Temple of Mentuhotep II

Temple of Mentuhotep II

The Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep II at the west bank of Luxor, in Deir el-Bahari, is a terraced mortuary temple from the 11th Dynasty, built by the Pharao Mentuhotep II, who united Egypt at the end of the First Intermediate Period. It represents the architectural change from the pyramids of the Old Kingdom to the houses of millions of years from the New Kingdom. The site was excavated by Henri Edouard Naville (1903-1907), by a team from the Metropolitan Museum of Arts directed by Herbert Winlock (1911-1931) and by Dieter Arnold for the German Archeological Institute (1968-1971).

Mentuhotep II’s most ambitious and innovative building project remains his large mortuary temple. The many architectural innovations of the temple mark a break with the Old Kingdom tradition of pyramid complexes and foreshadow the Temples of Millions of Years of the New Kingdom. As such, Mentuhotep II’s temple was undoubtedly a significant source of inspiration for the nearby but 550-year later temples of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III.

However, the most profound innovations of Mentuhotep II’s temple are not architectural but religious. First, it is the earliest mortuary temple where the king is not just the recipient of offerings but instead enacts ceremonies for the deities (in this case, Amun-Ra). Second, the temple identifies the king with Osiris. Indeed, the decoration and royal statuary of the temple emphasise the Osirian aspects of the dead ruler, an ideology apparent in the funerary statuary of many later pharaohs.

Finally, most of the temple decoration is the work of local Theban artists. This fact is evidenced by the dominant artistic style of the temple, which represents people with large lips and eyes and thin bodies. On the opposite, the refined chapels of Mentuhotep II’s wives are indeed due to Memphite artisans who were heavily influenced by the standards and conventions of the Old Kingdom. This fragmentation of the artistic styles is observed throughout the First Intermediate Period and directly consequences the country’s political fragmentation.


The temple is located on the cliff at Deir el-Bahari on the west bank of Thebes. The choice of this location is undoubtedly related to the Theban origin of the 11th Dynasty: Mentuhotep’s predecessors on the Theban throne are all buried in close-by staff tombs. Furthermore, Mentuhotep may have chosen Deir el-Bahri because it is aligned with the temple of Karnak on the other side of the Nile. In particular, the statue of Amun was brought annually to Deir el-Bahri during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, something which the king may have perceived as beneficial to this funerary cult. Consequently, and until the construction of the Djeser-Djeseru some five centuries later, Mentuhotep II’s temple was the final destination of the barque of Amun during the festival.

Discovery and excavations

In the early 19th century, the ruins of the temple of Mentuhotep II were completely covered with debris. They consequently went unnoticed until the second half of the century, despite extensive excavations performed on the nearby Djeser-Djeseru of Hatshepsut. Thus, in 1859, Lord Dufferin and his assistants, Dr Lorange and Cyril C. Graham started to excavate the southwest corner of the hypostyle hall of Mentuhotep’s temple. Clearing the immense mass of debris, they soon discovered the plundered grave of Queen Tem, one of Mentuhotep’s wives. Realising the site’s potential, they gradually worked their way to the sanctuary, where they found the granite altar of Mentuhotep with a representation of Amun-Re and various other finds such as the grave of Neferu TT319. Finally, in 1898, Howard Carter discovered the Bab el-Hosan cache in the frontcourt, where he uncovered the famous black seated statue of the king.

The following essential excavation works took place from 1903 to 1907 under the direction of Henri Édouard Naville, who worked there on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. He was the first to undertake a systematic exploration of the temple. About ten years later, between 1920 and 1931, Herbert E. Winlock further excavated the temple for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, his results were published only in preliminary reports in summary form. Finally, from 1967 to 1971, Dieter Arnold conducted research on the site on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute. He published his results in three volumes.

Foundational offerings

Under the four corners of the temple terrace, H. Winlock discovered four pits during his 1921–1922 excavations. These pits were dug into the ground before constructing the temple for foundation rituals. Indeed, when H. Winlock discovered them, they still contained many offerings: a cattle skull, pitchers and bowls filled with fruits, barley and bread and a mud-brick bearing Mentuhotep II’s name.

Further excavations of the pits undertaken in 1970 by Dieter Arnold revealed more food offerings such as bread and beef ribs and some bronze objects, a faience sceptre, and sheets of fabric. The sheets were marked in red ink at the corner, seven with the name of Mentuhotep II and three with that of Intef II.


Causeway and courtyard

Similarly to the mortuary complexes of the Old Kingdom, Mentuhotep II’s mortuary complex comprised two temples: the high temple of Deir el-Bahri and a valley temple located closer to the Nile on cultivated lands. The valley temple was linked to the high temple by a 1.2 km long and 46 m wide uncovered causeway. The causeway led to a large courtyard in front of the Deir el-Bahri temple.

