Egyptian temples existed from the middle of the fourth millennium BCE at the latest. According to tradition, the earliest were in the shape of reed huts. The last Egyptian temple built was a complex of buildings on Philae which ceased to be used in the mid-sixth century CE. After this, the existing structures were used as residences, vandalized or destroyed as pagan reminders, or exploited as quarries. However, the razing of temples for the last reason was already common in pharaonic times—to make room for a new building, to remodel a temple facility, or merely to reuse the materials on another site. Thus, out of the thousands of temples that once existed, only a fraction have been preserved for us. Most of these in exist today outline; the rest are almost all ruins, and only a few are intact to some extent. The extant temples are predominantly from the last millennium of Egyptian history, the Greco-Roman period (fourth century BCE to sixth century CE).

Egyptian temples are first and foremost objects of study for architectural and art history. They are also useful in efforts to reconstruct Egyptian religion and the history of the Egyptian state.

Egyptian temples were mostly erected by the state, at the head of which stood the pharaoh. Thus, the temples had a political function, which was expressed in both images and texts. In the foreground, because it was directly visible in the decoration, was the function of communication with the gods. Therefore, the temples are places of religious practice, though strongly influenced by political considerations. Just as the temples were state institutions, Egyptian religion was a state religion. The state is closely connected with two nonreligious aspects: first, temples had to be administered, a well-researched topic; and second, they required an economic base, which is apparent in many details, particularly lists of donors for its furnishing. The temple economy and administration as sectors belonging to the state had a life of their own, because they supported the regime in a purely practical sense (except in periods of unrest), and also because of the prominence of temples as a proportion of the overall economy. However, the primary function of the temples was worship directed to deities.

Egyptian Temples as Sacred Places

The gods are usually seen as the intended recipients of temple cults, but this view is not entirely accurate. Deceased and even living kings, as well as deceased private individuals (particularly officials and their households), could also be “looked after” in a cultic manner (the so-called mortuary cults). In the case of human subjects, it was their spiritual component (including the ka) that was tended and thought of as an active power. The same concept applied to gods, who were active powers with which one communicated by means of the cult ritual. The temple where living humans came in contact with these holy powers was thus a sacred place.

The sacred center

The initiation of communication between the performer of the cult and its recipient in temples of the gods (see the classification of temples below)—that is, the king (or his representative) and a deity—was made possible through sacrifices and was effected in the “sacred center” of a temple. This center is usually the so-called chamber of the cultic image. This chamber, or the place of the cultic image in smaller structures, includes a room or place of sacrifice. In temples whose cultic schedule included processions, there are also procession rooms, such as the hall of appearances and the festival court. The holiness, most intense in the chamber of the cultic image, decreased through this sequence of rooms until it terminated at the temple entrance.

The communication between performer and recipient of the cult took place through the medium of the cultic image. Through the sacrifice, the cultic image was “brought to life” and prepared to receive the sacred power. The deity entered the image, and then communication could proceed. The sacred power came from the “next world” or “beyond,” which a human could not reach physically, but only by sending forth a spiritual power (as in the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth) or as a dead person.

The sacred center of a temple was therefore a point of transition between this world and the next. However, this opens up a fundamental problem: Such points of transition also existed outside temples; what then can actually be designated a temple? Sacred power might enters this world through any being or object, and foremost among these was the king. The sacred power was received by the king at his coronation, which took place in the chamber of the cultic image or antechamber of the temple. Once invested with the sacred power, the king entered the palace, which was therefore a sacred place, though not a point of transition. The king was purified for the performance of the cult in the sacristy of the temple, understood as a place of transition because the sacred power is conveyed by the water.

Another place with a point of transition from this world into the beyond is the tomb, which has sites for burial and cult. The burial chamber is separated from this world and belongs completely to the next. When the cult is performed, the ka of the deceased goes to the place of the cult to receive the offerings. The cult area is the place of transition—a symbolic door, a representation in relief of the deceased person, or a cultic statue. The cultic parts of tombs, strictly speaking, are therefore also temples. As complexes, tombs are distinguished from temples in that they contain sections that are architecturally designed as belonging to the next world. By contrast, in a temple the part belonging to the next world is not specified.

The points of connection between this world and the next world in a temple might be numerous. In addition to the chamber of the cultic image, every statue (of a deity, king, or private individual) in a temple was a potential point of transition because they could be animated through sacrifices, and in this sense the sacred power of the entity represented dwelled in the statue. Even relief images and textual mentions could be places of transition; the ritual invocation of a name implies a bringing to life. These additional points of transition are part of the inner periphery of the temple (see below).

