Ancient Egyptian temples were built to worship the gods and commemorate the pharaohs in ancient Egypt and regions under Egyptian control. Ancient Egyptians believed that temples were houses for the divinities or kings to whom they were dedicated. The Egyptians performed various rituals within them, the central functions of ancient Egyptian religion. These rituals included giving offerings to the deities, reenacting their mythological interactions through festivals, and warding off the forces of chaos.
- Functions of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
- Economic and Administrative of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
- Development of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
- Construction of the Ancient Temple
- Decoration and Design
- Personnel of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
- Religious Activities
- Sacred animals
Ancient Egyptians believed that these rituals were necessary for the gods to uphold Maat, the universe’s divine order. Housing and caring for the gods were the obligations of pharaohs, who dedicated prodigious resources to temple construction and maintenance. Out of necessity, pharaohs delegated most of their ritual duties to a host of priests. However, most of the populace was excluded from direct participation in ceremonies and forbidden to enter a temple’s most sacred areas. Nevertheless, a temple was an important religious site for all classes of Egyptians, who went there to pray, give offerings, and seek oracular guidance from the god dwelling within.
The most important part of the temple was the sanctuary, which typically contained a cult image, a statue of its god. The rooms outside the sanctuary grew more extensive and more elaborate over time. Temples evolved from small shrines in late Prehistoric Egypt (late fourth millennium BC) to large stone edifices in the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC) and later. These towers are among the most significant and enduring examples of ancient Egyptian architecture. Egyptians shaped them with their elements arranged and decorated according to complex patterns of religious symbolism. Their typical design consisted of enclosed halls, open courts, and entrance pylons aligned along the path used for festival processions. Beyond the temple, proper was an outer wall surrounding many secondary buildings.
A large temple also owned sizable tracts of land and employed thousands of laypeople to supply its needs. Temples were, therefore, important economic as well as religious centres. The priests who managed these powerful institutions wielded considerable influence, and despite their apparent subordination to the king, they may have posed significant challenges to his authority.
Temple-building in Egypt continued despite the nation’s decline and ultimate loss of independence to the Roman Empire in 30 BC. With the coming of Christianity, traditional Egyptian religion faced increasing persecution, and temple cults died out during the fourth through sixth centuries AD. The buildings they left behind suffered centuries of destruction and neglect. At the start of the nineteenth century, a wave of interest in ancient Egypt swept Europe, giving rise to the discipline of Egyptology and drawing increasing numbers of visitors to the civilisation’s remains. Dozens of temples survive today, and some have become world-famous tourist attractions that contribute significantly to the modern Egyptian economy. Egyptologists continue to study the surviving temples and the remains of destroyed ones as invaluable sources of information about ancient Egyptian society.
Functions of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
Ancient Egyptian temples were meant for the gods to reside on earth. Indeed, the term the Egyptians most commonly used to describe the temple building, ḥwt-nṯr, means “mansion (or enclosure) of a god”. A divine presence linked the human and sacred realms and allowed humans to interact with the god through ritual. These rituals, it was believed, sustained the god and allowed it to continue to play its proper role in nature. They were, therefore, a vital part of the maintenance of Maat, the ideal order of nature and human society in Egyptian belief. Maintaining Maat was the entire purpose of Egyptian religion, and it was the purpose of a temple as well.
Because he was credited with divine power himself, the pharaoh, as a sacred king, was regarded as Egypt’s representative of the gods and its most crucial upholder of Maat. Thus, it was theoretically his duty to perform the temple rites. While it is uncertain how often he participated in ceremonies, temples across Egypt made it impossible for him to do so in all cases. The pharaoh was obligated to maintain, provide for, and expand the temples. Most of the time, the pharaoh delegated these duties to priests.
Although the pharaoh delegated his authority, the performance of temple rituals was still an official duty, restricted to high-ranking priests. The participation of the general populace in most ceremonies was prohibited. Much of the lay religious activity in Egypt instead took place in private and community shrines, separate from official temples. As the primary link between the human and divine realms, temples attracted considerable veneration from ordinary Egyptians.
Each temple had a principal deity. However, Egyptians also dedicated most of it to several gods besides this central god. Not all divinities had temples dedicated to them. Many demons and household gods were involved primarily in magical or private religious practice, with little or no presence in temple ceremonies. Other gods had significant roles in the cosmos but, for unclear reasons, were not honoured with temples of their own. Many of those gods who did have temples were venerated mainly in some Egyptian regions. However, many gods with a strong local tie were also important. Even deities whose worship spanned the country were strongly associated with the cities where their chief temples stood.
In Egyptian creation myths, the first temple originated as a shelter for a god that stood on the mound of land where the process of creation began. As the primordial home of the god and the mythological location of the city’s founding, Egyptians believed that the temple was the hub of the region, from which the city’s patron god ruled it. Therefore, each temple in Egypt was equated with this original temple and the site of creation itself. Pharaohs also built temples where offerings were made to sustain their spirits in the afterlife, often linked with or located near their tombs.
