Known in the Egyptian language as ipet resyt, or "the southern harem", the temple was dedicated to the Theban Triad of Ammon, Mut, and Khonshu and was, during the New Kingdom, the focus of the annual Opet Festival, in which a cult statue of Ammon was paraded down the Nile from nearby Karnak Temple (ipet-isut) to stay there for a while, with his consort Mut, in a celebration of fertility – whence its name.
Construction work on the temple began during the reign of Amenhotep III in the 14th century BC. Horemheb and Tutankhamun added columns, statues, and friezes – and Akhenaten had earlier obliterated his father's cartouches and installed a shrine to the Aten – but the only major expansion effort took place under Ramses II some 100 years after the first stones were put in place. Luxor is thus unique among the main Egyptian temple complexes in having only two pharaohs leave their mark on its architectural structure.
The temple fell into disrepair during the Late Period and Alexander the Great claims to have undertaken major reconstruction work "to restore it to the glory of Amenhotep's times" in the 320s BC. During Rome's domination of Egypt it was converted into a centre for the imperial cult. By the time of the Arab conquest, the temple was largely buried underneath accumulated river silt, to the extent that the Mosque of Abu Haggag was built on top of it in the 13th century (much reworked since, but one of the minarets dates back to the original construction).
Access to the temple was – and still is, for the thousands of tourists who flock here every day – from the north, where a causeway lined by sphinxes that once led all the way to Karnak begins; this road was a later addition, dating from the time of Nectanebo I in the 30th Dynasty.
The temple proper begins with the 24-metre high First Pylon, built by Ramses II. The pylon was decorated with scenes of Ramses's military triumphs (particularly the Battle of Qadesh); later pharaohs, particularly those of the Nubian and Ethiopian dynasties, also recorded their victories there. This main entrance to the temple complex was originally flanked by six colossal statues of the Ramses – four seated, and two standing – but only two (both seated) have survived. Modern visitors can also see a 25-metre tall pink granite obelisk: this one of a matching pair until 1835, when the other one was taken to Paris where it now stands in the centre of the Place de la Concorde.
Through the pylon gateway leads into a peristyle courtyard, also built by Ramses II. This area, and the pylon, were built at an oblique angle to the rest of the temple, presumably to accommodate the three pre-existing barque shrines located in the northwest corner. It is atop the columns of this courtyard that the Abu Haggag mosque was built: on the eastern side, a doorway leads surrealistically out into thin air some 8 metres above the ground.
After the peristyle courtyard comes the processional colonnade built by Amenhotep III – a 100-metre corridor lined by 14 papyrus-capital columns. Friezes on the wall describe the stages in the Opet Festival, from sacrifices at Karnak at the top left, through Ammon's arrival at Luxor at the end of that wall, and concluding with his return on the opposite side. The decorations were put in place by Tutankhamun: the boy pharaoh is depicted, but his names have been replaced with those of Horemheb.
Beyond the colonnade is a peristyle courtyard, which also dates back to Amenhotep's original construction. The best preserved columns are on the eastern side, where some traces of original colour can be seen. The southern side of this courtyard is made up of a 32-column hypostyle court that leads into the inner sanctums of the temple.
These begin with a dark antechamber. Of particular interest here are the Roman stuccoes than can still be seen atop the Egyptian carvings below; in Roman times this area served as a chapel, where local Christians were offered a final opportunity to renounce their faith and embrace the state religion. Moving further in stands a Barque Shrine for use by Ammon, built by Alexander, with the final area being the private quarters of the gods and the Birth Shrine of Amenhotep III (his divine origin is depicted in precise, almost touching detail on the walls).
A cache of 26 New Kingdom statues was found under the floor in the inner sanctum area in 1989 – hidden away by pious priests, presumably, at some moment of internal upheaval or invasion. These splendid pieces are now on display at the nearby Luxor Museum.