Temples were regarded by the ancient Egyptians as the residences of the gods while they were on the earth. Egyptians believed that they could communicate with the souls of deities through cult statues that were in the temples. Egyptian temples were not public places of worship like churches and mosques. They were private sanctuaries. Only pharaohs or important priests could enter the shrine. Ordinary people prayed outside the temple and entered the courtyards to watch ceremonial events.

In temples gods were displayed in groups of nine and three, both thought to be auspicious numbers along with six and twelve. The major trilogy of Egyptian gods consisted of Osiris, his wife Isis and the falcon-headed Horus. Osiris carried the royal crook and flail.

Rulers often pillaged or remodeled the temples of their predecessors either to erase memory of them or save money in building materials. Smashing statues was thought of as a way to disrupt the afterlife of their predecessors.

Many of the grandest temples such as Great Temples of Hatshepsut and Temple of Amenhotep III at the Colossi of Memnon were mortuary temples designed as places for people to gather for special religious rites and offerings connected with the cult of the pharaohs. These temples were built for cult members to worship at so that the pharaohs lived on in the afterlife.

Book: The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkonson.

Ancient Egyptian Temple Architecture

Seti I Temple at Qurna
Temples from the Middle Kingdom onward were in large rectangular spaces enclosed by high walls with entrances flanked by two large pylons (sloping towers), with a door between them. After passing through the pylons, one entered a large courtyard with colonnades on two or three sides. This is where people gathered. Beyond the courtyard was a large hypostyle hall (a forest of columns that supported a roof). Beyond this a was sanctuary in which a statue of the deity was placed on a boat or in a shrine. Only the pharaoh and high level priests were allowed to enter this area.

Large temples, like the one at Karnak, had a series of courtyards, each with pylons, leading from the entrance, and multiple sanctuaries. These temples were regarded as embodiments of ancient Egyptian cosmology and symbols of renewal, a concept in which Egyptian civilization was largely based. The ceiling of a temple was viewed as the heavens; the floor, the fertile marsh from which life emerged. The pylons at the entrance were shaped like the hieroglyphic for “horizon,” and the whole structure, like the horizon, was seen as the nexus of heaven and earth, divine and mortal, order and chaos. The polarities and contradictiosn of the world remained in harmony and balance as long as certain rites were carried out by the Pharaoh.

Some Egyptian columns were built with ridges to imitate bundled reeds. There were ones with closed papyrus capitals and ones with open papyrus capitals.

One reason Egypt was able to build such large temples and pyramids was that it was relatively untroubled by wars and could devote its manpower to construction projects rather than the military.

Mortuary of Amenhotep III

Mortuary of Amenhotep III (excavation at the Colossi of Memnon) was once the largest and most impressive temple complex in the world. Known as “The House of Millions of Years,” it embraced gates, colonnades, courts filed with reliefs and inscriptions, and halls with columns more than 15 meters high. In its day it was filled with colorful royal banners hanging from cedar poles on red granite pedestals. Amenhotep III called the complex “a fortress of eternity” and said it was built “out of god white sandstone---worked with gold throughout. Its floors were purified with silver, all of its doorways were of electrum”---an alloy of gold and silver. Over the centuries, though, earthquakes, floods and looting, much of it by 19th century Europeans, have reduced the temple to buried ruins.

Merenptah's Mortuary Temple

Larger than Vatican City and more vast than the massive Karnak and Luxor temples, the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III was the length of seven football fields and stretched from the colossi to sacred altars pointing towards the Valley of the Kings. During Amenhotep III’s rule the Nile flowed just a few hundred meters away from the temple. The Colossi of Memnon once stood in front of it. The massive front gate, or pylon, was once brightly painted in blues, red,, greens, yellows and whites.

The Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III has been excavated since 1999 by a team led by Baghdad-born, Armenian archeologist Hourig Sourouzian. The is some sense of urgency to the project as archeologists are worried about salty runoff and irrigation water groundwater and seepage from the Nile damaging the sculptures that are underground. The restoration plan calls for much of the temples to be reconstructed but that will take many years---even decades---to complete. Just piecing statues and columns back together take a lot of time. Sections are being completed and opened bit by bit.

