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Ancient Egyptian Temples

Temple of Ramesses II.
Temple of Ramesses II.

The ancient Egyptians led a rich theological life. With 8,700 deities in their pantheon, religion played a central part in both their society and their daily lives. The heart of their religious devotions was the temple. Devotees did not worship at the temple. Rather, they left offerings to their gods, made requests for their god to intercede on their behalf and took part in religious festivals. A modest shrine dedicated to a family god was a common feature of private homes.

Ancient Egyptian Temple Facts

    • Ancient Egypt’s temples accumulated prodigious wealth, rivalling the pharaohs for political and social power and influence
    • Temples are classified into Religious Temples or Mortuary Temples
    • Religious Temples were the home of the god on earth
    • Ceremonies were staged in Religious Temples to transform the mortal human pharaoh into a living deity on earth who was then worshipped by his people
    • Mortuary temples were dedicated to a deceased pharaoh’s funerary cult
    • Sacred space were areas dedicated to worshipping a god or goddess. Priests built temples on the sacred space after being sent a sign by the deity or because of its special location
    • Public temples housed the statue of the gods to which they were dedicated
    • Temples represented the primeval mound, which the god Amun stood on to create the universe
    • Ancient Egyptians believed the temple was a miniature depiction of their universe and the heavens above
    • Egypt’s continued existence and prosperity relied on the priesthood tending their gods’ needs
    • Karnak is Egypt’s largest temple complex. It vies with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat as the world’s largest ancient religious complex
    • Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is one of Egypt’s greatest archaeological treasures. The female pharaoh’s name was erased from all external inscriptions and her image was defaced
    • The two monumental temples at Abu Simbel were relocated in the 1960s to higher ground to avoid them being inundated by the waters of the High Aswan dam

Over time, the temples accumulated enormous wealth and translated that in political and social power and influence. Eventually, their wealth rivalled that of the pharaohs. Temples were major employers in the community, employing priests, to artisans, gardeners and cooks. Temples also grew their own food on the large farmland estates they owned. Temples also received a share of the spoils of war including prisoners from the pharaoh’s military campaigns. Pharaohs also gifted temples with monuments, goods and additional land.

Two Forms Of Ancient Egyptian Temples

Egyptologists view ancient Egypt’s temples as falling into two main categories:

  1. Cultus Or Religious Temples
    These temples were consecrated to a deity with many temples worshipping more than one deity. These temples constituted the gods’ earthly homes. Here, the high priest tended the statue of the god in the inner sanctum. Cult members performed their ceremonial duties and daily rituals, made offerings to the gods, prayed to their gods’ and tended their needs. Festivals were also staged in cultus temples, allowing ordinary Egyptians to take part in honouring their deity.
  2. Mortuary Temples
    These temples were dedicated to the funerary cult of a deceased pharaoh. In these temples, cult members made offerings of food, drink and clothing to the deceased pharaoh to assuring the pharaoh would continue his protection of the Egyptian people in death as he had in life. Mortuary temples were exclusively dedicated to deceased pharaohs.Initially, mortuary temples were incorporated into the network of builds associated with the pharaoh’s tomb. The majority of pyramids included a mortuary temple within their surrounding complex. Later pharaohs looked to conceal their tombs to frustrate tomb robbers so they began constructing these elaborate mortuary temples well away from the location of their tombs.

Sacred Spaces

A sacred space is an area dedicated to the worship of a god or goddess. Priests ordered the construction of a temple or a shrine on the sacred space after selecting the spot after being sent a sign it was significant from the deity or because of its location. Once the sacred space had been selected, the priests conducted purification rituals prior to constructing a religious temple or shrine in the deity’s honour.

These spaces remained in use for centuries. Often new, more elaborate temples were constructed on top of existing temple structures, providing a record of religious worship on the site

Public Temples

Temples served several purposes in ancient Egypt. The primary role of most temples was to house the statue of the gods to which they were dedicated. These statues were believed to be the homes of the god. The continued existence and prosperity of the land of Egypt was contingent on the priesthood tending to the needs of the gods.

Ancient Egyptians believed a patron god of a town who was neglected and failed to receive the care due to them would grow angry and leave the temple. This would expose the town’s inhabitant to all kinds of misfortune and disaster.

Select temples also served dual purposes. No pharaoh could rule ancient Egypt without first being deified. Elaborate ceremonies were staged where the new pharaoh entered the temple, together with the high priest. Once inside the temple’s inner sanctum, they performed rituals designed to transform the mortal human pharaoh into a living deity on earth. The pharaoh was then worshipped and revered by his subjects. Some temples were reserved exclusively for the worship of their pharaoh.

Structures Rich In Meaning

For ancient Egyptians, their temples had three meanings. Firstly, it was where a god lived while on earth. Secondly, it represented the primeval mound, which the god Amun stood on to create the universe, as the ancient Egyptians knew it. Reflecting this belief, the temple’s inner sanctuary, where the god’s statue was located was built higher than the remainder of the temple complex. Thirdly, worshippers believed the temple was a miniature depiction of their universe and the heavens above.

