualize the complex as it once existed was to visit the static wooden model of Karnak carved by French archaeologists at their nearby dig house. And conveying the complicated changes to students was even more difficult. "I was completely frustrated with the materials available - I wanted to show all the phases," says Diane Favro, who teaches architectural history at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Slides and twodimensional photos left out all the experiential aspects of the place."

By pulling together a team of computer experts, archaeologists, and architects, Favro helped create a virtual Karnak - an exciting alternative to poring through archaeological reports, tourist guides, and maps to make sense of this fascinating, overwhelming, and confusing site. You can avoid the crowds at what is the most popular attraction in Egypt after the Great Pyramids, have a bird's-eye view as temples take shape, and follow the path of the annual festival processions that were part of ancient Egyptian life. Digital Karnak offers a fresh way of understanding this vast site.

The task of the UCLA team has been to piece together how Karnak was pieced together. Three-dimensional models, ranging from Stonehenge to Aztec temples, are common now across the web. But quality varies; many are used primarily for entertainment purposes, and there are no accepted standards or guidelines for accuracy. Archaeologists have shied away from such models, since they inevitably involve guesswork.

"The training of archaeologists is to document the objects they find," says Favro. Foundations may not reveal whether or not a house had a second story, for example. "When you get into reconstruction, you have to deal with the speculative."

The Karnak project is, in effect, what Favro calls "reverse archaeology" - a new approach to envisioning the past that archaeologists are only now starting to embrace.

With its collection of temples, stone kiosks, obelisks, a sacred lake, walls, and pylons built over fifteen hundred years and spread over more than six hundred acres - nearly twice the size of the National Mall in Washington - Karnak is mind-bogglingly vast in both space and time. Even in partial ruin, Karnak provides a window into the formidable engineering and artistic abilities of ancient Egypt.

The pyramids may be more stupendous and the Parthenon more beautiful, wrote British adventurer Amelia Edwards in 1877 after wandering through the famous Hypostyle Hall, which alone covers nearly 1.5 acres. "Yet in nobility of conception, in vastness of detail, in mystery of the highest order," she wrote, the pillared space of Karnak at the heart of the complex surpasses them all. It was, she insisted without reservation, "the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hands. …

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