The Latin word stela (pl. stelae) derives from the Greek stele, which means pillar or vertical tablet. (In English, the usual forms are “stele”/“steles.”) In Egypt, stelae are slabs of stone or wood, of many different shapes, usually bearing inscriptions, reliefs, or paintings. Stelae were erected as tombstones and as boundary markers but also as votive and commemorative monuments. From the first dynasty onward—when the earliest stelae were used in Egypt—until Roman times, a considerable change in the shapes of stelae, their decoration, and their types of inscriptions occurred. As tombstones, they were originally erected outside the tombs, to mark the offering place and to name the tomb owner. In temples and sanctuaries, they were set up by individuals to worship the gods but also to commemorate special events, such as successful expeditions to the mines in the desert or victories over foreign powers. In addition to their funerary and votive uses, stelae were also used as boundary markers for fields, estates, administrative districts, or even countries. There are several ancient Egyptian expressions for the term stela, which reflect its different purposes. Wḏ is the most general expression, and it means “monument of any kind,” “tombstone,” “boundary stone,” “monument in a temple,” and more, according to Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow.

Origins and Chronology.

The earliest stelae were erected in Egypt during the first dynasty to mark the tombs of the kings and their courtiers in the cemetery of Abydos in Upper Egypt. Royal stelae of the first and second dynasties consisted of large stone slabs with rounded tops, inscribed with the name of the ruler. They were always set up in pairs, but their original position within the royal funerary complex is still unclear. Herbert Ricke (1950, p. 15, fig. 2) believed that the stelae have marked the offering place outside the superstructure of the royal tomb; but as Günter Dreyer (1991, p. 104) has pointed out they could also have been placed on the roof of the superstructure. Certainly, they were not set up inside the burial chambers of the tombs.

The stelae of the courtiers in Abydos are much smaller and less carefully executed than those of the royal tombs. Unlike the royal stelae of the first and second dynasties, they were not set up in pairs and do not have rounded tops. They were probably inserted into the walls of the superstructures of the tombs or erected in front of them. Sometimes they do not bear just the name and title but also an image of the standing tomb owner. During the second dynasty, the use of tomb stelae gradually decreased. Owing to the enlargement of the tomb superstructures as the Old Kingdom progressed, the offering place was moved into a niche in the panel decoration that covered the façades of the tombs; the false door evolved from this niche. The false doors in the tombs of the third dynasty in Saqqara consist of a door niche as well as a rectangular slab stela, which shows the tomb owner in front of an offering table. Similar slab stelae have already been found in the tombs of the second dynasty in Helwan, a large cemetery on the eastern bank of the Nile River, near the modern city of Cairo. Although those slab stelae are closely connected with false doors, during the fourth dynasty such stelae also appeared detached from false doors in the Giza mastaba tombs. A direct connection between those slab stelae and the round-topped stelae from the first and second dynasties in Abydos cannot be established.

The so-called classical stelae of the Middle Kingdom had their origin in those stone slabs, which were set into the brick mastabas of the provincial cemeteries of the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. A considerable number of such stelae from the sixth to the twelfth dynasty were discovered in the cemeteries of Naga-ed-Deir and Dendera in Upper Egypt. They are rectangular or of irregular shape and were originally inserted into the walls of the cult chambers or the pits of the tombs. George A. Reisner (in Dows Dunham, Naga-ed-Deir Stelae from the First Intermediate Period, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 1937, p. 120) differentiated between two types of stelae from the First Intermediate Period:

  • 1. Almost square stone slabs decorated with a scene that shows the tomb owner in front of an offering table; this type resembles the slab stelae and false-door tablets of the Old Kingdom.
  • 2. Vertical rectangular slabs with rounded tops that depict the standing tomb owner. During the eleventh and twelfth dynasty the so-called classical stela of the Middle Kingdom evolved from this type.

Most stelae of the Middle Kingdom were vertical rectangular slabs, with a rounded top that symbolized the firmament. There were also rectangular stelae with a torus roll and a cavetto cornice, two elements that also appear on false doors and derive from early reed-and-mud constructions.

In the New Kingdom, the shapes of stelae were very similar to those of the Middle Kingdom, apart from some few innovations: for example, round-topped stelae as well as rectangular stelae with a torus roll and a cavetto cornice also contained a triangle as the upper part, a reminder of a pyramidion (the tip or capstone of a pyramid). Another innovation was the kneeling statue that held stelae in front of them (known as stelophorous statues). Painted wooden stelae occurred for the first time during the New Kingdom, but they become more frequent from the Third Intermediate Period onward. They were usually of a vertical rectangular shape, with a rounded top, but compared to earlier stelae the rounded top was given a flatter curve.

