Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Religion

3 minutes

When one visits Egypt today, manifestations of its ancient religion are visible in many of its monuments, be they temples or tombs. Regardless of this abundant architectural evidence, and the myriad ancient texts relating to the subject, it remains difficult to understand completely the religion of the ancient Egyptians. One reason is that we are seeing only some manifestations of religious practice and reading only a portion of the writings related to it.

Our knowledge is the sum of fragments from different periods, and we, therefore, cannot grasp the totality of Egyptian religion at any one point in time. Instead, we are cobbling together the known evidence from three thousand years of Egyptian history, most of which dates to the New Kingdom or later. Thus we have formed only an imperfect view of the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, which may actually have evolved in ways far different from those that we presume.
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Funerary Texts

2 minutes

Egyptians believed that the journey to the Afterlife, an idealized Egypt where everything was perfect, could be eased by the use of funerary texts. These books were essentially guidebooks or crib-notes for protecting, pro-visioning, guiding, and helping the deceased to enter the Afterlife safely. They supplied spells that negated the threats and overcame the obstacles that riddled the way to the Afterlife.

The earliest funerary texts are called Pyramid Texts, as they were found inscribed inside pyramids.

The Pyramid Texts in the burial chamber of Pepy I at Saqqara provided the king with a way to become one with the eternal stars.

They were exclusively for the use of royalty and were first inscribed in the subterranean burial chamber of the Saqqara pyramid of Linas (c. 2350 BO, the last king of the 5th Dynasty. They comprised some eight hundred spells or ‘utterances’. The texts were carved in vertical columns in sunken relief. The spells were meant to aid the king in his ascent to the sky and ease his reception into the kingdom of the gods. Although the Pyramid Texts were a perquisite of royalty in the Old Kingdom, they were usurped extensively in their original format by non-royals in the Late Period, as well as by a few officials of the Middle and New Kingdoms, who used only a selection of these texts on their sarcophagi.

What are now called Coffin Texts were a development of the Pyramid Texts and were painted inside coffins of the First Intermediate period and the Middle Kingdom. They offered the guarantee of an Afterlife associated with Osiris for everyone, or at least, for everyone who could afford the necessary
accouterments for an Afterlife. The Coffin Texts contained at least 1,185 spells, often enlivened with vignettes. These spells were maps and guides to the hereafter. However, Coffin Texts were not restricted to coffins; they have been found on mummy masks, tomb walls, and sometimes even on papyri. Some of these inscriptions were identical to those in the Pyramid Texts, and their purpose was the same: to see the deceased safely through the tests and obstacles that marked the path to the Afterlife.

Perhaps the most famous of all Egyptian funerary books is the so-called Book of the Dead, which first appeared in the early 17th Dynasty and continued to be popular through the Late Period. Known more correctly as ‘Coming Forth by Day’, the book had about two hundred spells or chapters and was lavishly illustrated with obscure vignettes. Many were derived from the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, with new additions. Spells from this bookwere inscribed (generally in hieratic) on papyri, mummy cloths, amulets, figurines, coffins, and even tomb walls.

Funerary books were commonly interred with the deceased. This scene, from a papyrus in Berlin, shows Chapter or Spell 1 of the Book of the Dead. This text was the most popular funerary book and was used for several centuries. It consisted of several chapters, or spells, some of which were accompanied by vignettes.

The Myth of Osiris

4 minutes

The story of Osiris, as derived from the Egyptian and Greek sources, has several variations, but can be summarized as follows. In the Golden Age the gods ruled the world. Osiris ruled Egypt, with Isis, Great of Magic, his consort and sister, ruling beside him. As ruler, Osiris was associated with the physical land of Egypt. Thus the fertility and productivity of the land and its livestock were identified with, and derived from, the regenerative power of the king.
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Funerary Beliefs

2 minutes

The Egyptians believed that after they died, if they had lived in accordance with mat, they had the potential to be resurrected and to live eternally, with both their bodies and their souls participating in the process. Thus, mummification was important because it preserved the body and was a vehicle for the soul. According to Egyptian belief, once they died and were mummified, their souls underwent a series of tests before different gods and, if they passed, finally came before the god Osiris, who was enthroned in the Hall of Judgement. If he judged them to have lived a just life, they would pass into the Afterlife (also known as the ‘Fields of lard, or Imenti, ‘the West’), where they would enjoy an eternal existence.
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Private Religion and Personal Piety

