As far as one can judge from incomplete archaeological data, humans never produced burials without monuments marking their location or without cult places. This may not be considered axiomatic only because open cult monuments decay and so disappear much more easily than hidden burials. In Egypt, the functional dualism of the tomb and its division into burial and cult parts (usually substructure and superstructure, although other variants are also possible) is most obvious, owing to the hypertrophy of the latter.

The term “ka-chapel” is used mainly in American writing on ancient Egypt and has two meanings. In the narrowest sense, it was the chamber for the bringing of offerings, which contained the false door and the offering stone; in the widest sense, it was the whole complex of chambers in the superstructure open to priests, relatives of the deceased, and passers-by (multiple-roomed chapels). The term is misleading and conceals to some degree the true meaning of the phenomenon, for the notion of the ka as related to figurative tomb decoration was later than the earliest chapels and existed in its pure form only in the Old Kingdom. In the Middle Kingdom, the ka concept was somewhat profaned and, in the New Kingdom, it was mixed with qualitatively different concepts (see below). Thus, tomb-chapel or cult chamber (Kultkammer, Opferkammer) may be more appropriate terms for this type of architectural structure. The Egyptians designated “ka-chapel” by the word ἰz, which they also used for the “whole tomb” and for rooms of varying functions (e.g., offices and workshops), and they never developed more specific terms.

The time when the first ka-chapels were built is hard to establish. The earliest mastabas seem to have no chapels; their false doors were arranged openly on the façade. Some light (e.g., reed) structures, however, might have been erected in front of the false doors to vanish without any trace. Ka-chapels appeared in order to fulfill both ideological and purely practical requirements. The cult place was sacred, owing to its very function, and had to be separated from the surroundings; moreover, offering rituals had to be concealed from strangers. With that, a closed chapel was the best possible means to protect the false door and ritual equipment from vandalism and weathering (this became imperative when vulnerable murals were added).

Ka-chapels of the first dynasties were shaped either as a small court (sometimes roofed) in front of the false door, as a narrow roofed corridor along the eastern façade of the mastaba (exterior corridor chapel), or as a similar corridor penetrating into the body of the mastaba (interior corridor chapel). The only ka-chapel of the third type belonged to Hesyre (third dynasty) and was the first to house numerous mural decorations. From this time, murals were the main factor determining the architecture and appearance of the ka-chapels. Narrow corridor chapels with no adequate field of vision vanished, while those resulting from the deepening of the niche where the false door was placed predominated. The only exceptions to this new type were the tombs of the “style of Khufu” at fourth dynasty Giza, with exterior brick ka-chapels attached to stone mastabas (they were combined frequently with interior chapels).

The structure of the ka-chapel was influenced by both its genesis and ideology. Special attention was always paid to the east-west axis because of the association of the west with the next world. The false door was arranged in the western wall, while the entrance to the ka-chapel was placed in the opposite, eastern wall or in the eastern part of the northern or southern wall. In multiple-roomed tombs, the ka-chapel was the westernmost chamber of the whole complex. The arrangement of murals conformed to strict rules, which depended on the opposition of the west and the east (e.g., ritual topics were treated on the western wall, while everyday scenes were usually located on the eastern wall). In the second half of the fifth dynasty, multiple-roomed mastabas became numerous; their decoration followed the same rules, although less extensively.

The tightly closed statue chamber, the serdab, is usually regarded as an independent component of the tomb, but the cult of statues is identical to that in front of the false door and murals of the ka-chapels. There are several Old Kingdom serdabs shaped as chapels with statue chambers behind their walls (mastabas of Baefba, Seshemnefer II and III at Giza). The similarity in function of these serdabs to those of the ka-chapels is proven by the fact that the term ḥw.t-kʒ applied to them both, as well as to other chambers in the superstructure.

The spatial organization of rock tombs was somewhat different. Because of the technical difficulties of hewing stone, their cult chambers could not be numerous, and rarely exceeded one or two rooms. Such rooms combined the functions of the ka-chapels, serdabs, and other tomb chambers. Orientation of rock-cut ka-chapels was determined by the orientation of the cliff in which they were hewn, and often it differed dramatically from the traditional rules. The false door need not be arranged in the western wall, the entrance need not be opposed to it; moreover, both might be located in the same wall. The rules of the arrangement of murals were similarly modified. In the chapels of Old Kingdom rock tombs, the tradition of carving statues in the wall was developed; later, those engaged statues were adopted in the mastaba chapels.

