ANCIENT EGYPTIAN TEMPLES: COMPONENTS, CONSTRUCTION, MATERIALS AND DECORATIONS

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN TEMPLES

20120214-Seti_I_Temple_at_Qurna.jpg
Seti I Temple at Qurna
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.

The monuments of Egypt filled Herodotus him with wonder. He said that Egypt had to have more monuments than any other country in the world. 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.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

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

Ancient Egyptian Temple Architecture


Egyptian pillar

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.


Egyptian pillar

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.

Temples and Desert Altars at Amarna

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “On the eastern side of the Royal Road lay the Great Aten Temple and Small Aten Temple. The former occupied an area of 800 x 300 m, much of it apparently left empty, contained by a mud-brick enclosure wall. A reexamination of the building began in 2012, confirming that it had two main construction phases. In its final phase, the enclosure contained at least two main buildings: a structure now termed the Long Temple (originally perhaps the Gem-pa-Aten ) towards the front, and the Sanctuary to the rear. The former contained at least six open-air courtyards occupied by several hundred offering tables. Tomb scenes suggest that three of the courts contained cultic focal points: a raised altar in one case, and offering tables in the other two. Along the front of the temple was a series of pedestals surrounded by white-plastered basins. Offering tables and pedestals surrounded by basins were also a feature of an earlier iteration of the temple here, largely buried beneath the later structure. Massive fields of mud-brick offering tables that flank the Long Temple to its north and south have also now been shown to belong to the first phase of the temple. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The Sanctuary comprised a rectangular stone building divided in two parts, each open to the sky and filled with offering tables, although recent fieldwork has shown that this area initially featured a grove of trees and a mud-brick altar or pedestal. Three further features occupied the ground in front of the Sanctuary. A building comprising four suites of rooms with lustration slabs was built across the northern enclosure wall, perhaps as a purification s pace for people entering the temple (although identified as the “hall of foreign tribute” by the EES excavators). To the south there was originally an altar or similar construction that supported a stela, pieces of which have been recovered during excavation, and probably a statue of the king, as shown in tomb scenes. To the west of the stela lay a butchery yard, which presumably facilitated the supply of meat offerings to the Aten. Immediately south of the Great Aten Temple is a series of buildings that p robably also served the temple cult, especially the preparation of food offerings. These comprise: the house of the high priest Panehesy; a building containing several columned halls with stone-lined floors and lower walls, troughs, and ovens, perhaps connected with meat processing; a bakery formed of chambers often containing ovens, near which lie large dumps of bread mold fragments; and a set of storerooms and associated buildings. <>


sacrificial table

“The Small Aten Temple, or Hut Aten , lay immediately south of the King’s House, occupying a walled enclosure of 191 x 111 meters that was divided into three courts. The first court contained a field of offering tables flanking a large mud-brick platform of uncertain purpose. The second court contained a house-like building with small dais that was perhaps a throne base; there is space for other structures here that might have been entirely destroyed. The final court contained the stone Sanctuary, very similar in layout to that at the Great Aten Temple and likewise containing many offering tables. The Sanctuary was flanked by trees, and there were several small brick buildings in the ground around it. South of the Small Aten Temple was another set of chambered structures recalling those beside the Great Aten Temple and which may likewise have served as bakeries, although there is also evidence that faience and glass items were produced here. <>

“The Desert Altars lie on the desert floor not far from the North Tombs. The complex had two main enclosures. The first, in its final form, contained three separate foundations arranged in a line within a court formed simply by clearing the desert of stones. The southernmost supported a colonnaded building, the central construction formed a large altar flanked by two smaller altars, and the northernmost foundation comprised a mud-brick altar approached by ramps on four sides. The second enclosure was originally defined by a mud-brick wall and contained at least one stone-built chapel. It has been suggested that the complex was associated with private funerary cults ; Kemp has also noted similarities between the arrangements of the shrines here and buildings shown in the “reception of foreign tribute” scenes in the nearby tombs of Huya and Meryra II.

“Based on excavated remains, and tomb scenes, it is possible to reconstruct the general ground plan of the complex. The western part of the palace was dominated by stone-built state apartments, with a large courtyard containing statues of the royal family leading to a series of courts and halls, and a possible Window of Appearance. The eastern part was built instead largely of mud-brick, comprising a strip of buildings that included magazines; an area identified by the EES excavators as the “harem quarter,” featuring a sunken garden and painted pavements; and a set of houses and storerooms that probably served as staffing quarters. Late in the Amarna Period, a large pillared or columned hall was added to the southern end of the palace, with stamped bricks bea ring the cartouche of Ankh-kheperura lending it the name Smenkhkare Hall (or Coronation Hall). This area is badly destroyed.” <>

Shrines in Ancient Egypt

Neal Spencer of the The British Museum wrote: “The focal point of most Egyptian formal religious rituals was the divine image, a physical manifestation of one or several deities, typically (but not always) in the form of a statue. Much of religious architecture served to shroud the divine image in nested layers of protection from the chaotic—and hence dangerous—outside world. It is thus unsurprising that a formal code of architectural forms was developed over the millennia to provide this protection. The present discussion addresses stand-alone shrines, whether portable or not, rather than integrated components of temple architecture such as temple sanctuaries. [Source: Neal Spencer, The British Museum, London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]


