We had the good fortune to visit a number of the most famous ancient Egyptian temples: Karnak, Luxor, the funerary temple of Hatshepsut, Philae, Kom Ombo, Dendera and Abu Simbel.
We have three different ways to share some of what we experienced and learned.
- In this post, we share some of the stories we heard, as well as some of our own observations.
- In the companion post, we share some of our favorite photos from our visits. And a little bit of historical information.
- And we’ve crafted a timeline of ancient Egypt to provide some historical perspective.
We hope you’ll choose the parts that interest you, and ignore the rest!
We found two big themes from visiting these temples:
Always the same; always changing
Everything means something
Always the same…
Over more than three millennia, Egyptians believed thoroughly that this life is just a temporary interruption of what’s real, which is immortality. Gods are eternal; they are the lords of creation, the custodians of order, as well as friends who are interested in helping and guiding the people of Egypt. ※ Pharaohs are divine rulers, and intercessors between the gods and the people.
Despite changes of 100 generations and wars and invasions and 30 dynasties, the heart of these beliefs stayed much the same.
We can see this in the architecture, art, and writing of the temples along the Nile. Almost always, a massive pylon at the entrance of the temple stares down at us. Between the entrance and the inner sanctum of the temple, a hypostyle hall seemingly spreads to infinity. Obelisks with sharp shiny tips push into the sky.
The pylon — really two massive sloping walls that bracket the entrance to the temple — symbolized the desert cliffs that frame the eastern and western edges of the Nile valley. The life of the river flows between these cliffs. The sun rises over the eastern edge and sets over the western. ※ It also was an obvious divider between the world of ordinary humans and the rarified realm of the gods; only the Pharaoh and high priests could pass through the two cliffs of the pylons to entreat the gods within.
A hypostyle hall is technically just a room filled with columns. There’s something magical about wandering amid a sea of columns. It’s like wandering in a mysterious giant forest. That’s what we find in the hypostyle halls of Egyptian temples.
We experienced one of the most famous and impressive hypostyle halls at the temple of Karnak. Not only are there 134 columns, some of which are 21 m tall, but colorful inscribed figures and characters cover every bit of surface.
Why hypostyle halls in the first place? The answer comes from the goal to create as vast a home for the gods as possible. Temples were built for official worship of the gods as well as for commemoration of the pharaohs. Egyptians saw temples as houses for the gods to whom they were dedicated. Within them, the Egyptians performed a variety of rituals, the central functions of Egyptian religion: giving offerings to the gods, reenacting their mythological interactions through festivals, and warding off the forces of chaos. These rituals were seen as necessary for the gods to continue to uphold ma’at, the divine order of the universe. With greater power and wealth during the New Kingdom — when the hypostyle hall of Karnak was built — Egypt devoted still more resources to its temples, which grew larger and more elaborate. ※
Desire for ever larger temples mashed up against the realities of available construction technologies. All that the Egyptians had to work with were walls, columns, and beams. They could build with wood — which mostly had to be imported from Lebanon and Syria — brick, and stone. Wood can span distances of up to about 5 meters / 15 feet. Stone, which is far more durable, depending on thickness and other properties, mostly can’t span as much as wood. So, if you want grand and tall and permanent, and you don’t have arches and modern technologies, you have to array columns at distances limited by the span of stone beams or slabs. You get hypostyle halls.
We find hypostyle halls in temples from 2500 BCE as well as from 100 BCE. Gods and self-important pharaohs need a lot of space and a lot of wall and column surfaces with which to be celebrated. Hypostyle hall is the answer.
Finally, what is it about all these obelisks? We’re familiar with obelisks for at least two reasons. Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries decided they liked them and so they yanked them out of the Egyptian soil and planted them in their own capitals. Think of Napoleon and the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Before the French fixated on it, this obelisk was one of two the framed the main entrance to the temple of Luxor. Napoleon coveted it, probably as a symbol of his appropriation of the greatness of ancient Egypt.