Due to a chronic shortage of wood, ancient Egyptian temples were built using stone. Their only other readily available building material was mud-brick. Unfortunately, mud-brick weathered and crumbled. As the temples built to house the gods needed to last for all eternity, stone was the only acceptable building material.

A series of inscribed reliefs, inscriptions and images covered the temple walls. The temple’s Hypostyle hall often depicted scenes from history. These inscriptions outlined pivotal events or achievements during a pharaoh’s reign or major events in the life of the temple. Specific rooms also contained carved reliefs depicting temple rituals. Many of the images depicted the pharaoh leading the ritual. These inscriptions also displayed images of the gods together with myths about those gods.

The Theban Necropolis

The sprawling complex of temples, which comprised the Theban Necropolis was set on the Nile River’s west bank close to the Valley of the Kings. The most well-known temples constructed as part of this huge complex included the Ramesseum, the Medinet Habu and the Deir-El-Bahri.

These comprised a network of buildings including Hatshepsut and Thutmose III’s mortuary temples. A landslide during antiquity caused extensive damage to Thutmose III’s temple. The resulting rubble was then pillaged for stones to construct later buildings.

Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple

One of the most amazing sites in world archaeology as well as in all of Egypt, Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple was extensively reconstructed in the late 20th century. Carved into the living rock of the cliff face Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is the highlight of Deir-El-Bahri. The temple comprises three separate terraces each linked by a massive ramp leading up to the next terrace level. The temple stands 29.5 metres (97 feet) tall. Sadly most of its external images and statues were damaged or destroyed by Hatshepsut’s successors who were determined to erase Hatshepsut’s reign from recorded history.

The Ramesseum

Constructed by Ramesses II, the Ramesseum temple required two decades to finish. The temple complex comprises two pylons and a Hypostyle hall. The builders erected several monumental statues depicting the pharaoh in his temple. Their inscriptions celebrate the pharaoh’s military triumphs. A temple consecrated to Ramesses’ first wife and his mother stands beside the temple. Extensive flooding by the Nile has caused damage to the Ramesseum’s surviving structure.

Luxor Temple

This temple is located on the Triad’s east bank. The Theban Triad comprising Mut, Khonsu and Amun was worshipped at this site. During the Opet Festival, which celebrated fertility, Amun’s statue at Karnak was transported to the Luxor Temple.

Karnak

Karnak is Egypt’s biggest temple complex. It vies with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat as the world’s largest ancient religious complex. Karnak was at the heart of Egypt’s Amun cult and housed four distinct temple complexes. The three surviving complexes house the temples of Amun, Montu and Mut. Chapels were constructed to worship for other gods in each complex and each complex had a dedicated sacred pool. At least thirty of Egypt’s pharaohs are thought to have contributed to Karnak’s construction.

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel comprises two temples commissioned by Ramesses II during his massive construction phase. These temples were dedicated to Ramesses himself and to his first wife Queen Nefertari. Ramesses II’s personal temple also honoured three of Egypt’s national gods. The goddess Hathor was the deity worshipped within the halls of Nefertari’s temple.

Their builders carved these monumental temples into the living cliff face. A massive effort was mounted during the 1960s to relocate them to higher ground to avoid them being inundated by the waters of the High Aswan dam. Ramesses II intended the scale of these temples to demonstrate his power and wealth to his neighbours in the south.

Abydos

The mortuary temple dedicated to the pharaoh Seti I was located at Abydos. Egyptologists discovered the groundbreaking Abydos King’s list in the temple. Today, part of Abydos’ ancient temples lie beneath the contemporary town occupying the site. Abydos formed a key centre of Egypt’s Osiris worship and Osiris’ tomb was claimed to be located here in Abydos.

Philae

The island of Philae was deemed to be a sacred space and only priests were allowed to live within the island’s grounds. Philae was once home to temples dedicated to Isis and Hathor. The island was also home to another of Osiris’ reputed tombs. These temples were also relocated in the 1960s to protect them from being inundated by the Aswan High Dam.

Medinet Habu

Ramesses III constructed his own temple complex at Medinet Habu. Its extensive reliefs show the arrival and subsequent defeat of the Hyskos Sea Peoples. It is 210 metres (690 feet) by 304 metres (1,000 feet) and contains more than 75,000 sq. ft. of wall reliefs. A protective mud-brick wall surrounds the temple.

Kom Ombo

A unique dual temple is located at Kom Ombo. Twin sets of courtyards, sanctuaries, halls and chambers are laid out on either side of a central axis. In the north wing the gods Panebtawy, Tasenetnofret and Haroeris were worshipped. The south wing was dedicated to the gods Hathor, Khonsu and Sobek.

