Temple Architecture and Symbolism

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Temple Architecture and Symbolism


God’s House. One of the king’s duties was to build and maintain temples throughout Egypt. The Egyptian word for temple meant “god’s house,” and temples were designed to be the earthly dwellings of the gods. As such, they included all the elements necessary to provide for the care and feeding of the gods. To meet the needs of the gods, a temple needed to control an extensive network of land, livestock, and personnel. All of the elements necessary to conduct the business of the temple were referred to as the r-pr, or temple estate. There were two main classes of temples in ancient Egypt, the cult temple and the mortuary temple, called by the Egyptians the “House of Millions of Years.” The cult temple had as its main purpose to carry out the worship of a particular deity or deities. The mortuary temple was built by the reigning king in order to carry out his cult while living and to provide for his mortuary cult after he died. Since much that went on in cult temples had to do with the king, and the “houses of millions of years” could have areas dedicated to the cults of the gods, it has been suggested that the difference between the two was a matter of focus: the cult temple having as its primary focus the carrying out of the cult of a god, and a mortuary temple having as its primary focus the carrying out of the cult of the divine king, but not to the exclusion of the cults of other gods.


Wadi al-Muluk (Valley of the Kings) is located in Upper Egypt where the ancient city of Thebes once stood. It was the burial site of nearly all of the kings of Dynasties 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.), 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.), and 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.), There are sixty-two known tombs, and aside from monarchs ranging from Thutmose I to Ramesses X, two queens, some children of Ramesses II, and several high government officials also are interred there.

Fearing for the security of their funerary treasures, the kings of the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) chose this valley in the western hills near Deir al Bahri because of its isolation. Each tomb is set deep into the mountainside and has a descending corridor with intermittent shafts to confuse potential thieves. At the end of the corridor is the burial chamber with a stone sarcophagus containing the royal mummy. Special rooms filled with clothes, furniture, gold, statuary, weapons, and other items surround the burial chamber and the contents were meant for the king’s use in the afterlife.

Practically all of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were pillaged in antiquity; as early as the first century b.c.e. the Greek geographer Strabo mentions that travelers could tour about forty of them. Only one tomb, that of Tutankhamun’s, has been found intact by modern archaeologists. (Located on the valley floor, it was covered over by rocks dumped down the mountainside during the digging of a later tomb). The longest sepulchre belongs to Queen Hatshepsut and measures seven hundred feet in length, while the most complex one belongs to Ramesses II and was built to house the remains of his fifty-two sons.

Wadi al-Harim (Valley of the Queens) also exists near the location dedicated to the kings. It served as the necropolis for the queens and some royal children of Dynasties 19 and 20. There are more than ninety known tombs and the queens interred there include Sitre (wife of Ramesses I) and Nefertari (wife of Ramesses II).

Sources: Carl N. Reeves, Valley of the Kings: The Decline of a Royal Necropolis (London & New York: Kegan Paul International, 1990).

Nicholas Reeves and Richard Wilkinson, The Complete Faltey of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt’s Greatest Pharaohs (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996).

John Romer, Valley of the King (New York: Morrow, 1981).

Building Materials . For information on the layout of Egyptian temples scholars depend primarily on the large stone temples dating from the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) until the Roman Period (30 b.c.e.-395 c.e.). The earliest temples in Egypt were built of perishable materials such as mud brick or reeds. For information on these early structures, Egyptologists rely on archaeological evidence combined with images found on labels, pottery, and other materials. The earliest religious structures built of stone were those intended for King Djoser’s cult at Saqqara. The use of stone in cult temples did not begin until the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.), and the only surviving nonroyal cultic structures from the Middle Kingdom are the White Chapel of Senwosret I at Karnak and the small temple dedicated to Sobek, Horus, and Ernutet built by Amenemhet III and IV at Medinet Maadi. The White Chapel was dedicated to Amun at Karnak and served as a place for the priests to rest the bark of Amun when the god was out in procession. The only reason the White Chapel stands is because it was disassembled and used as fill in the Third Pylon of Amenhotep III at Karnak. When archaeologists discovered the blocks, they carefully reassembled them.

Temple Complex . The main elements of a temple complex were fairly standard throughout Egypt. The temple area was segregated from profane space by a large brick wall, called a temenos. Entrance into the complex was gained through a gateway called a pylon. The pylon was a pair of high trapezoidal towers flanking a doorway, one on each side of the road leading up to the temple. The only limit on the number of pylons a temple could have was the space available and the resources that the king wanted to expend. Some temple complexes, such as the temple of Amun at Karnak, had ten pylons. For hundreds of years, successive kings would add a pylon to the temple. In front of pylons, tall poles with pennants were raised. Generally, four such poles were in front of each pylon, although Karnak had eight. Colossal statues of the king or obelisks could also be set up in front of the pylon. These colossal statues could serve as focal points for the worship of the king. Obelisks were tapering shafts topped with a pyramid-shaped stone called a pyramidion. They were usually made of pink granite, and the pyramidion could be plated in gold. As such, they served as solar symbols, and the pyramidion was perhaps the first and last part of the temple to receive the sun’s rays.