The ka-chapel had two main functions. First, it was the offering place where everyday and festive priestly services were celebrated, where offerings where left on the offering stone, and where they were accepted by the tomb owner going forth from the false door. Second, when the first representations appeared, the ka-chapel acquired another function—its decorations started to create the world where the ka, the “double” of the owner, existed—in the Doubleworld. Decoration of the ka-chapel with realistic murals created the Doubleworld, reproducing earthly life and assuring it forever. That idea so elated the Egyptians that during the initial development of murals, they constructed several immured ka-chapels, which were isolated and independent from the cult (mastabas of Nefermaat and Rahotep at Meidum). That experiment had no aftermath, and the next life was always regarded as secured both by cult and representations.

Although representations in the ka-chapel created the Doubleworld, it would be wrong to suppose that it was regarded as located within that chamber—it existed in another dimension and only touched the earthly world wherever images were placed. Contact of the two worlds in the chapel was reflected in the ritual of Cleaning the Footprings; leaving the tomb, priests wiped up their footsteps to eliminate traces of the earthly in the realm of the Double. (For another interpretation, see H. Altenmüller, “Eine Neue Deutung der Zeremonie des INIT RD.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57 (1971), 146–153.)

From the first half of the Old Kingdom, exceptional Memphite ka-chapels are known for the highest nobility and king's relatives (at Saqqara, Giza, Abusir, Dahshur, Meidum, and Abu Rowash); in the second half of the Old Kingdom, monuments of the lower strata of officialdom and those of nomarchs were also built in the homes (provinces). There were several standard sizes of cult chambers corresponding to the places of their owners in the official hierarchy; however, since decoration of the ka-chapels was practically identical, their Doubleworlds were also almost indistinguishable, thus leveling inequality within the ruling class in the next life. Previously, it was supposed that even high-ranking craftsmen could not erect monuments of any significance during the Old Kingdom, but the 1990s discovery of a cemetery of necropolis artisans at Giza alters this perception.

After a century-long decay of the First Intermediate Period, mastabas of the old types were revived in the Faiyum and near Memphits. Regrettably, they are badly deteriorated, but several well-preserved chapels may be easily mistaken for Old Kingdom monuments (e.g., those of Ihy and Hetep at Saqqara). The main trend of development of the ka-chapels, however—beginning from the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom—is represented by rock-cut tombs. Scattered throughout Upper Egypt, rock-cut tombs of those periods are a provincial phenomenon and, thus, several local tendencies coexist in the development of architecture and the decoration of their chapels. Such important necropolises as Hawawish (Akhmim), Meir, Bersheh, and Beni Hasan generally followed traditions of the Old Kingdom, although they deviated from a standard style, owing to provincialism and long independent development. In Thebes (at Tarif, Asasif, Gurna), Armant, and Dendera, the new type of saff-tomb appeared, with their chapels cut deeply into the rock and joined to the pillared façade by a narrow corridor. At Qubbet el-Hawa (Aswan) the corridor is longer and the chapel placed in the heart of the cliff seems to be separated further from the world of the living. In addition to rock-cut chapels, the tomb complexes of Qau el-Kebir (Antaeopolis) had free-standing chapels in the valley, which were analogous to the lower temples of royal burial edifices.

From the New Kingdom, the greatest number of rock-cut tombs are known, with the Theban region having the most examples. Among other types of tombs, there was the extensive complex constructed at Thebes for Amenhotep, son of Hapu; like royal monuments, it contained a widely separated cult structure (temple) and hidden burial component (rock-cut chamber). A number of temple-shaped tombs of high officials from later decades was discovered at Saqqara. The most important among them is the complex of General Horemheb, built and decorated prior to his enthronement as last king of the eighteenth dynasty. The increased well-being of the lower classes was reflected in numerous tombs of necropolis craftsmen at Deir el-Medina; the decoration of their chapels was sometimes innovative and less restricted by tradition than decoration in the tombs of high officials.

In spite of the increased number, size, and splendor of New Kingdom tombs, their development marked the end of the ka-chapel. The number of religious motifs increased in the decoration of cult chambers during the eighteenth dynasty. Such scenes as funeral processions, which had been of limited importance in the previous epochs, were turned into detailed pictorial narrations. In Ramessid times, everyday scenes disappeared and representations and texts going back to the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) prevailed. Thus, the Doubleworld of Old Kingdom tradition declined in use and, accordingly, the term “ka-chapel” should not be applied to cult chambers of most tombs after that time.