4 minutes

Priests officiated at all the daily rituals in major temples, occasionally with members of the elite participating. During festivals, the common people were also included in rituals and prayers, especially when the god went in procession. Otherwise ordinary Egyptians had to content themselves with passing their prayers to the gods via the priests or with addressing their prayers to the external temple images of divinities. Within the temples, priests could convey prayers and offerings to the gods into the sacred areas, and offerings in the form of votive statues and stelae of all shapes and sizes crowded the courtyards, halls, and chambers of the temple. In fact, these areas could become so crowded that they had to be periodically cleared to make way for new votive offerings: all the old statues and stelae were tossed into a large pit within the temple precinct so that they could still carry out their job of sending prayers to the god. Examples of these statue-filled pits have been found by archaeologists and are called ‘caches’ or ‘cachettes’, places filled with hidden items. Because temples, as they appear today, are largely bereft of their statuary and votive offerings, these finds have been especially useful in allowing us to visualize the temple interiors as spaces that were once densely packed with such dedications.

Gods also provided oracular advice to the Egyptian people, often through the medium of the priests. If familial or legal issues could not be resolved by civic means, the god would be approached on a specific day devoted to oracular activity, and the divinity would be asked to decide the issue. An individual could address questions phrased in a certain way, and the sacred barque containing the divine image might move to indicate a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. If the deity in question was manifested as an animal, either sounds or movements would indicate the god’s decision. Doubtless, some corrupt priests benefited from this practice, as they were the ones who interpreted the god’s response. In general, though, commoners (as well as nobles) worshiped the gods in domestic shrines; in small chapels, including wayside shrines; or in special temples that might answer their specific needs of the moment, such as the Chapels of the Hearing Ear described earlier. Depending on what was desired, one would visit the appropriate deity in such a venue. Thus, students who wished to succeed in their examinations would pray to Thoth, while people whose love lives needed help would pray to Hathor or Bastet. At harvest time farmers would offer to Renenutet, the goddess of harvests and plenty, and people about to embark on journeys would invoke Anubis.

In wealthier homes, domestic shrines were set up in the garden or within the house; possibly such estates contained more than one shrine. In homes owned by less wealthy families, shrines were set up within the house. A house shrine consisted of the image (or images) of a god (or gods), often set within a niche, and a place for offerings before it. The size of such a shrine varied depending on the size of the house and on the level of piety of the homeowner, and probably also the degree to which the homeowner wished to display his piety. These shrines were the site of daily devotions that might occur as often as three times a day, as in the temples, as well as whenever the residents wished for spiritual succor. Examples of such shrines have been excavated at the sites of Deir el-Medina, Abydos South, and Tell el-Amarna. The main function of these house shrines was to protect the family by providing them with a place to venerate the gods, who, in return, would watch over the family both in this world and in the divine and eternal sphere.

Statuettes and stelae depicting favoured gods were the focus of household shrines. Favourite domestic deities were the goddess Tawesret and the dwarf god Bes. Tawesret, shown as a hippopotamus with some leonine features, often had her mouth parted threateningly to scare away demons. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, these figurines of Tawesret, who protected homes, women, and children in particular, might have been kept in house shrines.

The gods who graced domestic shrines were rarely the gods of the state religion, instead, they tended to be gods with whom the person establishing the shrine felt a rapport or who was a patron for that person’s particular metier. Thus, scribes would revere images of Thoth, while musicians, singers, and dancers would favor Hathor and Bastet. Magicians might erect a shrine to Isis or Heka (another deity concerned with magic), while craftsmen would worship Ptah, and embalmers Anubis. In addition to the main gods, minor protective divinities such as Bes and Taweret were a part of every household. Bes was depicted as a leonine dwarf, brandishing knives or percussion instruments, while Taweret’s image showed the deity with the head and body of a hippopotamus that had pendulous breasts and a pregnant belly, a lioness’s paws for hands and feet, and, often, was wearing a woman’s tripartite wig that extended into a crocodile tail down the back. Bes and Taweret were frequently painted on the walls of rooms where people slept or where childbirth took place. Their fearsome aspects were thought to scare away demons and evil spirits and to protect the home’s inhabitants. Their images were also carved on beds in order to safeguard a body when it is at its most vulnerable and to protect the sleeper’s dream life (as well as his or her physical body) from attack by demons. These two divinities, sometimes paired as husband and wife, also appeared in temples, particularly in the mammisi, and images of them were often worn as amulets.

