ALRI Ancient Egypt Course
Unit 5: Religion and Death Rites
Click on images or
links for larger versions of the images.
For an informative article on Egyptian temples including a long list of
links to information on individual temples, see http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/temples.htm
The Egyptians believed that creation took place on a rocky mound or
outcrop near the Nile River. Their earliest sacred spaces may
simply have been rocky outcrops that stood above the annual
inundations. When more formal stuctures were built, they often
had a ceremonial representaton of the outcrop, like the white area in
front of the Nekhen reconstruction drawing. Structures such as
this one probably would not have been
the first "temples" of the ancient Egyptians, but, until now,
are the first to leave enough traces to allow
for reconstruction drawings. Earlier areas thought perhaps to be
of religious sites
(circles of stones) are ambiguous. And the earliest settlements along
the Nile -- temples
and all -- are undoubtedly buried under yards/meters of silt close to
the River. Only when sacred spaces were sited on higher ground
farther from the river have their traces been found. Early
art work, along with post holes, etc., assist in reconstructions.
(meaning "Possessed of Re's Power"), the 5th pharaoh of the 5th dynasty
built his Sun temple at modern abu Ghorab about one kilometer north of
his pyramid complex at Abusir. He is of the dynasty that followed
the Great Pyramid builders, and his Solar temple is built on a similar
plan to the pyramids -- a squat obelisk replaces the pyramid, but there
is a "valley temple" (at the high water mark of the inundation) and a
causeway that vent up to the temple compound. The obelisk is,
once again, representative of that rocky mound or outcrop where the
first rays of the sun struck the Earth and where life was
created. The reconstruction is conjectural, the obelisk height
being based on its collapsed debris and the strength of its foundation.
For more on Niuserre and his monuments, see http://www.crystalinks.com/pyrniuserre.html
Stone temples were built on the pattern of the earlier wood temples and
probably on the pattern of mud-brick temples. The sites stayed
the same and generations of temples replaced previous temples
sequentially. As more rites were added, more rooms were needed so
they strung out. The newer rooms were always larger and added at
the front of the existing temples until they got too long for the space
available. Really big complexes, like Karnak, then sprouted additional
axes, usually perpendicular to the original axis. The Luxor
temple complex has a slight dogleg because the front end
eventually got too close to the Nile.
we see today is a pale shadow of how the temples looked when they were
new. The reconstruction of the "First Pylon" of the Luxor temple
complex shows how they really might have looked. The numbering of
the Pylons at the big temples is a modern locational convention.
Pylons are really giant flat towers at the side of the gates, and they
served ad billboards for the donor pharaoh. The "first pylon" is
the one that's nearest to the front of the complex, and it is often the
last one that was built. Then they are numbered toward the
innermost sanctuary, which was often the first room that was
built. At Karnak, the pylons off to the side are numbered after
those going from front to back. For more on Egyptian stone temple
architecture, see http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/temples/home.html
The Egyptians collected gods. Village gods -- from all villages
-- became national gods or aspects of national gods. They saw
spirits in every part of every plant, animal, rock, or celestial body
and called them all gods. 19th and 20th century attempts to bring
order to the Egyptian pantheon and to establish one primary creator or
supreme being are at odds with what the ancient Egyptians apparently
believed. At least 2000 separate entities have been counted by
modern enumerators, but it is doubtful that any ancient Egyptian knew
them all by name or by attributes: gods were "invented" and
invoked when and as needed. The single known ancient Egyptian attempt
at monotheism -- Akhenaten during the "Amarna Period" -- was more
political and opportunistic than theological. Akhenaten wanted to
be, and, in Amarna at least, was, for a short time, the
sole conduit to the only god. But that was quickly rejected when
he died, and his heir, Tutankhaten, quickly changed his name to
Tutankhamun reflecting his rejection of Akhenaten's supreme god, Aten,
and a return to the previous multi-theistic system and especially to
the Theban god Amun. One of many Internet sites that
illustrates and expounds upon the more important ancient Egyptian gods
and goddesses is at http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/explore/main.html.
Another is at http://www.nemo.nu/ibisportal/0egyptintro/1egypt/index.htm.
