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Monday, 3 August 2020

Houses of the Gods: The Temples of Ancient Egypt

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.

Foundation Rituals
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)

Temple construction
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!

Arnold, Dieter 1999. Temples of the last pharaohs. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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.
Nuzzolo, Massimiliano 2018. The Fifth Dynasty sun temples: kingship, architecture and religion in third millennium BC Egypt. Prague: Charles University, Faculty of Arts.
O’Connor, David 2009. Abydos: Egypt’s first pharaohs and the cult of Osiris. New aspects of antiquity. London: Thames & Hudson.
Phillips, J. Peter 2002. The columns of Egypt. Manchester: Peartree.
Teeter, Emily 1997. The presentation of Maat: ritual and legitimacy in ancient Egypt. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 57. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Vörös, Győző 1998. Temple on the pyramid of Thebes: Hungarian excavations on Thoth Hill at the temple of Pharaoh Montuhotep Sankhkara 1995–1998. Budapest: Százszorszép Kiadó és Nyomda.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The complete temples of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The Pantheon of the Ancient Egyptians

The blog post for this week has been written by Terri Natale, who has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Victorian Studies. She also received a Certificate and Diploma in Egyptology from Birkbeck College. Terri has previously worked as a volunteer on the South Asasif Conservation Project for five seasons.

In the second lecture of the Ancient Egyptian Religion course, Dr Ken Griffin led us into the complex pantheon of the Egyptian gods. The ancient Egyptian gods were neither omniscient nor omnipresent. They had specific roles and qualities and sometimes their powers were only regional. Ancient Egypt was an agricultural society heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile. The semi-divine pharaoh, as the chief priest of all religious cults, was responsible for the continued protection of the country. The correct worship of the gods ensured the prosperity and protection of the country (maat). Life was too precarious for the ancient Egyptians to put their eggs in one basket. The goddess Maat represented order while her opposite, Isfet (disorder), needed to be constantly challenged.

Fig. 1: Copper alloy statue of Amun (AB106)

There were roughly 1,500 gods in the Egyptian pantheon, but over 100,000 if one includes their epithets (Leitz et al 2002–2003). For example, the goddess Hathor might be called the Mistress of Turquoise, or the Golden One. Each epithet referred to a specific quality or area of protection. The sun-god Re was known by seventy-five different names. The Egyptians could join the qualities of two gods to increase their strength (syncretism), as in the case of Amun-Re or Amun-Min (fig. 1). They could also transform into different shapes. In the tale of the Destruction of Mankind, Hathor turned into the lion goddess Sekhmet. Contrary to popular misconceptions based on the zoomorphic (animal form) and therianthropic (mix of human and animal) depictions of the gods, the ancient Egyptians did not worship animals. Instead, they worshipped the animal-like qualities of the god. The goddess Hathor was the protector of women and children. She was often depicted as a woman with cow ears, sometimes with the head of a cow, and sometimes as a complete cow in order to represent the motherly qualities of a cow. The gods lived in the sky and their real forms were unknown. However, their presence could be felt. They resided in their statues and temples.

To make things more complicated, the gods were commonly incorporated into groups.
- Dyad (two)
- Triad (three), e.g., Amun, Mut, Khonsu
- Tetrad (four), e.g., the four sons of Horus
- Pentad (five)
- Hebdomad (seven), e.g., the seven Hathors 
- Ogdoad (eight)
- Ennead (nine)

Fig. 2: Ramesses II offering to his deified self (Abu Simbel)

At his coronation, the pharaoh achieved semi-divine status. He became Horus and was imbued with the attributes of the god. He was the “Son of Re”, the “Good God”. He was depicted in temples and tombs the same size as the god, while the divine birth cycle identified him as the offspring of the gods. Two pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II, had themselves depicted offering to their deified selves in some Nubian temples (fig. 2). Deified human beings also joined the ranks of the gods. Among them were Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu.