Local gods were extremely popular, as they were seen as successful intercessors between local people and the major gods. Sometimes the Egyptians just referred to a deity as the ‘city god’, using the word that denotes city without providing a specific name. In other instances, a local god might be likened to a modern saint: a native of the area who had lived an extraordinary life and upon death had been elevated to a semi-divine state. Such individuals included the famous Imhotep, the architect of King Djoser’s Step Pyramid and a renowned physician; Hekaib, a governor of Elephantine Island; and Amenhotep, son of Hapu, who was the architect to King Amenhotep III. Such gods were generally worshiped only locally, save for Imhotep, whose cult spread throughout Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. There are several other less famous examples of this type of cult.

Priests in Ancient Egypt

2 minutes

Until the New Kingdom there was no completely separate priestly class in ancient Egypt; almost anyone could become a priest of some sort. Often, individuals who were priests also had other duties within the state or temple administration, and one person could hold several priestly titles. Both men and women served the gods, although it was more common to have groups of priestesses in the temples of goddesses, particularly in the Old Kingdom. Thereafter, it seems that men came to dominate the priesthood, although priestesses still existed in less significant positions. Priests were known as servants of the god, or hemw-netjer, and were supervised by an overseer called the imi-rahemw-netjer. The chief priest of every temple was, in theory, the king, but in actuality, the king delegated his role to the high priest of a specific temple. Each high priest had a special title depending on which temple he served. For example, the High Priest of Ptah at Memphis was known as wrkherephemout, or Great Director of Artisans, and the High Priest of Re at Heliopolis was known as wrmaaiunu, or The Greatest of Seers in Iunu (Heliopolis).

Many other priests serving in a temple had specialized jobs: the main duty of the kbery-beb, or lector priest, was to recite the prayers that accompanied specific rites; the sem-priest officiated at funerals and was responsible for many of the objects, such as cloth, oils, and perfumes, that were used in the daily liturgy; and special priestly prophets, scribes, butchers, and land stewards could also be found. Temple musicians, singers, and dancers, of both sexes, also held significant positions in the various temples, as they all had vital roles to play in temple rituals and during festivals.

Many Egyptians served in the lowest rank of priest, a waab (pure one), for three months of a year on a rota system. This allowed a large percentage of the Egyptian population to have some sort of contact with the gods, and to be a part of the Egyptian religious establishment, as well as to enjoy the material benefits of payment in kind for such work. Priests were paid through the temple’s offerings: the goods were consecrated to the gods and then were divided amongst the priesthood and temple staff according to their rank. The excess could be sold or gifted. Sadly, there is evidence of corruption amongst priestly staffs: a 20th Dynasty text relates how some priests sold sacred animals for personal benefit, and another, dating to the 26th Dynasty, describes how a struggle for priestly income led to murder.

Priests (and priestesses) were presumably trained within the temple during their youth, particularly if they were holding an inherited post. For the most part, they were literate, and the higher-ranking ones tended to be nobles rather than commoners. When serving in the temple, they had to maintain certain levels of purity, which included washing regularly, shaving their bodily hair, chewing natron and spices to keep their breath fresh, and keeping their nails trimmed, as well as abstaining from certain foods at specific times.

Festivals in Ancient Egypt

1 minute

Festivals played an extremely important role in the life of the temple. The major festivals for any temple were associated with its chief divinity. Thus, she creation or the birth of the god and the major events in his or her career were the main focus of celebrations and were unique to each temple. Other festivals were more general, occurring simultaneously in temples all over Egypt and unifying the country on a grand scale. These would occur in conjunction with cyclical events, such as the rising of the star Sothis that signaled the advent of the New Year, or the different stages of the Nile flood. Smaller celebrations would mark the phases of the moon and other notable astronomical and natural phenomena. Significant events such as royal coronations, the heb-sed race that celebrated the 30th anniversary of a king’s reign, or the birth of a royal child would also precipitate festivities in temples throughout the land.

