Egyptian temple walls or doorways were inscribed with a series of detailed accounts connected with the religious activity of the residing deity or deities. These texts are called “festival calendars.” Being a requisite element of the inscriptional setup, they were put into place shortly before the temple was fully operational. Usually they consist of a terse, non-narrative rendering of the key events of the Egyptian civil year as they affected the particular temple: religious celebrations, sacerdotal duties, and lists of offerings that had to be made. These texts are often crucial for reconstructing the calendrical outlook of a single priesthood and for understanding the complex economic subsistence of the priests and workers.
The most ancient festival calendar that is preserved dates from the Old Kingdom. It is written on two sides of the doorway in King Newoserre Any's funerary sun temple. Although fragments from Sahure's mortuary temple, situated in his valley complex, may be an earlier fifth dynasty example, it is Newoserre Any's lengthy account that provides us with the basic arrangement of these calendars. Generally, there is a preamble covering the construction of the temple or additions made to an existing one, the donations made by the pharaoh, often with dates, and the purpose of these offerings. Newoserre Any's text then details the festival celebrations themselves. Exact dates within the civil year are listed in conjunction with precisely described foods—for example, one haunch of beef or five bundles of vegetables. Even when the celebration is related to the moon, the calendrical organization is that of the 365-day civil year. For a lunar-based feast, such as the full moon, additional data are presented. In certain of these calendars, but not all, the estates providing the temple equipment and foods are credited. Ramesses III's extensive Medinet Habu festival calendar is the most highly itemized in this way.
Festival calendars were a continuous and characteristic aspect of most religious institutions from the Old Kingdom onward. For instance, we can reconstruct what occurred at the twelfth dynasty site of Illahun from the fragmentary temple accounts there; unfortunately, the scarcity of royal hieroglyphic records limits us in interpreting any changes over time.
These lists of religious events attempted to cover all the standard celebrations. The lunar-based “feasts of heaven” were expressly separated from the “seasonal festivals” that occurred only once a year. Thutmose III of the eighteenth dynasty left us a long but fragmentary account of additions made to his endowments at Karnak. This composition, posted in his festival temple Akhmenu, is archetypical of the more exact yet simplified approach taken by later kings. The entire calendar is drawn up as a grid, with the left-hand column containing only dates and the right-hand columns having numbers referring to headings describing foods such as oxen, bulls, and ibexes. The almost mathematical regularity of this system of horizontally and vertically ruled boxes distinguishes the New Kingdom festival calendar arrangement from that of the Old. In fact, from this king's reign there remain five other separate festival calendars: at Buto in the Nile Delta (see below); at Karnak, south of the granite sanctuary; Karnak, Pylon VI, north wing; Karnak, south wall of the temple of Akhmenu; and at Elephantine. In the latter calendar there occurs one of the few references to the key ideal New Year's Day of the helical rising of Sirius (Egyptian Sothis) set on a specific day within the Egyptian civil year. In addition, Thutmose III's Buto text, this time recorded on a freestanding stela instead on a temple wall, presents a calendar that can only be dated to an earlier time period.
It must be kept in mind that kings could often renew the offerings of past monarchs without altering the earlier or original calendar. On the other hand, they might expand or revise old calendars; and it is only from internal evidence that we can judge between these two possibilities. To take an example, the fragmentary Amenhotpe I festival calendar seems to have been recopied from the Middle Kingdom, yet some of the celebrations appear to have been current rather than anachronistic. The same may be said with regard to a very late calendar, at Esna, where the composer has added some New Kingdom references to his up-to-date calendar.
From the late New Kingdom we have a contemporary calendar of Ramesses II at Abydos, as well as the great Medinet Habu exemplar dated to the reign of Ramesses III. The latter is known to be a copy of Ramesses II's with minor additions, such as the basic daily offerings; indeed, one key festival of victory has been added later as a palimpsest over the original account. These two calendars are the most detailed cases from the New Kingdom. Others—of Thutmose IV at Karnak, Akhenaten at Thebes, or even Ramesses III and IV—do not present the awesome size of that at Medinet Habu.
By the Late period in Greco-Roman Egypt, the purpose
of such calendars had changed. No longer do they mention the provisioning of the temple, and the endowments of the feasts are ignored. Instead, there is a detailed list of the official processional, but not the daily, feasts. These calendars could take either a fulsome or an abbreviated form, with only the day and number of celebrations cited. Dendera, Edfu, and Kom Ombu provide both versions of their calendars; Esna appears otherwise. Always the over-riding emphasis is on the religious activity, not the economic substructure of the provisioning, since the entries of specific days refer solely to the travels of a local deity, his or her individual rituals, and so forth. Such festival calendars are no longer concerned with the establishment of a cult center, nor do they refer to the surplus that the priests would receive from the unused food offerings.
- Altenmüller, Hartwig. “Feste.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1: 172–191. Wiesbaden, 1975. The best study of all ancient Egyptian feasts and festival calendars; extremely useful.
- Bedier, Shafia. “Ein Stiftungsdekret Thutmosis III.” Bulletin of the Center of Papyrological Studies 10 (1992), 1–23. The main edition of the newly discovered festival calendar of Thutmose III from Buto.
- el-Sabban, Sherif. “The Temple Calendars of Ancient Egypt.” Ph.D. thesis, Liverpool University, 1992. A useful and straightforward presentation of the facts about festival calendars. The problems of dating feasts as well as religious and economic matters are not addressed.
- Grimm, Alfred. Die altägyptischen Festkalender in den Tempeln der griechisch-römischen Epoche. Wiesbaden, 1994. The most recent survey of all of the festival calendars from the Greco-Roman period; useful for modern editions of the texts.
- Luft, Ulrich. Die chronologische Fixierung des ägyptischen Mittleren Reiches nach dem Tempelarchiv von Illahun. Vienna, 1992. The best analysis of the Middle Kingdom temple archive and festival structure at Illahun.
- Nelson, Harold H. Work in Western Thebes 1931–33. Oriental Institute Communications, 18. Chicago, 1934. An excellent overview of Ramesses III's mortuary calendar at Medinet Habu.
- Schott, Siegfried. Altägyptische Festdaten. Wiesbaden, 1950. A useful compendium of virtually all of the main religious festivals listed in calendars and other texts.
- Spalinger, Anthony. Three Studies on Egyptian Feasts and Their Chronological Implications. Baltimore, 1992. The first chapter covers the Amenhotpe I calendar from Karnak.
- Spalinger, Anthony. “The Lunar System in Festival Calendars: From the New Kingdom Onwards.” Bulletin de la Société de Genève 19 (1995), 25–40. A survey of the lunar-civil equivalencies within later festival calendars.
Anthony J. Spalinger