Other groups of deities included.
- Cavern deities
- Demons
- Gate deities
- Judgement deities
- Hour deities
- Nome deities (one for each of Ancient Egypt's 42 nomes)
- Star deities
- The souls of Nekhen and Pe (perhaps representing the deceased ancestors of the king)

Ken then discussed some very well-known gods, many of whom were first attested in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom. I will attempt a short summary of some of them.

Osiris made his first appearance in the Fifth Dynasty. He was a fertility god, usually anthropomorphic in form, wrapped as a mummy, and holding a crook and flail. He was the husband of Isis and the father of Horus. Isis also made her first appearance in the Fifth Dynasty. Her epithets include “Great of Magic” and the “Eye of Re”. She is the mother of the king (Horus) and the mourner of her husband, Osiris. She can be depicted as a tree goddess (fig. 3), a kite, or a cobra. She was revered throughout Egypt and the Mediterranean. Horus was one of the earliest and most important gods in the pantheon. He was the falcon-headed god of the sky, usually depicted wearing the Double Crown. Horus had many forms, some of whom were discussed in the class. He was Harakhty (Horus of the two horizons), Horus-Behdety (the winged disc protecting temples), Horus the Elder (worshipped at Kom Ombo), Harsiese (Horus son of Isis), Harsomptus (Horus the uniter of the two lands), Horus the Red (Mars), and Horus Bull of the Heavens (Saturn).

Fig. 3: Cartonnage fragment depicting a tree goddess (W490)

Amun was first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts (Fifth Dynasty), but from the Eleventh Dynasty he became the main Theban god (fig. 4). These changes underline significant religious and political changes. He was commonly referred to as the King of the Gods. He formed part of the Theban Triad with his wife Mut and his son, the moon god, Khonsu. His wife Mut first occurs during the Middle Kingdom. A mother goddess, she could also be depicted with the head of a lioness. Her main temple was to the south of Karnak (Isheru). Their son Khonsu first appeared in the so-called Cannibal Hymn (Eyre 2002). He was usually depicted as anthropomorphic (complete human) figure wearing the side lock of youth and a headdress with a crescent moon. He could also be falcon headed.

Fig. 4: Copper alloy statue of Osiris (W85)

Ptah was a Memphite god who first appeared in the early First Dynasty. He was mainly depicted in human form, mummiform in appearance, and standing on a plinth (Maat). He had a straight beard, wore a skullcap and a heavy necklace with a counterpoise at the back. Ptah was associated with the Apis Bull and was the patron deity of craftsmen. Sekhmet, another Memphite deity, was the daughter of Re, the wife of Ptah, and the mother of Nefertum. She was a powerful goddess who appears mainly leonine in form. Sekhmet was the goddess of pestilence, who appears in the tale of the Destruction of Mankind. Nefertum is first attested in the Pyramid Texts. Depicted in human form as a child, he is commonly shown with a lotus blossom on top of his head or his head emerging from a lotus flower. He is the god of perfume (fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Faience dyad statue of Sekhmet and Nefertum (W1163)

Khnum, an early creator god, is said to have created human beings on the potter’s wheel. Often depicted as ram-headed, he wears the Atef-crown (fig. 6). His other cult centres were at Elephantine and Esna. Khnum was associated with Anuqet and Satet. Anuqet was another daughter of Re and first appears in the Old Kingdom. She controlled the cataracts. Satet first appeared during the Third Dynasty and she was identified as the Mistress of Elephantine. She was commonly represented mainly in human form wearing a white crown with antelope horns.

Fig. 6: Amulet of Khnum

Re was a creator god who is first attested during the Second Dynasty. He was the supreme solar deity of the Egyptian pantheon. As mentioned above, he has seventy-five different forms and was often fused with other gods to make them stronger. Many temples were consecrated to him, although his main cult centre was at Heliopolis. The Aten first occurs in the Middle Kingdom. As a deity, he was closely linked to the sun-god Re. He is symbolised by the sun disc. The Aten was the main deity during the short-lived Amarna Period. Since his name is commonly attested enclosed within two cartouches, some Egyptologists think he might have been the deceased Amenhotep III.