These temples are traditionally called “mortuary temples” and are essentially different from divine ones. Some Egyptologists, such as Gerhard Haeny, have argued that there is no clear division between the two. The Egyptians did not refer to mortuary temples by any different name. Nor were rituals mutually exclusive for the dead and the gods; death’s symbolism was present in all Egyptian temples. The worship of gods was current to some degree in mortuary temples, and Egyptologist Stephen Quirke has said that:
at all periods royal cult involves the gods, but equally… all cult of the gods involves the king.
Even so, certain temples were used to commemorate deceased kings and to give offerings to their spirits. Their purpose is not fully understood; they may have been meant to unite the king with the gods, elevating him to a more special divine status than ordinary kingship. The difficulty of separating divine and mortuary temples reflects the close intertwining of divinity and kingship in Egyptian belief.
Economic and Administrative of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
Temples were vital centres of economic activity. The largest required prodigious resources and employed tens of thousands of priests, artisans, and labourers. The temple’s financial workings were analogous to those of a prominent Egyptian household, with servants dedicated to serving the temple god as they might help the master of an estate. This similarity is reflected in the Egyptian term for temple lands and their administration, pr, meaning “house” or “estate”.
Some of the temple’s supplies came from direct donations by the king. In the New Kingdom, when Egypt was an imperial power, these donations often went out of the spoils of the king’s military campaigns or the tribute given by his client states. The king might also levy various taxes directly to support a temple. Other revenue came from private individuals who offered land, enslaved people, or goods to temples in exchange for a supply of offerings and priestly services to sustain their spirits in the afterlife.
Much of a temple’s economic support came from its resources. These included large tracts of land beyond the temple enclosure, sometimes in a completely different region than the temple itself. The essential property type was farmland, producing grain, fruit, or wine or supporting livestock herds. The temple either managed these lands directly, rented them out to farmers for a share of the produce, or managed them jointly with the royal administration. Temples also launched expeditions into the desert to collect resources such as salt, honey, and wild game; or mine precious minerals. Some owned fleets of ships to conduct their trade across the country or even beyond Egypt’s borders.
As a major economic centre and the employer of a large part of the local population, the temple enclosure was vital to the town in which it stood. Conversely, when Egyptians found a temple on empty land, a new town was built to support it. Thus, as Richard H. Wilkinson says, the temple estate:
often represented no less than a slice of Egypt itself
This economic power was ultimately under the pharaoh’s control, and temple products and property were often taxed. Their employees, even the priests, were subject to the state corvée system, which conscripted labour for royal projects. They could also be ordered to provide supplies for some specific purposes. For example, A trading expedition led by Harkhuf in the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2255–2246 BC) was allowed to procure supplies from any temple it wished. In addition, the mortuary temples of the Theban Necropolis in the New Kingdom oversaw the royally employed tomb workers at Deir el-Medina. Kings could also exempt temples or classes of personnel from taxation and conscription.
The royal administration could also order one temple to divert its resources to another temple whose influence it wished to expand. Thus, a king might increase the income of the temples of a god he favoured, and mortuary temples of recent rulers tended to siphon off resources from temples to pharaohs long dead. The most drastic means of controlling the temple estates was to completely revise the distribution of their property nationwide, which might extend to closing down certain temples. Such changes could significantly alter Egypt’s economic landscape. The temples were thus important instruments with which the king managed the nation’s resources and its people. As the direct overseers of their economic sphere, the administrations of prominent temples wielded considerable influence. They may have posed a challenge to the authority of a weak pharaoh, although it is unclear how independent they were.
Once Egypt became a Roman province, one of the first measures of the Roman rulers was to implement reform on land possession and taxation. The Egyptian temples, as influential landowners, were made to either pay rent to the government for the land they owned or surrender that land to the state in exchange for a government stipend. However, the temples and priests enjoyed privileges under Roman rule, e.g., exemption from taxes and compulsory services. On the official level, the leading officials of the temples became part of the Roman ruling apparatus by, for example, collecting taxes and examining charges against priests for violating sacral law.
Development of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
The earliest known shrines appeared in prehistoric Egypt in the late fourth millennium BC, at sites such as Saïs and Buto in Lower Egypt and Nekhen and Coptos in Upper Egypt. Most of these shrines were made of perishable materials such as wood, reed matting, and mudbrick. Despite the impermanence of these early buildings, later Egyptian art continually reused and adapted elements from them, evoking the ancient shrines to suggest the eternal nature of the gods and their dwelling places.
In the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100–2686 BC), the first pharaohs built funerary complexes in the religious centre of Abydos following a single general pattern, with a rectangular mudbrick enclosure. In the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC) that followed the Early Dynastic Period, royal funerary monuments greatly expanded, while most divine temples remained comparatively small, suggesting that official religion in this period emphasised the cult of the king more than the direct worship of deities. Deities closely connected with the king, such as the sun god Ra, received more royal contributions than other deities. Ra’s temple at Heliopolis was a major religious centre, and several Old Kingdom pharaohs built prominent sun temples in his honour near their pyramids. Meanwhile, the small provincial temples retained a variety of local styles from Predynastic times, unaffected by the royal cult sites.