Hatshepsut's Temple

Hatshepsut's Temple (near Valley of the Kings) was built in 1480 B.C. by Queen Hatshepsut, arguably the most powerful female ruler of ancient Egypt. Dedicated to Amun and several other deities and reached by a long ramp, it is comprised of three terraces of colonnades, connected by massive ramps, and a small chamber tunneled deep into the rock. The last set of colonnades is set into the face of a towering red sandstone cliff on the eastern face of a Thebean mountain.

The Temple of Hatshepsut begins with the large first courtyard in front to the temple. A ramp sided by pillars leads to a second courtyard. At the back of this is a colonnade with walls and small enclosures with engravings and reliefs of episodes from the queen’s life and images of gods.

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Queen Hatshepsut planted botanical gardens and had incense burned on the terraces. During her funeral she was carried up the ramps to funerary chamber inside the temple. The temple was desecrated and vandalized by her successor. In the 7th century the Copts used the temple as a monastery.

The rear wall of the second courtyard consists of the Birth Colonnade on one side of the ramp and the Punt Colonnade on the other. The Birth Colonnade is a small sheltered area of the terrace that describes the preparation for and birth of Queen Hatshepsut. Particularly interesting is the scene of birds being captured in nets. Many of the victims of the 1997 attack were attacked in this area.

Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple (across the street from the Nile, next to the town of Luxor) was dedicated to the Amum, the god of fertility and growth, his wife Mut and their son Khonsu. Probably built on the site of an earlier temple, Luxor temple was started and extensively built by 2,623 slaves under Amenhotep III and completed a century later by Ramses II. Other pharaohs, Alexander the Great and the Romans also contributed to the effort. The Arabs even built a mosque inside one of the courtyards.

Luxor temple

Luxor Temples is 260 meters long consists of four major structures connected to one another in a long row. They are (beginning at the entrance): 1) the courtyard of Ramses II; 2) the colonnade of Amenhotep III; 3) the courtyard of Amenhotep III; and 4) hypostyle hall and sacarium of Amenhotep III.

In ancient times the entire complex was surrounded by a massive wall. Unlike Greek temples which were meant to be viewed by everyone, Egyptian temples were not supposed to be seen by ordinary people. Every year a sacred procession commemorating the marriage between Amum and Mut moved across the Nile by boat from Karnak to Luxor Temple.

Luxor Temple was restored in the mid 1990s. The $2.2 million job included dismantling 22 columns and installing a system to halt the rise of underground water. Luxor Temple doesn't have a Light and Sound Show but it is open until 10:00pm. It is worth making a visit at night when temperatures are cool and the statues, reliefs and walls are illuminated with floodlights.

Entrance to Luxor Temple

Before the entrance is a long stone dromos “a walkway and precession route sided by sphinxes with the face of Ramses II. At one time a dromos and processional avenue connected Luxor with Karnak. There some 1,400 sphinxes spread along the two-mile route..

The façade of the entrance gate consists of a pylon (massive gate), two 15-meter-high granite seated statues of Ramses II, and once had two 25-meter obelisks (only one of which remains, the other was taken to Paris in 1833 and now sits in the Place de Concorde).

Ramses II erected a massive 65-meter-high pylon at the entrance of the temple. The front is decorated with scenes from Ramses II’s military campaigns against the Hittites. At one time four statutes sat in front of the pylon. One representing Queen Nefertari was never finished. A ruined one to the right is of her’s and Ramses’ daughter Merit-Amon.

Luxor Temple

Courtyards at Luxor Temple

The Courtyard of Ramses II (beyond the entrance of Luxor Temple) is surrounded by a double row of thick stubby columns with bud papyrus capitals. On the intercolumns on the south side of the courtyard are Orisis-like statutes of Ramses II. The columns were arranged in two closely-packed concentric squares to hold up the (now missing) heavy roof and to keep the entire temple from collapsing under its own weight.

The courtyard was built as a parallelogram instead of a rectangle so it would be oriented toward the Nile. At the northwest of the courtyard you can see the sacred boats built by Thutmosis II and dedicated to the triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu. In the southwest corner a relief shows a procession of bulls being led to a sacrifice by bulls. The Colonnade of Amenhotep III (after the courtyard of Ramses II of Luxor Temple) is a 52-meter-long hall with 14 massive pillars, arranged in two parallel rows of seven.