Fig. 7: Figure of Bes (EC257)

Hathor one of Egypt’s great goddesses, who is often identified as the daughter of Re. She had more temples than any other goddess. She was associated with motherhood, music, dance, etc. She could transform from the docile cow to the raging lioness Sekhmet. Atum was an ancient god, the self-created. As the father of Shu and Tefnut, he was the father of the gods. He was mainly depicted in human form and, sometimes, as an aged ram. His main cult centre was at Heliopolis. Bes first appears during the Old Kingdom (fig. 7). He was a very popular household god and the protector of pregnant women and children. He was also the god of partying. Bes was depicted as a male lion standing on his hind legs, with a long beard (mane), protruding tongue, and wearing a plumed headdress. Hapi is the personification of the Nile. He was a creator god who is almost always depicted in human form. He has a big belly, pendulous breasts, and wears either a papyrus or a lotus on his head. Hapi is often depicted carrying tribute to the pharaoh and the gods (fig. 8).

Fig. 8: Relief depicting Hapi (W348)

The gods of ancient Egypt had different forms and functions. Their powers were often limited, hence the merging of more than one god to create a stronger deity. They were born and could also die, but if you knew their names they could live again!

Eyre, Christopher 2002. The Cannibal Hymn: a cultural and literary study. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Leitz, Christian (ed.) 2002–2003. Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 8 vols. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 110–116; 129. Leuven: Peeters. 
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.

Monday, 20 July 2020

The Origins of Egyptian Religion

The blog post for this week is written by Yvonne Buskens-Frenken, from the Netherlands. She is a member of the Dutch Egyptology society Mehen and a former student of Egyptology at Manchester University (Certificate 2015 and Diploma 2017). While Yvonne has never been to the Egypt Centre before, she hopes to visit in the near future, perhaps with other Mehen members. This is the second of the online Egypt Centre courses that she has attended.

Last week a new online course was launched by The Egypt Centre entitled The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, which is led by Dr Ken Griffin. I do find these online lectures and courses absolutely wonderful. Because of Covid-19 we are all, in one way or another, deprived from attending the usual Egyptology lectures held in museums or Egyptology societies. I wholeheartedly embrace these online lectures as they provide a dose of Egyptology. I actually hope this form of lecturing will continue in the future, but without Covid-19 hanging over us!

As a former Egyptology student, the topics discussed are not new or unfamiliar to me but there is always a new aspect to discover or a new angle to approach a certain topic for further (private) study. Within that context, I would like to highlight here some aspects of the first session discussing the origins of Egyptian religion and myths, which I found particularly interesting. One of them is Punt, which popped up twice during the lecture, although indirectly. Dr. Griffin started with the question “what is religion?” This is a subject not easy to discuss or define. I think we all have different opinions and experience it differently. Additionally, at some level, I am sure the ancient Egyptians must have had the same difficulties in experiencing what they understand by what we call religion. Actually, I don’t think they even had a word for religion? To find out how the ancient Egyptians experienced their understanding of religion, we have to search within the available resources. However, when interpreting these resources, they don’t always give us the perfect insight. For example, are these painted pottery decorations you see here on this Predynastic vessel (fig. 1) deities and cults? If so, what did they mean for the ancient Egyptians?