The expansion of funerary monuments began in the reign of Djoser, who built his complex entirely of stone and placed in the enclosure a step pyramid under which he was buried: the Pyramid of Djoser. For the rest of the Old Kingdom, elaborate stone pyramid complexes bounded the tomb and temple. Near each pyramid complex was a town that supplied its needs, as towns would support temples throughout Egyptian history.
Other changes came in the reign of Sneferu, who, beginning with his first pyramid at Meidum, built pyramid complexes symmetrically along an east-west axis, with a valley temple on the banks of the Nile linked to a pyramid temple at the foot of the pyramid. Sneferu’s immediate successors followed this pattern, but beginning in the late Old Kingdom, pyramid complexes combined different elements from the axial project and the rectangular plan of Djoser. Kings founded new towns and farming estates on undeveloped lands across Egypt to supply the pyramid complexes. The flow of goods from these lands to the central government and its temples helped unify the kingdom.
The rulers of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BC) continued building pyramids and their associated complexes. The rare remains from Middle Kingdom temples, like the one at Medinet Madi, show that temple plans grew more symmetrical during that period, and divine temples made increasing use of stone. The pattern of a sanctuary lying behind a pillared hall frequently appears in Middle Kingdom temples. Sometimes, these two elements are fronted by open courts, foreshadowing the standard temple layout used in later times.
With greater power and wealth during the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC), Egypt still devoted more resources to its temples, which grew more extensive and elaborate. Higher-ranking priestly roles became permanent rather than rotating positions, and they controlled a large portion of Egypt’s wealth. Anthony Spalinger suggests that, as the influence of temples expanded, religious celebrations that had once been fully public were absorbed into the temples’ increasingly important festival rituals. The most important god was Amun, whose main cult centre, the Precinct of Amun-Re at Karnak in Thebes, eventually became the largest of all temples. High priests may have wielded considerable political influence.
Many temples were built entirely of stone, and their general plan became fixed, with the sanctuary, halls, courtyards, and pylon gateways oriented along the path used for festival processions. New Kingdom pharaohs ceased using pyramids as funerary monuments and placed their tombs far from their mortuary temples. Without pyramids to build around, mortuary temples began using the same plan as those dedicated to the gods.
In the middle of the New Kingdom, Pharaoh Akhenaten promoted the god Aten over all others and eventually abolished the official worship of most other gods. Traditional temples were neglected while new Aten temples, differing sharply in design and construction, were erected. However, Akhenaten’s revolution was reversed soon after his death, with the traditional cults reinstated and the new temples dismantled. Subsequent pharaohs dedicated still more resources to the temples, particularly Ramesses II, the most prolific monument-builder in Egyptian history. As the wealth of the priesthoods continued to grow, so did their religious influence: temple oracles, controlled by the priests, were an increasingly popular method of making decisions. Pharaonic power waned, and in the eleventh century BC, a military leader Herihor made himself High Priest of Amun and the de facto ruler of Upper Egypt, beginning the political fragmentation of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1070–664 BC).
As the New Kingdom crumbled, the building of mortuary temples ceased and was never revived. Some Third Intermediate Period rulers, such as those at Tanis, were buried within the enclosures of divine temples. Thus, continuing the close link between temple and tomb was present.
In the Third Intermediate Period and the following Late Period (664–323 BC), the weakened Egyptian state fell to a series of outside powers, experiencing only occasional periods of independence. Many of these foreign rulers funded and expanded temples to strengthen their claim to the kingship of Egypt. One such group, the Kushite pharaohs of the eighth and seventh centuries BC, adopted Egyptian-style temple architecture in their native land of Nubia, beginning a long tradition of sophisticated Nubian temple building. Amid this turmoil, the fortunes of various temples and clergies shifted, and the independence of Amun’s priesthood halted, but the power of the priesthood in general remained.
Construction of the Ancient Temple
Temples were built throughout Upper and Lower Egypt, at Egyptian-controlled oases in the Libyan desert as far west as Siwa, and at outposts in the Sinai Peninsula such as Timna. When Egypt dominated Nubia, Egyptian rulers also built temples there, as far south as Jebel Barkal. Most Egyptian towns had a temple, but in some cases, as with mortuary temples or the temples in Nubia, the temple was a new foundation on previously empty land. The exact site of a temple was often chosen for religious reasons; it might, for example, be the mythical birthplace or burial place of a god.
Most temples were aligned toward the Nile with an axis running roughly east-west. The temple axis might also be designed to align with locations of religious significance, such as the site of a neighbouring temple or the rising place of the sun or particular stars. The Great Temple of Abu Simbel, for instance, is aligned so that twice a year, the rising sun illuminates the statues of the gods in its innermost room.
