From the Early Dynastic period until the late New Kingdom, Egyptian palaces, temples, and royal tombs are closely related through the concepts of the divine nature of the king and the cosmological aspect of royal dominion.
Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom.
The form of the Early Dynastic palaces of the kings of Upper Egypt, known as pr-wr (“great house”), can be traced back to reed structures of Predynastic times. Early in the historic period, pr-wr became the word for “sanctuary” in Upper Egypt. A related term for “palace,” pr-ʿʒ (also “great house”) was extended to the ruler himself and is the source of “pharaoh.” The decorated high palace façade surmounted by the Horus falcon (originally srḫ, “lordly, exalted [building]”) became the emblem of the divine ruler. The word ʿḥ (originally “shrine”) occurs in the terms for both “royal palace” (ʿḥ-nswt) and “palace (or fortress) of the gods” (ʿḥ-nṯr). The palaces, temples, and monumental royal tombs of the early dynasties are models of the cosmos, and all are surrounded by paneled enclosure walls.
In this early period, temples and tombs were built wholly of mud brick, with the exception of the doorways and sometimes the floors. Beginning in the third dynasty, tombs were built of durable stone; later, temples too were of stone. Palaces, however, being domestic buildings for earthly life, were constructed of brick throughout Egyptian history.
The hieroglyphic sign for ʿḥ, based on the early structural form, looks much like a donjon or keep, the heavily fortified inner tower of medieval European castles, within a similarly fortified enclosure. An example of such a structure of first dynasty date is the fortress on the island of Elephantine. It was abandoned and replaced by a more extensive complex to the west of the town which was dominated by a small, massive step pyramid; this building, called “The Headband of King Huny,” was a kind of fortified tower which was perhaps topped by the royal pavilion. Another early remnant has been discovered at the ancient royal residence of Upper Egypt, Hierakonpolis: the foundations of a richly paneled monumental gate to a royal palace or temple.
A palace of the first dynasty at Memphis is mentioned on sealings of Adj-ib. This has not been found, but the name of the early residence town and palace, Inebu-hedj (“White Fortress”), suggests the paneled façades of the large first dynasty mastabas on the northern cliffs of Saqqara and the magnificent white limestone enclosure of Djoser's funerary palace. A palace-like structure was unearthed by an expedition of the German Archaeological Institute in the early dynastic layers at Tell el-Fara'in, or Buto, the ancient royal residence of Lower Egypt. This may have been a provincial palace of the king; it includes all the typical secular elements—king's house, harem, gardens and pools, administrative center, armory, storehouses, and workshops.
Every pyramid town had a palace where the king resided while overseeing the construction of his pyramid and its complex. Czech excavators have found traces of column bases near the pyramid of Sahure (fifth dynasty), confirming textual mention of a columned entrance hall in Sahure's palace. The fifth dynasty royal architect Senedjem-ib-Inti was praised by his king, Djedkare Izezi, for designing and building a large (126 × 630 meters/400 × 2,000 feet) royal palace, “Lotus Flower of Djedkare,” within the king's pyramid precinct at Saqqara South. A monumental brick wall on a solid foundation of basalt blocks, discovered in 1994 about 1,250 meters (4,000 feet) east of the Great Pyramid, may have been the eastern enclosure of the palace or pyramid town of Khufu.
In the late 1990s, a large palace complex of about 2,500 square meters was being excavated by an expedition of the French Archaeological Institute at Ain Asil in the oasis of Dakhla. It was the residence of the Egyptian governors of the oasis. It includes residential and administrative buildings with porticos, columned halls, warehouses, silos, and even shrines dedicated to the memory of the governors. Parts of a late sixth dynasty palace of a governor of the first Upper Egyptian nome have been found at Elephantine; it also included a memorial chapel to a governor, probably Hekaib.
During the Middle Kingdom, the various functions of the royal palace seem to separate and be relocated in more specialized buildings. Thus, a palace of Senwosret I at Thebes is named “Senwosret Is Observing the Primeval Hill,” undoubtedly an indication that it was a ritual structure attached to a temple that, like the one at Medamud, incorporated a mound representing the site of first creation. The eleventh dynasty kings Antef and Montuhotpe may have had palaces near the temple of Karnak, at Medamud or el-Tod, or on the west bank of the Nile near the modern village of el-Taref, where the large saff-tombs of these kings were cut into the desert hillside.