Fundamental function

All the functions of a temple were dependent on the central point of transition between this and the next world, and enabling this was the fundamental function. This transition took place in the framework of ritual sequence and was thereby regulated. The regulation of the transition and the temporary sojourn of the sacred power in this world served to control the power and to achieve the intended purpose of the performance. The king was theoretically the performer of the cult, and thus he was given his power by the sun god. Communication between the deity and a private individual was possible only in exceptional cases—in the proclamation of an oracle, or in even in direct prayer to the deity, as was possible in Akhetaten. The royal performance of the cult, generally speaking, invoked the sacred power for the preservation of maat, the order of the world.

The performance of the cult by the king or his proxy, a priest linked a temple with the sphere of the divine; thus, the land of Egypt was connected with the divine at as many points as there were temples. To structure this connection in a manner as extensive and secure as possible was one of the goals of the temple construction programs repeatedly implemented from the time of Senwosret I until they ceased with the thirtieth dynasty.

Inner periphery

An Egyptian temple complex is composed of sequences of spaces, of which the innermost consists of the dwelling spaces of the temple's main deity. Boundary walls surround the complex, in front of which there may be access roads, a residential area, and other elements. The area between the center and the (inner) temenos (see below) is called the “inner periphery” of the temple.

Cultic rooms

The dwelling spaces of the main deity are the primary rooms, in which the statue or statues of the main god are housed. First, there is the chamber where the cultic image more or less permanently remained. If the cult of the main god included a procession, there is a “bark chapel” with a pedestal to support the “bark” or ship-shaped litter with its cabin in which a separate cultic image of the god might be kept; in many cases the cultic statue from the central chamber was itself removed for processional display. There are several documented cases in which the two primary rooms are conjoined so that the cultic statue and the bark stood in the same space.

Particularly in temples of the Greco-Roman period, of but also in earlier ones, cultic rooms are also provided for other gods of the Ennead besides the temple's main deity. These may be arranged as a circle of cultic chambers or chapels around a primary room of the temple. These autonomous chambers of cultic images are designated “secondary rooms.”

There are also cult places within temples which contain statues of the king or even of private individuals. These allowed the persons represented to partake in the sacrifices to the main deity in the form of offerings passed on to them, or to be given separate offerings. The statue of the king mediates between the one making the sacrifice and the main deity of the temple. On an economic level, the king or official offering the sacrifice is allowed to consume the offered goods himself, once he has placed them before the statue. The places where these statues are kept can be thought of as tertiary rooms. Statues of private individuals might also be placed in niches within primary rooms.

The whole cultic area frequently encompasses other separately constructed offering chambers and processional corridors, especially in later temples, but also in large complexes of the New Kingdom. The corridors are called “halls of appearances” and “festival halls.” In the hall of appearances, the bark of the god “appeared” and moved out from the temple, frequently through the festival hall, in which a crowd of people greeted the deity. These spaces outside the immediate cultic spaces may be designated as “rooms of mediate connection with the cult.”

Other sacred places include namely spaces for storing cultic objects and treasury chambers (frequently the same space), as well as chambers and halls for ritual slaughter and “sacristies” for the purification of the king or the priest acting in his place.

The sacred places are often separated from the rest of the temple precinct by an inner temenos. Around this wall there are administrative buildings, residences for the priests, and storage rooms and other economic units belonging to the temple. These buildings may or may not be delimited by an outer surrounding wall.

Ground plan, levels, and sequence in the inner periphery

Two principles alternate in the horizontal plan of temples: separation and connection. All the spaces of the sacred center and of the inner periphery are closed off from one another by walls. Since the sacred powers must be protected from other active magical powers, and also because the sacred powers must not be allowed to leave the inner periphery, all openings of these spaces must be secured with care. These powers were dangerous and had to be kept completely under control, an aim served by the spatial arrangement and decoration of a temple. The openings of sacred spaces are windows (rarely) and doors. The windows are not to let those within look out, but rather to let in light and air. In Ptolemaic temples, rays of the sun are frequently depicted on window frames, a sign that sunlight was allowed—indeed, magically compelled—to come in. Apotropaic signs on the outer walls prevent immaterial negative powers from passing through the opening. The doorways are secured by two means: materially by installing wooden doors, evident today (only by their accessories in the stone work), and magically by applying either apotropaic signs or representations of the king entering—showing that the king alone is entitled to pass. Doors are also magically secured through the king's titles depicted on their frames. The processional passages to the center are set off by pillars, columns, and/or statues and are thereby magically secured.