The construction process for a new temple, or a significant addition to an existing one, could last years or decades. An elaborate series of foundation rituals preceded construction. A further set of rituals followed the temple’s completion, dedicating it to its patron god. At least, in theory, these rites were conducted by the king as part of his religious duties; indeed, in Egyptian belief, all temple construction was symbolically his work. It was the work of hundreds of his subjects, conscripted in the corvée system.
The use of stone in Egyptian temples emphasised their purpose as eternal houses for the gods and set them apart from mortals built of mudbrick. Early temples were constructed of brick and other perishable materials, and most of the outlying buildings in temple enclosures remained brick-built throughout Egyptian history. The central stones used in temple construction were limestone and sandstone, common in Egypt; stones that are harder and more difficult to carve, such as granite, were used in smaller amounts for individual elements like obelisks. The stone might be quarried nearby or shipped on the Nile from quarries elsewhere.
Egyptians built the temple structures on stone slabs set into sand-filled trenches. In most periods, walls and other structures were built with large blocks of varying shapes. The blocks were laid in courses, usually without mortar. Each stone was dressed to fit with its neighbours, producing cuboid blocks whose uneven shapes interlocked. The interiors of walls were often built with less care, using rougher, poorer-quality stones. The workers used construction ramps constructed of various materials such as mud, brick, or rough stone to build ground-level structures.
When cutting chambers in living rock, workers excavated from the top-down, carving a crawlspace near the ceiling and cutting down to the floor. Once the temple structure was complete, builders dressed the rough faces of the stones to create a smooth surface. In decorating these surfaces, reliefs were carved into the stone or, if the stone was of too poor quality to carve, a layer of plaster covered the stone surface. Reliefs were then decorated with gilding, inlay, or paint. The paints were usually mineral pigments with adhesive, possibly natural gum.
Temple construction did not end once the original plan was complete; pharaohs often rebuilt or replaced decayed temple structures or made additions to those still standing. In these additions, they frequently dismantled old temple buildings to use as fill for the interiors of new structures. On rare occasions, this may have been because the old designs or their builders had become anathema, as with Akhenaten’s temples, but in most cases, the reason seems to have been convenience. Such expansion and dismantling could considerably distort the original temple plan, as happened at the enormous Precinct of Amun-Re at Karnak, which developed two intersecting axes and several satellite temples.
Decoration and Design
Egyptian temple designs emphasised order, symmetry, and monumentality and combined geometric shapes with organic motifs like ancient Egyptian architecture. Elements of temple design also alluded to the form of the earliest Egyptian buildings. For instance, Cavetto cornices at the tops of walls were made to imitate rows of palm fronds placed atop ancient walls, while the torus moulding along the edges of walls may have been based on wooden posts used in such buildings. The batter of exterior walls, while partly meant to ensure stability, was also a holdover from archaic building methods.
Temple ground plans are usually centred on an axis running on a slight incline from the sanctuary to the temple entrance. In the fully developed pattern used in the New Kingdom and later, the path used for festival processions—a broad avenue punctuated with large doors—served as this central axis. The path was intended primarily for the god’s use when it travelled outside the sanctuary; people used smaller side doors on most occasions. The ancient Egyptians arranged the specific temple parts along this path in a standard but flexible order. These parts included column-filled hypostyle halls, open peristyle courts, and towering entrance pylons. Beyond the temple building proper, the outer walls enclosed numerous satellite buildings. The entire area surrounded by these walls is sometimes called the temenos, the sacred precinct dedicated to the god.
The temple pattern could vary considerably, apart from the distorting effect of additional construction. Many temples, known as hypogea, were cut entirely into living rock, as at Abu Simbel, or had rock-cut inner chambers with masonry courtyards and pylons, as at Wadi es-Sebuah. They used much the same layout as free-standing temples but used excavated chambers rather than buildings as their inner rooms. In some temples, like the mortuary temples at Deir el-Bahari, the processional path ran up a series of terraces rather than sitting on a single level. The Ptolemaic Temple of Kom Ombo was built with two prominent sanctuaries, producing two parallel axes that run the length of the building. The axis passed through a series of entirely open courts filled with altars. The most idiosyncratic temple style was the Aten temples built by Akhenaten at Akhetaten.
The traditional design was a highly symbolic variety of sacred architecture. It was an extensively elaborated variant on the design of an Egyptian house, reflecting its role as the god’s home. Moreover, the temple represented a piece of the divine realm on earth. The elevated, enclosed sanctuary was equated with the sacred hill where the world was created in Egyptian myth and with the burial chamber of a tomb, where the god’s ba, or spirit, came to inhabit its cult image just as a human ba came to settle its mummy.
This important place, the Egyptians believed, had to be insulated from the impure outside world. Therefore, as one moved toward the sanctuary, the amount of outside light decreased and restrictions on who could enter increased. However, the temple could also represent the world itself. Therefore, the processional way could stand for the sun’s path travelling across the sky and the sanctuary for the Duat where it set and is reborn at night. The space outside the building was thus equated with the waters of chaos outside the world. In contrast, the temple represented the order of the cosmos and the place where that order was continually renewed.