Fig. 1: D-ware vessel (BM EA 35502)

From later periods in Egyptian history, we are able to get more conclusive evidence. Firstly, we can detect what we call state religion, which was performed within the temples. The king acted as the high priest while the temple priesthood performed rituals on behalf of the king. These included daily rituals such offerings, libations, anointing, and dressing the gods. You cannot fail to see these abundant “religious” scenes when you walk through the temples of Egypt, such as that of Sety I at Abydos (fig. 2). There is also the private religion, which I prefer studying over the state religion as it brings us closer to the ordinary Egyptians and is more relatable. I am glad Ken included in his lecture a beautiful ear stela (Toye-Dubs 2016), which shows how much mankind wanted to communicate with the gods: “NN, do you hear me?” The ears of God are depicted on the stela. Here you see three pair of ears, although there are more beautiful examples in museums showing just one large ear. Also interesting within the private religion is the ancestor cult, a form of keeping in contact with and honouring your ancestors by the so-called ancestor busts or ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stelae (“excellent spirit of Re”) (fig. 3)

Fig. 2: Sety I performing rituals within the temple at Abydos

Gods were venerated in temples, the earliest of which were not built of stone, as the ones in Abydos or Luxor, but from organic materials. The archaic temple at Hierakonpolis is a good example. Some well-known temples in modern Luxor are Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple on the east bank. On the West Bank, Medinet Habu and Hatshepsut’s temple are my favourite places to visit! However, did you ever hear of (or visit for that matter, which I haven’t) the oldest archaic temple in the Theban area, situated on Thoth Hill. This temple on the West Bank of Luxor, dating to around 3,200 BC, was first brought to my attention during a lecture hosted by Mehen some years ago. Petrie already excavated this site over 100 years ago, but it was a team of Hungarian archaeologists who found beneath the Middle Kingdom structure of Sankhkare Mentuhotep III remnants of an archaic stone temple (pottery and architectural fragments are dated to the so-called Archaic Period). The archaic structure had almost the same layout as the Middle Kingdom temple, except for the fact that it had a single sanctuary rather than three. Dr Griffin pointed out in the lecture about its star orientation: the archaic temple differs in its orientation to Sirius by around two degrees from the later structure on Thoth Hill, thus pointing to a shift in the stars (Vörös 1998; Wilkinson 2000, 173).

Fig. 3: Fragment of an ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stela (A232)

We next looked at the origins of the Egyptian gods, which will be the focus of week two. When studying Egyptology you think “now I know them all”, but then another one pops up. I actually don’t know how many gods even existed in ancient Egypt, but then does anybody? It fascinates me that on the one hand the ancient Egyptians wanted strict rules and order, as can be seen with this king upholding maat (cosmic order). On the other hand, it is somewhat chaotic; countless gods in different forms and in different contexts could be created and depicted, almost as if one could make up one for every occasion. One of my favourite gods from the Egyptian pantheon is Min of Coptos (fig. 4). He is mostly known as being the god of sex and fertility, but I find him interesting as being the god of the Eastern Dessert. Did you know there are cowrie shells depicted on this statue shown here, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford? This seems to be a reference to the Red Sea and trade. From Coptos, (trading/military) expeditions were sent through the Eastern Desert. Soldiers, sailors, and craftsmen, all on foot with dismantled ships and trading goods/food loaded on donkeys, trotting towards the Red Sea. From there the expedition continued on ships, which were assembled on the spot, with some going to the “mysterious” land of Punt. The exact location of Punt remains a mystery. While for many the famous Punt expedition during the reign of Hatshepsut comes to mind, expeditions were already being sent during the Old Kingdom (Bard & Fattovich 2018; Breyer 2016).