From the thirteenth dynasty, we have an account book detailing deliveries and expenses at the palace at Thebes during visits of the royal court over a period of several months; because this papyrus was found in Dra Abul Naga on the western side of Thebes, the palace was probably situated there on the hillside in front of Dra Abul Naga or Taref. The permanent royal residence and administrative center of the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties, however, was established by Amenemhat I at Itjtawy near modern Lisht. Poetic descriptions of the costly decoration of its state rooms appear in the Instructions of Amenemhat and in the Story of Sinuhe.
Other royal palaces must have existed in the pyramid towns in Dahshur and the Faiyum. The acropolis of the pyramid town of Illahun, the only such community of the Middle Kingdom to have been excavated, is dominated by a large and spacious palace area and storage areas which could easily have accommodated the king's household, court, and administration for a long period.
An extensive Middle Kingdom palace complex has been excavated at Bubastis, an important town and cult center of the goddess Bastet, near modern Zagazig. In view of the extensive palace complex built earlier by the governors at Dakhla Oasis, it is possible that the Bubastis complex was that of the governors of this rich and important province. Statues of officials found in one of its main rooms suggests that cult chapels for deceased governors may have existed here. However, a large lintel and fragments of door jambs and threshold depicting royal figures and the titulary of Amenemhet III indicate that the palace also accommodated the king on his visits to the temple of Bastet and the administrative center of the eastern Delta.
Another palace, dating to the early twelfth dynasty, is found farther to the northeast in the area of Khata'ana; it is attested by a monumental gate with the names of Amenemhet I, renewed by Senwosret III. This same region has a palace from the early thirteenth dynasty, with a large garden; it may have belonged to a governor or even to a local ephemeral king.
Shortly after the thirteenth dynasty, the Nile Delta was taken over by Middle Eastern settlers who proclaimed themselves kings. They were succeeded by powerful rulers, the so-called Hyksos (fifteenth dynasty), who established their capital at Avaris (modern Tell ed-Dabʿa), with a strongly fortified palace. This has recently been excavated by an Austrian team. Only the substructures and the platform on which this mighty palace once stood survived destruction by the Thebans, who used Avaris as a staging point for their campaigns against the successors of the Hyksos in southern Palestine. Thousands of fragments of murals featuring Cretan styles and motifs—probably the work of Cretan artists—evidence far-reaching relations and cultural interaction at this period. The architecture of the palace differs considerably from any of previous periods: whereas the typical earlier palace covers a large area with a series of rooms and large, columned halls without much variation in elevation, the Hyksos palace is characterized by a high platform built on massive brick casemates surrounded by columned halls and monumental staircases leading to a still higher platform, on which the royal apartments probably stood.
At the end of the seventeenth dynasty, the Upper Egyptian rivals of the Hyksos kings erected near Ballas (ancient Ombos, the “Gold Town”) two very similar palaces from which they launched their campaigns against the Lower Egyptian overlords. These palaces, comprising several platforms built on casemates, with surrounding columned halls and monumental staircases, are reminiscent of Minoan palaces on Crete and Thera. This type of palace is restricted to the period of transition to the New Kingdom, but it was resumed at the end of the twenty-sixth dynasty in the palace of Apries at Memphis, which may have been influenced by Greek palace architecture.
Of the Theban royal palaces of the New Kingdom, only the palace complex of Amenhotpe III at Malqata has yet been discovered. The rest have been either buried under cultivated land or destroyed during later construction. Even their location is disputed. An obvious hypothesis is that the royal palace was situated south of Karnak between the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and excavations in this area, near the village of el-Goud, have indeed brought to light evidence of dense habitation from the Middle Kingdom to the Late period, with town houses but no traces of a palace. A palace on the north side of the temple of Amun at Karnak is known from the records of Hatshepsut on the Red Chapel, but textual evidence from the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III clearly places the official Theban palace on the western side. The word used for the official royal palace is ḏʒdw (“columned hall of appearance”), a word that also appears in Old Kingdom texts. The designation ḫft-ḥr-nb-s (“Opposite to Its Lord,” i.e., the temple of Amun) points to an area directly across from Karnak, on the western bank, on the hillside of Dra Abul Naga and Taref. This is approximately the same area where the palace of the early Middle Kingdom may have stood.
