The term false door (also ka-door, false-door stela, fausse-porte, Scheintür) denotes an architectural element that is found mostly in private tomb structures of the Old Kingdom (mastabas and rock-cut tombs): a recessed niche, either in the western wall of the offering chamber or in the eastern tomb façade. It imitates the most important parts of an Egyptian door, but the niche offers no real entrance to any interior space. Such fictitious doors are also attested in other architectural contexts:

  • • mortuary temples of the pyramid complexes, as well as New Kingdom funerary temples
  • • private tombs of the Middle and New Kingdom
  • • as the so-called central-support false door, wall niche with double doors divided by a central pillar and surmounted by a round-topped lintel with latticework above it, found mostly with bark-shrines of Ramessid temples, and rarely in the middle halls of Amarna residences
  • • blind doors of Amarna and other residences that form a visual counterpart of the real doors

The development of the false door for the private sector is attested without major gaps, but the evidence for the feature in royal funerary temples is very scanty before the fifth dynasty. The question of their use in the fourth dynasty or earlier has been addressed variously. Stadelmann argues strongly for their existence in Khufu's pyramid temple and subsequent funerary complexes. Pursuant to Ricke's basic theory, Arnold contends that they were not used prior to the royal mastaba of Shepseskaf because the notion of a false door is related to that of the tomb as a dwelling—a concept that is not compatible with the idea of the Giza pyramids.

The custom probably began in the archaic period with the Helwan slab stelae. It is attested from the second and third dynasty on in Saqqara brickstone mastabas (offering table stelae set up in offering niches) and reaches its fully developed canonical form during the fourth dynasty. Its importance vanishes at the end of the Old Kingdom, though in Lower Egypt the false door is retained until the twelfth dynasty.

Initially the main wall of the tomb was the eastern façade, but later the open-air offering place was moved inside the core of the mastaba and became a covered cult chamber. At this stage, the false door is always in the western wall of the offering room. Many tombs have two false doors, for the southern and northern parts. Sometimes there is also a subsidiary one in the northern end of the façade, a remnant of the original northern part of the small, two-niched mastaba whose southern niche was transformed into the offering room. A few of these cult chambers have as many as five or six false doors.

Women's tombs rarely possess false doors of their own; they are usually depicted on those of their husbands. The cornice element—as a status symbol in the beginning—was used mainly for men; the first attested occurrence in a female tomb is that of Queen Nebet, wife of Unas.

The conventional type of false door is decorated on all parts with figural representations as well as standardized inscriptions: an offering-table scene on the panel; names and titles of the deceased on the jambs, upper and lower architraves (also drum); the figure of the dead sometimes on jambs or door-niche; and offering forumulae on jambs and architraves. Symmetry is a dominant factor in the arrangement of these components. Most of the decorative scenes in the offering chamber are oriented to the false door as the focus of the upper tomb complex, particularly those topics dealing with the supply of the deceased (e.g., slaughtering scenes, offering-bearers, list of oils, offering list).

Usually the inscriptions contain long sequences of titles, offering lists (already part of the early slab stelae), and the indispensable offering formula, to which are added various wishes for long life, the funeral, and a blessed existence in the necropolis or holy West. Sometimes individual texts are found: the owner's ideal biography, texts concerning the funeral equipment, or, rarely, legal texts such as a will. These features confirm the interpretation of the false door as an architectural element that condenses and concentrates the personality of the deceased forever. This memorial function is transferred to its successors, the statue-shrine and the Middle Kingdom stelae, which are of different origin from the false door despite their later syncretism.

There are two known Egyptian designations for the false door. The general word rwt for “door,” also serves this specific use, the special application made clear by a corresponding determinative (the actual form of this example is not always reproduced). The same is true of the word rʒ-pr, normally meaning “temple,” “chapel.” Evidence for the latter is not attested before the second half of the fifth dynasty, so this use could be an indication that the false door underwent a semantic change, but it is doubtful that each example really means a false door. Generally, the terms designating “false door” are mentioned rather seldom in the texts, so it is difficult to deduce reliable statements.

The basic structure of false doors varies widely. Three types may be distinguished:

  • 1. normal or conventional false door without cavetto cornice
  • 2. conventional door surmounted by cavetto cornice
  • 3. decorative or palace-façade door

Types 1 and 2 may be integrated into a single group, although their distinction makes good sense in considering the further evolution of the false door. The palace-façade door differs more markedly from the normal type, so it will be dealt with separately.