The vertical plan is expressed in the varied height of horizontal levels and in the walls. The placement of the walls has been discussed above. The most important horizontal levels are the floor and the roof, both of which may vary in elevation. The passage from the temple entrance to the chamber of the cultic image, for example, often slopes upward as either a ramp or a flight of stairs, so that the human approaches the enthroned deity from below. The parallel between sacred space and the heavens is also apparent, particularly in the bark room, which is designated as heaven, and its entrance doors as the gates of heaven.

The upward-sloping floor is often complemented by a downward slope of the roof. In the cross-section of a temple, this often produces the effect of shortening the perspective. The room that is farthest back in such a cross-section, the chamber of the cultic image, thus appears as a kind of cave, the prototype of a sacred place.

Two types of temples can be distinguished according to outward shape: free-standing temples and rock-cut temples. In the first group the separations are erected; in the second, the spaces that the separations are to enclose are negatively created. If one begins with the concept that the wall of living rock is a boundary between this world and the otherworld, then cutting a temple into the rock extends the realm of this world into the otherworld: the temple is thereby enclosed by the otherworld and in a certain sense belongs to it. In this way the Egyptians gave shape to a part of the otherworld and granted it a kind of order.

The inner periphery of a temple is structured as a series of stages, characterized by decreasing sacredness as one moves outward. With increasing sacredness coincides a lessening of the number of persons who perform service: in the cultic image and bark chambers, according to the iconography, only the king or his proxy is admitted.

Outer periphery

The center and the inner periphery form the temple itself, where the cult is performed. It is normally separated from its surroundings by a wall. Here, at the (inner, if an intermediate zone is provided) enclosing wall of the temple, chaos begins, according to the dualistic thought of the Egyptians. However, this chaos is stratified. If administrative, residential, and economic structures are arranged around the temple, then this area no longer belongs to the sacred place; however, if the entire complex is enclosed by another, outer wall, some of the sacredness of the inner temple diffuses into the area enclosed by the outer wall. This is an intermediate zone between the inner and outer periphery, which could be considered holy ground: in the twenty-sixth dynasty, for example, tombs of kings were erected here. Therefore, as seen from within, chaos begins on the boundary of the inner periphery; but, as seen from outside, the intermediate zone and the outer periphery are regarded as still sacred and within the protection of the temple. When they took over as heads of temples after the collapse of the Old Kingdom, district princes had the intention of culticly binding the entire district to the divine.


Temples. The birth house of Cleopatra VII at Armant, Ptolemaic period. (Computer reconstruction by Barry Girsh; courtesy Dieter Arnold)

The conceptual model of the temple found application on larger scales. The space occupied by several temples (e.g., at Abu Simbel) could assume sacred status by virtue of the underground processional passages linking the temples. An entire region, for example the Faiyum, could acquire the character of a temple by imposing an appropriate exterior structure: the sacred center was Krokodilopolis, and at the outer boundary in Biahu, almost as the sign of an outer enclosing wall, an entrance with a double statue was erected by Amenemhet III. The next step consisted in conceiving Egypt in its entirety as a temple: its center was the palace of the king (as stated in a wisdom text of Amenemhet I); the outer periphery could consist of the entire realm. Thus, in the eighteenth dynasty, Thebes, with the Amun temple in Karnak, was the center to which the whole world had to pay tribute (Tomas inscription of Thutmose I). The basis for this conceptual model was the iconic character of temple.

The Temple Cult and Its Instruments

Egyptian temples, seen from the outside, are static and immovable structures; yet temples, like statues and mummies, were animated with the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth. In this manner, they took on the character of dynamic entities. Temples were inherently “living” by virtue of the fact that they were the dwelling places of sacred powers, but in order to keep a living temple viable, cultic instruments,—objects as well as rites—were necessary. Like location, architecture, decoration, and sacred transactions, they were components of the temple. The operation of a temple began with its erection and furnishing and was maintained through the ongoing performance of the cult.

Erection of temples

Two closely interwoven aspects of the erection of Egyptian temples can be distinguished: the cultic aspect, and the practical matters of building and furnishing. It is typical that Egyptian records deal almost exclusively with the cultic aspect; this is connected with the two Egyptian “realities” (see below).

Cultic founding

The erection of a temple began with its founding, the laying of the cornerstone. The first step of this ritual was the separation and bounding of the building site by means of stretching a cord. The effective inclusion of sacred powers during the separation was made possible through the cultic presence of Seshat, the goddess of calculation, represented by her priest. Thus, the foundation of a temple was an act of creating a sacred place.

