New Kingdom Temples

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New Kingdom Temples

New Kingdom.

The New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.) was the period of Egypt's greatest geographical extent. At the end of the Middle Kingdom (about 1630 b.c.e.), a Semitic-speaking ethnic group ruled the eastern delta, closest to the Sinai Desert and the northern portion of Egypt. Whether a conquest or gradual infiltration of peoples, this group called the Hyksos (from the Egyptian term heka-hasut, meaning "rulers of foreign countries") ruled the northern portion of the country. The New Kingdom commenced when a series of princes who ruled in Thebes in Upper (southern) Egypt drove the Hyksos out of Egyptian territory. They eventually ruled a united Egypt and expanded their rule to Syria in the northwest and well into the modern Sudan in the south. Taxes coming from these regions made Egypt the richest country in the Mediterranean world at the time and led to increased investments in architecture.


Since the nineteenth century, Egyptologists have classified New Kingdom temples as either a cult temple for a god or a mortuary temple for the deceased king. The false perception of the god's temple as a place where the Egyptians celebrated a permanently established cult and the mortuary temples as a place to hold a funeral fostered this division. Egyptologists such as Gerhard Haeney, Dieter Arnold, and Alexander Badawy recognized that, from an Egyptian perspective, the so-called mortuary temple is a specific kind of permanent cult temple. In the mortuary temple, the deceased king is one of the minor gods worshipped in a cult primarily devoted to Amun, the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon during the New Kingdom. The cult continued in a mortuary temple long beyond the day of the king's funeral. The architectural plans for gods' temples and mortuary temples are very similar. The major difference between the two stems from the numerous additions kings made to gods' temples over long periods of time. While kings often added to gods' temples—obscuring their original plans—temples that included a deceased king's cult usually had no major additions. Thus in the following analysis of New Kingdom temples the royal mortuary temple will be treated as a specific kind of god's temple rather than a completely different sort of temple altogether.

Typical God's Temple.

A god's temple was his house, i.e. his dwelling place. The most common ancient Egyptian words for "temple" were per (house), or hout (mansion, estate). Beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1292 b.c.e.), temple architects developed a standard plan that resembled the three-part plans of ordinary houses and of royal palaces: the forecourt, the public room, and the private rooms. Multiple additions made to important temples like Amun's temple at Karnak often obscure the original plan. Thus the "standard plan" does not really refer to any one temple but to the necessary component parts, and is a useful tool for analyzing individual temples. The three parts of the standard temple plan are an open forecourt leading to a shrine called the pronaos, the public room known as the hypostyle hall, and the private rooms which in a temple are called the naos or shrine. The forecourt in a temple parallels the courtyard immediately beyond the gateway in an Egyptian house. The pronaos in a temple parallels the typical vestibule in a house, while the hypostyle hall is usually shaped as a broad hall, wider than it is long. These are parallel to similarly shaped public rooms in a house. The naos, or shrine, housed the statue of the god and parallels the private bedrooms belonging to the family in a typical Egyptian house. In a temple, the architect also emphasized the dramatic contrasts of light and dark between the public rooms and private rooms. In addition, the floor gently rose as a visitor proceeded from the entrance to the naos, creating a sense that the visitor ascended from the secular sphere outside the temple to the heavenly sphere of the god in the naos. A mud brick wall surrounding the entire temple, called the temenos wall, contributed to the sense of separation from the secular world inside the temple.

The Entrance to a Standard Temple.

Egyptologists call the entrance to a standard temple the pylon. The pylon often stands at the end of a processional way lined with sphinxes. Often colossal statues of the king, both seated and standing, were positioned in front of the pylon. The pylon itself was divided into two towers and a lower, central doorway. The towers are rectangular with sloping sides. The ascending edges of the towers are decorated with torus—a semi-circular or three-quarter circular molding. The top edges of the towers are decorated with a cavetto cornice—a concave or hollow molding. Both types of molding suggest the origins of the pylon tower in the wood, mat, and reed structures built during the Predynastic Period. The tower was often several stories high and contained a staircase inside. The doorway itself was lower than the towers and decorated with a winged sun disk. The door was usually wood with occasional metal covering. The pylon was most often built of stone, though archaeological remains of mud brick pylons are known. Artists decorated pylons with scenes of the king protecting Egypt from its enemies. Cedar flagpoles were positioned in front of the pylon, often in niches cut into the tower structure. These flagpoles were taller than the pylon tower and supported banners that identified the temple. In Egyptian the pylon was called the bekhen. Egyptian texts describe the pylon as the "luminous mountain horizon of heaven." The shape of the pylon resembles the hieroglyph that depicts two mountain peaks with the sun rising between them. The sun in the case of the temple pylon is the god striding out of the temple doorway. This symbolism was particularly appropriate for deities associated with the sun such as Amun, Re, and Atum, though the entrances to all temples took the form of pylons.