Fig. 4: Colossal statue of Min from Coptos

The last part of the lecture was about creation myths. Within ancient Egyptian religion you have many creation myths, such as the Hermopolitan myth, the Heliopolitan myth, the Memphite myth, and many other local traditions. From the Heliopolitan myth I like the story of the Great Cackler: Geb was a god of the earth and one of the Ennead of Heliopolis (fig. 5). He was largely worshiped as a goose, his sacred animal, and was already around during Predynastic times. He was also called Gengen Wer, meaning “Great Honker”, who is the personification of creative energy. In his shrine in Bata in Iunu (Heliopolis) he laid the great Egg (symbolising rebirth and renewal) from which the Sun-god arose in the form of a phoenix or Benben. He was given the epithet “The great Cackler” because of the noise he made when the egg was laid. During the lecture on someone asked why a male goose could can lay an egg? Well, it turns out Geb was often considered to be a hermaphrodite (Griffiths 2001, 473). From later times, we have a wonderful text about the Great Cackler (Coffin Text 307) “… He cackled, being the Great Cackler, in the place where he was created, he alone. He began to speak in the midst of silence … He commenced to cry when the earth was inert. His cry spread … He brought forth all living things which exist. He caused them to live. He made all men understand the way to go and their hearts came alive when they saw him… (Clagget 1989, 301–302).

Fig. 5: Geb from the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3)

At the end of the lecture I hear the word Punt again. One could have easily missed it but it was mentioned in the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. Although the Shipwrecked Sailor is more of a tale than a myth, it was presented in this lecture because of its many connotations with gods and religion. The story looks very straightforward, but when analysed and translated it keeps you puzzling over and over again about its meaning. The only surviving copy of the text is now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It is about a trading, exploration, or a military expedition from the South and its return to Egypt. One part of the tale is about the sailor telling his story to his master about being shipwrecked on an island full of wonders. He encounters a giant snake (the god), who calls himself the “prince of Punt”. They become friends and the snake tells his unfortunate story to the sailor. The island full of good and abundant food is here mythically described as the Land of Punt, the well-known land/area for trading since early times (Simpson 2003, 45–46. An added bonus to the lecture was a video by Luke Keenan, the Senior Education Officer at the Egypt Centre, vividly retelling the story!

Bard, Kathryn A. and Rodolfo Fattovich † 2018. Seafaring expeditions to Punt in the Middle Kingdom: excavations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 96. Leiden; Boston: Brill.
Clagett, Marshall 1989. Ancient Egyptian science: a source book. Volume one: Knowledge and order, 2 vols. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 184. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
Breyer, Francis 2016. Punt: die Suche nach dem “Gottesland”. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 80. Leiden; Boston: Brill.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn 2001. Solar cycle. In Donald B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, 476-480. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Griffin, K. 2007. An ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stela from the collection of the Egypt Centre, Swansea. In Schneider, Thomas and Kasia Szpakowska (eds), Egyptian stories: a British Egyptological tribute to Alan B. Lloyd on the occasion of his retirement, 137–147. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.
Simpson, William Kelly (ed.) 2003. The literature of ancient Egypt: an anthology of stories, instructions, stelae, autobiographies, and poetry, third ed. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Toye-Dubs, Nathalie 2016. De l’oreille à l’écoute. Etude des documents votifs de l’écoute: nouvel éclairage sur le développement de la piété personnelle en Egypte ancienne. BAR International Series 2811. Oxford: BAR.
Vörös, Győző 1998. Temple on the pyramid of Thebes: Hungarian excavations on Thoth Hill at the temple of Pharaoh Montuhotep Sankhkara 1995–1998. Budapest: Százszorszép Kiadó és Nyomda.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The complete temples of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Every Ending has a New Beginning

The past four months has been life changing for most people, including all of us at the Egypt Centre. With the Museum closing in mid-March, our main sources of income (shop sales, school visits, and events) have been affected massively. Like most museums, we have been working hard trying to find new ways of engaging with our visitors while also raising funds for the Egypt Centre. Just under three months ago, I started an online Egypt Centre support fund in the effort to raise £5,000. At the time of writing, I am delighted to say that we have smashed this target by raising £8,585! We are most grateful to everyone who has contributed to this fund so far (fig. 1). There are still three days remaining, so if you would like to support the Egypt Centre during these difficult times, you can still do so via the following link!