The Courtyard of Amenhotep III (after the courtyard of Colonnade of Amenhotep III) is a second courtyard surrounded on three sides by double rows of columns with closed papyrus capitals. The Sacrarium of Amenhotep III (after the Courtyard of Amenhotep III of Luxor Temple) consists of a hypostyle hall with 32 pillars, a sanctuary for the sacred boat and a kiosk built by Alexander the Great. In the middle of the "maximum security labyrinth" of symmetrically arranged chapels and chambers, is four columned room with a holy shrine, which only the pharaohs and the highest priests were allowed to enter. The climatic rituals of the 15-day Opet festival occurred here. In the rear chambers are a number of engravings of a fertility god with a large erect penis.

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Temple of Karnak

The Temple of Karnak (2 miles north of Luxor) ranks with the Pyramids as most amazing site in Egypt and by some estimates is the largest religious structure ever created. Over two millennia it was enlarged and enriched by consecutive pharaohs until it covered 247 acres of land on the Nile’s east bank. At its height it stretched over an area of one mile by a half a mile---about half the size Manhattan---and was like a city, containing its own administrative offices, palaces, treasuries bakeries, breweries, granaries and schools. "Karnak" is the Arabic word for fort. It used to be called Ipetesut---“most esteemed of places.”

There are three main areas at Karnak are: 1) the Sanctuary of Amon; 2) the Sanctuary of Mut, 3) Sanctuary for Montu. Each is separated by a rough brick boundary and each has a main temple in the middle of the enclosure. Next to the main temples were sacred lakes where ceremonies were held. Unlike most other temples in Egypti, Karnak has two axes: one following the sun from east to west; and the other following the Nile from north to south. The largest structure contains the largest columns in the world.

Most of the structures at Karnak are part of the Sanctuary of Amon, which covers an area of about 60 hectares and is dedicated to Amon, the god of fertility and growth. To the south is the Sanctuary of Mut, which covers an area of about 9 hectares and is dedicated to Mut, the wife of Amon. Mut is symbolically portrayed in the form a vulture. To the north is a small Sanctuary for Montu, which covers an area of about 2½ hectares and is dedicated to Montu, the God of War.

The Temple Complex opens at 6:00am or 6:30pm. It is a good idea to arrive early and look around the grounds before it gets too hot and too many people arrive. When it does get hot you can seek refuge in the hypostyle hall, where there is ample shade even during the midday sun.

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ariel view of Karnak

History of the Temple of Karnak

Karnak was built to mark the birthplace of Amun, the greatest of all Egyptian gods. It was probably built on a pre-existing sacred mound. It was built with money that the pharaohs earned in taxes and booty brought back from military victories.

Work was carried out on Karnak for 2,000 years beginning in the 12th dynasty (around 2000 B.C.) of the Middle Kingdom when an early temple was established and successive pharaohs added their own shrines and gates. Construction of buildings continued through the Middle and New Kingdom periods, with most of the work done between the XVIII Dynasty and the end of the Ramses era. In the XVIX Dynasty, 81,322 people, including priests and peasants, worked on the temple of Amon. Construction of the main hypostyle hall began in 1375 B.C. under Amenhotep III, and was continued under Seti I, his son Ramses II and was finally completed under Ramses IV.

Karnak was built from sandstone. Because it was easier to build a new temple from stones from an old temple than it was to quarry new stones, not much remains of the oldest temples because their stones were used to make newer structures. Over time the dimensions and buildings of each sanctuary changed according to the wishes of each successive pharaohs.

Supported by revenues from royal land endowments, Karnak became an economic power. Under Ramses III the “domain of Amun” covered 900 square miles of agricultural land, vineyards and marshlands, in addition to quarries and mines. Like many other monuments in Egypt, Karnak was covered by sand up until a century ago. When French soldiers first laid eyes on it in 1799, one lieutenant in Napoleon’s army wrote: “Without an order being given the men formed their ranks and presented arms, to the accompaniment of drums and the bands.” Exposure to the elements and the absorption of ground water has caused the columns to slowly deteriorate. The groundwater problem was caused by the Aswan Dam which has raised the level of the Nile and, along with it, the water table under Karnak.

Karnak model

Parts of Karnak Temple

The Temple of Amon is a long series of structures divided by six large walls and pylons (massive gates). Between these walls are large halls and courtyards, some with obelisks. The "Propylaea of the South" is an extension that includes the seventh, eight, ninth and tenth pylons.

