Thebes and the Estate of Amun

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Thebes and the Estate of Amun

Name and Location of Thebes.

Thebes, located on the east and west banks of the Nile River around modern Luxor, was known as Waset in Egyptian, capital of the fourth Upper Egyptian nome (province). The Greeks called it Thebes, identifying it with one of their own cities after they conquered Egypt in the fourth century b.c.e. Some scholars believe that the name Thebes was a Greek pronunciation of Egyptian ta-ipet, meaning "The Harem," that Egyptians used to describe the Luxor temple. In addition to the Luxor temple, the Karnak temple, the temple of Medinet Habu, and the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri form the major monuments that scholars have identified as the Estate of Amun during the New Kingdom. Each of them played an important role in the major festivals of the god Amun, chief of the Egyptian pantheon.


introduction: The following anonymously written text, composed during the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292–1190 b.c.e.), illustrates Egyptian thinking about towns. It is preserved on a papyrus now in the Royal Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Thebes is the pattern for every city. Both water and earth were within her from the beginning of time. There came the sands to furnish land, to create her ground as a mound when the earth came into being. And so mankind also came into being within her, with the propose of founding every city in her proper name. For all are called "City" after the example of Thebes.

source: Charles F. Nims, Thebes of the Pharaohs: Pattern for Every City (London: Elek Books, 1965): 69. Text revised by Edward Bleiberg.

Karnak Temple: Amun's Home.

The Karnak temple was the god Amun's home. It is the largest Egyptian temple ever built. It stands inside an enclosure wall that surrounds 16,000 square meters (172,222 square feet). Scholars have worked to excavate and record Karnak since the late nineteenth century and still have not nearly completed this task. The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty built the first structure on the site, but the present plan originates in the Eighteenth-dynasty remodeling of the site. At this time the government evacuated and leveled the whole town surrounding Karnak to provide a platform for the new temple. Essentially the plan established a temple perpendicular to the river with an axis that ran east/west. The kings of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties continued to expand the temple, adding a north/south axis. In total there are ten pylons at Karnak, reflecting the numerous additions to the building continuing into the second century c.e. Within the temple complex are precincts dedicated to the god's wife, Mut, and their son, Khonsu. There are also smaller chapels dedicated to Egypt's other important gods, including Montu, the war god; Osiris, king of the dead; and Ptah, the chief god of Egypt's northern capital, Memphis. The mass of the people went to the eastern gate of the temple where the shrine of "Amun of the Hearing Ear" allowed ordinary people to approach the god with requests. Royal statues in the temple and at least two festival temples dedicated to the royal ancestors emphasized the connection between Amun and the king. Egyptian religion was clearly part of Egyptian politics. North of the main temple was an additional temple dedicated to the wargod, Montu. South of the main structures was the Temple of Mut, the mother goddess. Though the temple as a whole was dedicated to the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon, Amun (also called Amun-Re), one of the most important buildings in it was the "Festival Hall of Thutmose III." At the entrance to the building stand four colossal statues of Thutmose III dressed and posed as the god Osiris. These statues established for the ancient viewer the connection between the temple and the office of king. Osiris was the first king of Egypt, according to Egyptian myth. When he died, his son Horus became rightful king while Osiris became king of the dead. All living kings of Egypt identified themselves as Horus while the deceased king was Osiris. Inside this limestone building, the columns resembled the poles of a military tent, recalling Thutmose III's numerous military expeditions. Recalling these expeditions also emphasized the king's role as Egypt's protector. The decoration of the interior also established the king's role as ruler of the universe. Relief sculpture includes a series of scenes depicting the underworld god Sokar, the solar god Re, the procreative form of the god Amun, the Jubilee Festival called sed, and the king's ancestors. Re and Sokar associated the king with all that is above and below the earth. The procreative Amun helped the king assure the fertility of the earth. The Jubilee Festival—perhaps the most ancient of all Egyptian festivals as was demonstrated in the architectural layout of the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara—renewed the king's power in a perpetual cycle. Finally, the king's ancestors helped to establish him as the "correct" Horus in a succession of Osiris and Horus who ruled the underworld and Egypt throughout eternity. This building, along with another festival hall built by Amenhotep II but now destroyed, shows the close connection between worship of Amun at this temple and the legitimacy of the king.