Amun Temple, including the shrine (c), in Luxor

“Shrines, defined here as the architectural element immediately surrounding a sacred image, usually of a god, are attested throughout Pharaonic history, but with regional and chronological variations very evident. The architectural form of Egyptian shrines was developed from that of archaic “tent-shrines” made of timber and matting, but later examples represent a distillation of formal temple architecture. Eventually, classic shrine-forms were deployed in non-temple contexts.” <>

“Building inscriptions indicate that the shrines were typically sealed with wooden doors, embellished with metal or other lavish materials. The Ritual of Mut describes the priest unbolting these doors for the morning service; depictions of a similar ritual survive in the temple of Sety I at Abydos. We need to accept that many cult statues would have been stored within shrines in a disassembled state, as some were too tall for their own shrine. In Papyrus Harris I, a shrine set up at Memphis is described as containing statues of Ptah, Sakhmet, and Nefertum, flanked by “statues-of-the-lord” (kings in ritual poses?) making offerings. Furthermore, that the doors of many naoi opened inwards makes it clear that the divine image would have been housed towards the rear, often in a smaller internal niche. Other shrines, even within large formal temples, would have been made of wood, sometimes elaborately painted or inlaid with glass and precious metals; some were then covered in sheet metal or provided with elaborate openwork wooden or faience sides (as depicted in a papyrus in Turin). The caches from the Sacred Animal Necropolis temples at North Saqqara provide a glimpse of the range of sizes and qualities that would have existed. Many of these shrines were destined to house copper alloy statues, dedicated by individuals, rather than principal cult images. <>

“Some shrines were evidently intended to be portable, most notably for use in processional temple festivals. The extensive representational evidence relating to Theban festivals includes depictions of the large sacred bark of Amun, which supported a shrine (or even nested shrines) on its deck, also festooned with dozens of figures of officiants, royalty, and even deities in ritual poses. In some depictions the shrine seems to be quite exposed, with only a textile veil occasionally depicted to shroud the divine image. Of course, shrines for royal display are well attested for royal festivals such as the Heb-Sed, with representations of architectural forms similar to those attested for the shrines of deities. <>

“The architectural language of shrines also appears in other aspects of Egyptian material culture. In addition to the integration of shrine representations in naophorous statuary, objects from the funerary sphere echoed the form—notably some coffins and sarcophagi, shabti boxes, canopic chests, and animal coffins. Pectorals and sistra of the Late Period could also incorporate shrine forms. Miniature shrines, in stone, copper alloy, and other materials, faithfully represent the key architectural components of the classic shrines. Those with suspension loops must have been attached to walls in temples or houses, as they are too heavy to wear about the neck. <>

“The smallest shrines could evidently be the product of a single artisan, but in the case of the larger decorated naoi, a skilled team of craftsmen would have been required. The quarrying of the stone and initial sculpting into a recognizable shrine-form prior to transport are attested at a quarry in the Eastern Desert. Proportional drawings for naoi have survived, particularly for wooden shrines. In many cases, the final decoration must have been completed in the dark interior of the temple sanctuaries in which the naoi were set up.” <>

Shrines in Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt


shrine

Neal Spencer of the The British Museum wrote: “The earliest iconographic representations of architectural settings for deities and royal display are on late Predynastic and Early Dynastic seals, maceheads, palettes, and decorated ceramics, and in the small models found buried in deposits in and around early temples. The seals and maceheads show figures within, and processions leading towards, stylized structures, seemingly built from a combination of reeds, matting, wood, and perhaps textiles. Some depictions may represent portable shrines. The forms of some of these shrines had been codified by the early 3rd Dynasty, when they were replicated in stone within the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. Reliefs from Old Kingdom pyramid-temples label these architectural forms as the pr-nw and pr-wr shrines, associated with the North and South, respectively. Many of the distinctive elements of these shrines can be found in later temple and funerary architecture, particularly the corner pillars and vaulted roof of the pr-nw, or the curved roof of the pr-wr. [Source: Neal Spencer, The British Museum, London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“However, the classic form of shrine, known from the 12th Dynasty onwards but attested in hieroglyphic and representational evidence in the Old Kingdom, is that combining torus-molding, cavetto cornice, and a flat roof, as embodied by the hieroglyphic determinative for zH-nTr. Other elements were combined with this form, particularly pyramidal roofs, plinths, and decorative details such as kheker-friezes, uraeus-friezes, and winged sun-discs. Some shrines’ ceilings were decorated with rows of vultures. Many of these “classic” shrines thus represent a distillation of formal Egyptian sacred architecture—they are effectively temples in miniature. Much of the architectural language used in shrines thus evoked imagery relating to solar religion and cosmic rebirth. These same themes are prevalent in the daily temple rituals focused around shrines. <>

“Of course, the use of stone and metal, or solid wood construction, allowed embellishment with developed decorative schemes not possible on the archaic shrines. As early as the 3rd Dynasty, a Heliopolitan shrine or chapel of Djoser bore finely carved scenes featuring divinities, but perhaps more typical is the decoration on a granite naos of Pepy I found at Elephantine. Here, the rather stark architectural form was only embellished with the royal titulary and epithets. <>

