Last time we briefly considered the Egyptian contribution to town planning: the “Hippodamean” plan before Hippodamus. Most would agree, though, that the two most important Egyptian achievements in architecture were the pyramid and the monumental temple. It is to the latter type of monument that we turn today.
THE EGYPTIAN TEMPLE
Because of the role of the gods, temples must have always existed in ancient Egypt. Yet our evidence is relatively sparse before the NK. The pyramids are the glory of the OK in northern Egypt, the temples the NK in Upper Egypt. Certainly temples existed in the north, but the habit of rebuilding them has erased much evidence, together with their role as quarries.
During the New Kingdom the status of the priesthood increased, with various temples controlling great estates. They began to play an economic role as centers of redistribution. Egyptians always loved festivals, and the temples capitalized on this predilection.
Two OK precursors help to establish (if only by contrast) the novelty of the New Kingdom development: the Valley Temple of Khafre at Giza and the ruined Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurob. The latter consisted of a valley temple, a causeway, and a stone enclosure. The latter featured a stubby obelisk, preceded by an altar. Not far off is the model of a solar boat in brick.
The true temple was the abode or mansion of the god, represented by one or more statues. These statues generally came with boats (or barques) which were used for parading to the people. Normally, however, the cult image resided in seclusion in the inmost recess of the temple, the holy of holies, attended only by the priests. This zone is the true heart of the temple as we will see.
Let us examine first the “template of the temple,” as it were. At the Metropolitan Museum, the Temple at Dendur (from the start of the Roman period) is perhaps too abbreviated, though we see the two key elements: the sanctuary house (at the back) and the pylon or monumental doorway in the front.
One may look at the great Horus temple, perhaps the best preserved of all, for the key elements. The original core (lying athwart an earlier temple’s ruins) goes back to the third century BCE in the Ptolemaic period. This was later enlarged, the whole being complete only in 70 BCE. Generally, speaking the temple proper was only for the priests. The people could gather in the court outside the pylon, being admitted further only under special circumstances.
We pause to note some major features: the residence of the god in the inaccessible gloom of the holy of holies; the sanctuary is not congregational; the whole is kinetic in sequence--open courts vs. covered areas; along with the shrine, the pylon is the other major anchor.
As at Edfu, the choice of a site is often governed by a previous sanctuary. The original choice reflected some natural feature, such as a landscape feature or a water source. (Many temples had articificial ponds or lakes, with the most famous one being at Karnak.)
Ideally, the temple was laid out by the pharaoh. One began by fixing the plan of the temple by “stretching the cord.” Then gypsum was spread all over the site to purify it. Trenches were dug, and the bricks or stones assembled. Foundation deposits were placed at the corners (compare our contemporary “time capsules”). The whole temple was purified, and then presented to its god, whereupon sacrifices were offered.
The two great complexes are at the “twin cities” of Luxor and Karnak
In its present form the LUXOR temple was founded by the great Amenhotep III, with a columned courtyard, a pronaos (32 papyrus columns) a pillared hall, offering room, the barque chapel for the temporary residence of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, and a final area for the local Amun. Then Tutankhamun added a preface in the form of a conlonnade, seven papyrus columns long. Ramses II made a further major extension: columned courtyard and a great plyon with two obelisks in front.
Not only do we need to understand these buildings as complete (as far as we can), we need to see them as theaters of sacred ritual. Of great relevance here is the OPET festival. By the Twentieth dynasty it had come to last 27 days. It took place during the flooding season, when the people could take the time off. Theban citizens and their guests from afar celebrated the fruitful link between their pharaoh and the almighty god Amun. During the celebration the might and power of Amun were ritually bequeathed to his living son, the king. Therefore, the celebration belonged to the official royal ideology of the state and, not surprisingly, witnessed the personal involvement of the pharaoh.
At Karnak, the northern sanctuary, the people watched the high priests disappear in the temple. In the privacy of the inner recesses, the priests bathed the image of the god. They dressed him in colorful linen, adorning him with jewelry from the temple treasury including magnificent necklaces, bracelets, scepters, amulets and trinkets of gold or silver encrusted with lapis lazuli, enamel, glass and semi-precious gems. The priests then enclosed the glittering god in a shrine, placing the shrine on top of a ceremonial barque or boat supported by poles for carrying.
Carrying the barque on their shoulders, the priests moved into the crowded streets where people elbowed each other to catch a glimpse of the sacred vessel. In Hatshepsut’s time, the complete journey was accomplished on foot, while stopping at different resting stations. Later, the boat was carried to the Nile and then towed upriver to the Luxor Temple. After reaching Luxor, the pharaoh and priests left the crowd behind, maneuvering the boat into the dark recesses of the temple. Incense filled the air. There was a ceremony communing with the other, local holy image of Amun.
During the Festival of Opet, onlookers could ask the god questions that could be answered by a simple yes or no. A man might ask if his brother in another town was in good health, If the boat dipped forward, the answer was yes; if it backed away, the reply was no.
More than anything, the ancient Egyptian population enjoyed the largesse of the priestly class during these festivals. During one Opet festival in the twelfth century BCE, it is recorded that temple officials distributed 11,341 loaves of bread and 385 jars of beer to the citizens. Since these items had been donated to the temple, this largesse was a form of redistribution akin to our own food pantries.
In size and accumulation of major monuments, the Amun precinct at KARNAK is indisputably Egypt’s premier sanctuary. Processional ways connected it with the Mut precinct, the Luxor temple 1 1/2 miles away, and the Nile bank. The MK has the oldest remains: the first huge limestone temple built in the reign of Senwosret I and surrounded by a brick enclosure wall. In front of this structure stood engaged statue pillars. In the rear half were three cult chambers, the last furnished with an alabaster plinth for the shrine of the cult image.
In the NK, beginning with Amenhotep, it rose to the status of Egypt’s national shrine. The temple was surrounded with an enclosure wall connecting with the newly erected fourth and fifth pylons. Pairs of obelisks were erected by the Thutmosids. A new pylon (the sixth) appeared between the barque shrine and the fifth pylon. Two big new pylons were erected in the southern axis towards the Mut precinct, the eighth (Hatsepsut) with four colossal statues, and the seventh (Thutmosis III) with two seated colossal statues and a pair of obelisks. Further major additions were made by Amenhotep III.
HATSHEPSUT AT DEIR EL BAHRI (“Western Thebes”)
Some say that one cannot draw too precise a line between temples proper and mortuary sanctuaries. Certainly, this seems to be so in the NK. At any rate Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri has many features of temples properly speaking, while discarding the last remnants of pyramids.
Erected to surpass its neighbor, the Mentuhotep monument, the complex was probably designed by Senmut, Hatshepsut’s loyal factotum. The sequence of terraces and colonnades is breathtaking--even in competition with the massive cliff behind. Much of the detail of the interior was mutilated by Thutmosis III and Akhenaten. The proto-Doric columns of the Anubis chapel are noteworthy forerunners of the corresponding Greek order. The biographical frieze includes the picturesque detail of the fat queen of Punt.