Processions and Processional Ways.

The four major temples of the Estate of Amun—Karnak, Luxor, Medinet Habu, and Deir el Bahri—were linked in ancient times by processional ways and axis alignments designed for the celebration of processional festivals. A processional way is a road, permanently decorated for use in a formal parade. Axis alignment refers to the practice of building two distant structures on the same axis so that one imaginary straight line would pass through the center of both buildings. One processional way ran from Karnak to Luxor, about three kilometers (1.86 miles) both on the east bank of the river. Karnak's east/west axis was aligned with Deir el Bahri's east/west axis across the river. Luxor and Medinet Habu were also aligned with each other across the river. The main festivals celebrated at these temples featured the god's procession from Karnak to Luxor (Feast of Opet), from Luxor to Medinet Habu (Feast of Amunemopet), and from Karnak to Deir el Bahri (Feast of the Valley). The stone-paved processional routes passed through a series of pylons in Karnak. Lines of sphinxes stood on both sides of the street. Along the way were small, formal shrines that provided a place for the priests carrying the god's barque, a ceremonial boat, to rest on a stone pedestal. The route from Karnak led south to Khonsu's temple, Mut's temple, and to the Luxor temple. The most important of these processional festivals was the Feast of Opet.

Feast of Opet.

The Feast of Opet took place annually in late August during the New Kingdom. On the Egyptian calendar this was the second month of the season of inundation when the Nile flooded. In the reign of Hatshepsut the festival lasted eleven days, but by the time of Ramesses III it lasted 27 days. In Hatshepsut's time the festival procession proceeded along the north/south axis of the temple, exited the south gate, and followed the processional way to the Luxor temple. The priests paused six times at stations where they could support the barque on a stand in a sacred booth. Amun's barque was accompanied by soldiers, dancers, and singers who provided part of the spectacle of the procession. In Ramesses III's time the temples distributed to the people 11,341 loaves of bread, 85 cakes, and 385 jars of beer during each day of the festival. During Hatshepsut's reign the procession returned to Karnak from Luxor by water, sailing on the Nile.

Luxor Temple: Women's Quarters of Amun's Estate.

The present Luxor temple, built by Amenhotep III and expanded by Rameses II, represented the women's quarters in Amun's estate. The Egyptians called it ta-ipet, "the harem." During the Opet Festival, the Egyptians celebrated the divine birth of the king at this location. This divine birth provided a religious explanation for how the king could be both a human and the genetic son of the god Amun. The Egyptians visualized the genetic relationship literally, as attested in reliefs from both Deir el Bahri and the Luxor temple. They believed that the spirit of Amun inhabited the king's human father at the moment of conception, an act ritually recreated in the Luxor temple by the king with a living woman, probably the queen, annually during the Opet Festival. Moreover, the act of conception, in Egyptian thought, conveyed a spirit called the royal ka into the fetus of the unborn king. Amun created the royal ka as part of his essence that gave the child possessing the royal ka a legitimate right to rule Egypt. The festival also re-infused the royal ka in the living king. This festival was the main purpose of the inner rooms of the Luxor temple. The king was part of the god's procession from Karnak to Luxor. The king then entered the inner rooms at the temple and mystically re-enacted both his own conception and his rejuvenation by absorbing the royal ka. Perhaps the best illustration of the way this helped the king is found in King Horemheb's coronation at Luxor. Horemheb was the second general to become king at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty after the last royal heir, Tutankhamun, died. Horemheb merged his coronation with the Festival of Opet, infusing his originally non-royal self with the royal ka, and thus becoming the legitimate king.