The earliest depiction of a foundation ceremony comes from the sun temple of King Newoserre (fifth dynasty, second half of the twenty-fifth century BCE). The “stretching of the cord” was followed by the digging of earth from the foundation pit (scene 4); the “pouring of sand”—the ritual separation of the temple from the underground (scene 5); the laying of sacrificial animals in the foundation pit (scene 2); the scraping of the bricks (scene 3) and the laying of the bricks (scene 6), thus sealing the foundation pit. This concluded the foundation and was followed (in the case of Newoserre) by a visit by the king (scene 7). Particularly in temples from the Greco-Roman period, the dedication of the temple that follows its building is depicted as an offering of a representation of the temple (temple façade) to its main deity.


Like the foundation phase, accounts of temple building and furnishing are limited to matters relating to the cult. A report to Sethos I on the building of the rock-cut temple of Kanais typifies this: “His Majesty commanded to give directions to the leader of the royal workers who were with him as stone cutters. By cutting into this mountain a temple was made for these gods.… When the monument had been finished and its inscriptions completed, His Majesty came to adore his fathers, all the gods” (Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, (p. 54).

The description of the completion of a temple also concentrates on what is culticly necessary. The temple of dead of Amenophis III in west Thebes is described as “a monument of eternity and everlastingness, of fine sandstone worked with gold throughout. Its pavements were made pure with silver, all its doors with fine gold. It is very wide and great and decorated enduringly” (Lichtheim, p. 44). The so-called silver of the floor was in reality a layer of poured sand; only the sandstone may have actually been in the real temple.

The erection of a temple was accomplished in stages. The central rooms and inner periphery of temple structure itself were built, at least from the New Kingdom on, of limestone or sandstone, while the remainder was built of sun-dried mud bricks. On the walls, the reliefs and texts were first sketched, then chiseled into the walls, and then painted (these technical stages can be clearly distinguished in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings).

Components: Location, architecture, decoration, and action

The sacred center of a temple consists of the chamber of the cultic image and the bark sanctuary, surrounded by the inner periphery, outer periphery, outer enclosure wall, and environs. We have related the decreasing sacredness from center to environs to an increasing quality of chaos. This also means that the design of a temple had to consider its external situation or location. The site is the framework for the architecture of the shrine, which is divided into rooms and courts. Passageways and walls, the elements of the architecture, are decorated with pictorial works. This third component of a temple encompasses all two-dimensional decorations, including reliefs, paintings, and texts, as well as three-dimensional objects and also markers like obelisks. This completes the tally of the temple components that can be seen today. To perform the cult, however, cultic implements of various kinds were also necessary. Hardly any of these remain preserved today (at best, a few arm-shaped censers), but they included barks, the vehicles for processions of the divinities, and also (as depicted in the crypts of Dendera) important cultic instruments. The last included books in which the rituals were consigned in written form, so that they would be available to the lector-priests who performed the cult as guides and a basis for recitations. Finally, there were the actions themselves, the actual performance of the cult.


A temple's designers faced two tasks in situating it: fitting the building into the surrounding landscape, and orienting it according to the directions of the compass. Here a distinction must be made between geographical and cultic orientation. Behind the latter stands the conceptual model of the sun's course, rising in the east and setting in the west; the former includes the seasonal shift of the sun's path from south to north. Therefore, sun temples are oriented with their sacred center pointing east; the back wall, the point of transition from the beyond into this world, is placed in the eastern part of the temple, and the access in the western part. All kinds of mortuary cult temples, particularly those of the kings of the New Kingdom, are oriented according to the setting phase of the sun, or westward, so that the sacred center is at the western edge of the temple. All other temples are oriented according to one of these two patterns. The path of the sun as it shifts toward the north or the south is reflected in temples that must make use of the spring and autumn equinoxes—for example, the great temple of Abu Simbel and its typological forerunner, the temple of Horemheb in Gebel el-Silsilah. A southern orientation is found particularly in complexes that have the “return” of the eye of the sun as their theme. A northern orientation alludes to the night: the mortuary temple of Djoser in Saqqara is oriented toward the north. The theme here is the transfer of the deceased king to the northern sky, where he is to take over the guidance of Polaris, the North Star. The northern altar serves the cultic purpose of supporting this transfer of the king to the northern sky. This northern orientation is also apparent in the conception of the tomb pyramids of the Old Kingdom.

The actual placement of a temple building was often not selected according to the geographical cardinal points, but rather obeyed constraints of the landscape or other cultic requirements. However, even then the concept of east–west orientation was determinant, and this is shown by the cultic orientations of the compass. This requirement could be served by the manipulation of decorative elements; for example, on both sides of a passageway there are depictions of the king entering to perform the cult; on the cultic (though hot geographical) northern side he wears the Red Crown, which represents Lower Egypt and thus the north, while on the cultic southern side he wears the White Crown of Upper Egypt. The symbols of the two crown goddesses, Wadjyt for the north and Nekhbet for the south, can also be used. Thus, it is insignificant from a cultic standpoint whether the geographical cardinal directions are taken into account. Even tombs and other funerary cult structures, which according to the common conception belong on the western side of the Nile, could be placed on the eastern side, given appropriate defining decoration. For instance, in the private tombs of Tell el-Amarna, hymns addressed to the rising sun are inscribed on the (geographical) western entrance.