“By the 12th Dynasty, the classic forms of shrines were already a widely accepted part of formal religious imagery. Surviving royal examples are rare, but include the naos of Senusret I found at Karnak, decorated with offering scenes, and the wooden shrine found at Dahshur, which housed the ka-statue of pharaoh Hor of the 13th Dynasty. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, the same architectural forms were being employed for shrines housing private statues, some originally set up along the processional routes at sites such as Abydos.” <>

Shrines of the New Kingdom and Later


Userhat holding a shrine of Amen

Neal Spencer of the The British Museum wrote: “Abundant representational evidence survives in New Kingdom temples. The reliefs in the temple of Sety I at Abydos show a range of types, including complex groups of nested shrines. Unusual shrines were also produced, such as the low chapels for statues set up by Ramesses II at Per-Ramesses. Finally, the distinctive chapels for processional barks, open at either end (effectively transitory shrines), were densely decorated with ritual and processional scenes. Wood and matting shelters, and perhaps textile veils stretched onto wooden frames, were another form of sacred protection, now known only from the holes drilled around certain reliefs of deities. [Source: Neal Spencer, The British Museum, London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, escholarship.org <>]

“A large number of monolithic shrines, typically in hard stones such as granite, have survived from the Late Period, but it is one iconographic scheme, seemingly developed in the cult centers of the Delta, that signals a shift in function for these monuments, complementary to the core function of housing the divine image. This complex iconography featured registers of divine images, which embodied cosmogonical narratives particular to certain temples and must have been seen as supporting the eternal cycle of re-creation. Other monolithic shrines of the Late Period bore complex mythological narratives, representations of divine imagery from within the temple, or even astronomical information. The scale of these shrines is rather imposing: some are over 3 meters in height, and at Mendes reaching 7 m, emphasizing their protective function. The term kAr is used to refer to shrines of this form. In some cases, the proportions of the shrine strongly suggest that the images housed within featured more than one deity. <>

“At Bubastis, at least twelve monolithic naoi were commissioned in the reign of pharaoh Nakhthorheb alone; alas, the destruction of the building has deprived us of a clear sense of their original layout. It has been suggested that one of these shrines may have been associated with coronation rituals. In contrast, the shrines at Mendes were provided with minimal decor yet stood facing each other in an open-air court; these truly afforded the god protection from the Delta climate. Monolithic naoi continued to be produced throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. The podium at Elephantine supported three naoi housing stelae. The distinctive characteristics of Pharaonic shrine architecture were also present in Meroitic temples.” <>

Building Stones in Ancient Egypt


Building stones at the pyramids

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The building stones of ancient Egypt are those relatively soft, plentiful rocks used to construct most temples, pyramids, and mastaba tombs. They were also employed for the interior passages, burialchambers, and outer casings of mud-brick pyramids and mastabas. Similarly, building stones were used in other mud-brick structures of ancient Egypt wherever extra strength was needed, such as bases for wood pillars, and lintels, thresholds, and jambs for doors. Limestone and sandstone were the principal building stones employed by the Egyptians, while anhydrite and gypsum were also used along the Red Sea coast. A total of 128 ancient quarries for building stones are known (89 for limestone, 36 for sandstone, and three for gypsum), but there are probably many others still undiscovered or destroyed by modern quarrying. [Source: James Harrell. University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“The building stones of ancient Egypt are those relatively soft, plentiful rocks used to construct most Dynastic temples, pyramids, and mastaba tombs. For the pyramids and mastabas made largely of sun-dried mud- brick, building stones were still employed for the interior passages, burial chambers, and outer casings. Similarly, building stones were used in other mud-brick structures of ancient Egypt (e.g., royal palaces, fortresses, storehouses, workshops, and common dwellings) wherever extra strength was needed, such as bases for wood pillars, and lintels, thresholds, and jambs for doors, but also occasionally for columns. Ptolemaic and Roman cities along the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria chief among them, followed the building norms of the rest of the Greco- Roman world, and so used stone not only for temples but also for palaces, villas, civic buildings, and other structures. Limestone and sandstone were the principal building stones used by the Egyptians. These are sedimentary rocks, the limestone consisting largely of calcite (CaCO3) and the sandstone composed of sand grains of mostly quartz (SiO2) but also feldspar and other minerals. The Egyptian names for limestone were jnr HD nfr n ajn and jnr HD nfr n r-Aw, both translating as “fine white stone of Tura-Masara” (ajn and r-Aw referring, respectively, to the cave-like quarry openings and the nearby geothermal springs at Helwan). Sandstone was called jnr HD nfr n rwDt, or occasionally jnr HD mnx n rwDt, both meaning “fine, or excellent, light-colored hard stone.” Although usually translated as “white,” here HD probably has a more general meaning of “light colored.” Sandstone is not normally considered a hard rock (rwDt), but it is often harder than limestone. In the above names, the nfr (fine) or HD or even both were sometimes omitted, and in the term for sandstone the n was later dropped. <>