Visitors enter the Temple of Amon on the Avenue of the Criosphinxes, which consists of a walkway sided by a parallel row of sphinx statues with ram heads. The rams represent Amon. Beneath the rams heads are small statues of Ramses II. The Avenue of the Cryophinxes, leads to the first and largest pylon. Largely unadorned and built during the Roman-Greco Ptolemy era, the avenue is 113 meters wide and 15 meters thick.

The Ethiopian Courtyard (the first courtyard after the entrance to Karnak) dates back to the IX Dynasty. On the north side is an enclosed wall fronted by columns with closed papyrus capitals. In front of these are sphinxes commissioned by Ramses II. A giant column with an open papyrus capital is all that remains of the a massive pavilion of Ethiopian king Taharka. The pavilion was 21 meters high, had a wooden ceiling and was built to house sacred boats.

In front of the columns to the right is the Temple of Ramses III. On three sides of the interior of the temples are pillars fronted by statues of Ramses III with his arms crossedm holding a crook like the God Orisis. On the left side is the Temple of Seti I, dedicated to the chapels of the Thebes Triad: Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The white chapel of Semostris I and the alabaster chapel of Amenhotop I were rebuilt in the 1940s.

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Temple of Amun

The Second Pylon (far side of the Ethiopian Courtyard) was originally decorated with two massive winged pyramids. Today there is a fallen statue of Ramses II. The large 15-meter-high statue is the Colossus of Pinedjem, a Pharaoh from XXI Dynasty. There is a small statue of a priest between his legs. Sometimes this statue is described as being Ramses II and his favorite wife Nefertari.

Hypostyle Hall of Karnak

The Hypostyle Hall of Karnak (between the Second and Third Pylons) is a massive hall, with 134 massive columns, that measures 102 meters by 53 meters and covers 56,000 square feet and was once covered by a roof. Running down the center of the hall are 12 gargantuan open-papyrus-shaped columns that soar 70 feet into the air. These columns are the tallest stone columns in the world. They were raised in 1270 B.C. It is said that there is enough room on the top of each of these columns to throw a party with 50 people. The hall itself is large enough to accommodate Notre Dame cathedral.

On both sides of the papyrus columns are 122 smaller but still massive closed-papyrus columns that rise up 42 feet. The temple and the column are so massive and overwhelming many tourists that stand transfixed with their mouths agape as they try to take it all in. The climatic scene of the movie version of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile was shot here as well as a chase scene from one of the Roger Moore James Bond movies.

It worthwhile spending some time in the hall to see how light and shade affect the columns as the sun moves across the sky. It is also worthwhile to get a guidebook of hieroglyphics and sit in the shade and try to decipher the texts written on the columns. Paintings remain on the undersides of the lintels that link the top of the columns. Look for a pillar with the carving of a scarab, the Egyptian symbol of fertility. Women who walk around this pillar seven times are expected to give birth shortly afterwards.


The temple originally had a roof, and the columns were once plastered and painted with heroic scenes from the pharaohs lives. But mostly what remains now are some carved hieroglyphics and symbols, embellished by graffiti from 19th century British and Egyptian soldiers and 20th century tourists.

One of the remaining wall inscriptions reads: "His Majesty exults at the beginning of battle, he delights to enter it; his heart is gratified at the sight of blood. He lops off the heads of his dissidents...His majesty slays them at one stroke---he leaves them no heir, and whoever escapes his hand is brought prisoner to Egypt." Another set of inscriptions describe the festival of Opet. The victories of Shoshenq I, a Libyan refereed to in the Bible as King Shishak, are immortalized on a relief at Karnak.

Karnak Obelisks

After the Third Pylon visitors come to the obelisk of Thumosis I. It is 23 meters tall and weighs 143 tons. Other obelisks were located here but they are now gone. After the Forth Pylon is the obelisk of Hatsheput. It is 30 meters high and weighs 200 tons. Queen Hatsheput reportedly spared no expenses and poured in "as many bushels of gold as sacks of wheat" to get the obelisk completed.