Fitting the temple into the landscape basically followed a predetermined quality of sacredness of the place and was thus connected to tradition. It might serve to bind a political or economic center to the divine, or it might depend on a cult association. The Satet temple at Elephantine goes back to a prehistoric cultic niche in the corner of a rock cliff, the sacredness of which was continued in later millennia. The area of Abu Simbel must have been sacred even before the erection of the temple buildings of Ramesses II, judging by a reference in the temple of Horemheb at Abu Hoda, which is directly across the Nile. In contrast, the choice of Amarna as the place for the new capital under Akhenaten was dictated precisely by its lack of tradition.

The marking of political and economic centers and their cultic connection to the divine can frequently be recognized: the securing of the mining region of Serabit el-Chadim in the western Sinai Peninsula; the securing of access to the gold mines of Barramija by means of the temple of Kanais, built by Sethos I; the erection of the royal tomb buildings in the area of greater Memphis as funerary counterparts to the worldly capital; or the temple complexes in the eastern Delta, intended for the cultic connection of the Ramessid residence.

The idea of cult association can be clearly seen in all cult centers, which normally do not consist of a random accumulation of temples. Rather, they are characterized precisely by the cultic connection of individual complexes. Examples of such cultic places are Abydos, with its central Osiris temple and the peripheral individual royal temples that are arranged in an Osirian manner; Hermopolis; and Elephantine, whose temple complex follows the theological construction of the “Triad of Elephantine.”—Khnum as the local god of the First Cataract, Satet, his consort, as the ruler of Elephantine, and her daughter Anuket as the rule of the island of Sehel. Accumulations of cultic places in turn form cultic districts, such as the association of Heliopolis–Memphis (Heliopolis for the cult of the rising sun, and Memphis with its royal tomb complexes and facilities for the cult of the setting sun) and, in particular, eastern and western Thebes, also connected to the rising and setting sun.

The distinction between free-standing temples and those hewn into living rock is also important in a discussion of architecture. Reference has been made to the positive/negative distinction between these two kinds of temples. What is more significant is that the choice of form seems not to have been guided by a need to adapt the structure to local features, but rather by conceptual distinctions. The rock wall is considered to be the boundary between this world and the next; therefore, temples hewn in the rock are ordered areas that have been thrust into realm of myth. Thus, the mythic Khemnis, where Isis or Hathor raises the boy Horus, is conjoined with the Hathor shrine of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahri and with the Small Temple of Abu Simbel by means of appropriate decoration. In contrast, the temple of Amenhotpe III at Elkab, though erected in a rocky wadi, is not hewn into the rock.

Natural and artificial architecture

Fitting a temple into the surrounding landscape could be accomplished in two ways. First, the outer periphery can be interrupted by an element of the inner periphery: in temples with a procession passage, which is externally delineated primarily by statues, this passage naturally continues outside the inner periphery, because the purpose of a procession is cultic contact with other shrines. This processional passage outside the temple precincts, as the way of the deity, is segregated from the outer periphery surrounding it. It may be marked out by avenues of sphinxes or even by station shrines (this is the case in Thebes, where a part of the path of the procession for the Opet festival passes through the Nile, which is a part of the temple complexes as “natural architecture”). Processional passages of this kind are mainly features of cultic complexes, but they can also occur in a temple that stands alone, particularly when they are access ways to the temple—for example, in Serabit el-Chadim, where private votive stelae line the “Sacred Way” to the Hathor temple.

However, fitting a temple into the landscape normally required taking the natural features into account in the design. Thus, the towering wall of rock behind the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II in Deir el-Bahri should be viewed as part of the temple itself, because not only is the tomb of the king deeply thrust into the rock, but the cultic image chamber is also designed as a niche built into the rock. The same holds true for the Amun temple in Gebel Barkal, behind which rises a high promontory that can be interpreted as a statue of Amun on account of its natural shape. The mountain itself, called “pure (=holy) mountain,” the bowels of which are reckoned to be in the otherworld, is the seat of sacred powers. This can be seen clearly in the main valley of the Wadi Hammamat, the southern wall of which is seen as the “palace” of the local god Min (time of Mentuhotep II). The goddess of the dead, Hathor, in Western Thebes is depicted stepping out of her house, the rock wall mentioned above.