Linking East and West Thebes.

In general, Amun's living quarters were on the east bank of the Nile at Thebes. On the west bank of the river, associated with the land of the dead, lived other forms of Amun inhabited by the spirits of deceased kings. All of the Eighteenth-dynasty kings built temples on the west bank that Egyptologists have called mortuary temples. In reality these temples were residences for forms of Amun that would eventually merge with each of the deceased kings. The two most important locations for these temples were Deir el Bahri and Medinet Habu. Deir el Bahri was the site of the Eleventh-dynasty temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep and of Hatshepsut. Medinet Habu was the site of Ramesses III's mortuary temple built in the Twentieth Dynasty, but was also recognized as the location of a mound where the gods had created the earth. The Festival of the Valley connected Karnak and Deir el Bahri. The Festival of Amunemopet connected Luxor and Medinet Habu with a procession between them.

Deir el Bahri and the Feast of the Valley.

Nebhepetre Mentuhotep built the first mortuary temple in Deir el Bahri in the Eleventh Dynasty, but in the Eighteenth Dynasty the more important temple was the mortuary temple constructed by Hatshepsut. This unique building, based on Nebhepetre Mentuhotep's neighboring structure, consisted of three terraces connected by two ramps. On the two lower levels are colonnades opposite walls illustrating important events from Hatshepsut's reign. These relief sculptures include the hauling of obelisks from Aswan for the Karnak temple, Hatshepsut's divine birth, and the expedition to Punt (probably in Ethiopia) to bring back incense for Amun. This terrace also holds shrines for Hathor, the goddess of the necropolis, and for Anubis, the god of mummification. The third and highest terrace supported a temple for Amun and for Hatshepsut. This temple was the focus of Amun's annual trip from Karnak to Deir el Bahri to celebrate the Festival of the Valley. During the Festival of the Valley, Amun, his wife Mut, and their son Khonsu visited the deceased kings of Egypt and his incarnation living in Deir el Bahri called Amun Holy of Holies. The images of the gods were ferried across the river in a special barque and then carried from the west bank of the river to the temple. After the reign of Hatshepsut, the statues spent the night in the temple of the reigning king. The procession returned to Karnak the next day. On this occasion many Egyptian families also visited their family tomb, often having a meal there.

Medinet Habu and the Festival of Amunemopet.

Ramesses III built the large temple at Medinet Habu that stands on the site today for himself as Amun-United-with-Eternity. Earlier in the time of Thutmose III, there was a temple of the "True Mound of the West" on this site. The mound refers to the place where the god first created the world. By linking the mound to the west, the intention is to affirm that this first creation would continue in the west, the land of the dead. The god Amunemopet, meaning "Amun who is in the Opet" (i.e. the Luxor temple), traveled weekly from the Luxor temple to Medinet Habu to visit the mound temple. This is the final link between the temples of the east and west bank. The statue of the god traveled by barque across the river, then either by a canal or on a road to the Medinet Habu temple. This feast also called for distributions of food and drink to the population.

The Processional Perimeter of the Estate of Amun.

The processional routes from Karnak to Luxor, from Karnak to Deir el Bahri with detours to the temples associated with various kings' cults, and from Luxor to Medinet Habu form a rectangle on the map that delineates the Estate of Amun. The festivals and their processions tie together the major monuments of Thebes and allow for a unitary overview of the sacred places. The individual buildings, however, also functioned as independent units. They each owned and administered land that ultimately provided the upkeep for each building. There seems to be no administrative or economic connection between the different religious units of the Estate of Amun. This fact points to a certain decentralization in the New Kingdom in administration which is not apparent in other periods of Egyptian history.


B. J. J. Haring, Divine Households: Administrative and Economic Aspects of the New Kingdom Royal Memorial Temples in Western Thebes (Leiden, Netherlands: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1997).

Barry Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London; New York: Routledge, 1989).