The god Amun is known to have been worshipped around the year 2000 BCE in the Fourth Nome of Upper Egypt. At this time he was only a minor fertility deity but within 150 years he had replaced the god Montu, a god of war, as the major deity of the district.
An unusual species of sheep was native to this part of Egypt and found nowhere else. The rams stood apart from other types of sheep, being distinguished by their especially large curving horns. This animal became the symbol of Amun, although he is never shown in Egyptian art as a ram or with a ram's head. As it was considered sacred to him, a living ram was kept in his temple. Amun's usual visual form in painting and sculpture was as a man wearing a cap upon which was the disc of the sun surmounted by two tall plumes. The goose was a second creature also associated with fertility and sacred to Amun and a goose was kept in the enclosure of the temple.
In time Amun's sphere of influence changed. Once primarily a god of fertility in animals, he became a god of agriculture and was responsible for abundant crops and prosperity. As his popularity increased the pharaohs chose him as their own personal god, and as a result of their influence he became a solar god. Originally in predynastic times he was the god of the wind, and his name means 'hidden' or 'lnvisible one'. Part of the rites of Amun involved concealing his shrine with a shroud. Linked to this idea of invisibility is another of his titles: 'he who abides in all things: confirming the belief that he was the very soul or 'Ba' of the universe itself.
During the Middle Kingdom a temple was raised in Amun's honor at a town in the Eleventh Nome called Waset. The town and Amun grew together in importance until Waset was generally known as the city of Amun, or more simply The City. The place is referred to in the Bible, and given the names No Amun and No, (meaning 'city of Amun' and 'city' respectively).
The Greeks compared Amun with Zeus, their chief god, and called Waset Diospolis, 'city of Zeus' or 'city of god'. Later this city of Amun became known as Thebes and it was here at the beginning of the Fourteenth Dynasty that King Amunemhat (meaning 'Amun is supreme'), founded a temple of Amun. When the temple fell into disuse, debris and sand accumulated around the buildings to such an extent that only the upper windows of the main structures remained visible, thus inspiring the local Arabs to name the place of windows: or, in Arabic, Karnak. The prosperity of Thebes declined over the years following the Twelfth Dynasty, but with the dawn of the Eighteenth Dynasty its fortunes once again began to rise. Ahmose, a king of that Dynasty, made Thebes the capital of Egypt and the center of the Egyptian empire, a meeting place for the cultures and beliefs of citizens of far distant countries. From Thebes the cult of Amun spread out of Egypt to all points of the empire. By the time of the rulership of Thothmes III (1504-1450 BCE), Amun had become the major deity of the then civilized world and was acknowledged in all parts as the king of the gods.
As the power of Amun spread, his priests proclaimed him the creator of the universe, formulating complex legends describing how he had performed the act of creation in Thebes itself. Amun, they said, was the lord of time, who creates the years, governs the months and rules the nights and days. His followers claimed him to be a more powerful manifestation of the mighty god Ra and named him Amun-Ra. The supporters of the other gods, including those of the eclipsed Ra, grew alarmed at the power that the priesthood of Amun was amassing. Eventually they rebelled, seeking to restore the old order. Although they did have some limited success the revolution was short-lived, and with his return to power Amun's popularity climbed to even greater heights. Of course as his popularity increased so did the fortunes of his priesthood and temples. By the year 1160 BCE approximately one fifth of the population of Egypt, along with one third of the arable land and three quarters of all the wealth of Egypt belonged to the temple of Amun-Ra at Thebes. Consequently the temple expanded: the vast complex of sacred buildings contained over 22 major shrines, the sacred enclosure covered an area of 1.25 square km and the main temple itself was over 1.5 km in length.
With all this power and wealth, Thebes became a semi-independent state within Egypt, ruled by the priests of Amun. Eventually this office became hereditary. Only with the beginning of the Twenty-second Dynasty about 935 BCE did Thebes once again start to become a true part of Egypt, and then the process of assimilation took almost two centuries.
Amun in his other aspect, that of the god of warfare, directed the king in his actions against the enemies of Egypt. The planning of the many campaigns of conquest was credited to him: he was the essential divine inspiration behind Egypt's successful strategies.
Although by the later period Amun had become primarily the god of the ruling monarch, the ordinary Egyptian still had access to him. By visiting the special temple of Amun who hears all prayers' a suppliant could ask the god for aid, and by leaving a small stele (an inscribed stone tablet) at its gate he could be sure that he would consider his request. Within Amun's temple at Thebes a ritual boat named Woserhat was kept. It was richly made and decorated with great ram's heads covered in gold. Upon its deck an image of the god was positioned and during the festivals of Amun it would be ceremonially paraded before his worshippers.
Worship of Amun was linked with that of the god Min, who had a temple facing that of Amun on the opposite bank of the Nile at Thebes. As a result of this relationship Amun was at times depicted in Min's ithyphallic pose with his hand raised above his head holding a whip. Incense played an important part in the rituals of Amun and tear-drops of the purest frankincense were thought to be formed from his perspiration. In his temple elaborate processional walk ways were flanked by rows of ram-headed sphinxes.
The pharaohs who supported Amun promoted the belief that he was their father by divine marriage with their earthly mother. In this way they identified the kingship with the god and so gained the full support of his priesthood. So important were the links between the cult of Amun and the rulers of Egypt that the highest officers in the priesthood were members of the king's family or high-ranking nobles. Later, in the form of Jupiter Ammon, Amun was worshipped into classical times. Even Alexander the Great felt the need to visit his temple at Thebes to obtain Amun's divine consent to rule his newly-conquered province, Egypt.