the area adjoining the cultivation at the southern end of the Theban Necropolis (25°44′N, 32°35′E). The Arabic name Medinet Habu (“City of Habu”) was thought to reflect the site's more ancient connection with Amenhotep, the son of Hapu, a respected sage of the fourteenth century BCE, later deified, whose memorial temple was immediately to the north. No trace of this association has come down from ancient times, however, as the site's formal name in Egyptian was either Djeme, “Males and Mothers”—originally with reference to the eight primeval deities, or Ogdoad, whom the ancients believed to be buried there—although the name continued to be used by the site's later Christian inhabitants.

Medinet Habu's most conspicuous standing monument is the great memorial temple of Ramesses III (r. 1198–1166 BCE). On the grounds of this complex, however, are numerous other structures, most notably the so-called small temple (built in stages, from the mid-eighteenth dynasty until the second century CE) and the memorial chapels of the divine votaresses of Amun (twenty-fifth dynasty and twenty-sixth). Among other ancient buildings at the site, but less well preserved, is the memorial temple of King Horemheb (r. 1343–1315 BCE), usurped from his predecessor Ay (r. 1346–1343 BCE), which abuts Ramesses III's enclosure on its northern side. To its east are a number of tomb chapels made for high officials of the later New Kingdom. Most abundantly on the enclosure wall of Ramesses III's temple are the remnants of later mud-brick houses—from the town that engulfed the site beginning in the eleventh century BCE until the site was abandoned in the ninth century CE. Reuse of Ramesses III's temple was made especially apparent by the decorated doorways that were cut into its northern outer wall during early Christian times, when the Holy Church of Djeme occupied the building's second court.

Detailed knowledge of the area's history and function has come from the work begun in 1924 by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, under the direction of James Henry Breasted and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. By 1933, the entire site had been systematically excavated and its plan recorded; the copying of the reliefs and inscriptions carved on the walls of Ramesses III's temple, however, including its eastern high gate, continued into the 1960s. Recording by the Epigraphic Survey (Chicago House) of the other inscribed structures at Medinet Habu still continues. As the only attempt to document the entire archaeological, architectural, and decorated substance of a such a large site, this unique series of publications is of ongoing value for the study of ancient Egyptian history, religion, and culture.

The great temple of Ramesses III was called the “Mansion of Millions of Years of King Usermare-Maiamun ‘United with Eternity in the Estate of Amun on the West of Thebes.’” The precinct, 210 × 315 meters (about 700 feet × 1000 feet), was entered by two stone gates in the mud-brick enclosure wall, on the eastern and the western sides, respectively. The western gate—presumably the normal entrance for employees who lived outside the precinct—was destroyed when the temple was besieged in a civil war, during the reign of Ramesses XI (c.1096). The eastern entrance, approached by a canal, terminated in a harbor, from which important visitors and statues could enter the temple; the processional way led first between two porters' lodges that were set into a low, crenelated stone rampart, built in front of the main enclosure wall, and then into the precinct, through the high gate. Despite its military features and the bellicose motifs carved on its outer walls, this structure seems to have been only modeled on a fortification, since the pharaoh is shown at play in reliefs inside its upper chambers; these may have served as royal sitting rooms whenever he visited the “Mansion.”

Medinet Habu

Medinet Habu. Main gate of the royal palace. The palace is from the nineteenth dynasty. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

The interior of the complex, following the earlier model of Ramesses II's memorial temple (called the Ramesseum), had been divided into an inner and an outer quarter—with most of the outer at the eastern end consisting of a garden, administrative offices, and courtyards of various types (mostly occupied by later structures, although a small sacred lake is extant at the precinct's northeastern corner). Housing for the temple staff had been tucked up against the northern and southern walls of the outer enclosure. The inner quarter, demarcated by another mud-brick wall, enclosed the temple and its adjoining mud-brick service buildings and storerooms (badly ruined if compared with their counterparts at the Ramesseum), along with two wells and (south of the temple's first courtyard) a small palace. Although symbolically a residence for the deceased king, the small palace had also been used as a functional rest house for visiting royalty; it was even remodeled to make it more usable by its human occupants.