The temple’s inner chambers centred on the sanctuary of the temple’s primary god, which typically lay along the axis near the back of the temple building, and in pyramid temples directly against the pyramid base. The sanctuary was the focus of the temple ritual, where the divine presence manifested most strongly. The form in which it manifested itself varied. In Aten temples and traditional solar shrines, the ritual object was the sun itself or a Benben stone representing the sun, worshipped in a court open to the sky. However, In many mortuary temples, the inner areas contained statues of the deceased pharaoh or a false door where his Ba received offerings.
Generally, In most temples, the focus was the cult image: a statue of the temple god, which that god’s ba inhabit while interacting with humans. The sanctuary in these temples contained either a naos, a cabinet-like shrine that housed the divine image, or a model barque within its cabin, used to carry the image during festival processions. In some cases, the sanctuary may have housed several cult statues. Whereas in earlier times, the sanctuary lay at the very back of the building, in the Late and Ptolemaic periods, it became a free-standing building inside the temple, further insulated from the outside world by the surrounding corridors and rooms. It was kept in total darkness to emphasise the sanctuary’s sacred nature.
Subsidiary chapels, dedicated to deities associated with the primary god, lay to the sides of the main one. When the main temple god was male, the secondary chapels were often dedicated to that god’s mythological consort and child. The secondary chapels in mortuary temples were devoted to gods associated with kingship.
Several other rooms neighbored the sanctuary. Many of these rooms store proper equipment, ritual texts, or temple valuables; others had specific ritual functions. The room where offerings were given to the deity was often separate from the sanctuary itself. There was a separate shrine in temples without a barque in the sanctuary to store the barque. The ritual areas could extend to chapels on the roof and crypts below the floor in late temples. Finally, in the exterior wall at the back of the temple, there were often niches for laypeople to pray to the temple god, as close as they could come to its dwelling place.
Halls and courts
Hypostyle halls, covered rooms filled with columns, appeared in temples throughout Egyptian history. They typically lay directly in front of the sanctuary area by the New Kingdom. These halls were less restricted than the inner rooms, open to laypeople at least in some cases. They were often less dark: New Kingdom halls rose into tall central passages over the processional path, allowing a clerestory to provide dim light.
In later periods, the Egyptians favoured a different hall style, where a low screen wall at the front let in the light. The epitome of this style is the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, whose giant columns are 69 feet (21 m) tall. The shadowy halls, whose columns were often shaped to imitate plants such as lotus or papyrus, were symbolic of the mythological marsh that surrounded the primaeval mound at the time of creation. The columns could also be equated with the pillars that held up the sky in Egyptian cosmology.
Beyond the hypostyle hall were one or more peristyle courts open to the sky. These open courts, which had been a part of Egyptian temple design since the Old Kingdom, became transitional areas in the standard plan of the New Kingdom, lying between the public space outside the temple and the more restricted areas within. Here the public met with the priests and assembled during festivals. There was usually a pylon at the front of each court, a pair of trapezoidal towers flanking the main gateway. The pylon came into knowledge from only scattered examples in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. However, in the New Kingdom, it quickly became the distinctive and imposing façade familiar to most Egyptian temples. The pylon served symbolically as a guard tower against the forces of disorder. It may also have resembled Akhet, the hieroglyph for “horizon”, underscoring the temple’s solar symbolism.
The front of every pylon held niches for pairs of flagpoles to stand. Unlike pylons, such flags had stood at temple entrances since the earliest Predynastic shrines. They were so closely associated with the deity presence that the hieroglyph came to stand for the Egyptian word for “god”.
The temple enclosure was proper outside the temple building, surrounded by a rectangular brick wall that symbolically protected the sacred space from outside disorder. On occasion, this function was more than symbolic, especially during the last native dynasties in the fourth century BC, when the walls were fully fortified in case of invasion by the Achaemenid Empire. In late temples, these walls frequently had alternating concave and convex courses of bricks so that the top of the wall undulated vertically. This pattern may have been meant to evoke the mythological waters of chaos.
The walls enclosed many buildings related to the temple’s function. Some enclosures contain satellite chapels dedicated to deities associated with the temple god, including Mammisis celebrating the birth of the god’s mythological child. Sacred lakes found in many temple enclosures served as reservoirs for the water used in rituals, as places for the priests to cleanse themselves ritually and as representations of the water from which the world emerged.
Mortuary temples sometimes contain a palace for the king’s spirit to whom the temple was dedicated, built against the temple building proper. The Mortuary Temple of Seti I at Abydos incorporates an unusual underground structure, the Osireion, which may have served as a symbolic tomb for the king. Sanatoria in some temples provided a place for the sick to await healing dreams sent by the god. Other temple buildings included kitchens, workshops, and storehouses to supply the temple’s needs.
Although these outlying buildings were devoted to more mundane purposes than the temple itself, they still had religious significance; even granaries might be used for specific ceremonies. Especially important was the pr ꜥnḫ “house of life”, where the temple edited, copied, and stored its religious texts, including those used for temple rituals. The house of life also functioned as a general learning centre, containing non-religious subjects such as history, geography, astronomy, and medicine.
