The blog post for this week is written by Jeanne Whitehurst, who has completed her Certificate of Egyptology from the University of Manchester. She moved to Egypt nearly ten years ago, just before the revolution. Initially, she lived in Luxor, overlooking Karnak Temple, but now she lives in Aswan overlooking the First Cataract. She was extremely fortunate to work with Ted Brock on the sarcophagus of Merenptah (KV 8) as a volunteer.
How wonderful the Egypt Centre’s lectures have been. All interesting subjects, superbly presented, and the administration is efficient but very friendly. It is now on my bucket list to visit the Egypt Centre when I’m next in Britain. There should be a different word for Ken’s course as he delivers his talks in an informal, informative manner making you feel engaged and wanting to know more. Each week, Ken takes a different aspect of Ancient Egyptian Religion, with each lecture suitable for all levels of expertise and taking us on a journey of discovery.
Week three of the course was dedicate to Egyptian temples, which were built for over 3,500 years. Some of the earliest were the sun temples with open courts, which were dedicated to the sun-god Re, while one of the last to be built was the cult temple to Isis at Philae in Aswan. Most temples that have survived are from the Graeco-Roman Period, such as Esna (fig. 1), Edfu, Kom Ombo, Dendera, and Philae, but we also have many temples from other periods, especially in Southern Egypt due to the drier climate.
|Fig. 1: Esna Pronaos|
Reasons for Egyptian Temples
In hieroglyphs, the word for “temple” translates into the house or mansion of the god. However, they also performed a deeper mythological function, which we can see either in the name of the temple or the surrounding area. They re-created the primordial mound where the cosmic egg was laid and all life started, which is represented by the ground of the temple rising gradually to recreate this; the holy of holies being at the highest point. All the decoration around also emphasises the beginning of the world, such as the stars on the ceiling and plants are around the base. Within them, the Egyptian priests performed a variety of rituals, the central functions of Egyptian religion: giving offerings to the gods, reenacting their mythological interactions through festivals, and warding off the forces of chaos. These rituals were seen as necessary for the gods to continue to uphold maat (fig. 2), the divine order of the universe (Teeter 1997). Housing and caring for the gods was the obligations of pharaohs, who therefore dedicated prodigious resources to temple construction.
|Fig. 2: The Presentation of Maat (Temple of Seti I at Abydos)|
The temple is also an interface between earth and heaven, between the world of the living and divine. Pylons represent the horizon, akhet, in which the sun would rise between the pylon gates. A good example of this is the Winter Solstice at Karnak, where the sun rises directly between the pylons on the main axis on this date. A lot of thought went into building the temple, including selecting the area, which was often based on myth and tradition. For example, the Graeco-Roman temple of Hathor at Dendera was built atop an original Middle Kingdom temple. The god’s birthplace or burial site was also significant. The best example of this is at Abydos, the cult centre of Osiris, the mythical first king of Egypt, where the First and Second Dynasty kings were buried. The ancient Egyptians believed that one of the tombs (that of Djer) must have belonged to Osiris (O’Connor 2009). It could also be just for practical reasons, such as the fact that it was near to a settlement or often in line with the Nile. They could be orientated East to West or North to South. Temples could also have a stellar alignment, such as Thoth Hill, where two temples were built (Vörös 1998). First, the Archaic and then a Middle Kingdom temple, with the outline of the temples being slightly different. Egyptologists have concluded the reason for this is because the stars changing alignment during the intervening time.
The ancient Egyptian equivalent of our groundbreaking ceremony were the “foundation rituals”, which conferred the protection of the gods was on the construction works and the finished building. There are ten different rituals, the first and probably the best known with many different examples is the “stretching the cord” (fig. 3), which is overseen by the goddess Seshet (goddess of writing, measurement, libraries). The “cord” in question is the mason’s line, which was used to measure out the dimensions of the building and align the monument with the stars or the points of the compass. They would mark the four corners of the building at night to align with the stars, stretch the cord, driving the stakes into the ground, and marking out the limits of the building. Next came hoeing the ground, where the pharaoh would dig the first foundation with a wooden hoe, representing the upper limit of the waters of Nun. This was followed by the moulding of the first brick with the pharaoh’s name one it. Howard Carter replicated this at his house on the West Bank of Luxor by having a brick made in England with his initials engraved on it. The fourth element, the pouring of the sand, was performed first by the pharaoh and then by the workmen who would fill in the trenches to make the foundations. Next came the burying of the deposits in a mudbrick lined ditch, which would consist of model tools plus other symbolic items such as baskets, jewellery etc. This was followed by the actual construction of the temple before the final acts of purifying the monument and dedicating it to the gods.