Horus is one of the most ancient gods of the Ancient Egyptian religion,
who appears in his earliest form in late Pre-dynastic Egypt.
as a falcon, his name is believed to mean 'the high' or 'the far off'
and his earliest connections are to the sky and kingship. Because the
cult of Horus survived for the whole of the Ancient Egyptian
civilization he gained many forms and associations. Horus was
usually represented as a man with a falcon's head. One important
association is the Eye of Horus which was an Egyptian symbol of
kingship and power and of the offerings made to the god Osiris and by
extension to all the dead. In one myth cycle Horus' left eye is injured
during his struggle with his uncle Set, who had murdered Osiris in an
attempt to seize the Egyptian throne. The Eye of Horus, its injury and
subsequent restoration became an important symbol for the unified land
of Egypt and in the funerary rites of the renewal after death. In
other legends the eye, or wedjat
was originally a winged serpent who guarded from "on high".
Already in pre-dynastic times the eye of the serpent is identified with
the all-seeing eye of Horus (right or left, depending on who's telling
Bes is unlike the run of Egyptian gods and is probably an import,
perhaps from sub-Saharan Africa. He is the jokester and is
particularly loved by parents, because he keeps kids healthy and
happy. Irreverence is his stock and trade (as seen in the second
image, from the Roman period, where he is stocky Roman Centurion.
He is often associated with Hathor, the goddess of motherhood and
childbirth. Mothers wanted Bes to show up at the birth to chase
away malignant demons and enemy gods.
Both the Karnak and Luxor temple complexes are now in Luxor city, but
in ancient times they were on the northern outskirts of Thebes.
In the early days of the two complexes, they were connected by a canal
that was later paved over and lined with sphinxes to make the "avenue
of sphinxes. Pilgrims, who earlier had progressed by boat, then
had to go afoot.
Modern Luxor, ancient Thebes, is on the Big Bend of the Nile River in
central Egypt. The name Luxor is from Arabic al-Uksur (=
probably, the palaces, singular is Qasr) and Karnak is also Arabic ,
al-Karnak (perhaps from qarnak = "his horn"? -- Alexander was "the Two
Horned"). Neither name has anything to do with the ancient names
of the city: nwt = "the city"; wst = name of the 4th nome of upper
Egypt (from which, perhaps, the modern Arabic word Waset = middle); or
Thebes (= likely a Hellenization of ancient Egyptian t'ipt-swt --
lit. "The name Waset" -- both of which refer to the same place,
though it is not called Thebes until the Greek invasion. The
official Greek (Ptolemaic) name was Diospolis Megale = city of Zeus
(because Dios = Zeus) the Great, and the Romans called it Diospolis
Magna with the same meaning as the Greek name.
was on the northern outskirts of Thebes and must originally have been a
cult center on its own. Very early on, however, the Karnak and
Luxor temple complexes developed integrated observances -- at least to
the point of the gods visiting each other on their "sacred
ships." A long "avenue of sphinxes" joined the two cities, but
the big events involved boats and barges that could pull up to the
forecourts of both temple complexes. On some occasions the convoy
of boats also docked at temple platforms on the far (western) side of
the river in a kind of grand tour of the sacred vessels (which,
eventually were small "models" that could be carried right into the
temples to be placed sequentially on special pedestals in front of the
Off to one side of the Karnak complex is the Sacred Lake, a kind of
"holy water" pool, across which you can now sit after dark to see one
of Egypt's famous "sound and light" show. As the note on the
image states, it's thoroughly contaminated with schistosomiasis
parasites which can give you the debilitating and eventually fatal
disease bilharzia. The Nile is also loaded with the critters,
especially in the shallows where their snail vectors dump them by the
millions. You don't want this disease, so stay out of and don't
drink Nile water. Guides might tell you that water from the
center of the River is safe, but don't believe it.
In these images it's fairly easy to see the general progression of
construction of the Karnak temple complex. The parts that are farthest
away were built first and the closest part brought construction about
far as it could come toward the Nile. Then the new axis was added
toward the southeast.
The famous Hypostyle (= "many pillared") Hall of Karnak was designed to
be flooded during the annual inundation. At those times, the 134
massive columns would rise from the water like the stems of open and
closed papyrus stalks after which they are modeled. They are said
to have represented the papyrus swamp on the edge of that rocky outcrop
on the bank of the Nile where creation took place. For much more
information on the Hypostyle hall, visit The Karnak Great Hypostyle
Project of the University of Memphis, Tennessee, at http://history.memphis.edu/hypostyle/.
