Temples and Processions


If we wish to understand how  ancient Egypt was glued together, how power really worked, we need to consider not so much the palaces as the temples. In the New Kingdom, power came from the gods, and the gods were embodied in human form by the Pharaoh: the difference between a god and the Pharaoh tended to be somewhat blurred, for the Pharaoh was the living embodiment of the god and the gods were represented in human form by the Pharaoh. However, the Pharaoh tended to move around, visiting the various parts of his kingdom and therefore palaces were not always very permanent or very grand.  Temples however, were more permanent. This was where the image of the God was stored and also where the royal boats were stored. The gods often made journeys in grand processions, where they went in their boats to visit one another and often spent the night together in another god’s shrine.

The great avenue of sphinxes that form the approach to the Karnak temple from the river Nile. In fact the sphinxes, and indeed the first pylon that formed the entrance to the complex were only erected by Nectanebo, the last of the great pharaohs (380 – 362).

These processions played an enormous role in Egyptian religion, which in many ways was the Egyptian form of politics.  This was where the gods and the ruler met the people and communed with the people.  This is where ‘democracy’ or whatever one calls its predecessor took place. These processions often lasted weeks, sometimes up to a month in length, as the God travelled round, and enormous amounts of food and other goods were distributed in the course of the procession. If we are therefore we are to understand how Egypt worked, we need to study the temples and the processions.

In the Old Kingdom, the centre of power was, of course, the pyramids, to which indeed mortuary temples were attached, a mortuary Temple at the entrance to the pyramid and a riverside or valley temple where the dead Pharaoh arrived on his barge. These temples together with the sun temples, were often substantial affairs, though overwhelmed by the majesty of the pyramids. But they were built in stone and many have to a considerable extent survived. There were also lesser temples, but these were built of mud brick and leave only the slightest traces. Indeed, the palaces, were also built of mud brick and thus none is known with any certainty from the Old Kingdom.

In the New Kingdom however, the major temples were all built in stone and many have survived. The most important were in Thebes, modern Luxor, which was the home city of the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom, and if we are to understand the how temple worked, it is perhaps worthwhile to study the principal temples of Thebes. Thebes was divided in two. The living city was on the East bank, while the  West bank was the domain of the dead, where the Pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings, a valley that led up into the hills of the West bank. However, the mortuary temples of the Kings were set along the river banks where they played a major role in the rituals and the processions.


Akhenaten III

In studying the temples, I want to focus on one particular Pharaoh who was perhaps the greatest Pharaoh of many great Pharaohs of the first half of the New Kingdom: Amenhotep III.  He is perhaps best known as being the father of Akhenaten the heretic Pharaoh, who marks the central dividing point of the New kingdom. But he deserves to be better known, for under him Egypt reached one of the great peaks of prosperity and success. He was not a great warrior. He had a campaign to Nubia in the South early in his reign, but basically his reign was one of peace and prosperity and the many buildings erected throughout Egypt attest to his success.

In Thebes itself there are two great Temple, Karnak and Luxor.  Today Luxor lies in the heart of the modern town and is indeed the better preserved of the two, but it is Karnak in what is today the northern part of the modern town that was the great temple of ancient city.

The splendid air photo above by Ahmed Galal illustrates well the temple complex at Karnak. The Nile runs across the top left corner and the main axis of the Temple faces towards the Nile.

However, a secondary axis was later constructed facing towards the other Temple at Luxor, a miles away. The three pylons  of this secondary axis can be seen very prominently in the photo.  The purpose of the Sacred lake is uncertain.

The plan to the right, from Wikipedia has approximately the same orientation

The temple began in the Middle Kingdom when Thebes was simply one of the leading towns of Upper Egypt and a temple was built on the top of a low hill surrounded by a thriving town: traces of this early town have been found, on a slightly different alignment from the New Kingdom buildings, but laid out in the grid system typical of the Middle Kingdom.

The temple was aligned on the River Nile to the west, so that processions arriving by boat could come straight up to the temple.  A great avenue of sphinxes led from the river to the temple and over the ensuing centuries it was expanded down towards the river by a series of pylons.  The pylon is perhaps the most typical form of Egyptian temple architecture, a huge monumental gateway fronted by several tall flagpoles – no doubt with flags: the front wall was adorned with carvings showing the king smiting his enemies. At Karnak there were eventually ten successive pylons which form the main river entrance, added by successive pharaohs, though the last and greatest of them was only added by Nectenabo, the last of the great pharaohs in BC 280-362, who also built the great enclosure wall round the whole temple which gives the temple the unity that we perceive today.

The first great pylon is very late, in fact built by Shoshenq I (945 – 924 BC), but it leads through to the greatest architectural triumph of all, the hypostyle hall. This great hall contains 136 columns, all in the Egyptian style, imitating a giant papyrus plant. One must remember that it was only the Roman genius that invented concrete which enabled them to make huge domed halls: before that, if you wanted to make a huge hall, you had to support the roof with numerous columns, and this is the most impressive of all these ‘hypostyle halls’ .