In a further incorporation of a natural feature, temples to the sun god frequently do not possess a cultic image; rather, they are constructed as open courts to make direct cultic contact with the sun, which itself is the cultic image. In such places, the sun, along with the vault of the heavens, its dwelling place, can be considered as natural architecture that is part of the temple. This is particularly the case in Tell el-Amarna and in the sun shrines of the mortuary temples in Western Thebes.

The “artificial architecture” of a temple includes all its artificially constructed elements—everything that is situated within the outer enclosure wall, as well as separately constructed procession passages. The artificial architectural form of a temple is dependent on its function. For example, bark shrines occur only in temples that have the performance of processions as one of their functions. In cultic image chambers and bark shrines, side niches are built only where statues of a king are to be set up to partake of the sacrifices. We rarely see floor plans without corresponding functions; an exception is the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut in her Hathor temple, in which the side niches seem not to have been filled until her confidant, Senenmut, usurped them in order to install his own images and texts. Conventionalized floor plans emerged only relatively late; the temples of the Greco-Roman period had a canonical series of rooms (cultic image chamber, bark shrine, chapels of the Ennead hall of offerings, hall of appearances, festival court) and were therefore equipped for processions.

Along with the division and structuring of the temple complex, the architecture formed a framework for the decoration, providing spaces to erect demarcating obelisks, free-standing statues. Of greater importance, however, were the two-dimensional images applied to the walls (reliefs, paintings, and texts).


Along with tombs, stelae, and papyri, temple decorations represent the most important sources of information on pharaonic Egypt. Their wonderful variety of themes includes not only cultic scenes but also depictions of the temple foundation, the subjection of foreign peoples, coronations of kings, and other activities. Along with iconography, we must note their relationship to their architectural framework on the one hand, and to the cult or function of the temple on the other. For the latter, the key concept is “interrelation between scene and place” (Arnold, 1992). For example, it is clear that battle scenes do not reflect actual events in the place where they were created; however, since the main function of a temple is performing the cult, such representations must be related to that. Thus, two categories of scenes and other decorative elements of decoration can be distinguished: those that depict cultic activities which were performed at the site, and scenes that support the cult by depicting the historic or mythological origin of these activities. The first category is exemplified by representations of caring for the cultic image or the bark. Images that support the cult include battle scenes, like those of the Battle of Qadesh in Ramesses II's temples in Luxor and Abu Simbel, as well as other scenes “slaying the enemy.” These may demonstrate the winning of historical world dominance in relationship to the deity of the temple, or they may be intended to transpose imagined events into reality through divine assistance. An example of the latter concept is the representation of the slaughter of Lower Egypt in the chapel of Mentuhotep II in Dendera, in which the titles of the king unmistakably point back to the time before the subjection of the Northern Kingdom. Other examples of scenes that support the cult but refer only indirectly to its performance are the depictions of the deities of the temple god's entourage, which are regarded as their “dwellings,” while their ongoing efficacy is guaranteed by the enlivening power of the temple. In Speos Artemidos near Beni Hasan, these depictions of deities are part of the representation of the coronation of Hatshepsut (or Sethos I), which did not take place in this temple. Likewise, the door guardians, the statues of the king that watch over the entrances of the temple, can be classified as supporting the cult. In contrast, statues of kings and of private individuals, as the secondary recipients of sacrifices, are directly relevant to the cult. A similar role was played by foundation texts, the written or pictorial identification of the temple with the cosmos (for example, the representations of birds on the ceiling of the temple of Dendera), or of the bark shrine with the heavens. In addition, we may note cultic scenes that are depicted in the temple but were certainly performed outside it (for example, the processional of the festival of Opet, which is represented in its entirety in the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut inside the Amun temple.

Activities: ritual and processional

The main task of temple personnel was the performance of the cult and the maintenance of its prerequisites. They were the instrument whereby the special functions which underlay the conception of a temple were carried out. Since everything hinged on communication with sacred powers, the care of the cultic image, through which the deity communicated with the one who performed the cult, was a crucial cultic action. Performed daily (or several time a day), it may be called “daily ritual.” The most important sources for understanding daily ritual are the images in the deity chapels of the temple of Sethos I in Abydos, the depictions of the ritual of Amenhotpe I in Thebes, and the large number of depictions of the daily ritual in the “closed temple” of Luxor. These cultic actions include the opening of the deity's shrine, the enlivening of the cultic image so that the deity can “reside” in it, cleaning and dressing the cultic image, textually fixed dialogue with the deity (which endows the king with the ruling power) and finally the closing of the shrine.