“From Early Dynastic times onward, limestone was the construction material of choice for temples, pyramids, and mastabas wherever limestone bedrock occurred—that is, along the Mediterranean coast and in the Nile Valley from Cairo in the north to Esna in the south. Where sandstone bedrock was present in the Nile Valley, from Esna south into Sudan, this was the only building stone employed, but sandstone was also commonly imported into the southern portion of the limestone region from the Middle Kingdom onward. The first large-scale use of sandstone occurred in the Edfu region where it was employed for interior pavement and wall veneer in Early Dynastic tombs at Hierakonpolis and for a small 3rd Dynasty pyramid at Naga el- Goneima, about 5 kilometers southwest of the Edfu temple. Apart from this pyramid, the earliest use of sandstone in monumental architecture was for some Middle Kingdom temples in the Theban region (e.g., the Mentuhotep I mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri and the Senusret I shrine at Karnak). From the beginning of the New Kingdom onward, with the notable exception of Queen Hatshepsut’s limestone mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, most Theban temples were built either largely or entirely of sandstone. Further into the limestone region, sandstone was also used for the Ptolemaic and Roman Hathor temple at Dendara, portions of the Sety I and Ramesses II temples at Abydos, and the 18th Dynasty Aten temple at el-Amarna. The preference for sandstone over limestone as a building material coincided with the transfer of religious and political authority from Memphis in Lower Egypt to Thebes in the 18th Dynasty. The Egyptians also recognized at this time that sandstone was superior to limestone in terms of the strength and size of blocks obtainable, and this permitted the construction of larger temples with longer architraves. <>

“The Serabit el-Khadim temple in the Sinai is of sandstone, and temples in the Western Desert oases were built of either limestone (Fayum and Siwa) or sandstone (Bahriya, Fayum, Kharga, and Dakhla), depending on the local bedrock. In the Eastern Desert, limestone was used for the facing on the Old Kingdom flood-control dam in Wadi Garawi near Helwan (the “Sadd el-Kafara”; Fahlbusch 2004), and sandstone was the building material for numerous Ptolemaic and Roman road stations. Both types of bedrock in the Nile Valley and western oases hosted rock-cut shrines and especially tombs, and these are the sources of many of the relief scenes now in museum and private collections. Limestone and sandstone were additionally employed for statuary and other non-architectural applications when harder and more attractive ornamental stones were either unaffordable or unavailable. In such cases, the otherwise drab- looking building stones were usually painted in bright colors. Conversely, structures built of limestone and sandstone often included some ornamental stones, most notably granite and granodiorite from Aswan, as well as silicified sandstone, but also basalt and travertine in the Old Kingdom.” <>


brick making


Use of Mud Bricks in Temples in Ancient Egypt

Virginia L. Emery of the University of Chicago wrote: “Alongside and related to its use for funerary monuments, mud-brick was employed for the construction of both mortuary and divine temples, as well as for the vast complexes of structures that surrounded these temples, providing storage for temple goods and dwellings for temple employees. In the Old Kingdom, mud-brick frequently was used to finalize the construction of stone mortuary temples quickly if the structure was not yet complete at the king’s death, as the pyramid temple of Menkaura at Giza and the temple of Neferirkara at Abusir demonstrate. However, during the 5th Dynasty, a pattern of original construction executed in mud-brick and later reconstructed in stone emerged at the solar temples at Abu Ghurab. The solar temple of Userkaf originally was built of mud- brick, but soon after was reconstructed in stone, with work on the complex continuing through the reigns of his successors Neferirkara and Niuserra, though ultimately the structure was completed in mud-brick and plaster; the solar temple of Niuserra likewise was originally built of mud-brick, which eventually was replaced with stone construction. [Source: Virginia L. Emery, University of Chicago, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Like the 5th Dynasty solar temples, many divine temples started as mud-brick edifices that eventually were reconstructed using stone, thereby limiting the evidence for mud- brick temples before the New Kingdom. Some mud-brick temples do survive though, particularly from the Middle Kingdom. Examples include a temple at Hermopolis, a temple of Seankhkara Mentuhotep at Thebes, and mud-brick foundation walls dating to the reign of Senusret I at Tod, as well as the single spectacular example of the Satet Temple of Elephantine, the excavation of which revealed multiple iterations of mud-brick construction before an increasing number of stone architectural elements were added, starting in the 11th Dynasty and continuing through to the 18th Dynasty . Frequently, excavations have uncovered the temple enclosure walls contemporary with both early brick and stone temples, even when there remains little to no evidence of the original temple structure itself, as at Abydos and Medamud. <>

“Massive temple temenos walls became increasingly common through time, with many kings of the Late Period (712–332 B.C.) reconstructing enclosure walls, particularly with the expansion of temple precincts, as at Karnak and Elkab. These temenos walls were constructed in sections with either alternating convex and concave sections or alternating concave and horizontal sections, rather than with straight, horizontal joints. Also commonly attested from the New Kingdom and continuing into the Late Period was the construction of small mud-brick chapels within temple complexes, as at the Temple of Amun at Karnak and at the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. Another Late Period phenomenon of mud-brick religious construction was the casemate platform, a block of cellular masonry whose walls supported those of the structure built atop— the casemate platform walls built according to the plan of the superstructure—with the interstices filled with sand. Examples of these structures, erected as foundations for temple structures are known from Tanis, North Saqqara, Medamud, Elkab, and Naukratis.” <>