And of course there’s the Washington Monument, the largest obelisk in the world. The official statement by the National Park Service about the purpose of the obelisk form: “Built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, evoking the timelessness of ancient civilizations, the Washington Monument embodies the awe, respect, and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father.” ※
For ancient Egyptians, obelisks were dedicated in most cases to the solar gods, the foremost of whom was Ra. Their soaring height and tapering shape – capped by a pyramidal (and originally gilded) pinnacle called a pyramidion, seemed to reach from the earth into the heavens and touch the rays of the life‐giving sun. ※
Ancient pharaohs were considered to be divine rulers and intercessors between the gods and the people. Therefore, the pharaohs were the ones who ordered construction of the obelisks, which were symbolic of the pharaohs’ divinity. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the obelisks recorded the deeds and accomplishments of the pharaoh. ※
One of our tour stops was the site of the Unfinished Obelisk in the Aswan area. We’re so used to seeing standing obelisks that it was interesting to see the part-finished monolithic obelisk still emerging from the stony ground. This tallest known attempted obelisk was abandoned when it was about 75 percent completed due to uncontrollable cracks. At completion, the monolith would have been about 36 m / 120 feet tall and would have weighed in excess of 1150 tons; it is thought to have been the companion of the Lateran Obelisk at Karnak. ※ You can’t help but feel the technical and political ambition while trying to imagine how the obelisk could go from huge recumbent stone to erect obelisk hundreds of kilometers away. Audacious!
We all instantly recognize ancient Egyptian figures and writing. Why did they stay so consistent over the millennia?
First, the two-dimensional figures and standing sculptures.
The classic figure of a king or god has part of the limbs, face and waist facing sideways and the shoulders and eyes facing us. Not realistic! The reason: the artists sought to provide the most representational aspects of each person rather than aspiring for realism. At a glance, the viewer would be able to see all the elements that were most important, rendered from the most recognizable angle and then grouped together to create the whole. Through this “mashup” they sought to convey complete information on a scene all in a single viewpoint. ※
Similarly, the purpose of sculpted figures was to evoke permanence. Egyptian statuary was made to be placed in tombs or temples and was usually intended to be seen from the front. It was important that the face should look straight ahead, into eternity, and that the body viewed from the front should be vertical and rigid, with all the planes intersecting at right angles. ※
But in our modern world, we’re accustomed to quick evolution of artistic expression, even if underlying themes stay the same. Not so in Ancient Egypt:
Egyptian art wasn’t supposed to change, focusing on adherence to a particular form; their art didn’t focus on creativity or innovation. A statue was carved to last for eternity, using the same techniques for carving that were developed over hundreds of years. When a sculptor went to make a statue of the god, he would take out a statue from the temple and copy it, following a certain canon of proportion.
When a tomb painting was commissioned, the first step was to have someone come in and place a grid on the wall like graph paper. Following this, the artist, a specialist who was going to draw the scene would come in, and make sure that the proportions were right by using the grid. For example, if the measurements were three squares for the head, and the shoulders had to be seven squares, then the distance from the shoulder to the knee had to be eight squares. The proportions were always the same. Artists would follow the formula, like an Egyptian form of paint by numbers. This system was created and followed because Egyptians’ culture at that time believed there was a certain order to the world and their art reflected this belief. There was a way that art was supposed to be, and it was supposed to stay that way. (source)
But surely language evolved even if art didn’t, at least at first glance. As John McWhorter says regularly in his excellent podcasts, “Language is always changing.” Spoken language most certainly did evolve over the centuries, both from natural human interactions as well as from influences of conquered and conquering cultures.
But, again, the purpose of every aspect of these temples was connection to the divine and eternal. The hieroglyphs that we recognize today developed early, starting around 3000 BCE.
The graphemes are pictographic signs all taken from the Egyptian environment and therefore closely linked with the culture. They represent living beings (human, animal, vegetal or even mineral), astronomical entities and objects of daily life. These graphemes can be used either as pictograms, thus conveying the sign they represent (as logograms or ideograms) or as phonograms having the phonetic value of the sign they represent.
Hieroglyphs were primarily used on stone for monumental purposes. Our term hieroglyph comes from the Greek, meaning “sacred incised writing.” The ancient Egyptian term was closer to “God’s words.”
Both the Egyptian language and the writing system evolved as Egypt changed, including from influences from outside cultures. But these changes show up in writings on papyrus and other transient media, not stone temple walls and columns. The original hieroglyphs evolved into cursive writing called hieratic, or “priestly writing.” “God’s writing” in stone monuments stayed relatively unchanged over the millennia. ※
While extolling permanence was permanent, things still changed. The gods created the world of the Egyptians and, with the work of kings and priests, they kept the people safe in this world and the next. But Egyptians looked to different gods at different times. Each pharaoh was unique; some were ambitious and keen on trumpeting their own greatness.
We see all this in the different aspects of Egyptian art. Art in tombs was intended to present and preserve the idealized status quo for eternity. Art inside temples depicted the rulers honoring the deities upon whom all life and all Egypt depended; although, over time, not always quite the same deities, at least outwardly. Once again the perennial overlap of Always the same and Always changing.
Egyptians named and venerated over 2000 different deities. A complex hierarchy of gods evolved through the millennia. However, a king of the gods always reigned supreme, and was usually identified with creator and sun deities. Pharaohs always dedicated their major temples to an incarnation of sun and creation deities. During different periods, different gods held this top role. Or perhaps the same gods, just identified differently.