Archaeologists have reconstructed much of this temple complex. Several hundred mummified crocodiles representing Sobek was discovered close to the temple’s site.

Edfu

Edfu was dedicated to the god Horus. Today, the temple is well preserved. It was constructed during the Ptolemaic Dynasty on the ruins of a New Kingdom era temple. Archaeologists have discovered several small pyramids near Edfu.

Dendera

The Dendera temple complex sprawls over 40,000 square meters. Comprising several buildings dating to different periods, Dendera is one of ancient Egypt’s best-preserved archaeological sites. The main temple is dedicated to the Egyptian goddess of motherhood and love, Hathor. Major discoveries within the complex include the necropolis, the Dendera Zodiac, colourful ceiling paintings and the Dendera Light.

Ancient Egyptian Household Shrines

In contrast to the often-colossal nature of their temples, many ancient Egyptian homes contained more modest household shrines. Here, people worshipped state gods such as Amun-Ra. Two deities commonly worshipped in the home were the goddess Tauret and the god Bes. Tauret was the goddess of fertility and childbirth while Bes assisted with childbirth and protected young children. Individuals placed votive offerings such as food and drink and steles carved with pleas for divine assistance or giving thanks for the god’s intervention on their household shrine.

Temples As A Microcosm Of The Egyptian Economy

Ancient Egypt accepted two forms of priesthood. These were lay priests and full-time priests. Lay priests performed their duties at the temple for three months out of every year. They served one month, then were allowed a three-month absence before returning for another month. During those times when they were not serving as priests, lay priests often had other occupations such as scribes or doctors.

Full-time priests were in permanent members of the temple priesthood. The High Priest had dominion over all the temple’s activities and performed the major ritual observances. Waab priests carried out sacred rituals and were obliged to observe ritual purity.

The path to the priesthood had several routes. A man could inherit his priestly position from a father. Alternatively, the pharaoh could appointment a priest. It was also possible for an individual to purchase entry to the priesthood. Higher positions within the priesthood were achieved via a popular vote held by cult members.

A serving priest was required to observe a vow of celibacy and to live within the temple enclosure. Priests were also not allowed to wear items fashioned from animal byproducts. They wore linen clothing and their sandals were made from plant fibres.

Craftsmen fashioned the statues, votive offerings, jewellery, ritual objects and  priest’s clothing for the temple. Cleaners maintained the temple and kept the surrounding grounds in order. Farmers tended the land owned by the temple and grew the produce for temple ceremonies and to feed the priests. Slaves were mostly foreign prisoners-of-war captured in military campaigns. They conducted menial tasks within the temples.

Religious Rituals In Ancient Egypt

For most of ancient Egypt’s history, it observed a polytheistic form of religious worship. With 8,700 gods and goddesses, people were allowed to venerate any deity of their choice. Many worshipped several deities. The appeal of some deities spread throughout Egypt, while other gods and goddess were confined to a cluster of cities and small villages. Every town had its own patron god and built a temple honouring their protective deity.

Egyptian religious rites were based on the belief that serving the gods secured their assistance and protection. Hence rituals honoured their deities with a continuous supply of fresh clothing and food. Special ceremonies were intended to ensure the god’s assistance in battle, while others sought to maintain the fertility of Egypt’s fields and marshes.

Daily Temple Rituals

The temple priests and for select ceremonies, the pharaoh conducted the temple’s daily cult rituals. Pharaohs made offerings to the gods at the more important temples. Temple priests performing these daily rituals were obliged to bathe several times each day in the temple’s sacred pool.

The high priest entered the temple’s Inner Sanctuary every morning. He then cleaned and dressed the statue in fresh clothing. The high priest applied fresh makeup to the statue and placed it in position upon the altar. The high priest offered the statue three meals every day while it was on the altar. Following the statue’s ritual meal, the high priest distributed the food offering to the temple’s priests.

Religious Festivals

The cults of ancient Egypt staged dozens of festivals throughout the year. Known as heb, festivals allowed the populace to experience the god personally, give thanks for gifts from the gods such as a good harvest and make requests of the gods to intervene and show the supplicant its favour.

During many of these festivals, the statue of the god was moved from the temple’s inner sanctum and carried on a barque through the town. These festivals were one of the few times ordinary Egyptians could glimpse their god’s statue. Festivals were believed to play a crucial role in ensuring the annual Nile floods came, ensuring the land’s continued fertility.

Reflecting On The Past

For ancient Egyptians, their temples represented a source of assistance and protection. Egypt’s cults grew wealthy and influential, as they alone interpreted the will of the gods. In time their power eclipsed even that of the pharaohs. A complex network of temples sprang up across Egypt, maintained by priests and their surrounding communities. Today the remnants of these colossal complexes remind us of the depth of their belief and the power they wielded within Egyptian society.

Header image courtesy: Than217 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Ancient Egyptian Temples," Give Me History, May 9, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-temples.

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