Some areas of Egypt had special festivals associated with them, such as the Theban Festival of the Valley. In this celebration the statue of Amun-Re of Karnak sailed across the Nile to the west, visiting the memorial temples of the kings as well as barque shrines that had been erected in major cemeteries. This ritual served to unite the dead with the living and was a kind of large-scale family reunion for divinities, royalty, the elite, and commoners.

In addition to featuring special rituals with accompanying music and dances and the recitation of specific hymns and prayers, festivals were also large-scale celebrations that offered the entire population, not just the priests, a spiritual encounter. The god would appear in a procession and be available to the populace for consultation and praise. Food would be distributed to the people from the offerings and sacrifices made to the god. Outside the temple, pilgrims from surrounding areas would gather and perhaps stay for several days. Festivals also attracted itinerant merchants and traveling entertainers, much as religious festivals do today.

Accessing the Gods and Their Temples

1 minute

Unlike certain modern religious traditions, ancient Egyptian temples were not congregational in nature except perhaps during festivals and then only in certain localities. Temples were not accessible to everyone. Direct contact with a god’s image was limited to the king, the high priest, and a handful of other high-ranking, initiated prelates. Most priests, and most private individuals had no direct dealings with the figure of the god. In fact, access to different parts of the temple depended on a person’s rank, education, and level of initiation within the priesthood. The area within the larger enclosure walls, just outside the pylon, and the first courtyard were accessible to most people, particularly when the festivals of the god were being celebrated. The remaining areas of the temple were restricted to initiates.

When the god’s image appeared in public (within a small shrine covered with a shroud and situated on a model boat or sacred barque) for festivals and in processions, it could be approached by the populace, who could then directly address the god.

Priests carrying the sacred barque of Amun at Karnak Temple. The barque is decorated with ram-heads, and the naos is covered, rendering the god invisible.

Processional routes were punctuated by barque shrines where the god’s boat could pause and be seen, and perhaps the god could give oracular advice. Otherwise, people could come to the temple’s outermost courtyard and direct their prayers to an engraved image of the god there, or could address their concerns to images of the king as god. Sometimes special chapels for people in need of spiritual succor, such as the ‘Chapels of the Hearing Ear’, were erected in an accessible area. These were situated at the back of temples, behind the sanctuary and in the outer wall, and thus were open to the populace. These chapels were particularly popular as healing centers. Other healing centers, featuring ritual bathing or dream therapy, were also constructed within the temple enceinte or enclosure, particularly during the Late period and thereafter. However, the majority of Egyptians carried out their daily worship either at home or in small shrines rather than in the state-built temples.

Temple Rituals and Prayers

1 minute

The temple was the center of cultic activity in Egypt. Here the daily cult and special festivals associated with the temple’s god were celebrated, helping to create maat on a daily basis and thus ensuring the country’s continued safe existence. The recitation of prayers and enactment of appropriate rituals activated the cosmic power of the temple and its god, and preserved maat in this world and in that of the gods. Although we do not know all the details of the daily temple ritual, we do have some idea of what occurred based on certain papyrus documents and on the scenes and texts engraved on temple walls.

A temple’s god was treated as a living being and had to be awakened, have incense burned before the statue to ‘open’ its nostrils, and he bathed, clothed, fed, and worshiped three times a day, at sunrise, noon, and sunset. Ideally, the king officiated on these occasions in every Egyptian temple. In practice, this was not feasible, and high priests replaced the king in all temples, save for the one in which he was physically present.

While reciting appropriate prayers, the high priest would approach the naos and unseal the door. Incense would be burned because gods breathed only sacred, censed air. The priest would then open a smaller naos that held the god’s image. This naos was also censed, prayers were recited, and hymns were sung. Then the statue would be purified with water and natron (a cleansing agent associated with purification and divinity), anointed with sweet-smelling oils and perfumes, and dressed in fine new linen. Throughout the process, the high priest and his attendants rendered suitable prayers, hymns, and ritual gestures. Once the god was dressed, offerings of foodstuffs such as wine, milk, beer, oil, meat, and bread would be made, as well as other offerings of garlands, bouquets, incense, and linen, and more prayers recited, before the priests returned the statue to the naos, which they resealed. Then the priests would exit the chamber, brushing away their footsteps and sealing the door behind them. In return, the god was expected to continue to bless Egypt and to help the pharaoh to control nature and to keep Egypt’s enemies at bay.