Through the enclosure ran the processional path, which led from the temple entrance through the main gate in the enclosure wall. The path was frequently decorated with sphinx statues and punctuated by barque stations, where the priests carrying the festival barque could set it down to rest during the procession. The processional path usually ended in a quay on the Nile, which served as the entrance point for river-borne visitors and the exit point for the festival procession when it travelled by water. In Old Kingdom pyramid temples, the quay adjoined an entire temple (the valley temple) linked to the pyramid temple by the processional causeway.
The temple building was elaborately decorated with reliefs and free-standing sculptures, all with religious significance. As with the cult statue, ancients believed that the gods were present in these images, suffusing the temple with sacred power. Symbols of places in Egypt or parts of the cosmos enhanced the mythical geography already present in the temple’s architecture. Images of rituals reinforce the magical effect and perpetuate that effect even if the rituals cease to be performed. Because of their religious nature, these decorations showed an idealised version of reality, symbolic of the temple’s purpose rather than actual events. For instance, the king showed performing most rituals, while priests, if depicted, were secondary. He did not have to be rarely present for these ceremonies; his role as an intermediary with the gods mattered.
The most important form of decoration was a relief. Relief became more extensive over time, and in late temples, walls, ceilings, columns, and beams were all decorated, as were free-standing stelae erected within the enclosure. Egyptian artists used both low relief and sunken relief. Low relief allowed more subtle artistry but involved more carving than sunken relief. Sunken relief was therefore used on more challenging, more difficult stones and when the builders wanted to finish quickly. It was also appropriate for exterior surfaces, where the shadows it created made the figures stand out in bright sunlight.
Finished reliefs were painted using the primary colours black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue. However, the artists often mixed pigments to create other colours, and Ptolemaic temples were exceptionally varied, using unusual colours such as purple as accents. In some temples, gilding or inlaid pieces of coloured glass or faience are substituted for paint.
Temple decoration is among the essential sources of information on ancient Egypt. It includes calendars of festivals, accounts of myths, depictions of rituals, and the texts of hymns. In addition, Pharaohs recorded their temple-building activities and their campaigns against the enemies of Egypt. Moreover, the Ptolemaic temples include information taken from temple libraries.
The decoration in a given room either depicts the actions performed there or has some symbolic tie to the room’s purpose, providing a great deal of information on temple activities. Interior walls comprised several registers. The lowest registers were decorated with plants representing the primaeval marsh, while the ceilings and walls were decorated with stars and flying birds to represent the sky. Illustrations of rituals, surrounded by text related to the rituals, often filled the middle and upper registers. Courts and exterior walls often recorded the king’s military exploits. The pylon showed the “smiting scene”, a motif in which the king strikes down his enemies, symbolising the defeat of the forces of chaos.
The text on the walls was the formal hieroglyphic script. Some texts were written in a “cryptographic” form, using symbols differently than the standard conventions of hieroglyphic writing. The cryptographic text became more widespread and more complex in Ptolemaic times. Temple walls also frequently bear written or drawn graffiti, both in modern languages and ancient ones such as Greek, Latin, and Demotic, the form of Egyptian commonly used in Greco-Roman times.
Although not part of the temple’s formal decoration, graffiti can be an essential source of information about its history, both when its cults were functioning and after its abandonment. Ancient graffiti, for instance, often mention the names and titles of priests who worked in the temple, and modern travellers often inscribed their names in temples that they visited. Graffiti left by priests and pilgrims at Philae includes the last ancient hieroglyphic text, inscribed in AD 394, and the last in Demotic script, from AD 452.
Large, free-standing sculptures included obelisks that pointed pillars symbolising the sun. They were often placed in pairs in front of pylons or elsewhere along the temple axis. The Lateran Obelisk’s largest was more than 118 feet (36 m) high. Statues of the king, which the ancients similarly placed, also reached colossal size; the Colossi of Memnon at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III and the statue of Ramesses II at the Ramesseum are the giant free-standing statues made in ancient Egypt.
There were also figures of gods, often in sphinx form, that served as symbolic guardians of the temple. The most numerous statues were votive figures donated to the temple by kings, private individuals, or even towns to gain divine favour. They could depict the god to whom they were dedicated, the people who donated the statue, or both. The essential temple statues were the cult images, usually made of or decorated with precious materials such as gold and lapis lazuli.
Personnel of the Ancient Egyptian Temple
A temple needed many people to perform its rituals and support duties. Priests performed the temple’s essential ritual functions. However, they were far less critical of Egyptian religious ideology than the king.
All ceremonies were, in theory, acts by the king, and priests merely stood in his place. Therefore, the priests were subject to the king’s authority, and he had the right to appoint anyone he wished to the priesthood.
In fact, in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, most priests were government officials who left their secular duties for part of the year to serve the temple in shifts. Once the priesthood became professional, the king seemed to have used his power over appointments mainly for the highest-ranking positions, usually to reward a favourite official with a job or intervene for political reasons in the affairs of a significant cult. Lesser appointments he delegated to his vizier or the priests themselves.