Stamped Bricks in Ancient Egypt

Virginia L. Emery of the University of Chicago wrote: “Mud-bricks produced for royal construction projects were sometimes stamped with the name of the reigning king—or a queen, a prince, or a high official—or the name of the building. As in the practice of administrative sealing, a distinction perhaps should be drawn between the stamp used to impress the mark on the brick and the impression itself. These are generally referred to as seal and sealing in the administrative realm and for bricks probably should be termed stamp and stamping. There exist examples of bricks inscribed with ink or using a finger, which perhaps lie in the conceptual genealogy of the stamped mud-bricks, as probably were quarry marks and mason’s marks on stone blocks, but are usually not considered as a part of the corpus of stamped mud-bricks. [Source: Virginia L. Emery, University of Chicago, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]


Ramses II stamped brick

“The earliest known examples of stamped bricks occurred during the reign of the first king of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose. The practice of stamping unfired bricks has been attested fairly regularly throughout the 18th and 19th Dynasties, and was continued sporadically into the 26th Dynasty. Stamped mud-bricks can be an important chronological resource to pinpoint the date of constructions, which otherwise could only be broadly dated to a dynasty or kingdom; with this more accurate information, it sometimes becomes possible to track construction phases, not only between reigns but also within reigns as stamp types changed. On the stampings, the names of kings are encircled by a simple oval or by a true cartouche, while the names of the high priests of Amen found on stampings from the 21st Dynasty and the names of buildings or complexes more commonly are enclosed in rectangles. In the case of bricks stamped with personal names, it is generally assumed that the name impressed in the bricks is the name of the person responsible for the construction of the building, and, at memorial complexes, usually also of the person to whom the building was dedicated. <>

“Occasionally, the stamps themselves are encountered in archaeological excavations, including, from the 18th Dynasty, a limestone stamp with the name of Thutmose I and a stone stamp bearing the prenomen of Shabitqo. Much more common are the stamped bricks themselves, with the majority of 18th Dynasty examples reportedly coming from the Theban area, particularly the west bank royal memorial complexes, though they are attested during this period elsewhere in the country, for example, in the constructions of Ahmose at Abydos; stamped bricks from later periods also occur outside Thebes.” <>

Temple Decoration in Ancient Egypt

In a discussion of temple decoration using the Temple of Dendur near Aswan as an example, Isabel Stünkel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In ancient Egypt, temples were seen as residences for deities, who were thought to temporarily manifest themselves in the cult statues located in the sanctuary. The temples were also the stage for daily rituals that were ideally performed by the pharaoh, but in practice by priests. These cultic performances included the offering of food and beverages as well as the burning of incense, which was thought to have a purifying effect. The inner rooms of the temple were restricted to those performing the rituals. During religious festivals, cult statues could be brought out of the temple. At Dendur, they were likely carried out onto the spacious cult terrace, enabling the public to feel closer to their gods. [Source: Isabel Stünkel, Associate Curator, Department of Egyptian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]


Tefnakht stela

The Temple of Dendur was primarily dedicated to the goddess Isis of Philae, who had her principal temple on Philae, an island about 50 miles north of Dendur. Depictions of this goddess can be found in many scenes on the temple. Isis's husband, Osiris, is also featured, as is their son, Horus, who appears as both Harpocrates ("Horus the Child") and Harendotes ("Horus Who Protects His Father"). \^/

“Two other deities, Pedesi and Pihor, also played an important role. These two brothers, who may have been the sons of a local Nubian chieftain, were deified after their death and are known only from the decoration of the Temple of Dendur. A small rock-cut chamber originally located in the cliff behind the temple may have been their tomb. Since Dendur stood in Nubia, to the south of the Egyptian border at Aswan, the Nubian gods Mandulis and Arsenuphis also occur among the many deities represented in the temple. \^/

“As is common in Egyptian relief decoration, the outside of the temple was carved in sunk relief, which created deep shadows in the bright sunlight. Raised relief, in which the background is carved away and the figures are raised, was used for the interior of the building. The reliefs were originally brightly painted. In nearly all of the offering scenes, the ruler stands in front of one or more deities, who may be either seated or standing, and presents them with different goods. In return, these deities were thought to have the power to offer prosperity and life, represented by the ankh (sign of life) held in their back hands. In the sanctuary itself, relief carvings appear only on the rear wall. \^/

“The temple's design and decoration has several symbolic layers. In particular, many details carefully reflect its geographical orientation. For example, a cobra depicted on the south column wears the crown of Upper Egypt (south Egypt), while the cobra on the north column opposite wears the Lower Egyptian crown. According to ancient Egyptian mythological concepts, the creation of the world was thought to be renewed inside the temple, and the building itself was regarded as an image of the natural world. Thus we find carvings of papyrus and lotus plants adorning the bottom of the outside walls, with representations of the Nile god Hapy placed in between. \^/

“The two columns of the temple resemble tall plants that reach toward the sky, and the shape of the capitals incorporates papyrus and lily plants, the emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt. Above the columns, a large sun disk is flanked by the outspread wings of Horus, the sky god. Winged sun disks were also placed above a side entrance to the temple and above the main gate. Inside the temple, flying vultures depicted on the ceiling also evoke the sky. In ancient Egypt, depictions were thought magically to become real. The temple's decoration thus not only guaranteed the performance of rituals, but also the continuation of the natural world and cosmic world order.” \^/