The Forecourt in the Standard Temple Plan.

The forecourt—known in Egyptian as weba—stands immediately behind the pylon in the standard temple plan. It was normally rectangular, the same width as the hypostyle hall behind it. In some temples the fore-court contains an altar for offerings. Rows of columns support a roof for a portico running on four sides of the forecourt. A ramp in the center of the back wall leads the visitor into the hypostyle hall. The forecourt was part of the public area where the common people observed the procession of the god, a major part of temple ritual. There also the people could see relief scenes carved on the sidewalls that depict the king in both historical and religious activities. Historical activities might include leading the army to victory, while religious scenes showed the king worshipping the gods. The sunny central court served to set up the contrast between dark and light as the visitor proceeded through the dark gateway into the light of the courtyard.

The Hypostyle Hall in the Standard Temple.

Egyptologists gave the Egyptian wadjit the name "hypostyle hall." This name is a Greek word meaning "full of columns" since it contains many more columns than is needed to support the roof. The hypostyle hall is wider than it is long. The central axis of the building passes through its middle aisle. At least in the Ramesside Period (1292–1075 b.c.e.), the columns along the central aisle are taller than the columns on the sides of the building. This allows for a roof that is higher in the center than on the sides. The gap between the roof resting on the taller columns and the roof resting on the shorter columns, covered by a stone grill, allowed diffused light to enter the building. This arrangement is called a clerestory. The internal decoration of the hypostyle hall depicts the king making offerings to various gods. In some hypostyle halls there were divisions among the "hall of appearance," "hall of offering," and "intermediate hall." These names suggest but do not entirely explain the use of the hypostyle hall. The "appearance" of the god was a ritual where certain people could see the god's statue. The offerings were the opportunity to feed the god.

The Sanctuary in the Standard Temple Plan.

Just as the back rooms of an Egyptian house were the private family rooms, the back of an Egyptian temple is the sanctuary (naos)—the private rooms where the god sleeps, dresses, and washes. The god, in this case, was a statue, often made from precious metal. Only the high priests entered this room to assist the god in his daily routine. In some cases the private rooms also included a storage area for the god's barque, a boat that priests used to transport the god in procession. Often there were multiple sanctuaries in a temple to accommodate the worship of multiple gods in one temple.

Purification Facilities.

Temples often included a "pure court" used to slaughter animals for sacrifice and an artificial lake where the priests washed. In some rituals the lake was also used for the god's ritual voyages. The lakes were sometimes shaped like a "U" that enclosed part of the temple or were rectangular.

Temple Orientation in the New Kingdom.

The determination of temple orientation is much more complex in the New Kingdom than in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Old and Middle Kingdom temples' orientation falls into two groups. The so-called Djoser type favored a north/south axis. The Meidum type favored an east/west axis. Research conducted by Alexander Badawy, the Egyptian Egyptologist, shows that New Kingdom temples' orientation stemmed from their relationship to the Nile River or the local canal that led from the Nile to the temple entrance. The temple axis seems always to have been perpendicular to the Nile or the canal. Thus temples' orientation seems to shift from place to place with the meanders of the river. This is the reason that archaeologists refer to "local north," when describing a particular building, a concept that corresponds with the direction that the river flows downstream.


Alexander Badawy, A History of Egyptian Architecture: The Empire (the New Kingdom) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Temples of Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2000).

see also Religion: Temple Architecture and Symbolism

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New Kingdom Temples

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New Kingdom Temples