Creator deities: Atum, Ra (sun god, seen as a form of Atum), Atum-Ra (the best of both); Amun (the hidden creator of everything, including himself, connected with the region of Thebes in Upper Egypt), Amun-Ra (one of the most powerful and popular fusions)
Sun gods: Ra; Horus the Elder (one of the earliest known Egyptian gods, of the sky, whose face was visualized as the face of the sun); Horus the Younger (still a sky god, more associated with the sun, and to a lesser degree, the moon; importantly, he was seen as very closely linked with kingship and the sacred role of the pharaoh); Ra-Horakhty (fusion of Horus and Ra, popular in late Egyptian times)
The choice of the form of the creator/sun deity depended on time and place.
Amun and Amun-Re were “born” in the region of Thebes; they were home-town favorites. That’s why the temples at Karnak and Luxor — site of ancient Thebes — were dedicated to Amun-Ra.
However, the prime examples of late-period temples at Philae and Kom Ombo were dedicated to Horus. Still a powerful god of the sky and sun. But also the god of the right of the pharaohs to rule and to continue into the afterlife as deities. The story of Horus’ birth, struggle and triumph was easy to identify with. Amun and Ra were a bit distant and abstract; normal people, as well as pharaohs, felt like Horus was one of them. At least, that’s a thought!
On the outer walls of temples, however, the stage was wide open; this is where we find panels celebrating unfailingly victorious kings who are smiting and defeating their enemies. ※ Top-dog pharaohs couldn’t resist self promotion into eternity.
One of the showiest and most consequential pharaohs was Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great (ca 1303–ca 1213 BCE). He recognized that diplomacy and an exhaustive public relations campaign could mitigate any military shortcomings. He turned what in reality was a stalemate with Hittite rivals into his own story of magnificent victory; on temple walls across Egypt, he ordered the creation of murals depicting his single-handedly defeating the aggressors. ※ Political spin has a long history.
His celebrated building accomplishments, including the temples at Karnak and Abu Simbel, reflected his vision of a great nation and of himself as the “ruler of rulers.” He erected more monuments and statues—and sired more children (over 100!)—than any other pharaoh. As a result, he has long been regarded by Egyptians as Ramses the Great and his 66-year reign is considered to have been the height of Egypt’s power and glory. ※
One of the highlights of our time in Egypt was the trip to see the temples at Abu Simbel. In the middle of his long life, Ramses II commanded the construction of two grand temples. Ramses II had them face the kingdom of Nubia to emphasize Egyptian power. (Nubia spread over what is today southern Egypt and northern Sudan.) He also used the temple to proclaim his own divinity. The four monumental figures at the front of the temple are Amun-Ra and Re-Horakhty (two gods of the sun), Ptah (the god of craftsmen), and the deified persona of Ramses II himself. All four have Ramses’ face! Tradition provided front-facing monumental sculptures; Ramses II evolved them to insert himself into the divine pantheon.
On his journey to the world beyond and among the gods, Ramses brought along his first and perhaps most beloved wife, Nefertari. She was married to Ramses when she was 13 and he was 15. It was most likely a political arrangement. Her family was Nubian, so the marriage strengthened the alliance between Egypt and Nubia. Although Ramses ultimately took seven queens, and many concubines, evidence suggests that Neferteri was the love of his life. He bestowed on her many designations such as Sweet of Love, Bride of God and Lady of the Two Lands. These monikers demonstrated her positions as lover, priestess and political functionary. At Abu Simbel, next to the giant temple dedicated to himself, Ramses II dedicated a smaller rock-cut temple to Nefertari and to the goddess Hathor; Hathor was the goddess of love, beauty, music, dancing, fertility and pleasure. Two colossal statues of the queen and four of Ramses II were carved on the front of the temple. ※
Ramses II and Nefertari live forever side by side.
About 1200 years after Ramses II, Cleopatra VII was queen of Egypt. It was a very different time. You know the story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, political and other seductions, and a famous suicide. ※ During Cleopatra’s time, temples were still being constructed in the traditional ways, with religious iconography on the inside and more worldly imagery on the outside. At the temple at Dendera, when you walk around the back side of the temple, you come upon a portrait of Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion (the meaning of his name has lost some of its gravitas in today’s world: “Little Caesar.” Pizza pizza.)
Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, began construction of the temple but died before it was completed. Cleopatra continued the work; she added images of herself and her son. She adorned herself with the crown of the goddess Hathor, to whom the temple was dedicated. The double crown of Egypt tops the smaller figure of Caesarion; Cleopatra was clear about what Caesarion wanted to be when he grew up. Alas, that didn’t work out; spiteful Augustus had him killed after the death of Cleopatra.