This palace was surely rather moderate, in accordance with the straitened circumstances of the early eighteenth dynasty, and could not be compared with the large palaces of the eastern Delta. Therefore, when Thebes under Amenhotpe III became a rich and glorious metropolis, a new palace city had to be created south of the city at Malqata. It had a large artificial lake—the modern Birket Habu—which served as a harbor for the royal fleet, a place of leisure and entertainment for the beloved queen, Tiye, and a stage for the celebration of the king's sed-festival. This enormous palace city (about 350,000 square meters) included several state and residential palaces, an audience hall, temples for the sed-festival commemorating the king's thirtieth year of reign, and the necessary kitchens, storehouses, wine cellars, and workshops, as well as administrative buildings and, probably, residences for the highest officials. The king's private apartments and the harem were probably on terraces on the hillside above the artificial lake, affording the royal family a view of western Thebes and cooling breezes. The palace area has been only partly excavated and not well published, and, sadly, the last remnants of its walls—painted with geometric designs and vivid desert hunting scenes—are eroding and falling apart.
During the Amarna period, the Theban palaces were temporarily abandoned, but they might still be used during royal visits at the beginning of the nineteenth dynasty. They must have fallen into ruin soon thereafter, during the later years of Ramesses II, when the king no longer visited Thebes. To provide housing during visits there, his successor Ramesses III enlarged his mortuary temple by the addition of two large palace buildings, the so-called High Gates. The one on the eastern side served as a temporary royal residence for the king, and that on the western for his harem.
Akhenaten, the heretic son of Amenhotpe III, decided in his fifth year of reign to build a new royal city on virgin ground near modern Tell el-Amarna, far from the old centers of traditional religion. He built his city, called Akhetaten (“Horizon of Aten”), in great haste, and in almost equal haste it was abandoned after his death, never to be inhabited again. Therefore, the ground plan of its temples, palace, and residences are exceptionally well preserved. More information about the buildings comes from the decoration of the rock-cut tombs in the ridge to the west of the city.
The main axis of Akhetaten was a long, wide avenue several kilometers long—the Royal Road—flanked on both sides by temples of Aten and palaces. The avenue began in the North City, which enclosed the North Riverside Palace, a fortified complex with a residential palace built on terraces on the cliffs, a large administrative building, barracks for the royal bodyguard, and large warehouses and granaries; in addition, there are some large houses, perhaps the residences of courtiers close to Akhenaten. Farther to the south lay the North Palace, another royal residence, with official reception halls and a suite of courts, gardens, and living rooms painted with bright scenes from nature. According to inscriptions found there, this was the palace of Princess Meritaten, Akhenaten's eldest daughter and heiress, who was married to his chosen successor, Smenkhkare.
After passing the Great Aten Temple, the avenue reached the Central City, with the Great State Palace on the riverside and the King's House across the avenue from it. The center of the Great Palace was an enormous courtyard surrounded on all four sides by colossal statues of Akhenaten, and having a suite of large halls and open courts. These were the state apartments, where the king performed the rituals of royal regeneration and received dignitaries and foreign envoys: an impressive background for royal propaganda. At the southern end of the Great Palace an extension for Smenkhkare was added at a later date, consisting of a huge hall with 544 painted brick columns and walls encrusted with glazed tiles. A brick bridge led across the Royal Road from the Great Palace to a smaller palace, the King's House; this was also a building of state, with the “Window of Appearance” where the king appeared to his courtiers, accompanied by his family, to give daily orders and distribute rewards. Adjacent to this palace was a personal royal chapel, the Small Aten Temple, a ka-house or mortuary temple of the king with royal statues.
The plan of the palaces and temples and their arrangement along a processional avenue is an accurate copy of the grand processional avenues connecting the temples of Amun at Thebes in the time of Amenhotpe III, modified to the requirements of Akhetaten, where the various royal palaces replaced the temples and the royal family moved in procession instead of the barks of the gods. It is therefore not surprising that this arrangement was not repeated in the following Ramessid period.