The courtyard was adorned by a long rectangular flower bed, with fifty-five sycamore trees planted in small pits, six tamarisks, and two sycamore trees planted in deep pits filled with soil. This garden is one of the few archaeologically documented temple gardens of ancient Egypt known enough to reconstruct their appearance. Maintaining such a garden more than 1 km from the Nile into the arid desert must have required the constant work of many gardeners and an elaborate irrigation system.

Left and right of the processional walkway were at least 22 seated statues of Mentuhotep II wearing, on the south side, the White Crown of Upper Egypt and on the north side, the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. These were probably added to the temple to celebrate Mentuhotep II’s Sed festival during his 39th year on the throne. Some headless sandstone statues are still on site today. Another was discovered in 1921 during Herbert Winlock’s excavations and is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The front part of the temple

West of the causeway is the main temple, consisting of two parts. The front part of the temple is dedicated to Monthu-Ra, a merger of the sun god Ra with the Theban god of war Monthu, mainly worshipped during the 11th Dynasty. A ramp aligned with the central axis of the temple led to the upper terrace. The ramp that is visible today was constructed in 1905 by Édouard Naville over the remains of the original ramp, which only is visible in two places as the lowest two layers of the lateral limestone cladding. On both sides of the rising ramp, the eastern front part of the temple consists of two porticos with a double row of rectangular pillars, making the temple look like the staff tomb, the traditional burial of Mentuhotep II’s 11th-Dynasty predecessors.

On the temple terrace, a 60-metre-wide, 43-metre-deep and 5-metre-high podium supports the upper hall surrounding an ambulatory and the core building. The ambulatory, separated from the upper hall by a 5-cubit-thick wall, comprised 140 octagonal columns disposed of in three rows. For most of these columns, only the base is still visible today.

The courtyard of the ambulatory was filled by the core building, a massive 22 m large and 11 m high construction. This edifice, located at the centre of the temple complex, was excavated in 1904 and 1905 by Edouard Naville. He reconstructed it as a square structure topped by a small pyramid, a representation of the prehistoric mount which possibly resembled the superstructures of the royal tombs at Abydos. This reconstruction, supported by H. E. Winlock, was contested by D. Arnold, who argued that, for structural reasons, the temple could not have supported the weight of a small pyramid. Instead, he proposed that the edifice be flat-roofed.

The rear part of the temple

Behind the main edifice was the centre of the cult for the revered king. The rear part of the temple was cut directly into the cliff and consisted of an open courtyard, a pillared hall with 82 octagonal columns and a chapel for a statue of the king. This part of the temple was dedicated to Amun-Ra.

The open courtyard is flanked on the north and south sides by a row of five columns and on the east side by a double row totalling sixteen columns. A deep dromos leading to the royal tomb lies at the centre of the open courtyard. Archaeological finds in this part of the temple include a limestone altar, a granite stele and six granite statues of Senusret III. To the west, the courtyard leads to the hypostyle hall with ten rows of eight columns each, plus two additional columns on both sides of the entrance. The hypostyle hall is separated from the courtyard by a wall and, being also higher, is accessed via a small ramp.

On the west end of the hypostyle hall lies the temple’s holiest place, a sanctuary dedicated to Mentuhotep and Amun-Ra leading to a small speos which housed a larger-than-life statue of the king. The sanctuary itself housed a statue of Amun-Re and was surrounded on three sides by walls and on one side by the cliff. These walls’ inner and outer faces were all decorated with painted inscriptions and representations of the kings and gods in high relief. Surviving relief fragments show the deified king surrounded by the chief deities of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nekhbet, Seth, Horus and Wadjet, and on a par with them. The gods present the king with bundles of palm branches, the symbol of Millions of Years. This relief manifests the profound religious changes in the ideology of kingship since the Old Kingdom.

Royal tomb

As mentioned above, the open courtyard of the rear part of the temple presents a dromos in its centre. This dromos, a 150 m long straight corridor, leads down to a large underground chamber 45 m below the court, undoubtedly the king’s tomb. This chamber is entirely lined with red granite and has a pointed roof. It contained an alabaster chapel in the form of an Upper-Egyptian Per-wer sanctuary. This chapel was once closed by a double door, now missing. It included a wooden coffin and ointment vessels which left traces in the ground. Most of the grave goods that must have been deposited there are long gone due to the tomb plundering. The few remaining items were a sceptre, several arrows, and a collection of models, including ships, granaries and bakeries.