Amarna Temples

How to worship the gods


When Akhenaten decided to move his capital city to Amarna, the first thing he did was to mark out the site with boundary stones, the best known of which is a huge carving into the cliffs that surrounded the site. The first boundaries marked out the main site for the city on the east side of the Nile, stretching 12 km along the river, and then in a semicircle along the cliffs that form the edge of the plain. However a year later he decided to include a huge area of fertile territory on the West Bank of the Nile, stretching some 20 km into the desert.

The city itself lay on the eastern bank and at its centre was the main ceremonial area, consisting of the main royal palace, and the Royal Temples. There were two main temples:  the larger is known as the great Aten temple or the House of the Aten, – the Aten being the name of the supreme  sun-god – while the smaller, on the south side of the Palace, is known as the ‘Mansion of the Aten’. The larger temple, which was excavated in the 1920s and 30s rather more rapidly than we would do today, consists of a vast enclosure half a mile long – 800 x 300 m – but it was mostly empty. Just inside it by the West entrance facing onto the Nile was what Barry Kemp calls the Long Temple, a along narrow enclosure 130 x 33 m wide. In front of it was a pylon, essentially a huge wall presumably decorated and with flagpoles in front. Behind it there was a series of six courts all open to the sky. The Egyptians never learnt the secret of making an arch so they could never roof any expanse of building, so that their major temples simply consist of rows and rows of columns holding up a timber roof.  Or in this case no roof at all. The sixth and innermost room which presumably should be the most important simply had at its centre a table which to judge by illustrations on the walls of tombs, would have been heaped high with offerings.

The courts that formed the temple all seemed to have been filled with offering tables.  These survived merely as rectangular impressions in the ground measuring 90 x 110 cm, but tomb paintings enable us to interpret these as being offering tables.  These existed in crazy profusion.  It is calculated that there must have been at least 791 of them inside the temple, outside to the south there were the bases for at least 920 more.  The ground to the north is largely disturbed by a modern Muslim graveyard.  But if this matched the southern side there would have been in the region of 1700 in all, both inside and adjacent to the temple.  The tomb paintings suggest that these would have been piled high with offerings, mostly crude offerings of joints of meat, fowls, loaves of bread; and on the top of them bowls of incense smoking.

Plan of the Long Temple showing the six courts with the innermost sanctum at the right end. Note they are all filled with offering tables.
Plan re-drawn by Barry Kemp


Bottom left is an offering table piled high with goodies, with smoke at the top, rising from the incense. The pharaoh Akhenaten is standing in the middle with the sun’s rays shining on him. Behind him is his Queen, and behind her is their very small daughter shaking a rattle. From the tomb of Mahu, drawn by Barry Kemp.

There is no parallel for this mass of offering tables in other Greek temples – this is something that is unique to Amarna.  It is a little difficult to see how they worked.  Most temples have huge granaries and storehouses attached to them which tend to be ignored by visitors, and indeed ignored by archaeologists.  But there is a very good example at the Great Ramasseum at Thebes built by Ramasses II, and immortalised by Shelley – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert” – if you visit pass quickly by the legs of stone and indeed the temple and note the granaries at the back.

At Amarna however there are no granaries, just the offering tables, and it is difficult to see how they worked.  Was all the food kept elsewhere in private houses perhaps and then just assembled on the feat days?  And presumably having been “offered” to the gods, and thereby having demonstrated the wealth of the Pharaoh and of Egypt (of course Pharaoh and Egypt were one of the same thing).  Barry Kemp flippantly has a chapter headed “Communal Feasting or Takeaway?” to discuss the dilemma of whether the food was actually cooked and eaten in the enclosures — which would have been possible, or was it taken away to be consumed at leisure?

Barry Kemp does not just excavate at Amarna and write about it and draw plans about it, he also makes models of it. Here is the his model of the Great Temple. The entrance to the right leads to the successive courts. But notice in the top right-hand quadrant the serried rows of offering tables. There were probably offering tables in the bottom left but this part of the site has been destroyed by a modern cemetery.

The Great Aten Temple was set in a huge enclosure with the main temple to the left with the offering tables adjacent. Notice towards the rear of the enclosure the slaughter court with where tethering rings were found for the animals that were tethered there before they were slaughtered for sacrifice.

The temples here are very different from classical temples. Classical temples were the home of the gods:  the statue of the God was kept in the temple and was brought out on feast days, but in Amarna the Pharaoh was a God: indeed one suspects that at least part of the reason for the move to Amarna was to break the power of the priests, where the temples had become too independent. They received their own income from the land is attached to the temple, and Akhenaten wanted to emphasise that there was only one God, the Aten, and that he was that God, and thus the purpose of the temples was to add to the Pharaoh’s glory, the site of feasting and a place where he could display his wealth and his generosity


On to Amarna town