After several more pylons one passed through into the main temple where the central element was a shrine which contained a portable barque, open at both ends, on which the image of the god Amun could be carried outside the temple on important festivals.

So far this is all very logical, but the coherence of the whole structure was rather compromised by the erection of a second axis with a second series of pylons leading out to the south.  The trouble was that there is a second great temple at Thebes known as the Luxor Temple, and this lies a mile or so to the South of Karnak, and so a second processional way was constructed. First a single pylon was erected by Queen Hatshepsut, then three more pylons were constructed, making this southern route if anything rather grander than the riverine route. It was lined with rams headed sphinxes, and called first at the temple of Mut, the consort of Amun, and then on to the Luxor temple.



The Luxor temple is in many ways the finer, perhaps because it is better preserved than the much larger Karnak temple. Today this is often the first temple that the visitor sees, as it lies at the heart of the modern town

The Luxor Temple:  the original part is the top half. The oldest part is the sacred precinct in the top quarter, to which the magnificent courtyard, seen below, was added.
The long approach was added 70 years later by Horemheb, and the outer courtyard at an angle was added by Rameses II more than a century later.  (Kemp)

The great glory of the Luxor temple is the central court called a peristyle court because it is surrounded by a double row of columns, which is still greatly admired. This is where the populace would have assembled to cheer on the ceremonies as they took place.  It was approached by a processional colonnade which is adorned by carvings of the various ceremonies from which the ceremonies are reconstructed. Beyond there is an outer courtyard that was added towards the end of the New Kingdom by Rameses II, including a triple shrine where the sacred boats could be stored.  To one side high up there is a medieval mosque, the elevation of which shows the extent to which rubbish had accumulated by the Middle Ages – which to some extent explains the excellent preservation of the temple.






The Peristyle court of the Luxor temple generally considered to be the greatest achievement of Amenhotep III’s architecture. Note that the columns are in the form of a papyrus plant, which is typical of Egyptian architecture.

On one side of the central courtyard was a hypostyle hall, five columns deep which led through to the inner sanctuary where there was a small room to one side, called the birth room where at the culmination of the ceremonies the pharaoh retreated to be reborn in a mystic ceremony with the god.  Beyond was a barque shrine that was rebuilt by Alexander the Great who was always keen to muscle in on native ceremonies.  The Romans did the same and in the fourth century the temple was turned into the military headquarters, and just to confuse the modern visitor they adapted the Egyptian shrine to be a shrine of the Roman military headquarters.


The West Bank

The Colossi of Memnon, with the temple behind. The tourists in the foreground give some idea of the huge size of the Colossi. (W)

But Amenhotep III did not just build on the east bank at Thebes, indeed his biggest buildings were on the west bank, indeed the biggest building of all was his own mortuary temple, though this was almost completely destroyed.  All that remained were the two huge statues that he erected in front of the temple which are known as the Colossi of Memnon. These still survive 18 metres high and show the king seated with two smaller statues of his wife built into his throne beside him.  The temple behind was huge,  covering over 18 hectares, a bigger extent indeed than the whole complex at Karnak, but in around 1200 BC there was a huge earthquake which destroyed the temple.  An Armenian archaeologist, Hourig Souzourian, is excavating the site and has discovered chasms in the ground opened up by the earthquake, which swallowed up some of the statues, preserving them in pristine condition.

The short lived palace at Malkata. The main palace is bottom right with an additional palace to the north, and to the left, west, a third building to house the higher epistles. (K)

Even more interesting is the so called ‘Palace’ that was constructed just to the south of the temple, at Malkata.  This has always been a difficult building to understand.  It was constructed mostly of mud brick which does not survive very well, and what is more, his son and successor Akhenaten did not approve, and abandoned it when he built his new city at Amarna.  Indeed Barry Kemp suspects that Malkata was not a real palace at all, but was erected especially to enable Amenhotep III to celebrate his Sed festival.  Sed festivals were the glorious jubilees that pharaohs celebrated when they succeeded in surviving 30 years as rulers, and then they were celebrated every three years thereafter.  Amenhotep was very long lived and so he celebrated three Sed festivals in his 30th, 34th and 37th years.

Two palaces were built: the main palace, a north palace and a third building called the ‘west villas’ presumably to house the higher officials.  There was also a large temple to Amun.  However the best known feature of the Sed festival was that the pharaoh was supposed to run a race to show his continuing fitness.  The classic place for a Sed festival is right at the beginning of Egyptian history with the Step pyramid of King Zoser, which we have already described, in which the court in which he did his run still forms a major feature of the huge complex.  But Amenhotep 2,000 years late wanted to do something different.  Running was by this time distinctly old hat, boating was now the thing and he therefore dug out a large rectangular lake on which he could be rowed with ceremony.  And at the southern end of the lake he built another palace.