Once the offerings had been consecrated to the deity and then magically accepted or consumed by the god, they were removed and probably reverted to the priests. Presumably, the priests lived off these offerings once they had been consecrated to the god. Any surfeit from sacrifices was sold off, as is attested to by documents, such as Papyrus Bulaq 18, which includes, amongst other items, details about the sale of an excess of sacrificial beef by a temple. One type of offering, however, that was consumed exclusively by the deity was a burnt offering. Burnt offerings were foodstuffs that were doused in oil and set aflame so that their smoke could rise up to sustain the god.

The Architecture of Funerary/Memorial Temples

4 minutes

Far more examples survive of funerary temples than of cult temples. Those from the Old and Middle Kingdom are associated with pyramids and vary considerably in form prior to the 5th Dynasty. In the Archaic period funerary (also called mortuary) temples were actually separated from the burial place and were located near the cultivation.

In the pyramids of the 3rd Dynasty they took a variety of forms and were often located on the pyramid’s north side, aligned with the North Star; at the end of the dynasty, however, the focus shifted to the east and the sun. From the early 4th Dynasty onward, each king’s pyramid had two temples attached to it: a Valley temple and a funerary/mortuary/memorial temple. Both were located on the east side of the pyramid so that they could face the rising sun, symbol of the promise of solar resurrection that emphasized the king’s identification with a sun god.

The Valley temple was closer to the Nile Valley: it received the body of the deceased king, and its priests were probably involved in the king’s mummification, as well as in funerary rituals. This building was connected via a causeway, a long covered corridor, to the funerary temple, and it acted almost as an antechamber to the main upper temple. The larger, Funerary, Temple, also called a Mortuary or Memorial temple, was constructed adjoining the east face of the pyramid. Until the 5th Dynasty, there was little standardization in temple plans, although often both Valley and Funerary temples shared certain elements, such as an open court for solar worship, chambers for images of the king and the gods, and storage rooms.

The 5th Dynasty saw a certain amount of standardization in both types of temples. Valley temples featured quays to permit boats to dock and were fronted by columned porticoes that led to a T-shaped hall, often with a side room to the south. As before, a causeway connected the Valley temple to the Mortuary temple. The latter was accessed through a narrow entrance hall that led to an open, colonnaded court. This court opened into a transverse corridor that led to a series of smaller rooms, including small chambers that were meant to display statues of the king and the gods, as well as an offering hall. Magazines (storage rooms) were located on the side of the building. This basic template persisted to the end of the Old Kingdom.

Pyramid complexes of the 5th Dynasty, such as this one belonging to Sahure, showed a degree of standardisation not seen in earlier times, although the main elements of a pyramid complex had been established by the 4th Dynasty. This complex does not actually have a boat pit (7), but these pits have been found with many other royal burials of the Old Kingdom. Some other complexes have additional satellite pyramids belonging to queens and princesses.

The Middle Kingdom saw great variations in the design of temples attached to royal burials. Temples ranged from simple building complexes, such as had been common previously, to elaborate maze-like constructions, such as that favored by Amenemhat III that earned it the sobriquet ‘The Labyrinth’ in Late Antiquity. Some of these variants persisted into the early part of the New Kingdom, although they maintained the essential elements established in the Old Kingdom. By the middle of the 18th Dynasty, however, funerary temples had adopted the same basic plan as that for cult temples.

Mentuhotep II’s mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahari was unusual in that it combined the funerary temple with the tomb. The building was nestled in the Theban hills, fronted by trees. A small subterranean chamber, reached by a passage (the Bab el-Hosan), was located at the front edge of the enclosure and perhaps acted as a cenotaph, as it contained an empty sarcophagus and a statue of the king. Archaeologists are not sure whether the main structure was crowned by a mastaba (top) or by a pyramid (bottom); both reconstructions are shown here.

The Decoration of Funerary/Memorial Temples
The earliest funerary temples until those of the 3rd Dynasty were built mainly of mud-brick, and virtually nothing is known of their decoration. Those of the 4th Dynasty were fairly plain, their chief enhancement provided through the different colors of the stone used in their construction. The stones included red granite, which symbolized solar energy and blood; white calcite, which indicated light and purity; and black basalt, which represented the black soil of Egypt. The king’s name was inscribed in several places, particularly on the causeway.