Quarrying Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt


unfinished stones from Menkaure's pyramid

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The quarrying of ornamental stones was usually done in surface pits and trenches, and occasionally on loose boulders. In addition to such open-cut workings, some travertine quarries went underground and formed cave-like galleries. From Predynastic times into the Late Period, quarrying of hard stones (all igneous and most metamorphic rocks plus silicified sandstone) was done with stone tools. These tools, known as pounders or mauls, were hand-held, purpose-shaped pieces of exceptionally hard, tough rock, of which dolerite was the most popular variety . The pounders were used to knock off corners and edges of bedrock outcrops when only relatively small pieces were required, to hack out trenches and undercuts to isolate larger blocks from the bedrock, or to reduce and reshape loose boulders resting on the bedrock. Fire-setting was occasionally employed during the Dynastic Period to either induce fracturing in hardstones or weaken their surfaces prior to pounding with a stone tool. Where the ancient quarrymen could exploit natural fractures in the bedrock, metal gads and also possibly wedge- shaped rock splinters were hammered into the fractures to widen them. Stout wooden poles used as levers would have been employed to help detach blocks along fractures or cut trenches. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Stone pounders are known to have been used for rock gypsum and travertine, and probably were used for some of the other softer ornamental stones (i.e., colored limestones, marble, rock anhydrite, and steatite). All of these would also have been worked at times with the same metal tools employed for the similarly soft building stones (limestone and sandstone). Throughout the Dynastic Period until near the end of the Late Period, these tools were copper and later bronze chisels. Chert or flint (microcrystalline quartz) picks were probably also sometimes used. Although copper and the harder bronze were tough enough to work the softer stones, these tools were quickly blunted and abraded in the process. They were entirely unsuited for quarrying hardstones, and for these the stone tools were far superior. <>

“Certainly by the 30th Dynasty of the Late Period but possibly as early as the 26th Dynasty, the Egyptians used “iron” (actually low-grade steel) tools for quarrying, including hammers, chisels, picks, and wedges. When extracting blocks from bedrock or boulders, a line of wedge-shaped holes was first chiseled into the surface. Iron wedges were then inserted into the holes and these were hammered until the rock split along the line of holes. Thin pieces of iron called “feathers” may have been placed on each side of the wedges to increase the lateral, expansive force of the hammer blows. The iron-wedge technology improved through the Ptolemaic Period and reached its zenith in Roman times with little change to the present day. <>

“A fiction often repeated in the popular archaeological literature is that the wedge holes were cut for wood wedges which, when wetted, would expand and so split the rock. In reality, this cannot work for the sizes and shapes, spacings, and often inclined orientations of wedge holes found in ancient hardstone quarries. Another quarrying technology that became commonplace in Egypt beginning in the Ptolemaic Period is the “pointillé” technique, which is still in use today. This technique, like the use of iron wedges, is conventionally thought to have originated in the Greek Aegean region during the sixth century B.C., but there is new evidence in Wadi Hammamat’s metagraywacke quarry suggesting it was employed there as early as the Predynastic or Early Dynastic Periods. Whereas wedging is useful for rough splitting, lines of pointillé pits are employed for more precise, controlled separation. In this method, a straight line of small, shallow, closely spaced pits is chiseled across a rock surface. The quarryman then hammers a chisel back and forth along the line of pits until the rock splits. In the case of the early Wadi Hammamat workings, the chisel was apparently fashioned from metagraywacke. Fire-setting and levers continued to be used, but the levers were probably of iron as well as wood.” <>

Carving Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt


carving the stones

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The extracted rock masses were dressed (trimmed) in the quarries with the same tools used to remove them. A new stone-dressing technology was introduced by the Romans in the Wadi Umm Shegilat quarry for pegmatitic diorite (var. 1). Here they used a toothless iron saw blade along with the locally available quartz sand as the abrasive to cut the sides of rectangular blocks and the ends of column drums. Surprisingly, there is no evidence that this technology was employed in any other Roman quarry except for one at Felsberg in Germany. During all periods of Egyptian history, the quarry products were usually roughed out to something approaching their final form on site, and occasionally were carved to a nearly finished state. This not only reduced the weight of stone requiring transport, but also had the benefit of revealing any unacceptable flaws in the stone prior to its removal from the quarry. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Once the stone was taken to a Nile Valley workshop or construction site, it underwent additional dressing and carving followed by polishing. The same cutting tools used for quarrying were brought to bear, but in the Dynastic Period, especially during the Old Kingdom, copper or bronze saws and tube drills were also used. Quartz sand served as the abrasive for the softer copper and bronze tools, as it did later for the iron saws of the Romans. The principal application of the earlier saws was for cutting basalt paving stones in several of the Old Kingdom pyramid temples, with saw marks also seen on some of the hardstone sarcophagi of this period. <>

“The tube drills were used to cut recesses within blocks, including hollow interiors, sunken relief scenes, and hieroglyphic texts. Chert drill bits have been found in association with drilled rock gypsum and the much harder metagraywacke, and were surely used to drill other ornamental stones as suggested by the fact that hieroglyphs showing a hand drill with a stone bit were ideograms for “craft”. The effectiveness of chert tools (chisels, gravers, and especially drill bits) on granite has been experimentally demonstrated by Gorelick and Gwinnett and Stocks. Polishing was the final step in preparing an object carved from ornamental stone. Hand-held pieces of silicified sandstone (“rubbing stones”) are known to have been used for rough smoothing, but a fine- grained quartz sand paste applied with a piece of cloth or leather was almost certainly employed to produce the highly polished surfaces.” <>