In contrast to the daily ritual is the festival cult, which took place at certain times and had special functions (e.g., the coronation of a king), or made cultic contact with other temples possible through processions. In Thebes, the Opet festival was the occasion of the annual renewal of royal rule in a procession from the Amun temple in Karnak to the Amun temple in Luxor. During the Festival of the Valley, Amun and the other deities of the Triad of Karnak (Mut and Khons) moved from Karnak to the western side of Thebes to visit the dead kings in their mortuary temples (the kings were thereby identified with Amun). There was also a procession commemorating the sacred marriage between Horus of Edfu and Hathor of Dendera, represented and described in Ptolemaic temples.

Formal and iconic aspects

The sequence of the components was directed toward communication with the divine, magically established through the decoration which assigned the specific function to a temple room. The temple as a whole is structured into levels: action, decoration, and architecture, to which the external situation is added. This sequence from inside to outside can be summed up under the concept of “aspect of use.”

This formal or material aspect of the temple is complemented by its iconic aspect, or the aspect of its contents. On every level of the temple, something is depicted. The temple is a depiction of the world: the wave-shaped structure of the enclosure wall is a representation of the opposition between dry land and the primeval ocean, while the pylon, with its two pylon towers and the recess between them within the gateway, represents the horizon (this is why a shrine to the sun is often found in this recess). The temple building itself is the cosmos: the temple ceiling with its depictions of birds, for instance, is the sky; the bark shrine and the cultic image chamber are identified as the vault of the heavens through textual definition. The decoration also lays down the iconic aspect of the architecture, thus interpreting it. Today we have only representations in pictures and texts of the cultic actions. The fact that such records often reveal logical breaks, suggesting that they were often no longer understood by the scribes who copied them, shows that there was a gap between the actual cultic action and its ideal depicted or textual description. It can be said that the decoration only interprets the action. The iconic aspect of the decoration, however, goes beyond this: for instance, if the representation of the sed-festival in the sun shrine of Newoserre (fifth dynasty) was painted several times, occasionally it signified only the ritual purification of the king who performed the cult. The repeated use of the “slaughter of the enemy” motif need not represent actual killing: it signifies only the magical extinction of hostile or chaotic elements, and thereby the establishment of the cosmic order. Such pictorial and textual compositions are to be regarded as insoluble hieroglyphs, almost as “ligatures,” that signify something other than what they portray.

Static and dynamic aspect

The formal or material aspect of a temple seems to be static, since in all its components it stands before the beholder in an immovable state. However, apart from the fact that every sunrise enlivens a temple (as is depicted in the temple of Dendera), the pictures on the temples portray actions and the texts reflect, either directly or indirectly, such dynamic events, or else they are fragments of speeches of gods or kings. As a result, the temple is constantly in operation. A temple is only static in outward appearance; in fact, it is a dynamic structure. If no cult action is any longer being performed in a temple, its operation is still ensured by its decoration. If this decoration is also missing, it might still be assumed that the architectural shell had enough iconic power to secure the efficacy of the temple. Of course, this is only speculation; it is equally possible that this efficacy was ensured by a statue of the deity.

Realities, interpretation, sense

We owe to Eberhard Otto the distinction between empirical or “first” reality, and fiction or “second” reality. All the pictorial representations and texts in a temple are in principle “second reality,” which has cleansed reality of everything that does not pertain to maat. In the end, this second reality replaces the first. Reality is modified and/or interpreted in all representations, and the resulting second reality is clearly a fiction. In the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahri, for instance, her biography is depicted fictionally: the announcement of the decision of the sun god Amun-Re to establish her as queen in Egypt, her divine birth, the announcement by her father, Thutmose I, designating her as his successor, and finally her coming to rule. All of this is interpretation or even reinterpretation of the real history. In contrast to the generally accepted view that Hatshepsut intended this as propaganda, we must look at the function of this representation in the temple as a whole—its meaning or purpose (in the foundation text for the Speos Artemidos at Beni Hasan, the assumption of the reign is represented in a completely different manner). The central function in this case is the identification of the dead queen in the cultic image chamber with Amun-Re in the context of the Festival of the Valley. The fictionalized biography of Hatshepsut served as preparation for the queen's life in the hereafter, and it was the purpose of the Festival of the Valley forever to perpetuate this life. This sense, meaning, or purpose is a third reality, which was probably conceived when the planning for the temple began, and out of which the second reality, the fictional representation, arose. The purpose of the multiple representation of the sed-festival in the sun shrine of Newoserre to signify the purification of the king, must also be placed in the context of this third reality.

Recipients and Performers of the Cult

Communication between the beyond and this world grants central significance to two persons: the performer of the cult and its recipient. The performance of the cult serves the needs of the performer—the king—and through him the whole land and its inhabitants. By means of the cultic action the king (or, usually, his representative) causes the recipient to enter the cultic image magically and to be available for communication. The recipient was almost always a deity or a deified deceased king.