God’s Road . The road to the temple, leading through the pylon, was called the “god’s road.” It was the path the god took when he left his temple in procession during festivals. Beginning with the reign of Hatshepsut, this path could be lined with small sphinxes. Smaller gateways, called propylons, could also be built along this pathway. As one passed through the last pylon, one entered the forecourt of the temple, called the “court of the multitude.” This open courtyard was as far as the general public could go. Here devotees could gather to participate in the public aspects of temple festivals. Individuals who received the permission of the king could erect statues of themselves within this courtyard. These statues, serving as proxy for the deceased donor, allowed the donor to continually enjoy the god’s presence and to participate in the offerings donated to the temple.

Interior Design . Passing through the forecourt, one entered the hypostyle hall, called the “fore-hall” or the “great court.” This room was filled with gigantic columns spaced close together. The columns took the form of plants such as palm trees, bundles of papyrus, or lotus stalks, with capitals of papyrus umbels or lotus blossoms (open or closed). The hypostyle hall gave way to the offering chamber, a room containing many small tables and stands set up to receive the offerings for the gods. Next was the bark shrine, a room that included a large platform intended to support the god’s boat when not in use. Egyptian gods generally traveled by boat when they left their temples. These boats were carried on the backs of priests and contained a small shrine to house the portable image of the god. Leaving the bark shrine, one enters the inner shrine of the temple, the room that housed the god’s image. As the visitor proceeded from the hypostyle deeper into the temple, the ceiling became progressively lower, and the floor rose slightly. As a result, the main sanctuary of the temple was the highest point on the ground floor. This room had a low roof and was usually totally dark. It contained a small shrine, called a naos, which contained the image of the god. The image could be made of wood, stone, or gold, and has been estimated to be approximately twenty inches high; it was the focus of the daily temple ritual. Since more than one deity could be worshipped in a temple, there was usually more than one sanctuary.

Subsidiary Rooms . The subsidiary rooms lay along the main axis of the temple, usually oriented east to west. In addition, a temple had subsidiary rooms used for the various functions necessary to the cult. There could be a laboratory, where incense and ointments were prepared; a treasury where sacred vessels were kept; and a room through which libations entered the temple, sometimes called a Nile room.

House of Life . The temple proper was often surrounded by auxiliary buildings such as storehouses, granaries, kitchens, administrative offices, workshops, studios for the manufacture and repair of statues and furniture used in the temple, and dwellings for the priests. One such building was called the “House of Life.” This structure served as the place where texts were studied, copied, and assembled. Priests in the House of Life prepared the texts that the lector priests read during the daily temple ceremony. Papyri containing spells for protection for the living and for the dead (Book of the Dead) were also composed there. Medical textbooks and astronomical information were also compiled and copied in the House of Life. Temples of the Greco-Roman period could include a building called by the nineteenth-century French archaeologist Jacques-Joseph Champollion mammisi, meaning birth house, and a sanatorium. A mammisi depicted the events surrounding the conception

and birth of a god’s offspring, such as Ihy, son of Horus and Hathor (found at Dendera). A sanatorium was a building to which the sick could be brought to seek healing from the gods or medical treatment from the priests. Here pilgrims could practice incubation, in which they would spend the night in hopes of receiving a dream detailing the cure for their illness or the answer to their problem. A central courtyard of the sanatorium could contain statues covered with magical healing texts; water poured over these texts was thought to become charged with their power and was used for drinking or bathing.

Sacred Waters . Within the temenos of each temple was a sacred lake, usually rectangular, filled with groundwater. This water was thought to originate in Nun, the cosmic water of creation, and as such it served several purposes. The king and priests would purify themselves in the sacred lake before performing rituals in the temple. This water also served to purify the sacred vessels used in the ceremonies, and was a source of water for libations poured out before the gods. Even the fish in the lake were considered important, and one of the sins the king denied when making his denial of guilt at the New Year’s festival was that he had not poached fish from the sacred lakes.

Model of the Cosmos . The architectural design of the temple was intended to represent a scale model of the cosmos, the created world. The bricks of the temenos wall were not laid in straight lines, but in undulating rows, giving the effect of a wave. This wall represented Nun, the primordial water surrounding the created universe. The temple itself could be called an akhet, or horizon, and represented the place where this world and the world of the gods and the deceased came together. The pylons could also be called akhet, and represented the mountains between which the sun was thought to rise and set. The two portions of the pylon could also be called Isis and Nephthys or the two Meret goddesses, who were thought to lift the sun out of Nun daily. The pylons could be decorated with scenes of the king smiting his enemies in battle, or engaging in hunting expeditions, all activities that the Egyptians associated with the role of the king as the repulser of chaos and guarantor of order. Similar scenes could be carved on the outer walls of the temple and served to protect the temple from the evil forces of chaos. The floor of the temple was also associated with Nun’s waters, and the large papyriform columns of the hypostyle hall seemed to grow out of this water. The bases of these columns and interior walls of the temple were frequently decorated with scenes of aquatic plants, papyrus plants and lilies, as if they were growing out of the floor of the temple. The ceiling of the temple could be decorated with stars or astronomical texts, or with winged sun-disks, all elements belonging to the sky. The sanctuary containing the god’s image was thought of as both the akhet, the place from which the sun god appeared, and as the sky. The priest opening the shrine each morning was said to “open the doors of heaven.” The steadily rising floor had the effect of rendering the sanctuary the highest point within the temple. As such, it represented the primeval hill, the first land to emerge from the waters of Nun on which creation began.


Ann Rosalie David, The Ancient Egyptians: Religious Beliefs and Practices (London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

Stephen Quirke, ed., The Temple in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1997).

Byron E. Shafer, ed., Temples of Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).

Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000).