The design of Hatshepsut’s Funerary temple (on the right) was partially inspired by the earlier temple of Mentuhotep II (left). Hatshepsut’s temple fits elegantly into the landscape. This spot was important as it was probably associated with a shrine of Hathor, a goddess of kingship, and was also roughly aligned with Karnak Temple to the east.


From the 5th Dynasty onward, this form of simple decoration, which was inherent in the materials used, changed, and Egyptians began to carve the interiors of Valley and mortuary temples with scenes associated with royal rebirth and the maintenance of maat and divine kingship. These images included the king’s making offerings to different gods, being suckled by goddesses, maintaining maat in the guise of a sphinx trampling Egypt’s enemies, hunting wild creatures that represented isfet (chaos), and slaying a white hippopotamus (also a symbol of chaos).

The causeways were decorated with scenes showing phases in the construction of the royal tomb, as well as with scenes from the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. By the New Kingdom, these temples also included scenes depicting specific events from the king’s rule, including expeditions to foreign countries, successful hunts, and victories in battle.

When being invoked in a deceased or divine state, the king (Ramesses III at Karnak, in this instance) was often shown on pillars as Osiris.

The Architecture of Cult Temples

6 minutes

New Kingdom temples provide us with the most complete view of Egyptian temple architecture and the beliefs that formed it. The emphasis on symmetry and balance is seen in the typical ground plan, which incorporates a straight line of access from front to back. The land enclosed by the temple was thought to be a microcosm of the moment of the creation of the world, with the different architectural features reflecting elements of the mythic environment. The temple enclosure wall became an increasingly important feature, for it not only marked the limits of divine space, but it also, in its undulations, evoked the primeval ocean, Nun, from which all life sprang (see post on creation myths).

Entrances through the enclosure wall were identified by large gateways called pylons. The form of the pylon resembled the hieroglyph for horizon, akhet, indicating where the sun rises and sets, and where each day begins and ends. The pylons were massive trapezoidal structures that contained stairs and a few internal chambers that also gave access to exterior spaces. Here heralds or priests could summon the townspeople and make announcements or lead prayers and rituals. When the king was present he perhaps appeared before the people here. The outward-facing surfaces of the pylons incorporated slots that, according to ancient images of temples, held poles with pennants flying from them, evocative of the hieroglyph netjer, or ‘god’.

Obelisks fronted the pylons; these reified concrete images of the sun’s rays and symbols of the power of the sun god, capped with gold or electrum, stood together with colossal statues of the king. Sometimes, a series of small sphinxes that acted as markers and guardians of the temple lined the central axis leading to the pylon.

 Luxor Temple's entrance is marked by its commanding pylons, which are fronted by seated statues of Ramesses II and by obelisks.

Luxor Temple’s entrance is marked by its commanding pylons, which are fronted by seated statues of Ramesses II and by obelisks.

The internal spaces of the temple were arranged hierarchically, from larger areas to smaller ones, and moving from open, light spaces to darker ones. As one progressed through the temple to the most sacred space, the ground became higher and the ceiling level dropped, so that the naos, or holy of holies, was built at the highest point in the temple grounds, on the equivalent of the primeval mound of creation, and was also the smallest, darkest, and most secret of the chambers.

 edfu temple drawing

This plan of Edfu Temple (Ptolemaic period), dedicated to Horus, shows what an ideal temple might look like: entrance pylons, an open courtyard, a hypostyle hall, a pronaos or ante-room, the naos, places to store ritual equipment, areas for robing, ways to access the roof forspecial rituals, and a Nilometer — all enclosed by a wall. One feature not seen here is a sacred lake.

The standard progression of spaces behind the pylon began with an open courtyard that could be used for sun worship. This space led to another courtyard that was surrounded by columns (a peristyle courtyard) giving way, in turn, to a hall with an equal number of pillars on either side of a broad central passage, similar to a nave. This was known as a hypostyle hall. Column capitals in this hall took the form of lotuses and papyri, the tutelary plants of Upper and Lower Egypt, arranged to the north and south of the axis. Their dense arrangement evoked the scenery of the marshes that emerged from the primeval ocean, Nun, and encircled the primeval hill, the hill of creation.