|Fig. 3: Stretching the Cord (Medinet Habu)|
Early temples were built of mudbrick, which was gradually replaced by stone. By the New Kingdom, temples were predominantly built of stone, including sandstone, limestone, granite, alabaster, and basalt. The sandstone from the New Kingdom onwards was quarried from Gebel el-Silsila, an amazing site between Edfu and Kom Ombo. The building of the temple was either by a mudbrick ramp, such as the one still preserved behind the First Pylon at Karnak (fig. 4), which is believed to have been built by Nectanebo I of the Thirtieth Dynasty. Alternatively, wooden scaffolding could be used, as seen on the Nineteenth Dynasty ostraca from Deir el-Medina, now in Hildesheim, or depicted in the tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100) at Thebes. Egyptians today, when building houses, use the same type of wooden scaffolding, and just like the ancient Egyptians they build on poor foundations! After being built, the walls were then smoothed from top to bottom.
|Fig. 4: Remains of the mudbrick ramp at Karnak|
Structures outside the temple enclosure included the landing quay and the avenue of sphinxes, the latter for protection. Inside the enclosure wall, the sacred lake was often constructed, which would be used to bathe the god, for the priests to be ritually cleaned, and for the temple utensils to be washed. Connected to this was the nilometer, often with a flight of steps with marks on the walls that would indicate the height of the Nile in the Inundation. Obelisks with a pyramidion at the top covered in electrun (a mixture of gold and silver) would welcome the first rays of the sun. Workmen worked in gangs with each having a specific job, such as outlining the image, filling in the image etc., You can see many examples where the reliefs were only partially completed, such as the rekhyt bird frieze from the Mammisi at Dendera, where the central bird decoration hasn’t been completed (fig. 5). N.B. Dr Ken Griffin is an expert on the rekhyt bird so I am loath to make any comment on them! Basically, from the outer part, there is a pylon, open court, a hypostyle hall, and the most sacred part, the sanctuary, where the god resided. Around the outside was an enclosure wall made of mudbrick, which was “wavy” to either represent the waters of Nun or, from an engineering point of view, to make it stronger to withstand earthquakes.
|Fig. 5: Incomplete frieze at Dendera|
Decorating the temple
The temples were carved in either raised (bas relief) or sunken relief (incising). The naos and the holy of holies were usually carved in raised relief, while the open parts accessible to the public and outside walls were in sunken relief (the sun reflects on the carvings giving them depth) before being painted. Columns are part of the architecture but also part of the decoration since they represented the marshes (Phillips 2002). At Saqqara, there are bundles of reeds represented, while in the New Kingdom palmiform or papyriform columns were used. There are even tent pole columns found in the Akhmenu of Thutmose III at Karnak. In the Graeco-Roman Period, they become multi-floral.
Progression of temples
Predynastic and Early Dynastic temples (3100–2649 BCE) were a quite simple in their design with a small number of anti-chambers before the sanctuary. Reeds or mudbrick were the materials of these early temples. An example is Hierakonpolis, ancient Nekhen, near present day Esna, which was dedicated to the god Horus. Its excavators have found the post holes where the large wooden flagpoles made of sycamore fig would have stood. There was a gateway to the north, a shrine to the south, and a large sand mound in the middle.
During the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 BCE) there were three types of temples: cult, mortuary, and sun temples (which were a combination of the two). These sun temples were constructed at Abu Gurab during the Fifth Dynasty and were dedicated to the sun-god Re. The first six rulers of the Fifth Dynasty constructed sun temples, although only those of Userkaf and Niuserre (fig. 6) have been identified (Nuzzolo 2018). The ancient Egyptians thought Re (the sun) died at night and needed to be resurrected each morning by the priests. Fortunately, we have the Abusir papyrus, which gives details of these rituals. Re’s main cult centre was at Heliopolis, which is near to present-day Cairo Airport.
|Fig. 6: Large offering table within the court of the Sun Temple of Niuserre|
Middle Kingdom temples (2061–1690 BCE) would originally have been made of mudbrick and in time would be replaced by stone, particularly doorjambs and lintels. There are very few remains from the Middle Kingdom, although one example is Medamud, to the north of Luxor, which was dedicated to the local god of war, Montu. Additionally, Medinet Madi in the Faiyum is one of the best examples dating to the late Twelfth Dynasty. The reason we have so few remaining is because succeeding pharaohs used them as infill or in their own temples. For example, the White Chapel, a way station, was built in the reign of Senwosret I but later dismantled and used as infill within the Third Pylon of Amenhotep III at Karnak. It is on view in the Open Air Museum at the site (fig. 7). The way station was a resting place for the priests carrying the god in his or her barque from one temple to another. There would be steps leading up to the dais and steps at the other end leading down. Another good example of a Middle Kingdom temple is that of Montuhotep II on the West Bank of Luxor. This memorial temple is located next door to the now famous temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.