The boy-king Tutankhamun resided in the old palace of Thutmose I at Memphis, and probably also in Malqata at Thebes. Sety I began the construction of a residential city and palace near the old Hyksos residence, Avaris, at Qantir in the eastern Delta, the origin of the Ramessid family. Inlays of faience and glazed tiles with his name are evidence for his building activities. His glorious son, Ramesses II, chose this place for his famous residence, Piramesse. Its splendor is echoed in glazed tiles and faience inlays from door frames, throne pedestals, and decorated windows—perhaps a window of appearance. Only traces of the walls have yet been identified, but we know that large stables, storehouses, and workshops for the production of weapons and faience were added to the palace. According to poetic descriptions, the palace was the center of the royal residence, with temples of the great gods lying north, east, west, and south of it. Gigantic colossi more than twenty meters in height adorned the temple pylons facing the palace.
Piramesse served for nearly two centuries as the residence of the powerful rulers of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties. When this glorious city was finally abandoned at the beginning of the twenty-first dynasty, much of its building stone was transported to the new residence at Tanis, and the brickwork was left to decay. The palace district at Tanis has not yet been discovered.
This distinct type of palace has long been known from Western Thebes. The best-preserved example was excavated to the south of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. Foundations of similar buildings have been found on the southern side of the Ramesseum and, more recently, in the southern court of the mortuary temple of Sety I at Qurna and near that of Merenptah. These palaces were built of mud brick against the southern sides of the temple courts, which, as is typical of temple components, are of stone. The temple palaces exhibit small-scale versions of the main features of royal palaces: a columned reception hall, richly decorated and painted; a throne room with two to four columns and a throne pedestal; rooms for sleeping and rest on both sides of the throne room; and behind these rooms, small apartments for attendants (not the harem). A significant feature of all these palaces is the “Window of Appearance” in the middle of the palace façade; the entrances are near the corners of the façade.
These small palaces have long been regarded as temporary royal residences for kings visiting from their Delta residences to participate in the Theban festivals. However, a close examination reveals that they could never have served as residences, even for a short stay. There are no kitchens; the bathrooms have no functioning water drainage, and because the palaces are within the sacred precincts, this sort of service utility must have been prohibited on grounds of ritual purity. Large false doors carved on the roof of the throne room in Medinet Habu and in the rear wall of the Qurna palace indicate that these buildings were intended for the use of the king in the afterworld. They were probably “inhabited” by portable statues of the deified kings which appeared in the “Window of Appearance” and were carried in the processions and feasts of the necropolis.
Similar palaces are attested by decorated architectural fragments that are beside other temples near important cult centers. At Memphis a rather large and sumptuous temple palace of Merenptah was uncovered, part of the larger complex of temples and palaces of the Memphite residence. At Tell el-Yehudiyya, glazed tiles of a palace of Ramesses III were found. The powerless kings of the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties took over the temple palace of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu and transformed it into an official state palace. They probably lived in the eastern High Gate, which was large enough for their modest rituals and state appearances.
It was not until the twenty-sixth dynasty, under the Saite kings, that sumptuous palaces were again built. Regrettably, the palaces of the residence at Sais have wholly disappeared, but at Buto parts of a large palace have recently been excavated. The best-preserved palace of this period was that of Apries at Memphis; today, however, only towering substructures and casemates bear witness to the glorious palaces of this ancient capital.
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- Bietak, M. Palastanlage aus der Zeit des späten Mittleren Reichs und andere Forschungsergebnisse aus dem östlichen Nildelta (Tell ed-Dabʿa, 1979–1984), pp. 325–332. Vienna, 1985.
- Kemp, Barry J. “The Palace of Apries at Memphis.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 33 (1977), 101–108.
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- O'Connor, David. “Mirror of the Cosmos: The Palace of Merenptah.” In Fragments of a Shattered Visage, edited by Edward Bleiberg and Rita Freed, pp. 167–197. Memphis, Tenn., 1993.
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- Uphill, Eric P. “The Concept of the Egyptian Palace as a ‘Ruling Machine’.” In Man, Settlement and Urbanism, edited by P. Ucko, pp. 721–734. London, 1972.