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The role of temples in Ancient Egyptian cities

egypte-karnak - temple of amun and temple of montu-jc-golvin
Temple of Amun and environs; painting by Jean Claude Golvin.

 

egypte-karnak-processional alley-jc-golvin
Illustration of Karnak processional alley; painting by Jean Claude Golvin

 

 

Religion formed a vital part of the ancient Egyptian society and temples were thus, an important part in the daily life of Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians believed that the temples were homes of the gods and goddesses. Every temple was dedicated to a specific god or a goddess, and he or she was worshipped by the temple priests and the pharaoh. However, people didn’t gather to worship in the temple, instead, they brought offerings to the gods and participated in the various festivals.

The temples possessed a great deal of social and political power. They employed an assortment of different people, from priests to craftsmen, cleaners and farmers. Moreover, temples owned farmland which provided them with food and goods. Pharaohs often gifted temples with more lands or other goods and they also received a share of booty from every military campaign.  They were even given foreign war prisoners who worked as slaves in the temples.

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Depictions of rituals at the Tomb of Paheri

 

 

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Relief at the Kom Ombo Temple showing  King Ptolemy VI being purified by the two gods; Thot and Horus

 The Types of Temples

Temples in Egypt were classified into two main types, cultus and mortuary.

The cultus temples were religious temples dedicated to a main deity. They provided a sort of residence or shelter for the gods. Priests would perform rituals and ceremonies, give offerings, pray and tend to the needs of the gods in these temples. Other people from the population were allowed to participate in rituals of worship only during the festivals that were held in cultus temples.  The festivals mainly aimed to help ensure the Nile’s flooding and promoted the land’s fertility as well as ensure the god’s help and assistance in battles. As for regular worship for the rest of the population, many private homes had a small shrine where the home-owners would make offerings to specific gods. Examples of the cultus temples include;

  • The Temple of Horus at Edfu
  • The Temple of Isis at Aswan
  • The Temple of Karnak at Luxor

The mortuary temple on the other hand, was for a pharaoh’s funerary cult and they were built only for the pharaoh. The funerary cult would offer food and clothing to the departed pharaoh to ensure that the departed would continue helping the people of Egypt. At the beginning, these temples were built as part of the tomb complex. Most pyramids had a mortuary temple near them for the buried pharaoh. Later however, the pharaohs built their temples away from their tombs in order to hide their tombs. Examples of the mortuary temples include;

  • The Mortuary Temples of Ramesses II at Thebes near Luxor
  • Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple at El-Deir El-Bahri near the Valley of the Kings
  • The Mortuary Temple of Khufu at Giza (also known as the Great Pyramid of Egypt)

 

The Temples’ Construction and Design

The large temple buildings were made of stone (as opposed to other options available at the time such as clay) so that they would last forever. Their walls were covered with scenes that were carved onto the stone and then vividly painted and coloured. These scenes would often show the Pharaoh fighting in battles and performing religious rituals with the gods and goddesses. Ancient Egyptian temples, particularly those built during the New Kingdom period consisted of six main parts. More parts could be found in larger temples, but those were the basic ones.

1.The Pylon: The large gate at the front of the temple. The pylon walls were carved with scenes of the pharaoh and the gods. In front of the pylon, there were obelisks and large statues of the pharaoh. Since the pylon was the main entrance to the homes of the gods, it was designed with splendor to impress both the temple visitors and the passers-by.

2.The Courtyard: A large open room without a roof. Its outer walls showed heroic scenes of the pharaoh during battles. The inner walls showed scenes of the pharaoh making offerings to the gods. People were allowed entrance to the temple courtyard only on festival days.

3.The Hypostyle Hall: A large room with columns. The columns looked like papyrus plants, palm plants and lotus flowers. The room was mostly dark apart from the center aisle which was lit by small windows cut into the roof. Scenes of religious rituals were covering the walls of the hall. Only the priests and pharaoh were allowed entrance to the hypostyle hall which was used for performing religious rituals.

4.The Second Hall: It was filled with columns and was very dark. The walls were decorated with carved and painted scenes of the pharaoh with gods and goddesses. Only high priests and the pharaoh were allowed to enter the second hall.

5.The Sanctuary: The most special and important part of the temple. It was a very dark and mysterious place. In the middle of the sanctuary, a shrine stood in which the statue of the god or goddess was kept. The walls were decorated with scenes of the gods and goddesses. High priests and the pharaoh were the only ones allowed to enter the sanctuary.

6.The Sacred Lake: It was a pool of water next to the temple. The priests performed rituals in the temple using water from the sacred lake.

Role of the Temple in Egyptian Cities - pic3 - temple of amon
Plan of the Great Temple of Amon, El Karnak, Luxor

 

Role of the Temple in Egyptian Cities - pic4 - karnak e section

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Plan of the Temple of Khons, El Karnak, Luxor

 

Through most of the ancient Egyptian history, there was a polytheistic religion, where people were free to worship any god or goddess that they chose. In most cases, several deities were worshiped. Some gods and goddesses were more famous throughout Egypt, while other deities were limited to worship in a few cities and villages. Each city had a patron god and a temple dedicated to that deity. An order of high priests oversaw the temple, the rites and the daily activities and rituals associated with the temples.

Most of the rituals depended on the idea that providing the gods with offerings of the basic items of food and clothing would ensure their protection and help. Daily rituals though included the Pharaoh making offerings at some of the major temples, while priests would bathe in the sacred lake several times a day. The priest would also enter the inner sanctuary in the morning to remove the statue of the god, then they would wash the statue with water from the sacred lake and dress it in new clothing. He would then put fresh makeup on the statue and set it back on the altar. The priest would also present three meals a day to the statue, and after the statue would ‘supposedly’ eat, the food is distributed to the priests.

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Priest relief at the Karnak Temple

The priests were divided into two types; full-time priests who served the gods at all times, and lay priests. Lay priests would serve for a month, and then take three months off before serving again, which made them serve a total of three months a year. During their off times, they performed other jobs such as being medical physicians or scribes. All activities of the temple were supervised by the High Priest. A person could become a priest by one of three means; the first is for a man to inherit the position from his father, the second is to be personally appointed as a priest by the pharaoh and the third was that a man could buy a position in the priesthood. A priest was appointed higher positions by voting from the other priests.

 

Although the pharaoh and king of Egypt was a human, he was believed to be descended from the gods. He was the intermediary between his people and the gods, and thus was obligated to sustain the gods through the different rituals and offerings so that they could maintain order in the universe. This came from the strong belief that the various deities were present in and in control of the different forces and elements of nature. Another important aspect that gave rise to the mortuary temples was the belief in the afterlife. The Egyptians made great efforts to ensure the survival of their souls after death, providing luxurious tombs and generous offerings to preserve the bodies and spirits of the deceased. Ancient Egyptian religion was a rather complex system, yet it was an integral part of the ancient Egyptian society.

 

Bibliography

  • Badawy, Alexander: History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C.,1968, University of California Press. LCCC A5-4746
  • Wilkinson, Richard H.: The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, 2000. Thames and Hudson, Ltd. ISBN 0-500-05100-3
  • Shaw, Ian: The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, 2000. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-815034-2

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