Transporting Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt

“During the Dynastic Period, quarried pieces of stone too large to be carried on the backs of men or animals (mainly donkeys but also camels from perhaps the Late Period onward) would have been placed on wooden sledges, which were pulled by teams of either draft animals or men . Friction between the sledge and ground was sometimes reduced, as depicted in numerous tomb scenes, by pouring water on the ground in front of the sledge, but this would only work if the surface material had abundant hydrophilic clay. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“ It is not clear what, if any, aids were used when sledges were pulled over sandy or rocky ground. Lehner suggests that clay-rich material or “tafla” (either Nile mud or sedimentary shale) was applied to the surface of 4th-Dynasty construction roads and ramps at Giza, and it is known that closely spaced wood beams were laid crosswise on the 12th Dynasty construction roads at el-Lisht and el-Lahun. It is conceivable that such friction-reducing practices were used for sledges brought from quarries near the Nile Valley. It has also been suggested that sledges were sometimes pulled over wooden rollers, although this is unlikely as these would only be effective on ground that was hard, smooth, and relatively flat. Such ground conditions may have existed within some quarries and construction sites, but in most cases the sledges traveled over uneven rocky or soft sandy ground where the rollers would be ineffective. <>

“The best-attested means of preparing ground surfaces for sledges was the construction of quarry roads. Some were paved with a single course of dry-laid, unshaped, and loosely fitted pieces of locally available rocks, the most notable being the 12 kilometers-long road leading from the Old Kingdom basalt quarry at Widan el-Faras in the Fayum. A 20 kilometers-long network of paved and partially cleared roads of New Kingdom and Roman date is found in the silicified sandstone quarries near Aswan at Gebel Gulab and Gebel Tingar. Most of the Dynastic quarry roads were unpaved and consisted only of cleared tracks, where the coarser surface gravel was swept to the sides. Where these roads crossed steep declines or surface dips, their bases were built up (and often supported by stone revetments) to reduce and even out the gradients. An outstanding example of this kind of road leads from the travertine quarry at Hatnub to the Nile River near the modern village of el-Amarna. <>

“Although the Egyptians knew of the wheel from the earliest Dynastic times, they had no wheeled wagons until the early New Kingdom. It is not known if these were ever used to transport quarried stone, but it is unlikely because, without relatively broad roadways with firm, flat surfaces, the heavily laden wagons would either get stuck in the sand or break their wheels on the rocks. In Roman times, however, and possibly as early as the Ptolemaic Period, wagons pulled by draft animals were the primary means of land transport for quarried stone and other materials, and this method was made practical by an extensive, well-built network of roads (cleared, unpaved tracks) linking the Eastern Desert quarries with the Nile Valley.” <>


Herodotus's idea of how the pyramid stones were moved


Mammisi (Temple Birth Houses)

Holger Kockelmann of Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Germany wrote: “Egyptian birth houses (mammisis) are an important feature of many Late Period and Ptolemaic and Roman temple complexes. Being small temple edifices in their own right, their decoration is dominated by scenes that relate to the nativity and bringing up of the divine child of a local triad. As the young god was identified with the king, birth houses were also places devoted to the cult of the living ruler. [Source: Holger Kockelmann, Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The term “mammisi” is a modern creation by J. F. Champollion, derived from Coptic ma “place,” N“of,” and mise/misi “to bear,” maNmisi = maM_misi meaning “place of giving birth”. The ancient Egyptian designation was pr-mst, “house of birth.” This name refers to the key theological topic of the decoration of the mammisi, which centers around the birth of the divine child of the triad of the main temple (Daumas 1977: 462 - 463). <>

“Mammisis were added as subsidiary buildings to a number of Late Period temples for a period of more than 500 years; they were dedicated to various child-gods, whose names are given in square brackets: Dendara [Ihi], Armant [Harpara]— destroyed in the middle of the nineteenth century, Edfu [Harsomtus], Kom Ombo [Panebtawy-pa-khered], and Philae [Horus/Harpokrates]. Often they were erected in front of and at right angles to the main temple. The hemispeos (a partly free-standing, partly rock- cut cultic edifice/temple) of Kalabsha was most probably also a mammisi. There must have been a birth house at Esna—it is mentioned in the inscriptions of the main temple but has not yet been located. Moreover, there is a sun- dried brick birth house at the south side of the temple of Deir el-Medina. According to Arnold, birth houses existed in the enclosure of Amun-Ra-Montu in Karnak, at Elkab, and in Luxor. In addition, one finds a very late mammisi for Tutu in Ismant el-Kharab. It should be mentioned that some scholars also classify a couple of other buildings as “mammisis,” for instance, the temple of Isis at Dendara. <>

“The existence of Late Period and Ptolemaic mammisis at Mendes, Nabesha, Medamud, Hermopolis magna, and Qasr el-Ghuweida is a mere hypothesis, based on insignificant architectural remains. It seems likely that the temples of Behbet el-Haggar and Sais also included mammisis.” <>