There were once six large obelisks and two smaller ones in this area. Among these are the Lateran Obelisk, now in Rome. The great obelisk at the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak is nearly 100 feet high and weighs about 323 tons---about the same as a 747 jumbo jet. The Red Chapel of Queen Hatashepsut (1505-1484 B.C.) is Karnak’s largest chapel at 100 square meters. Comprised of huge black granite and red quartzite slabs, it stood for only 20 years before it dismantled by her son-in-law and used for another structure. In 1996, it was reconstructed.

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Karnak rams

After the Fifth and Sixth Pylon at Karnak

After the Fifth and Sixth Pylon is the Sanctuary of the Sacred Boats, the Festival Hall (also known as the "Temple of Millions of Years"), the large ceremonial Hall of Tuthmosis III and the Temple of Tuthmosis III. All of these buildings were covered by a large roof. Further on are the Temple of Ramses II and the Portal of the East. To the north of Portal of the East are the Osiris Chapels.

The Fifth Pylon was raised by Tuthmosis II and the Seventh Pylon was raised by Tuthmosis III. The Festival Hall is a hypostyle hall painted red to imitate wood. It included a row of 32 pillars. Some have paintings from the A.D. 6th century that are in fairly good condition. They were made by Christian monks. In the Sanctuary of the Sacred Boats are reliefs that still contain centuries-old pigments. In 1996, archaeologists began reconstructing the chapel of Thutmosis IV using a crane from a bridge project to lay the 35-ton ceiling slabs.

Sacred Lake (outside the main hall) was used for purification and was regarded as the dominion of Amon. Measuring 120 meters by 77 meters, it is surrounded by buildings, storehouses, and priest's homes. In ancient times there was an aviary for aquatic birds. Sacred ducks and geese lived in the lake whcih also provided fresh water for purification rituals. Priests purified themselves in the morning in the waters before going about their duties.

Today the Sacred Lake surrounded by restaurants and souvenir stands. Nearby is a large granite scarab dedicated to the Khepr by Amonosis and offering storehouses. To the east of the Sacred Lake is a row is a viewing stand, used to watch the Light and Sound Show at night. From here there are good views of the entire Karnak Complex.

Karnak frieze

Propylaea of the South (extending from the south of main temple) is in the process of being restored. It includes the seventh, eight, ninth and tenth pylons and several colossal statues. Large portions have completed. Judging from the numbers of pieces laying around a lot of work still needs to be done.

Next to the main hall are rows and rows of piled stones. These are remnants from a temple built by Akhemtan. In the 1960s a journalist photographed 30,000 decorated blocks and with the aid of a computer attempted to piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle. The Portal of the South, Temple of Khonsu and Pylon of the Temple of Opet are located on a rise with good views of the Propylaea of the South.

The Sanctuary of Mut (one kilometer south of the main temple) includes the Portal of Ptolemy II Philadelph, Temple of Mut, Great Sacred Lake, Temple of Ramses III and Temple Amonosis III. Sanctuary for Montu (north of main temple) embraces the Temple of Montu, Temple of Maat, Portal of the North, and a Ptolemaic Temple.

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Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel (170 miles south of Aswan) is a monumental temple in southern Egypt with four colossal seated statues---two of Ramses the Great (Ramses II) and two of his wife Neferteri---and two main temples---one dedicated to the sun god Ra-Harakhte, built into the cliff behind the colossal statues, and another dedicated to Hathor built into a cliff on an adjacent hill.

The rock-hewn "grotto" temples at Abu Simbel are somewhat unique. The style is more associated more with the Nubians and other Middle Eastern cultures than with the ancient Egyptians. Unlike many other Pharonic temples, Abu Simbel was never taken over by the Romans or turned into a church by Christians.

Abu Simbel was rediscovered in 1813 by John Lewis Burckhardt. In 1817, after weeks of digging, the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni cleared away enough sand to penetrate the temple. Two years later when the Nefertari’s shrine was uncovered tourists starting venturing down the Nile to visit the site and have been coming every since. The statues are best seen at sunrise.

The Colossal Statues at Abu Simbel are each 67 feet high and weigh 1,200 tons. Each eye is nearly three feet across. The statues were commissioned by Ramses and finished about 1260 B.C., coinciding more or less with Ramses 30 year jubilee when the pharaoh was 45. The statues were chiseled out of the mountainside, and, like the Sphinx and most other Egyptian temples, they were originally painted with bright colors. Scientist have been a able to ascertain from minute paint fragments left behind that the pharaohs headdresses were blue and gold, their skin was pink and the background was painted white.