The conventional false door consists of several component parts which are modeled according to those of a real Egyptian door. The dimensions, proportions, and design of the special elements, as well as the number of jambs, may vary considerably. The cavetto cornice results from the addition of a frieze with palm-leaf cornice. The latter feature normally occurs with a torus molding as a frame of the outer jambs; both elements originated in mud-brick architecture and constructions of wood and reed matting.

This second type first appears in the second half of the fifth dynasty, becomes increasingly common during the sixth dynasty, and finally nearly replaces the earlier type without the cornice. Until the end of that dynasty, statues of the deceased are occasionally incorporated in the false door niche and other parts as well (e.g., outer jambs); the canonical form, however admitted only representations in flat relief. Until the end of Old Kingdom, further modifications are to be found: the niche is decorated by a double-door imitation with bolts; wḏʒt-eyes may appear; the panel spreads over onto the inner jambs so that the marginal slots may be absent. Simultaneously, the proportions become less balanced.

Before the false door attained its final canonical outline, it was often built up of mud brick and wood. Otherwise, it was constructed in masonry or large stone slabs. Commonly, the composed false door was replaced by monolithic examples (inside rock-cut tombs, it was hewn out of the rock formation): limestone is the usual material, while granite is very rarely attested though sometimes imitated by red-brown paint. (Because of its preciousness, granite obviously was awarded as a royal favor.) Since the false doors were the center of the cult chamber, their careful manufacture was important.

The decorative or palace-façade paneled false door (fausse-porte ornée, Prunkscheintür) is composed of panels similar to a palace-façade, arranged in compartments which correspond to the essential components of a conventional door. Normally it has no inscriptions at all (occasionally, a name and title). Its completely different structure and function are evident in the absence of the otherwise indispensable offering table scene. The palace-façade paneling, used as front decoration in early dynastic tombs of the Negade type, is transferred to the false door: the modified cruciform chapel the of palace-façade type represents the connecting link. From the fourth dynasty on, this type is attested in some offering chapels, though the funeral cult was generally performed before the conventional type; later, in the sixth dynasty, the recessed paneling design shifts to the subterranean burial room. Although the design of multiple recessed niches probably derives from some royal prototype, the decorative false door is not restricted to high-ranking officials or members of the royal family, as has been claimed. Its intended purpose, however, remains obscure. Normally the offerings of the funeral cult took place before a conventional false door, as shown by the associated offering stones. In the case of two-niched chapels, both types may coexist, the southern one designating the main or real offering place. In a few cases, the normal type is combined with some palace-façade elements.

Adolf Rusch in 1928 developed a system for dating which uses as a main criterion the existence or nonexistence of the cavetto cornice, because this element does not appear before the second half of the fifth dynasty. Thus, two main groups are established, with several subdivisions which show the special features of a certain type for a limited period. This stylistic analysis seems to provide a rather precise dating instrument. Unfortunately, the usability of this system is diminished by two major obstacles. First, Rusch does not take into consideration the modifications caused by different development processes within the individual cemeteries. Additionally, the social degree of the tomb-owner has an important influence on the tomb's execution (form, design, and size).

The idea of the false door probably originated in the combination of two concepts: the notion of the tomb as the house of the deceased person, and the offering-scene panel that shows the deceased sitting at table with bread and the conventionalized offering meal. This reflects the double function of the normal false door, which provides an imaginary passage for the deceased, a transition between the worlds of the living and the dead. At the same time, it designates the main point for the funeral repast, offered daily by the ka-priest. As long as people believed in the spiritual reality of such a passage between the two spheres, the original conception of the false door was preserved.

Originally the false door as an architectural element is integrated into the surrounding wall: its function as a mediator between two areas prevents any isolation. But starting in the middle of the fifth dynasty, there is movement toward detaching the monument from the wall. This is marked by the cavetto cornice, an element originally connected with freestanding three-dimensional buildings like shrines (e.g., for tomb statues). One early exception is the damaged example of Persen from the reign of Sahure: it probably should be reconstructed with a cornice because of the preserved torus molding. This phenomenon suggests a semantic change for the false door, which now may gradually have assumed the function of a shrine façade. The structure of the tomb provides further support: the hitherto undecorated sarcophagus chamber acquires decorative elements of its own, whereas the offering chamber is opened to the visitor. Thus, the architectural evolution reflects increasing polarization between the upper and subterranean parts of the tomb.