Egypt's Late period was characterized by a general decline in tomb construction. The widespread use of family vaults and the usurpation of old tombs by new generations made traditional cult chambers useless and nonsensical. Degradation of chapels was mostly a result of the economic difficulty in sustaining a cult. The most remarkable exceptions to that rule were the Theban tombs of the twenty-fifth through twenty-sixth dynasties, which contained superstructures and cult quarters more extensive than any in the history of ancient Egypt. The greatest among them is that of Petamenophis at Asasif.

Of particular interest in the late history of tomb-chapels was the archaizing tendency of the twenty-fifth through twenty-sixth dynasties, which revived traditions of the Old Kingdom. Carved reliefs in those chapels mimicked decoration of ancient tombs almost exactly, but their owners did not understand the ancient ideology; realistic everyday topics were reinterpreted symbolically, and the resurrection of the Doubleworld in the archaized chapels was suggested only with serious reservations. The last attempt to revitalize old chapel decorations was made in the late fourth century BCE, in the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel (Hermopolis), with its eclectic mix of everyday scenes in the Greco-Egyptian style and religious texts from early Egyptian times.


  • Badawy, Alexander. A History of Egyptian Architecture, vol. 1: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Old Kingdom. Giza, 1954. General review of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom architecture, with chapters on royal and private tombs.
  • Bolshakov, Andrey O. Man and His Double in Egyptian Ideology of the Old Kingdom. Ägypten und Altes Testament, 37. Wiesbaden, 1997. A study of the ka concept as reflected in Old Kingdom tombs, with a brief review of its development. Analysis of the arrangement of representations is less detailed than in Harpur (1987), yet more oriented toward ideology.
  • Brunner, Hellmut. Die Anlagen der Ägyptischen Felsgräber bis zum Mittlern Reich. Ägyptologische Forschungen, 3. Glückstadt, 1936. Out of date but important because of the unique outline of the development of provincial rock-cut tombs in the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
  • Duell, Prentice. The Mastaba of Mereruka. University of Chicago, Oriental Institute. Sakkara Expedition. 2 vols. Chicago, 1938. Publication on one of the largest Old Kingdom multiple-roomed tombs.
  • Epron, Lucienne, et al. Le tombeau de Ti. 2 vols. Cairo 1939–1966. Memoires publiés par les membres de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale du caire. Publication on the best preserved Old Kingdom multiple-roomed tomb with excellent decoration.
  • Harpur, Yvonne. Decoration in Egyptian Tombs of the Old Kingdom: Studies in Orientation and Scene Content. London and New York, 1987. Excellent work on Old Kingdom tomb decoration; less extensive, but more detailed than Montet (1925).
  • Kanawati, Naguib. The Egyptian Administration of the Old Kingdom. Warminster, 1977. Witty study of the correlation of ka-chapel sizes with the social position of their owners.
  • Kanawati, Naguib. The Tomb and Its Significance in Ancient Egypt. Guizeh, 1988. Popular but reliable history of Egyptian tombs.
  • Lefebvre, Gustave. Le tombeau de Pétosiris. 3 vols. Cairo, 1923–1924. Publication of the archaized Ptolemaic tomb of Petosiris.
  • Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. The Memphite Tomb of Horemheb, Commander-in-Chief of Tutankhamun. London, 1989. Publication of one of the most important funerary complexes of the New Kingdom.
  • Montet, Pierre. Les scénes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de l'Ancien Empire. Strasbourg, 1925. Excellent reference book that traces the development of tomb decoration in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Its reading should be combined with Harpur (1987).
  • Petrie, William Matthew Flinders. Antaeopolis: The Tombs of Qau. London, 1930. For the tombs with valley chapels at Qau el-Kebir.
  • Reisner, George Andrew. The Development of the Egyptian Tomb down to the Accession of Cheops. Cambridge, Mass., 1936. Detailed typology of early tombs, including chapters on ka-chapels.
  • Reisner, George Andrew. A History of the Giza Necropolis. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass, 1942. Detailed typology of Old Kingdom tombs at Giza, with extensive chapters on ka-chapels.
  • Robichon, Clément, and Alexandre Varille. Le temple du scribe royal Amenhotpe fils de Hapou. Fouilles de l'Institut français d'archéologie orientale du Caire. Cairo, 1936. Publication of the eighteenth dynasty cult structure of Amenhotep, son of Hapu.

Andrey O. Bolshakov