Abu Simbel Temple

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Ramses II and his wife
at Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel Temple (behind the statues) is dedicated to the sun god Ra-Harakhte, and the gods Amun, Ptaj and a deified Ramses II. It is inside the cliff behind the statues and is 160 feet deep. Archaeologists have long wondered why Ramses built this temple so far to south of major Egyptian cities. Most believe it was a statement to the Nubians of the power of the pharaoh.

The original temple was built on a site where twice a year---on February 22nd (Ramses II’s birthday) and October 22nd (the anniversary of Ramses II’s coronation)---the morning sun penetrated into the temple's deepest chamber. The timing is probably connected to the symbolic unification, via the rays of the sun, of the statue of Ra-Rorakhty and the statue of Ramses II.

High on the facade there is a of carved baboons, smiling at the sunrise. On the door of the temple there is a beautiful inscription of the kings name. Above the door is the falcon-headed deity, Re-Harakhti. Between the legs of the colossal statues on the facade are statues of Ramses family, his mother "Mut-tuy," his wife "Nefertari" and his sons and daughters.

The temple itself was made up of chambers, storerooms, square painted pillars and two halls with yet more statues of Ramses and a few of the gods. Specialist who worked at the City of the Dead completed most of the subterranean temple with bronze tools.

There are also a number of dedications. Important among these is one of Ramses II's marriage to the daughter of a Hittite king. Beyond the entrance is the Great Hall of Pillars, with eight 32-foot-high pillars of Ramses defied as the God Osiris. The walls have inscriptions recording the Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites. The smaller Hall of Nobles contains four square pillars. The sacred central sanctuary contains a shrine pierced by the sun on Ramses’s birthday, February 21, and his coronation day, October 22.

Temple of Nefertari and Hathor at Abu Simbel (on a hill adjacent to the hill with the colossal statues and the main temple) is a smaller temple fronted by more Ramses stature with two statues of Nefertari, sandwiched in between. Dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of Love and Beauty, and Nefertari, the temple is chiseled into the cliff behind the statues and is thought to have been completed before the Ramses temple. The two temples have similar designs.

The four facade statues of Ramses and two of Nefertari are 33 feet tall. The statues of the queen are smiling. The upper portion of the second statue on the Ramses temple is believed to have fallen off during the Pharaoh's time from stresses in the rock. Queen Nefertari is portrayed with cows horns of the goddess Hathor. The entrance of the Temple of Hathor leads to a hall containing six pillars bearing the head of the goddess Hathor. The eastern wall bears inscriptions depicting Ramses striking some enemies before the gods Ra and Amum. Other wall scenes show Ramses and Nefertari offering sacrifices to the gods and performing religious rituals. There are also superb reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh. Beyond this is another wall with similar scenes and paintings. In the sacred central shrine there is a statue of Hathor.

Ptolemaic-Egyptian Temples

Edfu Temple
Dendara (near Cairo) is the home of the Temple of Hathor, dedicated to the cow-headed goddess of healing. One of the best preserved temples in Egypt, it was built in the first century B.C. by the Ptolemaic Greeks and is famous for a ceiling painting, with astronomical symbols, and its great Hypostyle Hall. It even has a roof. The temple incorporates both Greek and Egyptian architectural styles. The 24 massive papyrus pillars in the main hall are capped with images of Hathor and decorated with hieroglyphics and Egyptian symbols. The stone ceiling features an Egyptian version of the star-lit sky, with goddess Nut, who, Egyptians believed, spanned the sky with her body and swallowed the sun each night and gave birth to it each morning. One of one of the walls is a famous picture of Cleopatra and Caesarian, her son from Julius Caesar.

Edfu (80 miles north of Aswan) is the home of the Temple of Horus, a huge and exquisite Ptolemaic Greek temple built to honor the falcon-headed son of Orisis. Regarded as the largest best-preserved ancient temples in Egypt, it took over 200 years to build and was finally finished by Cleopatra’s father. Rediscovered in 1869, it features wonderful reliefs of Ptolemy XIII pulling the hair of his enemies like a pharaoh; depictions of the Feats of the Beautiful Meeting, the annual reunion between Horus and his wife Hathor; and a particularly fine ceiling relief of the goddess Nut in the New Year Chapel. There is also a Nilometer, a Court of Offerings and a huge pylon (massive gate) at the entrance. In the 19th century , Flaubert wrote it “served as the public latrine for the entire” town. Flaubert liked the town’s dancers who did a kind of striptease called the bee.”