Fig. 1: Egypt Centre support fund

As has been noted previously on this blog, our Wonderful Things conference planned for late May was moved to a virtual format, with the final lecture of this series taking place on Friday. I must admit, I was quite apprehensive at first about moving it online, but it has proven to have been tremendously successful and has certainly raised the profile of the Egypt Centre. Over the past few months we have hosted seventeen lectures, all of which revolved around the Egypt Centre collection. The lectures have highlighted the diversity of the collection, with many unique objects showcased. The Egypt Centre is very proud of providing a platform for both established professionals and students, from Egyptologists to conservators. In total, 2,691 people attended the live sessions making this a truly international event (attendees from six continents). Sixteen of the lectures were recorded and have been added to our YouTube channel, drawing an additional audience of 3,907 people. We are grateful to all the speakers who have offered their time and expertise on the collection! Thanks also to Sam Powell, an Egypt Centre volunteer and Egyptology Masters student, for co-hosting these lectures. We are also very grateful to the Mehen Study Centre for Ancient Egypt who sponsored these online lectures (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Mehen Study Centre for Ancient Egypt 

Despite the virtual conference concluding, our online engagement continues. On Friday of this week, the Egypt Centre will be hosting its first virtual quiz. For the most part, questions will focus on the conference, although there will be general Egyptological questions mixed in. To raise funds for the Egypt Centre there is a £2 charge per household, with tickets available here. Yesterday I started my new short course on Ancient Egyptian Religion, which follows on from the well-received Funerary Artefacts of the Ancient Egyptians. As much as possible the course will highlight relevant objects in the Egypt Centre collection. This course takes place of Sunday evenings and is repeated on Wednesday mornings. Therefore, there is still the opportunity for people to sign up for this course via the following link. As with the previous course, I’ll be inviting attendees to write the blog posts from their own perspective. This course fulfils one of the Egypt Centre’s core aims of widening participation.  
Fig. 3: Copper alloy votive statue of Osiris (W85)

While we will continue to offer free online Zoom lectures (details to follow), financial pressures mean that we will also be hosting a series of fundraising lectures. These lectures will take place once a month, with details to be announced in advance of each talk. I’m delighted to announce that the first lecture will be delivered by Dr Ramadan Hussein (Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen), the director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project (fig. 4). The project was launched in 2016 as a second round of excavation, documentation, conservation, and publication of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty tombs clustered around the pyramid of King Wenis. During the mapping of the site, the project’s team made significant archaeological discoveries. Many readers will have followed the amazing work of the project via the four-part National Geographic channel recent documentary Kingdom of the Mummies. Discoveries include the first and only example of six canopic jars for one person, the first silver mask found in Egypt in more than half a century, and evidence of a mummification workshop. This promises to be a fantastic lecture, so please join us and support the Egypt Centre. Full details and tickets for the event can be found via the following link.

Fig. 4: Egypt Centre fundraising lecture

Another major development to enhance our online presence is the creation of a new online catalogue. We recently received funding from the Swansea University Alumni’s Greatest Need Fund, for which we are extremely grateful. The current online catalogue was launched in 2005 with limited search capabilities. The new online collection catalogue, which has been in development for the past year, has been designed specifically with the Egypt Centre in mind. Sam Powell, as a student at Swansea University and volunteer at the Egypt Centre, used her experience of working with the collection to design a bespoke new platform, which will allow the collection to be appreciated virtually. Through working closely with the Egypt Centre staff, the online catalogue has been honed to ensure that the user experience is as intuitive as possible, and meeting the needs of a diverse collection. Further data cleaning, new entry fields, and other modifications will continue to be made (figs 5–8). The planned launch of the catalogue is the beginning of October to coincide with the beginning of the academic year. Stay tuned for more details in a future blog post!

Fig. 5: New catalogue entry for W491 (1 of 4)

Fig. 6: New catalogue entry for W491 (2 of 4)

Fig. 7: New catalogue entry for W491 (3 of 4)

Fig. 8: New catalogue entry for W491 (4 of 4)