The Luxor temple complex is built on a single (slightly dogleg)
axis that is roughly parallel to the Nile. Its ship landing
platform was connected to the river by a short inlet in ancient
times. In front of the first pylon, that of Ramesses II is a
short avenue of sphinxes. The avenue was originally much longer,
but it was truncated when Ramesses built his (dogleg) courtyard and
pylon in front of what was already there. Most of the sphinxes
are now along one wall of the courtyard, still waiting, after many
centuries, to be moved to their new intended location. The big
Ramesses II project was never finished: his Pylons are
undecorated; a construction ramp remains against one inner wall of the
courtyard; and the inner walls of the courtyard have big blank spaces
waiting for vignettes and hieroglyphs. Like our remodeling
projects, the contractor probably had more than one job going.
Part of the problem that Ramesses had was that he went for size
rather than quality. Another problem is that he wanted a big new temple
wherever there was an existing small old temple. He had to
many temples under construction and too many other project even for his
reputed 66 year reign. His monuments are of impressive size, but
the quality is lacking, even in sculptures of himself.
Luxor from the land side in morning twilight. On the other side
of the temple complex is the Nile, then the cultivated area on the
other (western) side of the Nile, and, on the far horizon, the Theban
Hills with the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles catching the
morning sunrise. One of the things you can do in Luxor, if you
are an early riser, is to take a 45 minute hot air balloon ride (about
$85 US). Bring your camera for pix like this.
The Philae temples are no longer on Philae. They were moved to
Agilika Island to raise them above the flood level of the Old Aswan
Dam. The island was sometimes visible and sometimes not after the Old
Aswan Dam was built, but was permanently submerged after the newer
Aswan High Dam ensured that the downstream lake was always full. If
that's confusing, see the map at http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/philae5-1.jpg.
A five part article on Philae begins at http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/philae.htm.
temples partially submerged at their old location and as they are now
at their new location on the nearby Agilika Island
Yes, there is another of those great Sound and Light Shows at the
The image shows a hand colored David Roberts lithograph of the pillars
inside the main Philae Temple of Isis. Roberts was a Scot who
traveled in Egypt in the 1840s. His drawings were published in
London in folio and quarto volumes in the 1850s. Desirable full
folio images (i.e., single images that covered a folio page) now cost
$4000 - 5000. Half folios can cost $1000. Less desirable
prints can be had for less. Modern offprints are available at all
the appropriate Egyptian sites for a few dollars.
Roman period "Trajan's Kiosk" is much more romantic half submerged.
Hatshepsut's mortuary temple complex at Dayr al-Bahri, across the river
from Luxor was intended to stand directly over her tomb, the entrance
of which is directly behind the temple, in the Valley of the
Kings. Her plan went awry when the tomb tunnel, the deepest and
longest in the Valley of the Kings, hit a level of unstable rock and
had to be curved around itself in a very broad horseshoe. The
tunnel never did pass under the ridge. For more on her Temple,
see the second half of the article on Dayr al-Bahri at http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/bahri.htm.
For more on her tomb see http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/kv20.htm.
The first (David Roberts) image shows the Abu Simbel temple as it must
have looked when Belzoni started to excavate the site. By the
1840s, it's impossible to see any effect of Belzoni's dig around the
front entrance in 1814. Ramesses II dedicated this temple to
Ptah, Amun, Ra, and, of course, to Ramesses II. In the interior,
where cult statues usually sat, Ramesses placed a statue of himself
between the creator and solar gods, Amun and Ra, with Ptah on the other
side of Amun. The Abu Simbel temple was a new kind of Solar
temple for the Egyptians: dawn solstice light was penetrated the temple
and illuminated Amun, Ra, and Ramesses (and left Ptah, the god of
darkness, in the dark). This kind of temple was "Asian", that is,
in Egyptian terms, from the countries on the eastern shore of the
Mediterranean. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem had this kind of
Solar aspect (although the Jewish god was a god of lightning and
thunder, like Zeus). In the sequel, the UN project to save the
Abu Simbel temple from the rising waters of Lake Nasser was off by a
fraction of a degree and the lighting trick doesn't quite work in the
Even though the reassembly was a bit askew, it was still an amazing
engineering feat. The new location did nothing to improve the
crudity of the colossal sculptures of Ramesses II, which looked a lot
better when the legs were buried.
The best preserved ancient Egyptian temple is at Edfu and was built
during the Ptolemaic period. Dedicated to Horus, it's also the
last really big temple (that we know of) in this style. Later
temples and later remodeling jobs on existing temples were in a hybrid
Roman and Egyptian style.