The temple itself is, for the most part, a slightly smaller copy of the Ramesseum. Two pylons lead into an open courtyard, and the temple's cult rooms were constructed to the west of the portico, at the back of the second courtyard. Commemorated on the building's outer walls (the eastern and northern), as well as inside its two courts, were scenes from the wars of Ramesses III; on the southern outer wall, west of the small palace, was inscribed a calendar of annual feasts and offerings (comparable to those found in Ramesses II's temples at Abydos and Western Thebes). Inside, the first courtyard may have been used for assemblies, with the king presiding from the royal balcony of appearances, which was entered from the palace's southern side. The temple also appears to be divided into sections, based on the ideas of cosmic continuity (north) and resurrection (south)—thus, scenes around the second courtyard depict the festival of the ithyphallic fertility god Min (north), balanced by episodes from that of the underworld deity Sokar (south); deeper inside the temple, cult chambers of the solar god Re (north) stand opposite those dedicated to Osiris (south). Other rooms housed the images of other deities (including Sokar and the divine Ramesses II); there was a “treasury,” in which were stored temple furnishings and cult apparatus, and also a “slaughter-house” (apparently nonfunctional, in which meat offerings were symbolically prepared). As in memorial temples of earlier Ramessid times (the nineteenth dynasty), the main cult rooms were devoted to the processional shrines of Amun-Re, of Mut and Khonsu (who left their homes in the temples at Karnak to visit the western bank on festive occasions throughout the year), and of a resident form of Amun-Re who was, in fact, the divine Ramesses III. At the very back of the temple, there were included a series of small rooms, entered through low, concealed doorways; these may have been meant to function as crypts.

Even more important than the temple of Ramesses III (whose cult died out with the end of the New Kingdom) was a building, the “Holy-of-Place,” that is today most commonly called the “small temple.” The core structure that justifies this name was built for Queen Hatshepsut (1502–1482 BCE); and Thutmose III (1504–1452 BCE), over the foundations of an earlier structure; although this last has been ascribed, on slender grounds, to the Middle Kingdom, a safer date for it would be the earlier eighteenth dynasty. Major additions to this Thutmoside building were made from the twenty-fifth dynasty to the thirtieth, culminating under the Ptolemies in an impressive pylon façade (built against mud-brick towers, c.100 BCE): in front of that, Antoninus Pius (138–161 CE) added a portico and a courtyard, but both were left unfinished. The lengthy duration of the cult in this small temple building reflected not only the importance of the Ogdoad, whose tomb was believed to be within the “mound of Djeme,” but also a special form of Amun, “primeval one of the Two Lands (i.e., Egypt),” who had the power to re-engender himself; this god's “decade” feast, held at regular ten-day intervals, at least from the time of Ramesses II, accounted for much of the functioning vitality at Medinet Habu, which continued alongside that at the temples of Karnak and Luxor to just before the emergence of Christianity.

Starting in the eighth century BCE, the space to the south of the avenue between the eastern high gate and Ramesses III's temple had been appropriated for tomb chapels that belonged to the Divine Votaresses of Amun—noble ladies, symbolically “married” to Amun-Re, who also represented the royal dynasty that was recognized by the increasingly independent local regime at Thebes. Burial vaults were below ground level, and the super-structures of only two chapels remain today: that of Amenirdis I, sister of the Nubian king Piya (Piankhy) (r. 735–712 BCE) is notable for its elegantly sculpted decoration; beside it (west) is the chapel built for the last of the twenty-fifth dynasty votaresses, Shepenwepet II, daughter of Taharqa (r. 690–664 BCE), after she had adopted Nitokris, daughter of the founder of the twenty-sixth dynasty, Psamtik I (r. 664–610 BCE). Although less well executed than its neighbor, this western structure is more interesting, since it was adapted to contain both votaresses' tombs, along with that of Nitokris's mother. As a group, these later buildings represent not only the political fragmentation of Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period but also the continuing importance of Medinet Habu during the Late period, when it still functioned as headquarters for the “Estate of Amun on the West of Thebes.”

Bibliography

  • Edgerton, William Franklin. Medinet Habu Graffiti Facsimiles. Oriental Institute Publications, 36. Chicago, 1937.
  • Hölscher, Uvo. The Excavation of Medinet Habu. 5 vols. Oriental Institute Publications, 21, 41, 54, 55, 66. Chicago, 1934–1954. Plans of the excavations at the site, with different periods color-coded, along with descriptions of its buildings.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Demotic Ostraca from Medinet Habu. Oriental Institute Publications, 80. Chicago, 1957.
  • Murnane, William J. United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu. Cairo, 1980. An extended guide that summarizes the contents of the primary publications, including a selection of plans and drawings from them.
  • Nelson, Harold H. “The Identity of Amun-Re United with Eternity.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1 (1941), 127–155. Demonstrates the identity of this deity with the divine Ramesses III.
  • University of Chicago Oriental Institute. Epigraphic Survey. Medinet Habu. 8 vols. Oriental Institute Publications, 8, 9, 23, 51, 83, 84, 93, 94. Chicago; 1930–1970. Facsimile drawings, along with photographs and paintings of the reliefs and inscriptions of Ramesses III's temple and its eastern high gate.

William J. Murnane