Kom-Ombo (30 miles north of Aswan) is the home the unique Temple of Sobek and Horus, a Ptolemaic Greek temple dedicated to a local crocodile god (Sobek) and a local sky god (Horus). Located in a spectacular setting, a dune overlooking the Nile and surrounded by sugar cane fields, the temple was built in a mirror-like fashion---one side dedicated to Horus, the other to Sobek---so neither god would be offended. The are two courts, two colonnades, and two sanctuaries.

The Temple of Sobek and Horus is famous for its halls and entrances. Sculpted wall reliefs include one showing ancient surgical instruments, bone saws and dental tools. Worth checking out are the hieroglyphic-inscribed pillars. A number of crocodiles mummies have been found in the area of the Chapel of Harthor. There are some Old Kingdom tombs near Kom-Ombo village.

Temple of Philae (on Agilika Island between Aswan Dam and Aswan High Dam) is dedicated to Isis, who is said to have found the heart of her slain brother Osiris on Philae Island. Most of the existing structures were built by the Ptolemies and Romans. Christians used the hypostyle hall as a church. The ruins consist of two major Ptolemaic and Roman temples: the monolithic Kiosk of the Emperor Trajan; and the Temple of Isis with its lovely colonnades. "In all Nubia there is no more harmonics combination or architecture and scenery," says Arab expert George Gerster. There is also a temple dedicated to Hathor, a Birth House and two pylons (massive gates). The island has a light and sound show. Some of the ancient reliefs on the temples were chiseled off by Christians.

Ancient Egyptian Priests

There were two kinds of clergy in ancient Egypt: 1) priests, female priestesses and singers of hymns, usually linked permanently with specific temples; and 2) lay priests, who performed duties like carrying statues and served for fixed periods of time.

Priests linked with temples were the next most important class of people in ancient Egypt after the king. They too were sometimes regarded as gods. In the Late and Middle Kingdoms priests were selected by the pharaoh. By the New Kingdom there was a priestly class. Powerful priesthoods were based in Memphis and Thebes.


Priestesses were usually linked with goddesses. They usually had subordinate roles. They were regarded as part of the god's harem and known mainly for their dancing and sexual and music-making skills.

Some priests became quite rich. They were enriched by wealth accumulated from land given to them by different rulers over the years. Wheat and barley and flowers and shrubs used in rituals and medicines were raised by peasants that worked temple land. These things were valuable. There are stories of corrupt and scheming priests, even ones that ordered people to be kidnaped or killed.

The high priest of the god Amun wore a distinct leopard skin draped over one shoulder. Priests associated with Osiris sometimes wore cheetah skins draped over their shoulder.

Ancient Egyptian Rituals

Opening of the Mouth
of Tutankhamun and Aja
Ancient Egyptian gods required a lot of attention. The Book of the Dead and wall inscriptions are full of details about rites and rituals for specific gods.

Everyday priests took care of the statues of the gods as if they were living people. In a daily ritual called the “opening of the mouth,” priests gave the statue offerings of food in the morning and evening, clothed them in clean linen and new jewelry and had new make-up applied. These rituals were performed in sanctuaries---in which only priests and pharaohs were allowed--- within the temples. Ordinary people had no idea what went on in these sanctuaries. Sometimes the same rituals were performed on mummies.

Before kings or priests entered a shrine they had to purify themselves in a sacred pool. After entering the sanctuary they said liturgy while they lighted charcoal and incense in a censer next to the statue, made some offerings, anointed the statue, redressed it in new clothes with a proper insignia and performed rituals which allowed the statue to speak and breath. During the libation rituals an alabaster sistrum---a ritual noisemaker topped with cobras and the falcon-god Horus--- was used to ward off violence. Feasts were held before statues were as placed back in their shrines.

In a temple in Hierakonpolis dated to 3500 B.C. large dangerous animals such as crocodiles and hippopotami were sacrificed perhaps as symbols of natural chaos. Bulls were sacrificed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Druids but treated with reverence by Egyptians (black bulls in particular were given harems and palaces because they were believed to be related to the bull-god Apis).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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