The grandest of all hypostyle halls, in Karnak Temple, was constructed so that the columns flanking the central axis were higher than the others, thus giving a space for clerestory lighting. The remaining spaces were lit through holes in ceiling slabs that permitted shafts of light to illuminate the temple’s dim interior.

Sometimes Egyptian architects used light to help them ‘activate’ a temple. Shafts of light, dramatically visible in dim interiors, acted as light-columns, and windows were strategically placed so that the light that shone through them illuminated certain images and texts at specific times, thereby making those objects potent and effective. Small holes have been found at the edges of doorways, indicating that these areas were further illuminated by the addition of plates made of beaten gold or copper that reflected the light as people carrying lamps passed through the opening.

The hypostyle hall at Karnak Temple, which Seti I started building and his son, Ramesses II, completed. This many-columned hall with clerestory lighting is a masterpiece of Egyptian architecture and central to Karnak Temple (19th Dynasty).

After a temple’s hypostyle hall one entered the surround for the holy of holies, the naos or sanctuary where the image of the god was kept on a plinth, often fronted by an altar. This was the highest and darkest part of the building and represented the primeval hill where the first god lived.

Additionally, some temples, particularly those dating to the Late and Graeco-Roman periods, had hollow spaces in their walls where priests could move unseen from room to room and perhaps even act as the god’s voice delivering oracles.

Frequently the temple enclosure included a sacred lake within its boundaries that was a physical manifestation of Nun and consisted of a small stone-lined lake or pond that could be entered by steps. Its water could be used for ritual purification, and the god’s barque, which held his wooden naos containing his statue, could be taken to sail upon it.

Many temples also contained a Nilometer, which was connected to the river by steps or a tunnel. This device permitted the temple’s priests to measure the rise in the Nile’s level, and it was used mainly to monitor the river’s height at inundation, so that the flood level could be predicted. The king and the temple used this information and its likely consequences for annual crop yields in estimating the taxes that they would levy.

The Decoration of Cult Temples

The basic decorative scheme for cult temples was fairly straightforward. The chief function of temple decoration was to reproduce, in perpetuity, an ideal balanced relationship between the king and the gods that ensured the survival of maat and Egypt. Exterior walls were carved with images of the king’s exploits, especially of his deeds associated with warfare. The pylons featured stock images of the king smiting the enemies of Egypt; it did not matter if a particular king had ever fought against any of these peoples, he just had to be represented doing so.

On this pylon at the temple at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III is smiting his enemies while Amun looks on and offers victory. This motif first appears in the Narrner Palette (Dynasty 0/1) and becomes a standard iconographic symbol of the king’s strength & protection of Egypt.

These images acted as an apotropaic device that protected the temple from evil and at the same time perpetuated the role of divine kingship as it related to the conquest of chaos, manifested by Egypt’s enemies. In addition, temple doorways were marked with winged sun disks, images of strength and protection. Interior walls tended to bear scenes of the king’s making different offerings to the main gods of the temple, as well as to other appropriate divinities; these images illustrated another aspect of his royal role — as an intermediary with and a pacifier of the gods. In return, the gods were shown rewarding the king with a long and stable reign, indicating that they would ensure the well-being of Egypt and its inhabitants.

King Thutmose III offering nw pots filled with wine to the god Horus who in turn promises many festivals to the king at the 18th-Dynasty Anubis Chapel in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.


The majority of the texts carved on temple walls offered formulae and phrases of praise, and most ceilings were decorated with five-pointed stars, evoking the sky goddess, Nut, and placing the temple within a divine landscape.
Additions to and variations in the basic schema of decoration existed, and made each temple unique.

In some instances, special divinities have columns that evoke them, such as the Hathor-headed columns found in temples and shrines to Hathor, including this example at Dendera.

In some instances, a particular religious tale was illustrated on the temple wall, together with its text. One example can be seen at Edfu Temple and features the myth ‘The Contendings of Horus and Seth’, in which the two gods battle for dominion over Egypt. At Luxor Temple, a frontal view of the temple itself is shown, as are the procession and rituals associated with that temple’s major cultic event, the Opet Festival. Esna Temple is adorned with special cryptographic hymns to the god Khnum that are written almost entirely using different hieroglyphs for ‘ram’, and Kom Ombo Temple shows a set of medical tools.