Comparing temples from Ramses the Great’s era with those of Cleopatra’s shows us what evolved even while held tight by veneration of cosmic permanence.
One last note about change. In the final years of ancient Egyptian culture, the worlds of Greece and Rome, pagan and Christian, were taking over. There is a story from the temple of Kom Ombo. Two gods shared this temple: On one side, like in semi-detached townhouses, Sobek the crocodile god, associated with fertility and creation; and on the other side, Horus, the god of the sun and kings. The story is that in the early Christian times, from behind walls and screens, priests would act out the voices of the old Egyptian gods. Their pathetic renditions dissolved some of the last threads of the old faith.
Everything means something
When you stand amid the columns of the hypostyle halls of Karnak and of Dendera, or down in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, you float in a sea of symbols. Simply as forms and colors, they are beautiful. They are like rolls and rolls of gorgeous fabrics. But, mostly, completely incomprehensible.
Little by little, our guides helped us see the meaning behind a handful of the seductive forms. A few examples:
The goose and the wasp at Karnak: The wasp, or the bee, stood for honey — not a big surprise — but also for Lower Egypt. The goose, especially with the sun, was a symbol of the identification of the pharaoh with the god Ra, or the sun. The goose and the wasp together spoke for the Pharaoh, “The entire Nile Valley is Egypt, united by me, powerful, the realm of Ra.” ※ ※ ※
The lowly fly was a symbol of military strength. In the New Kingdom, amulets in the form of flies were given to officials to reward military success. Why not a lion or elephant or some other fearsome beast, instead of the lowly housefly? But think about the indefatigable persistence of an annoying fly. Even a single fly can feel like an unrepulsable enemy. ※
Along the top of the huge front of Ramses II’s temple at Abu Simbel, a line of baboons looks to the horizon. Why baboons? The Egyptians saw baboons sleeping at night, and waking before sunrise. As the time of sunrise approached, they would turn toward the east. They awaited the light and warmth of the new sun, and the start of their active day. To Egyptian minds, they were waiting patiently and with reverence for the arrival of Ra, the god of the sun. Exactly as the devoted Ramses II and other pharaohs do.
At Abu Simbel, we see the figure of warrior Ramses II pulling back an arrow and bow. But, he has an extra arm. That is because we see Ramses the King and Ramses the God fighting for Egypt.
The temple of Dendera was dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of, among other things, fertility, and she was protector of women. At the temple, we see a curious statue that is much different from the usual elegant Egyptian figures. It’s of an African dwarf. The dwarf, with its startling countenance, distracts women while they are giving birth; the dwarf makes the soon-to-be mothers laugh and relax, making delivery a little easier.
We find a different, more destructive symbolism on many temple walls and columns. Faces, and sometimes entire figures, have been scratched out.
For ancient Egyptians, the physical likeness of a relief or sculpture wasn’t just pleasant, it intrinsically linked with the living — or dead — person. If you cracked off the nose of a figure, you prevented that person from being able to breathe; you killed the person even in the afterlife. ※
Some pharaohs used this sculptural violence to erase the existence of predecessors whom they’d usurped. One political and sexist example is that of Hatshepsut. She was a rare ruler: a female pharaoh. And a significant pharaoh at that. She brought great wealth and artistry to Egypt during her 21-year reign. She sponsored one of Egypt’s most successful trading expeditions, bringing back gold, ebony and incense from what is now Eritrea. ※ However, when she died, her son and successor Thutmose III — resentful after being overshadowed by his mother, or unable to endure the fact of a woman king, who knows? — had all images and references of his mother systematically destroyed. He erased her face from Egypt, and erased her from Egyptian history for over 3300 years. Only in the 19th century did archeologists unearth her tomb and decipher long-lost hieroglyphs. ※
Today, we find great relief figures on the walls of the Philae temple. But the faces and hands of many, and even the entire figures of others, have been scratched out. Much of this destruction dates from the early Christian times. There is evidence that soldiers and monks erected scaffolding and then set to work chipping away at the enormous reliefs of pagan gods. ※ In the first centuries of the Common Era, the Christian religion spread into Egypt. Practitioners took over ready-made places of worship — ancient temples — and proceeded to expunge the blasphemous imagery from the pagan past. ※ Like Thutmose III, they wanted to disappear their predecessors. Symbolism by destruction and absence.
They and their successors achieved their goals. Most of the evidence of the millennia of vibrant Egyptian culture was covered in desert sand and new beliefs. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did the modern world begin to rediscover this heritage. So that we can too!