Function of Stelae.

Often, stelae were erected in front of tombs or inserted into the walls of mastabas and rock-cut tombs to name the tomb owner; that had become common practice during the first and second dynasties, and was again common during the First Intermediate Period and thereafter.

In the rock-cut tombs of the New Kingdom, stelae were placed in the open courts to represent the owner; they were also found on the side walls of the transverse halls, where they were cut out of the bedrock. There, the stelae marked the secondary offering place in the tomb, while the main offering place in the longitudinal hall usually consisted of a statue niche. By the end of the eighteenth dynasty, stelae were increasingly inserted into the façades of the tombs. In the Late period, tomb stelae were not only placed in the superstructure of the tomb but also directly in the underground burial chamber.

Stelae also served as commemorative monuments. A large group of such stelae from the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties originated in Abydos. At the end of the Old Kingdom, Abydos developed into an important cult center for the god Osiris; it then became a famous place of pilgrimage, where festivals and processions were regularly held. Most of the stelae were erected along the procession roads, and some of them were also placed in small sanctuaries (cenotaphs), with statues and offering tables. Those stelae were established as substitutes, through which their dedicators could participate in the festivals and might profit from the divine offerings. Sometimes commemorative stelae were set up in temples by kings or noblemen, to bear witness to successful military campaigns, royal building activities, dynastic marriages, and other official events, but they could also contain royal decrees.


Stelae. Arrangement of the sections of typical stelae. (Courtesy Regina Hölzl)

A great number of votive stelae were dedicated to the gods. Presented to temples and sanctuaries by individuals, to express their personal devotion, they were also part of small altars erected in private homes, as was often the case in the houses of Deir el-Medina, a village in Western Thebes. There, from the eighteenth to the twentieth dynasty, lived the craftsmen engaged in the work at the royal tombs. “Magic” stelae were also erected in houses and tombs, as protection against dangerous animals, such as snakes or scorpions.

Stelae also marked the boundaries of fields, estates, administrative districts, and cities. For example, Akhenaten's newly founded capital of Amarna, in Middle Egypt, was marked by fifteen rock-cut boundary stelae on which the king explained why he had chosen that site for his new political and religious center. Also on Egypt's southern border with Nubia and in Egypt's newly conquered Near Eastern territories, the pharaohs were very eager to set up boundary stelae as a manifestation of their power.

Types of Decoration.

Stelae usually have depictions and inscriptions, executed in raised or sunken relief, or painted onto the surface. The space within the top curve of a stela is called the lunette, and it is composed of special decorative elements. On Middle Kingdom stelae, the decoration of the lunette is clearly differentiated from the rest, the lower part of the stela, whereas in the New Kingdom the depictions in the lunette and those in the first register below it are blended into each other. In the Late period and also in the Ptolemaic period, a clear distinction was made between the lunette and the rectangular part of the stela, although some still follow the decorative scheme of New Kingdom stelae.

Typical elements used in decorating the lunettes were, for example, udjat-eyes and the winged sun disk—both symbols of protection and defense. Udjat-eyes have been interpreted as a combination of the eyes of a falcon and a wildcat. This image was also used as an amulet and was, for example, depicted on coffins and sarcophagi. The winged sun disk was originally a royal symbol and was usually depicted above temple entrances. Symbols for “life” and “regeneration,” such as the šn-ring or the ʿnḫ-sign, as well as depictions of deities (especially the jackal god Wepwawet), have also appeared in the lunettes. Some additional decorative elements that were used during the Late period included barks with deities in them, scarabs, floral elements, and stars.

During the Middle Kingdom, the rectangular part of a stela usually contained several horizontal lines of inscription, above the depiction of the stela's owner and, occasionally, some of his relatives. On the so-called family stelae of the late twelfth and the thirteenth dynasties, from Abydos, a large number of figures were represented with the owner. Most of them were his relatives, but some might also be high officials, without any family connections, whose appearance on the stela raised the prestige of its owner.

In the New Kingdom, the first register of the rectangular part of a stela was decorated with adoration scenes, showing the owner and his family worshiping the gods. On tomb stelae of the Late period and the Ptolemaic period, the deceased was primarily shown among deities of the hereafter. The depictions were usually accompanied by short texts, but longer inscriptions were set below them. Votive stelae were often dominated by large images of the god to whom the stela was dedicated, and they contain very little text. Often the deities take the shape of animals, as was the case on the many stelae dedicated to the god Amun, on which he was depicted as a ram. Numerous stelae dedicated to the god Apis were found in the Serapeum, the tomb of the sacred Apis bulls in Saqqara; such stelae usually show the dedicator in adoration before the Apis bull.