The heavily reconstructed Edfu solar boat. A cult statue would
ride to visit gods in other temples. These boats were not meant
to be floated, but rather they would be carried by priests from a
pedestal on a barge to a pedestal in the temple.
The Roman-Egyptian hybrid temple at Dendera was dedicated to Het-Hert,
whose name, in modern times, is usually written as Hathor. Even
when written as Hathor, however, it's good to remember that the
ancient Egyptians didn't have our combined "th" sound, so it should be
pronounced Hat-hor with the T and the H separated. Hathor was the
goddess of motherhood and childbirth, and this temple and others
dedicated to her were really birthing centers with midwives presiding
over maternity wards. Our jolly friend Bes would be ever present
to keep the kids happy and content.
The Esna temple is dedicated to Khnum, and it is way off the tourist
track. This image is here because it shows more clearly than the
previous images the hybridization of
the Roman and Egyptians architectural styles. This new front
added to an older Egyptian temple is much akin to a Roman anticum (or
Greek pronaos), an open vestibule before the cella in a classical temple,
except that the space between the pillars is walled halfway up to allow
space for Egyptian-style vignettes and hieroglyphs. The end slope
inward slightly as do Egyptian pylons, and they are also decorated in
the Egyptian manner.
Khnum, the ram headed god, was revered as "the great potter" who made
all animals including humans. He would take Nile clay and make
the form of an animal or human embryo, and then he would hold clay
image up to the sky to be quickened by the rays of Ra before inserting
it in the womb. This myth has led some to believe that the
ancient Egyptians didn't know about the well known equation (sex =
babies) but Egyptian medical texts make it clear that they knew it all
-- and Khnum, like ram gods all around the Mediterranean, was also the
god of fertility and joyous sex. Khnum, was the ancient Egyptian
equivalent to the stork in stories told to children. For more about
Khnum, see http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/khnum.htm.
Egypt too far to go to see an ancient Egyptian temple? Try the
Metropolitan Museum in New York where the Dendur temple is dramatically
displayed. It was saved from inundation behind the Aswan High Dam
in 1976. It's a small Roman Period temple with a pillared front
porch, but it's on a smaller scale than that of the Khnum temple,
above. More details are available at http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_Of_Art/viewOne.asp?dep=10&viewMode=0&item=68.154
Mummification and preservation of the body was one of the most
important tenets of Egyptian religion.
Mummies, especially since the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922,
have also been a major preoccupation of Americans and Europeans.
Especially in movies, we have reveled in the horror of mummy
attacks. The first known mummy movies was made in France in 1899
and was called Cléopâtre. In it a man with diabolical
intent hacks Cleopatra's mummy to bits, then resurrects the woman from
a smoking brazier. English title:
"Cleopatra's Tomb". US-release title: "Robbing Cleopatra's
Tomb". US mummy movies seem to run in cycles, the first following
the release of the French 1899 flick and the last still going on.
A seemingly exhaustive list of ancient Egypt themed movies, including
mummy movies, is at http://www.wepwawet.nl/films/.
There are mummy movies for all ages and tastes.
Egyptians, of course, didn't call the wrapped body a mummy. That
word is from Arabic and Farsi (Persian). The ancient Egyptian
word was something like "sox" only closer to the Scottish "loch" with
an S replacing the L.
It's generally acknowledged that the ancient Egyptians got the idea for
artificial dehydration/mummification by observing the effects of burial
in hot dessert sands. This dehydrated chap is known as "Ginger"
for the color of his hair, and he is on permanent display in room 64 of
the British Museum. The grave goods around him, all from the
pre-dynastic Naqqada period as he is, are moved and changed
occasionally, perhaps to keep him from being bored.
Unwrapping mummies for study (or for thrills, as they did in the "old
days") is now passé. Plain old Xray examination is now
also obsolete, and modern scanning methods are used instead.
Queen Hatshepsut's mummy has finally been identified using modern Xray
scanning methods. (See http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/hatshepsut/.)
I'm not done with that! The purpose of mummifying the body of the
deceased was that he still needed it in the afterlife. So you
tried to keep his corpse in good condition. Claims that mummies
are well preserved and lifelike and recognizable are balderdash.
They are little better than bones with a bit of skin and sometimes with
a hank of hair. Big news: it didn't work very well as
preservation "for eternity".
