The Greek word pylon (Eg., bḫnt) refers to the massive portals characteristic of Egyptian temples, from at least as early as the Middle Kingdom, but pylons are best known from the temples of New Kingdom to Roman times. The pylon was usually seen as the entrance to the temple or, in the case of multiple pylons, to areas of the temple complex. There seems to have been no set number of pylons for a given temple; the number depended on such factors as the size of the structure and its architectural history. Some buildings had but one or two such gateways, but the Karnak temple of Amun in its final form had ten pylons, six on the east-west axis and four running southward from the main structure; all but one was constructed by succeeding pharaohs, in the course of about two centuries, during the eighteenth dynasty. The earliest known pylon of the Karnak temple was built at the behest of Thutmose I.

The pylon normally consisted of two large towers with sloping sides, connected at about mid-height by a large doorway. The shape of the pylon is believed to symbolize the horizon, and it imitates the hieroglyph for the horizon (ʒḫt). The pylon is built on a rectangular ground plan, but the front face of the structure is usually battered (i.e., it slopes backward as it rises in height). Scenes on a number of Egyptian monuments indicate that the two-to-four battered recesses (at Amarna even more) in the front face of the pylon were used for flagstaffs, from which pennants flew above the level of the tops of the pylon. This was perhaps usual on occasions when the god's statue was engaged in some ritual activity, either within the temple or in procession to some other temple. The edges of the pylon were trimmed with torus moldings, and there were cornices at the top. A number of the known pylons have staircases within, as well as small windows. In Ptolemaicera examples, there are sometimes auxiliary doorways cut through the pylon.

Most of the shell of the pylon—commonly of stone, but some of mud bricks—was filled with rubble or with crudely hewn blocks of stone. At Karnak, restoration efforts at the site have disclosed that many of the interior blocks of the Third Pylon consisted of reused material from the chapels of Senwosret I (of the twelfth dynasty) and of Amenhotpe I, Queen Hatshepsut, and Thutmose IV (all of the eighteenth dynasty). An extraordinary example of such pylon construction, using building materials from earlier edifices, was revealed when the south-axis pylons (Nine and Ten) of Horemheb were dismantled for restoration purposes; thousands of blocks of a size a worker could carry on his shoulder (called talatat) had been taken directly from the East Karnak temples of Akhenaten, carried to the Horemheb construction site, and reused.

Pylon

Phylon. South view of the pylon of the Khons Temple at Karnak. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

Access to the first pylon of a temple was usually by means of a road, one sometimes lined with ram-headed sphinxes. In the case of Karnak, a canal from the Nile River led to a quay at one end of the avenue of sphinxes. In instances of two or more pylons, they were sometimes joined by side walls that formed an enclosed courtyard, as in the case of the court before the Seventh Pylon, added in the Ramessid era. The creation of some courts, as at the funerary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, resulted in the impression that the pylon transsected the side walls of the court.

The pylons were usually covered with carved reliefs—originally brilliantly painted—showing a variety of scenes. Most common are scenes of the king ceremonially executing captured enemy leaders in the presence of his divine father and sponsor, Amun-Re. Other examples show rows of divinities receiving offerings from the king and/or bestowing various gifts on him. Still others show the king engaged in the hunting of such animals as wild bulls. For unknown reasons, the First Pylon of the Karnak temple was left undecorated by its builder, apparently Nektanebo I (380–363 BCE).

Bibliography

  • Badawy, A. A History of Egyptian Architecture, vol. 3. Berkeley, 1968.
  • Baines, J., and J. Málek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, 1980.
  • Jaroš-Deckert, B. “Pylon.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 4: 1202–1205. Wiesbaden, 1982.
  • Spencer, P. A. The Egyptian Temple: A Lexicographical Study. London, 1984.

Gerald E. Kadish