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.
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.
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.