Probably this transition is connected with changing religious beliefs. From second half of the fifth dynasty, the god Osiris is often mentioned in offering formulae (the supposed early date of evidence in the tomb of Princess Hemetra was corrected to the later fifth dynasty): obviously his importance as ruler of the dead increases considerably. The idea of an underworld region for the dead penetrates into Old Kingdom religion. Nevertheless, this assumed correspondence cannot be proved conclusively, because the interrelation between the naming of Osiris and the application of the cornice decoration is not generally attested. However, the fact that the cornice type is generally connected with owners of higher social rank suggests its association with elite religious innovation. Not before the late sixth dynasty is this type common irrespective of social status.

During the end of the Old Kingdom period, the false door undergoes the next stage in its development: decadent tendencies result in very small works of bad quality. Its further evolution is seen in stelae of First Intermediate Period tombs (mostly in Upper Egypt), which may be rectangular in shape, or in the round-topped stelae of Abydos, which clearly are cenotaphs representing the tomb structure itself. During the Middle and New Kingdoms, false doors are sometimes used in tomb architecture, but primarily for the subsidiary cult niches, where they are paralleled with stelae.

See also STELAE.

Bibliography

  • Arnold, Dieter. Lexikon der ägyptischen Baukunst. Zurich, 1994. Several informative articles concerning false door, cavetto cornice, recessed palace-façade paneling, etc.
  • Bolshakov, Andrey O. “Princess ḤM.T-Rʿ(W): The First Mention of Osiris?” Chronique d'Égypte 67 (1992), 203–210.
  • Haeny, Gerhard. “Scheintür.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 5: 563–574. Wiesbaden, 1981.
  • Haeny, Gerhard. Zu den Platten mit Opfertischszene aus Heluan und Giseh. Beiträge zur Ägyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde 12 (1971), 143–164. Reconstruction of original location of Helwan ceiling stelae; interpretation of Giza slab stelae (reign of Khufu) as provisional arrangement which later should be replaced by a real false door.
  • Hassan, Selim. Excavations at Giza. Vol. 5. Cairo, 1944. “The False-door,” pp. 85–160, offers a comprehensive description of the false door and its components.
  • Jánosi, Peter. “Die Entwicklung und Deutung des Totenopferraumes in den Pyramidentempeln des Alten Reiches.” Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge 37 (1994), 143–163. Offers a theory about origin and meaning of royal false doors, which are not incorporated in funerary complexes before Shepseskaf. Conclusions concerning private false doors are contestable, as he ignores the actual interrelation between the normal false doors with and without cavetto cornice.
  • Junker, Hermann. Giza. 12 vols. Vienna, 1929–1955. Deals with origins and development of the false door, especially in vols. 1, 2, and 12. Special entries are to be found by detailed indexes.
  • Reisner, Georges Andrew. “The Position of Early Grave Stelae.” In Studies Presented to Francis Llewellyn Griffith. pp. 324–331. London, 1932.
  • Ricke, Herbert. Bemerkungen zur Baukunst des Alten Reiches. Beiträge zur Ägyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde 4, 5. 1. Zurich, 1944; Cairo, 1950. Extensive consideration of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom architecture, presenting a general hypothesis concerning origin, meaning, and function of several building types. Basic although not uncontested interpretation of false door and stela.
  • Rusch, Adolf. “Die Entwicklung der Grabsteinformen im Alten Reich.” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 58 (1923), 101–124.
  • Spencer, Patricia. The Egyptian Temple: A Lexicographical Study. London, 1984. Analysis of ancient Egyptian terms for architectural elements.
  • Stadelmann, Rainer. “Scheintür oder Stelen im Totentempel des Alten Reiches.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 39 (1983), 237–241.
  • Strudwick, Nigel. “Some Remarks on the Disposition of Texts in Old Kingdom Tombs with Particular Reference to the False Door.” Göttinger Miszellen 77 (1984), 35–49.
  • Strudwick, Nigel. “Review of Wiebach, Die ägyptische Scheintür.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 41 (1984), 630–633.
  • Strudwick, Nigel. The Administration of Egypt in the Old Kingdom. The Highest Titles and Their Holders. London, 1985. The false door as a criterion for dating is the subject of chapter 2.
  • Vandier, Jacques. Manuel d'Archéologie Égyptienne. 2 vols. Paris, 1952, 1954. Detailed description of the monuments and discussion of their origin and development with attention to offering-table panels, false doors, and stelae, vol. 1, pp. 724–774, and vol. 2, pp. 389–481.
  • Wiebach, Silvia. Die ägyptische Scheintür. Morphologische Studien zur Entwicklung und Bedeutung der Hauptkultstelle in den Privat-Gräbern des Alten Reiches. Hamburg, 1981. Studies on morphological development and idealogy of the false door; account and evaluation of the various earlier theories.

Silvia Wiebach-Koepke