Even those at
the top of the heap -- those who got the best that ancient Egyptian
mortuary science had to offer -- don't have much to work with in the
extended afterlife. Here is Ramesses II looking more and more like an
aging Peter O'toole (http://www.thecinemasource.com/moviesdb/images/Venus%20-%20Poster.jpg).
Anubis was the inventor of the mummification and embalming
process, according to ancient Egyptian mythology.
Embalming: British Museum
See more at the British Museum site: http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/mummies/home.html
Wrapping: British Museum
more at the British Museum site: http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/mummies/home.html
The family mourns privately and then a priest uses a special ceremonial
knife in a rite called the "opening of the mouth", which allows the
deceased to eat, drink, and speak in the afterlife. The latter is
of most immediate importance because he will have to speak protective
spells to get through the judgment. In the last image, his heart
is weighed against the"feather of truth" on a big scale called Maat
(also the name of the goddess of judgment). If his heart is
heavy, he fails and is eaten by the monster Amemet. If he passes,
Horus presents him to Osiris, the head of the afterlife pantheon.
Osiris became the god of the dead because he was murdered and chopped
up and thrown into the Nile by his brother Set. Isis reassembles
him and bandages him -- the supposed origin of mummy wrapping.
Osiris is always shown bandaged (mummy wrapped) and his skin is green,
signifying faunal rebirth and floral fecundity. Set is the evil
god of the desert and its hot dessicating wind and therefore the
anti-green enemy of agriculture and herding. There's more about
the Osiris-Isis-Set legend at http://www.philae.nu/philae/IsisOsiris.html
and at http://touregypt.net/godsofegypt/legendofosiris.htm.
Even in later periods, the mummification rituals were observed. These
are an Third Intermediate Period Mummy and a Ptolemaic mummy.
In the Roman period, several different mummy styles
developed. The first image shows a mummy mask in the rising style
that the Romans had inherited from the Etruscans. Masks like
there are portrait masks (i.e., they showed what the person really
looked like rather than idealized imagery). This one, however, is
shown with conventional Ptolemaic pursed lips. Both men and women
would go about with the lips puckered because it was said that the
Ptolemies had beautiful narrow Cupid's bow lips. She may have
really looked like this, but maybe the artist did her a favor.
The second image is the much more common wax encaustic portrait on a
flat wooden board that was commonly wrapped into the last layer over
the face of the deceased. There is much debate about whether these
portraits were painted when the person was still alive (and
displayed as wall paintings in the home) or whether they were painted
after death specifically for the mummy wrap. Which ever is true,
the arresting characteristic of all of these paintings is the eyes that
pierce your soul.
The Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert has apparently been
continuously inhabited since the Egyptian Middle Paleolithic period and
excavated burials and tombs in the area span the whole time from
pre-dynastic Egypt through the 18th century AD. There are, in
fact, more recent tombs and burials, but nobody has dug them up.
The most important period from an archaeological perspective runs from
the Ptolemaic period through the Coptic and Byzantine early-Christian
period. The Bahariya cemeteries have been undergoing scientific
excavation (as opposed to tomb robbing excavations) since 1996, and
more recently, Egyptian archaeologists have uncovered the "Valley of
the Golden Mummies". Egyptian archeological authorities kept the
site secret until they could secure the area and start their own
excavations in 1999.
For articles Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of
Antiquities (SCA) about the Bahariya site, go to http://guardians.net/hawass/mummy-main.htm.
The recent videos by National Geographic and the History Channel on
this and other Egyptian mummy hunts are extremely disappointing.
They have about ten minutes of information, which they stretch to an
hour or two with useless chatter and dramatic night time footage --
mostly of the "reporter on the scene" (and in the way) type that we are
familiar with from the evening (non-)news: "I'm standing outside
the tomb....", then "I'm going through the passageway to....", then
"I'm in the tomb with Zahi....", then "Zahi says this will be important
because...", then "Although we didn't find what we expected, it's still
important because....". Then Zahi talks about how everything,
even if it's not a major find, is "still very important".
Then there is an advertisement for the next mummy hunt or mummy CAT
scan. There are interspersed, of course, many commercial breaks
preceded by breathless dramatic pauses. It's pretty pitiful stuff
compared to watching the news on the BBC which can cover the same event
in a two minute spot. If price is a measure of quality, it's
illustrative that the the National Geographic DVDs can be bought new
from Internet for about four dollars. That's a heavy discount
from the $25 that they sell for at the National Geographic Internet