Mammisi Architectural Development

Holger Kockelmann of Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities wrote: “The oldest surviving, securely identified birth house was built in the reign of Nectanebo I at Dendara. According to Arnold, there are slightly earlier examples, one being the birth house of Harpara at the east side of the Amun-Ra-Montu temple at Karnak, which was begun under Nepherites I and enlarged by Hakoris and Nectanebo I. [Source: Holger Kockelmann, Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The 30th Dynasty mammisi at Dendera represents a modest brick building with a rectangular sanctuary that is flanked by a long chapel on each side. The central shrine and facades of the lateral rooms were cased with stone and decorated by Nectanebo I. At this time, the building was just a small shrine with courtyard and access path. The edifice was enlarged in the reign of the Ptolemies; under Ptolemy II, the stone casing of the interior walls was continued, and a staircase to the roof was added. <>


Edfu mammisi

“The Ptolemaic mammisis differ considerably from the rather simple scheme of the Late Period birth houses as represented by the building of Nectanebo I at Dendera. The mammisis are now temples in the proper sense, suitable for a daily cult ritual. Their architecture is probably modeled on ancient wooden constructions. It should be mentioned that there may have been Ramesside prototypes. <>

“Under Ptolemy V, at the latest, a new form developed: the peripteros, which consisted of a core edifice with a corridor running around the outside, its roof being supported by columns with floral capitals. These columns imitate the papyrus swamps, where the young Horus hid himself in Khemmis. Above the capitals, a protective figure of Bes is sometimes carved; alternatively, the sistrum and face of Hathor, the goddess of motherhood and joy, is found. Between the columns of the colonnade are (decorated) screen walls. <>

“Inside, the mammisi comprises a sanctuary and a hall of offerings plus additional rooms such as side chapels. Frequently, there is a staircase for accessing the roof. At this stage of its development, the birth house may stand somewhat elevated on a foundation pedestal and also have a forecourt surrounded by columns and screen walls; in older mammisis, the court is attached as a separate structure. The mammisis of Philae, Armant, and the Roman birth house of Dendera belong to the new type. The Edfu mammisi was also built and decorated according to the new scheme under Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II and Ptolemy IX Soter II: it rests on a foundation, has an entrance kiosk, a colonnaded ambulatory, and high abaci decorated with Bes figures. <>

“The sanctuary can be divided into two rooms, as is the case in the late Ptolemaic mammisi of Armant. This building with two columned high kiosks in front of the sanctuary is somewhat unusual in terms of its architecture. Perhaps its construction was already started under Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, whereas cartouches of Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XV Caesarion testify to decoration activity under his daughter and mammisi may go back to Ptolemy X Alexander I. It is located behind the main temple dedicated to Montu, but not at a right angle. <>

“Generally speaking, the ground plan of the Ptolemaic mammisis survives into the Roman Period, but becomes more sophisticated. The Roman mammisi at Dendera has the most complex architecture of all surviving birth houses. The dedicatory inscription refers to Trajan, but the building may have been initiated by Nero. Erected on a foundation pedestal, it comprises three rooms in the core: the sanctuary (most probably with a naos containing a statue of Hathor suckling Ihi) flanked by a long chapel on either side, the room of the ennead, and the preceding offering room. At the north side of the room of offerings is a staircase to the roof. The aforementioned hall of the ennead is a new element, which lies between the offering room and the sanctuary and is well known from major temple buildings. There are also crypts. The rear wall of the sanctuary is furnished with a false door and a cult niche. The ambulatory merges with the entrance kiosk, which is a novelty.” <>

Art Work and Decoration in Mammasi


image of Isis suckling Horus at at Dendera mammisi

Holger Kockelmann wrote: “During the Late Period, a shift to temples for female deities is clearly perceivable. This tendency is also reflected in the mammisi, whose decoration centers around theogamy (marriage of a male and female deity), birth, and motherhood. “Among the numerous offering scenes, which are found in the mammisi, the donation of milk plays a very important role. It symbolizes nourishment, motherly care, protection, and purification and is closely related to the birth and bringing up of the divine child. [Source: Holger Kockelmann, Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The reliefs in the sanctuary, which could be gilded, display ceremonies connected to a liturgical drama, mst-nTr, “the birth of the god”. They narrate the nativity of the divine child. The depictions resemble the 18th Dynasty reliefs of the myth of the divine royal birth in the temples of Deir el-Bahri and Luxor. Among other things, they include the creation, delivery, breast- feeding, and enthronement of the newborn god. The replacement of the king of the 18th Dynasty myth by the divine child of the mammisis may partly be ascribed to the experience of loss of native rulership during the 25th Dynasty. <>

“Perhaps the young god, whose status as king and universal ruler is emphasized by the texts and depictions in the mammisi, was regarded as a more stable guarantor of the continuation of the world’s theological-political order. However, also the cult of the living ruler was “specifically established in the birth houses,” as “the young king was identified with the son of the divine family”; “the aspect of the birth houses as scene of royal cult would explain the remarkable development of these buildings from the 30th Dynasty on”. Moreover, the juvenal god was identified with the rising sun; hence, the young king participated in this daily cosmic renewal.” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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