During the nineteenth dynasty, votive stelae with depictions of large ears were used for the first time. The ears belonged to the gods, and they ensured that the prayers of the dedicators would be heard. Stelae with ears are classed as “magic” stelae, like the so-called cippus from the Late period, a type of stela with the image of the child god Horus standing on a crocodile and holding snakes, scorpions, and other dangerous animals; such stelae were thought to provide protection against harmful creatures.

Types of Inscriptions.

Stelae inscriptions were usually written in hieroglyphs but occasionally also in Hieratic, the cursive writing of the ancient Egyptians. Late period stelae were also inscribed in Demotic, a written and spoken language that evolved during the twenty-sixth dynasty. Some stelae from the Ptolemaic period also have texts in Greek.

The earliest stelae of the first and second dynasties had only the name and title of the owner; by the Middle Kingdom, stelae were inscribed with various kinds of texts, the most common being the offering formula—a prayer through which the owner of a stelae expressed the wish to participate in the offerings that the king donated to the gods. Besides the offering formula, which remained the most common prayer on stelae throughout Egyptian history, stelae also had genealogies, dedication formulas, and other texts. Votive stelae were usually inscribed with hymns to the gods, while commemorative stelae had autobiographies or descriptions of certain important events.

For example, the Kamose stela was erected to commemorate the victory of the pharaoh Kamose over the Hyksos ruler, about 1570 BCE. Successful military campaigns were also mentioned on the boundary stelae that were set up by Senwosret III of the twelfth dynasty, in Semna and Uronarti, lower Nubia, and by Thutmose I and Thutmose III of the eighteenth dynasty, on the banks of the Euphrates River and on the Gebel Barkal in upper Nubia, respectively.

See also FALSE DOOR.


  • Bierbrier, Morris L., ed. Hieroglyphic Texts from Egyptian Stelae, etc. Vols. 10–12. London, 1982–1993. All three volumes contain descriptions, photographs and line drawings of stelae from the Ramessid period, many of them originating from the workmen's village of Deir el-Medina.
  • Dreyer, Gunter. “Zur Rekonstruktion der Oberbauten der Königsgräber der 1. Dynastie in Abydos.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo 47 (1991).
  • Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow, eds. Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache. Berlin, 1926; reprinted 1971.
  • Eyre, Christopher J. “The Semna Stelae: Quotation, Genre, and Functions of Literature.” Studies in Egyptology: Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, edited by Sarah Israelit-Groll, vol. 1, pp. 134–165. Jerusalem, 1990.
  • Habachi, Labib. The Second Stela of Kamose and His Struggle against the Hyksos Ruler and His Capital. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, 8. Glückstadt, 1972.
  • Hermann, Alfred. Die Stelen der Thebanischen Felsgräber der 18. Dynastie. Ägyptologische Forschungen, 11. Glückstadt, 1940. Still relevant study on eighteenth dynasty stelae from rock-cut tombs, including discussions on their purpose as well as their shapes, decorations, and inscriptions.
  • Khodzhash, Svetlana. The Egyptian Reliefs and Stelae in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Translated from the Russian by Oleg Benlev. Leningrad, 1982. Offers explanations, descriptions, and photographs of nearly all types of stelae from the Old Kingdom to Roman times.
  • Müller, Hans W. “Die Totendenksteine des Mittleren Reiches, ihre Genesis, ihre Darstellung und ihre Komposition.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 4 (1933), 165–206. Discusses origins and development of shapes of stelae as well as their purposes.
  • Munro, Peter. Die spätägyptischen Totenstelen. Ägyptologische Forschungen, 25. Glückstadt, 1973. Extensive study on funerary stelae from the Third Intermediate Period to the Ptolemaic era.
  • Murnane, William J., and Charles C. Van Siclen III. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. London, 1993. New and complete edition of the boundary monuments of Tell el-Amarna, published in the fifth volume of Norman de Garis Davies's The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna (London, 1908).
  • Ricke, Herbert. Bemerkungen zur ägyptischen Baukunst des Alten Reiches 2, Beiträge zur ägyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde Heft 5. Cairo, 1950.
  • Simpson, William K. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: The Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. New Haven, 1974. Study on Middle Kingdom stelae from Abydos, their purpose and location.
  • Stewart, H. M. Egyptian Stelae, Reliefs and Paintings from the Petrie Collection. 3 vols. Warminster, 1976–1983. Publication on stelae from all periods now in the University College, London.

Regina Hölzl