In the latter case, the holder of an office named his son as his successor, or the temple clergy conferred to decide who should fill a vacant post. Priestly offices were extraordinarily lucrative and tended to be held by the wealthiest and most influential members of Egyptian society. In the Greco-Roman period, priestly offices continued to be advantageous. Especially in rural areas, Egyptian priests distinguished themselves from other inhabitants by utilising income and privileges attached to priestly offices and their education in reading and writing. High-ranking offices were still lucrative, and some priests fought over their occupation in lengthy court cases. However, that may have changed in the later Roman period, when Egypt was subject to large-scale economic, social, cultural and religious change.
The requirements for the priesthood differed over time and among the cults of different gods. Priests were required to observe strict standards of ritual purity before entering the most sacred areas. However, detailed knowledge was involved in priestly offices. Sources give Little about what learning or training the officeholders may require.
They shaved their heads and bodies, washed several times daily, and wore only clean linen clothing. They were not required to be celibate, but sexual intercourse rendered them unclean until they underwent further purification. The cults of specific gods might impose additional restrictions related to that god’s mythology, such as rules against eating the meat of an animal that represented the god.
The acceptance of women into the priesthood was variable. Many women served as priests in the Old Kingdom, but their clergies declined drastically in the Middle Kingdom before increasing in the Third Intermediate Period. Lesser positions, such as that of a musician in ceremonies, remained open to women in even the most restrictive periods, as did the unique role of a ceremonial consort of the god. This latter role was highly influential, and the most important of these consorts, the God’s Wife of Amun, even supplanted the High Priest of Amun during the Late Period.
At the head of the temple, the hierarchy was the high priest. He oversaw all the temple’s religious and economic functions and was an important political figure in the most prominent cults. Beneath him might be as many as three grades of subordinate priests who could substitute for him in ceremonies. Whereas many priests did various menial tasks, the clergy also contained several ritual specialists. While these higher ranks were full-time positions from the New Kingdom onward, the lower grades of priesthood still worked in shifts over the year.
Prominent among these specialised roles was the lector priest, who recited hymns and spells during temple rituals and hired out his magical services to laypeople. Besides its priests, a large temple employed singers, musicians, and dancers to perform rituals, plus the farmers, bakers, artisans, builders, and administrators supplied and managed its practical needs.
In the Ptolemaic era, temples could also house people who had sought asylum within the precinct or recluses who voluntarily dedicated themselves to serving the god and living in its household. Therefore, a significant cult could have well over 150 full or part-time priests, with tens of thousands of non-priestly employees working on its lands. These numbers contrast with mid-sized temples, which may have had 10 to 25 priests, and with the most miniature provincial temples, which might have only one.
Some priests’ duties took them beyond the temple precinct. They formed part of the entourage in festivals that travelled from one temple to another. Clergies from around the country sent representatives to the national Sed festival that reinforced the king’s divine power. Some temples, such as those in the neighbouring cities of Memphis and Letopolis, were overseen by the same high priest.
At certain times, an administrative office presided over all temples and clergies. In the Old Kingdom, kings gave this authority first to their relatives and then to their viziers. In Thutmose III’s reign, the office passed from viziers to Amon High Priests, who held it long during the New Kingdom. The Romans established a similar office, the high priest for all of Egypt, which oversaw the temple cults until their extinction.
The daily rituals in most temples included two sequences of offering rites: one to clean and dress the god for the day and one to present it with a meal. The exact order of events in these rituals is uncertain and may have varied somewhat each time they were performed. In addition, the two sequences probably overlapped with each other. The officiating priest entered the sanctuary at sunrise, carrying a candle to light the room. He opened the shrine’s doors and prostrated himself before the god’s image, reciting hymns in its praise. He removed the god from the shrine, clothed it (replacing the previous day’s clothes), and anointed it with oil and paint. Then, at some point, the priest presented the god’s meal, including various meats, fruits, vegetables, and bread.
Ancients believed that the god consumed only the spiritual essence of this meal. This belief allowed the food to be distributed to others, which the Egyptians called the “reversion of offerings”. The food passed first to the other statues throughout the temple, then to local funerary chapels for the sustenance of the dead, and finally to the priests who ate it. Even for the daily meal, the quantities were so large that only a tiny part of it could have been placed on the offering tables. Most of it must have gone directly to these secondary uses.
Purpose of Offering
Temple artwork often shows the king presenting an image of the goddess Maat to the temple deity, an act that represented the purpose of all other offerings. The king may have presented an actual figurine of Maat to the deity, or the temple reliefs depicting the act may have been purely symbolic.
Time of Offering
Other offering rituals took place at noon and sunset, though the sanctuary was not reopened. Some ceremonies other than offerings also took place daily, including rituals specific to a particular god. For instance, in the cult of the sun god Ra, hymns were sung day and night for every hour of the god’s journey across the sky. Many of the ceremonies acted out in ritual the battle against the forces of chaos. They might, for instance, involve the destruction of models of inimical gods like Apep or Set, acts that had a natural effect through the principle of Hk (Egyptological pronunciation heka) “magic”.