The huge lake dug out to enable Amenhotep to celebrate his anniversary ‘Sed’ festival. The black rectangle represents his original lake but he then extended it to the south, but this was unfinished and is marked by the row of mounds to the west (left) where the earth had been dug out. (K)

However for his next Sed festival he wanted an even bigger lake in a T-shape, 2 kilometres by 1 kilometre.  The southern palace was destroyed in the process, but it appears that the lake extension was never completed and the course to the south is marked mainly by a series of mounds where the earth had been dug out, but had not been smoothed out to make a platform. For the archaeologist however, one of the most interesting aspects is the feasting that accompanied the festival; vast amounts of wine were assembled in huge jars (amphorae) and when the feast came, their necks were ritually cut off and thrown away.  However the necks were marked with useful information about which vineyard they came from (which château in modern parlance) – only the best wine would do.  Modern archaeologists retrieve these necks by the hundred which provide fascinating information about how the vineyards actually worked.  Indeed for many archaeologists this is the prime fascination of the Malkata site.



But the great ceremonies of Egyptian religion, and indeed of Egyptian politics, (for religion formed the politics for the Egyptians), were the processions.  Whereas for the Greeks and Romans, the high point of their religion were the sacrifices that took place on altars outside the temple – animals were sacrificed and then eaten; and whereas for the Christians their ceremonies took place inside their meeting places where they ate bread and wine in place of bloody sacrifices; for the Ancient Egyptians the high point of their ceremonies were the great processions.

The Royal Barge arriving from the North Riverside Palace at the Main Palace

These processions did not just take place on foot, they took place on water along the Nile and the boats played a special part in the ceremony.  Indeed the boats which for some reason or another in English are always called ‘barques’, became almost as important as the statues of the gods themselves.  Many of the boats were small scale models of boats, but sometimes the actual full scale boats were used.  Special boat shrines were placed in the temples for the boats, indeed the furthest most holy part of the temple at Karnak was occupied by the great barque station, open at both ends.

Barry Kemp’s drawing of a barge being carried in procession by the priests accompanied by officials from the mortuary temple of Seti I. Note at the centre the sculptor Ipiy looking up to see that all is going well, and at the extreme left the chief minister Paser with his wand of office supervising it all.

For the great festivals these boats containing the statues of the gods had to be carried down to the river, and this was a major physical task undertaken by the fittest of the young priests and accompanied by the older priests and various court officials.  Even so they needed to rest regularly and thus ‘way stations’ were erected along the ceremonial processional ways.  Indeed these helped to mark out where the actual procession ran and as time continued these processional ways became ever more important.  They were paved and lined with statues often with faces of rams.

Barry Kemp’s drawing of the routes of the various processions. Note in particular the bottom half of the drawing showing the Karnak temples and the processions to the Luxor temple to the left. The hatched area marks the probable size of the New Kingdom city.

The most important of these festivals was the Festival of Opet which was a procession that went from the grand temple of Karnak to the subsidiary temple of Luxor.  Sometimes it went by boat and the sacred barque was taken from the barque shrine at Karnak down the Avenue of Sphinxes to the river, then just over a mile up the river, and then into the temple of Luxor.

Here we must digress, to discuss a little Egyptian theology. The big god was Amun-Re,  who was an amalgamation of Amun, who was originally the local God of Thebes, with Re, who was originally the major god of Heliopolis in the North, to become Amun-Re, the king of the gods, at least as far as Thebes is concerned. However , though the temple at Karnak was dedicated to Amun-Re, the temple at Luxor was dedicated to the Ka of Amun-Re, which is very confusing

The Ka is usually interpreted as being the life force. Whereas people might sometimes suspect that the Pharaoh was in fact human, his Ka was undoubtedly divine, and the real purpose of the expedition to the Ka at  Luxor was to renew the divinity of the Pharaoh. Thus, when the procession reached Luxor, the Pharaoh went into the inner shrine, communed with the Ka, and came out rejuvenated – it was like an annual coronation,  a reminder that the pharaoh was in fact divine.

However the procession did not always go by river —sometimes it went over land and thus a second grand entrance to the temple of Karnak was erected with pylons VII to X facing towards the south.  From here an avenue of sphinxes led to the smaller temple of Mut, who was the consort of Amun-Re.  There were a couple of barque stations on the way so that the priests carrying the barques could have a little rest.  But after they had visited the temple of Mut they then went down another avenue of sphinxes to the temple of Luxor.

These processions were by no means short affairs.  In the time of Amenhotep III, it was said to take place in the second month of inundation, which was February and lasted for 11 days, though by the time of Ramses II in the 19th dynasty it was stretched out to 27 days.  It was accompanied by the distribution of huge amounts of food and drink; one inscription talks of the distribution of 11,341 loaves, 85 cakes, and 385 jars of beer.  A good time was had by all.

There were other processions too, notably the Festival of the Valley which actually crossed the river going from the Karnak temple to the temples on the West bank.  Some of these lasted even longer than the Opet Festival, but many of them were short lived laid on by individual pharaohs.  Of course the temple also had a major economic role which we will discuss later when we look at the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of the last great pharaoh Rameses II, where the granaries are well preserved.  But during the reign of Amenhotep III the religious fervour was building up and with his son, Akhenaten, it would result in the attempt to form a new streamline religion on a new site. Under the surface all was not as smooth as it seemed.


On to Akhenaten

13th March 2019