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Egyptian Temples - The Temple Structure

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  • Egyptian Temples - The Temple Structure

    The Temple Structure

    Model of the Universe

    In the religious customs of ancient Egypt the temple was considered 'the horizon' of a divine being, the point at which the god came into existence at creation, and thus every sacred site had a link to the very distant past and honored the specific god whose temple it was. The temple also was a mirror of the universe and a representation of the ben-ben, the sacred mound which rose out of chaos by the will of Amon at the beginning of time.

    The Benben stone, named after the mound, was a sacred stone in the temple of Ra at Heliopolis (Egyptian: Annu or Iunu). It was the location on which the first rays of the sun fell. It is thought to have been the prototype for later obelisks, and the capstones of the great pyramids were based on its design. The capstone or the tip of the pyramid is also called a pyramidion. In ancient Egypt, these were probably gilded, so they shone in sunlight.

    The pyramidion is also called 'Benben stone'. Many such Benben stones, often carved with images and inscriptions, are found in museums around the world.

    It was built along an east-west axis, following the sunŽs course through the day and surrounded by a brick wall built in alternating concave and convex sections. These symbolized the Primeval waters out of which Creation had risen. A processional path led up to the pylon towers, which were a reminiscent of the early, predynastic reed shrine that once had stood at the back of just such a guarded enclosure as the mud brick wall. The great portal which was set in between the pylons lead into one or several open courtyards in line, thereafter followed one or several covered pillared halls until finally the darkened sanctum where the naos which held the cult statue of the deity was reached.

    The floor slanted gradually upwards from the outer courts to the sanctum, symbolizing the Primeval mound which had emerged from the chaotic waters when the world was created. Often the temple site was chosen where a natural incline could be found. The roof of the halls symbolized the sky and was decorated with stars and protective deities in the form of flying birds. The pillars and columns represented palm trees, lotus and papyrus plants and along the walls the reliefs depicted all kind of marsh vegetation. In fact, in some places the outer courts and halls were flooded with water during the yearly inundation of the Nile, something which must have helped to strengthen the symbolic message in the temple layout.

    Outer Court

    Approaching the pylon towers which made out the entrance into the Outer Court the processional path lead up to the great portal which was set between them. Passing through it one reached an outer court. The general worshipper was probably not allowed further into the temple building than this. Here he was met by priests who received his offerings and forwarded them into the temple. Shrines with statues of other gods beside the one which the temple was built for was often found here and the visitor could honor these, leave offerings and pray by them.

    Inner Court

    Often yet another pair of pylons had to be passed before the inner court was reached. These courtyards were without roof, this open space in front of the pylons went back to the original reed shrines in predynastic times. Reliefs on the walls depicted the king in battle or making offerings to the gods. It is uncertain if the common townspeople were allowed entry here, perhaps they were allowed to watch some of the rites on festival days.

    Hypostyle Halls

    Behind the open courts where the sun blazed down, there was usually one or more dusky pillared halls (hypostyle halls). This was considered the reception area of the god and accessible only to the priesthood. The pillars, arranged in groups, were richly decorated with painted reliefs depicting deities and religious symbols, intended to ensure the same abundance to the surrounding land. Their capitals were formed as lotuses, papyruses or palms. Smaller sidedoors, intended for bringing in offerings, lead into the halls. The only windows were narrow and set high up below the ceiling, otherwise the light would come from the priesthood carrying torches.


    The floor sloped steadily upwards until the sanctum was reached, helping to induce a feeling of awe and mystery as the deity was approached. Symbolically this recreated the shape of the Primeval Mound on which the god had appeared on the First Time (Zep Tepy). This was a small, dark room, where the cult statue was kept in a naos, hidden from view. A temple could be consecrated to more than one god, but the sanctum of the main deity was always situated along the main axis, and lesser deities were placed on either side.


    The naos was the very shrine of the god, often made of wood, with doors that were kept closed and locked at all times except for at the daily rituals, which occurred at morning, midday and evening, and which were performed by the High Priest or someone appointed by him. In close connection to the sanctum and the naos were other rooms for storage of the god's belongings, jewelry, insignia and ritual tools.

    Purifying Lake

    Somewhere on the temple precinct were the purifying lake, a rectangular pool with stairs leading down into the water. Ritual purity was of the highest importance and the priests were required to purify themselves several times each day. The so called waeŽb priests who were responsible for this purifying had been trained from the start of their priestly education. Also ritual tools and everything used at offerings were required to be purified for nothing unclean must come into the god's presence. One might speculate also about the natural necessity of this, in a climate where heat could be quite bothersome.