Effect of Rituals
The Egyptians believed that all ritual actions achieved their effect through ḥkꜣ. It was a fundamental force that rituals were meant to manipulate. The use of magic, people, objects, and actions were equated with counterparts in the divine realm and thus were believed to affect events among the gods. For instance, in the daily offering, the cult statue, regardless of which deity it represented, was associated with Osiris, the god of the dead. The priest performing the ritual was identified with Horus, the living son of Osiris, who in mythology sustained his father after death through offerings. The priest interacted with the temple deity by magically equating himself with a god in a myth.
Different festivals occurred at different intervals, though most were annual. Their timing was based on the Egyptian civil calendar, far from the astronomical year. Thus, while many festivals had a seasonal origin, their timing lost connection with the seasons. The daily rituals were replaced with festival observances on days of particular religious significance. Most festivals took place at a single temple, but others could involve two or more temples or an entire region of Egypt; a few were celebrated throughout the country.
Later, in the New Kingdom, the festival calendar at a single temple could include dozens of events, so most of these events were likely observed only by the priests. In those festivals that involved a procession outside the temple, the local population also gathered to watch and celebrate. These were the most elaborate temple ceremonies, accompanied by the recitation of hymns and musicians’ performances.
Festival ceremonies entailed the reenactment of mythological events or the performance of other symbolic acts, like the cutting of a sheaf of wheat during the harvest-related festival dedicated to the god Min. Many ceremonies took place only within the temple building, such as the “union with the sun disk” festival practised in the Late Period. Afterwards, cult statues were carried to the temple roof at the start of the New Year to be enlivened by the sun’s rays. In festivals that involved a procession, priests carried the divine image out from the sanctuary, usually in its model barque, to visit another site. The barque might travel entirely on land or be loaded onto a real boat to travel on the river.
Purpose of Visit
The purpose of the god’s visit varied. Some were tied to the ideology of kingship. In the Opet Festival, a meaningful ceremony during the New Kingdom, the image of Amun from Karnak visited the form of Amun, worshipped at Luxor Temple, and both acted to reaffirm the king’s divine rule. Still, other celebrations had a funerary character, as in the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, when Amun of Karnak visited the mortuary temples of the Theban Necropolis to visit the kings commemorated there.
At the same time, ordinary people visited the funerary chapels of their deceased relatives. These various ceremonies were united by the general purpose of renewing life among the gods and cosmos. Some may have centred on ritual marriages between deities or between deities and their human consorts, although the evidence that ritual marriage was their purpose is ambiguous. A prominent example is a festival in which priests brought an image of Hathor from the Dendera Temple complex annually to visit the Temple of Edfu, the temple of her mythological consort Horus.
The gods involved in a festival also received offerings in much larger quantities than daily ceremonies. The enormous amounts of food listed in festival texts are unlikely to have been divided among the priests alone. So it is likely that the celebrating commoners also participated in the reversion of these offerings.
Some temples kept sacred animals as ancients believed they were manifestations of the temple god’s ba in the same way cult images were. Priests kept the sacred animal in the temple and worshipped it for a particular time. This time ranged from a year to the whole animal’s lifetime. At the end of that time, priests replaced it with a new animal of the same species. That animal was selected by a divine oracle or based on specific markings to indicate its sacred nature. Among the most prominent of these animals were the Apis, a sacred bull worshipped as a manifestation of the Memphite god Ptah, and the falcon at Edfu, who represented the falcon god Horus.
During the Late Period, a different form of worship involving animals developed. In this case, laypeople paid the priests to kill, mummify, and bury an animal of a particular species to offer to a god. These animals were not regarded as especially sacred but as a species. Generally, these animals were associated with the god because the Egyptians depicted it in that animal. The god Thoth, for instance, could be represented as an ibis and as a baboon.
Moreover, both ibises and baboons were given to him. However, this practice was distinct from the worship of single divine representatives. Some temples kept stocks of animals that could be selected for either purpose. These practices produced large cemeteries of mummified animals, such as the catacombs around the Serapeum of Saqqara, where the Apis bulls were buried and millions of animal offerings.
By the beginning of the New Kingdom, and possibly earlier, the festival procession had become an opportunity for people to seek oracles from the god. Their questions dealt with subjects ranging from the location of a lost object to the best choice for a government appointment. The motions of the barque as it was carried on the bearers’ shoulders—making simple gestures to indicate “yes” or “no”, tipping toward tablets on which possible answers were written, or moving toward a particular person in the crowd—were taken to indicate the god’s reply.
In the Greco-Roman period, and possibly much earlier, Egyptians used oracles outside the festival, allowing people to consult them frequently. Priests interpreted the movements of sacred animals or, being asked questions directly, wrote out or spoke answers that they had supposedly received from the god in question. The priests’ claim to speak for the gods or interpret their messages gave them significant political influence. It provided the means for the High Priests of Amun to dominate Upper Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period.