|Fig. 7: White Chapel of Senwosret I|
During the New Kingdom (1549–1077) there was an explosion of temple construction, especially around Luxor (Thebes), which had become the religious capital. This was the “golden age” of the Egyptian empire, especially in the reign of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. The pharaohs often tried to outdo the previous pharaoh, including their fathers, and wrote expressions such as “never had the like been seen!” The largest monument is the cult temple of Amun at Karnak, which covers 247 acres and has over twenty chapels and temples within its boundary walls. The main temple was dedicated to Amun, which was built along an East–West axis, while the Mut Temple, his wife, is on a North–South axis. The hypostyle hall is a feature of New Kingdom temples. The largest is the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, started by Seti I and continued by his son Ramesses II, which consists of two rows of columns, twelve in all, lining the central nave. Reaching twenty metres in height with shaped capitals representing papyrus stalks in bloom. To either side of these were two adjoining rows of smaller columns, which hold the clerestory windows to allow in some light as the roof would have covered the columns (fig. 8). There are one hundred and twenty-two of these shorter columns, the capitals representing closed papyrus flowers, each measuring fourteen metres in height and supporting the lower roof. The New Kingdom temples have depictions of pharaohs quelling and smiting the enemies of Egypt, hunting scenes, and the king riding his chariot, all showing the might of Egypt and especially the pharaoh and to show the king maintaining maat! These are to be found on the outside walls or in the peristyle courts. The pharaoh’s children may be depicted here, as seen in Luxor temple. This is all before the hypostyle hall and inner rooms, which is where the religious rituals are usually shown.
|Fig. 8: Columns and clerestory windows within the Great Hypostyle Hall|
During the Amarna Period there were radical changes. With the worship of the Aten, a form of the sun god, the temple reverted to the open plan sun courts. In the case of the Great Temple at Amarna, there was the addition of two stone buildings, one at the front, the long temple, and the sanctuary at the rear. There was a raised platform in the outer court where Akhenaten and his family would offer prayers and offerings to the Aten. Unusually, there are scenes of everyday life in these temples.
For the Graeco-Roman temples (332–30 BCE), the architecture remains virtually the same, although with some modifications. Kom Ombo is unusual as it is a double temple to the gods Sobek and Haroeris (Horus the Elder) and is split into two different sides, each one mirroring the other. Philae is another example. As it is built on an island, its architectural plan follows the terrain. The Mammisi or birth house, where the deity was born and the juvenile god was celebrated in the form of a mystery play, become an important fixture. They are found outside the main temple, but to the side of the courtyard and are commonly topped with images of the god Bes for protection. The wabet (pure hall) was an important addition with its open courtyard and elevated position, which was associated with the New Year’s festival (Coppens 2007). Screen walls are found in Graeco-Roman temples, which are walls built just under half way between the columns in order to stop the ordinary person from seeing in. However, they allow light to enter the pronaos (fig. 9), which is in front of the hypostyle hall. Its function was to act as a reception area for the visiting deities, representing the unification of Egypt.
|Fig. 9: Pronaos of Hathor at Dendera|
Visiting Egyptian temples has a special magic, everyone has a favourite. I have a few but I would like to tell you more about Karnak Temple from my personal view of living there. I lived near to “the red mound” and the chapel of the hearing ear on the East Side of the temple. It was wonderful to see the sun setting over the temple, but not as wonderful hearing the Sound and Light show in all the different languages. One of the treats was eating dates from the temple complex itself, making them very special. My friend, who lives on the West side, is married to an Egyptian whose family have worked in the temple for generations. They actually lived in the temple itself at one time; their “new” flat still has a wonderful view of the temple from her roof. The temple has many moods during the day. The colours of the various temples change and at night it has a mystical form from the subdued lights and the moon. Knowing many locals who live around the temple, overlooking the Mut Temple, the Ninth Pylon, and the different gigantic gateways, you get different perspectives of this great temple complex from these different areas. I have even walked all around the perimeter! Perhaps, the most magical experience was having the temple to myself for three hours during the revolution, walking through the hypostyle hall, sitting admiring the views from different perspectives, and looking closely at hieroglyphs. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Temples are a reminder of the extraordinary ability to build by the architects and craftsmen of the ancient Egypt. We are very privileged to visit all these temples!
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Bard, Kathryn A. 2015. An introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt, 2nd ed. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
Coppens, Filip 2007. The wabet: tradition and innovation in temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman period. Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague.
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