God and king

The duality of performer and recipient holds true for all sacred places, even tombs. Already in the earliest period, as documented by such cult instruments as the mace and palette of Narmer, the cult permitted communication between the king and the sun god. These cult instruments contained reports on the king's government, and when they were deposited in the temple of the sun god, these reports were transmitted culticly to the sun god in heaven and thereby made eternal. The king was legitimized for this communication by the fact that through his ascent to the throne and coronation, he was given the role of the sun god on earth. He received the magic powers of the sun god Horus along with the title of Horus. The magical power had to be regularly renewed, ideally every day after sunrise, every year following the rhythm of the sun's course, and after the passing of a generation in the sed-festival. This communication was maintained throughout the history of Egypt, and for all the gods.

The recipient of the cult could also be a deceased king, who in the afterworld assumed the role of the sun god of that world. This quality of the deceased king was still preserved even when the sun god role of the living king gradually faded. A deceased king could also be a recipient of the cult if he became a deity with influence in a particular locality; as did Unas in the area of his pyramid in Saqqara, or Senwosret III in Semnah at the Second Cataract.

A living king very seldom became a cult recipient, although, particularly in temples of the New Kingdom, the king's likeness could represent aspects of a god (such as the colossal statues of Ramesses II in Abu Simbel). When the king was depicted together with deities in the cultic image chamber, this meant that he was assumed into the community of gods (as in the temples of Thutmose III in Ellesija, of Horemheb in Gebel el-Silsila, or the great temple of Abu Simbel). It was in Abu Simbel that the divine birth of the king was ritually renewed through the semi-annual enlivening of the cult statue of Ramesses II by the sun's light.

Temples as political centers

The kingdom, at least from the Old Kingdom onward, was understood as the “kingship of Re,” conveyed to the earthly king. And so, from the Middle Kingdom onward, Re or Amun-Re was also designated as king of Egypt. As the quality of sun god decreased in the earthly king, the heavenly sun god was brought more and more into the day-to-day policy of the kingdom. The intervention of the god was obtained by means of an oracle: Hatshepsut I and her successor Thutmose III had themselves legitimated through oracles. In the Ramesside period, oracles were a common instrument of government in the framework of the temple cult. Eventually Amun-Re assumed the political leadership of the land as king of Egypt: the king in Tanis and the high priest in Thebes were then only his representatives and no longer sun gods on earth.

Kings and private individuals

In the Egyptian social structure three levels were distinguished: the gods, the king (who by his office was a god, though in other respects human), and the so-called private individuals. Officials, including those of a temple, held only delegated power. Only the king, had the ability and the right to maintain communication with the gods, and only in the temple, since it was here that this communications could be conducted in a protected and regulated manner. Communication with the gods was possible for private persons only under certain conditions: the formula of the sacrifice for the dead, “May the king be gracious and give the gods (so that they may given to the deceased person),” clearly shows his mediating role. In Tell el-Amarna, private persons might invoke the Aten, but only to ask his favor for the king. When, at the end of the Ramessid period, the high priest Herihor took the place of the king in the cult, he assumed the title of king in that context, within the Amun temple at Karnak. The giving of oracles to private persons took place in Karnak via statues of the king, intermediaries between god and man.

A high official, however, could sponsor a statue to be placed in the temple, allocating land the yield of which would pay for sacrifices. If an official set up a statue of the king, the king often supplemented the income of his statue, and the yield was credited to the official as a pension. In later times, this led to the temple of Karnak becoming so overfilled with statues that they had to be ritually removed and buried.

On rare occasions, the boundary between the royal and private spheres was blurred. For example, the favorite and high official under Amenhotpe III, Amenhotep son of Hapu, was allowed to build himself a mortuary temple in the royal style.

Temple and State

The identification between the king and the state, and the sole right of the king to perform the cult, clearly shows that temples were state institutions. The performance of the cult by priests was possible only by way of authority delegated from the king; therefore, in cult scenes only the king is portrayed as performer, even if he never entered the temple in question. A distinction between temple and state, and therefore a division between state and cult powers, can only be seen in certain indications after the end of the Ramessid period.

The central function of temples in royal policy made building, expanding, and modifying temples important in the governing plans of kings. Witnesses to this are the socalled building inscriptions, in which the participation of a king in the construction of a temple is substantiated. The more important a deity and its temple complex were, the more they were cited in the titles of the king. The neglect of cultic buildings was frequently cited as evidence that things had gone badly for the country—for example, in texts of Hatshepsut or Tutanckamun. If the cult was neglected, the king no longer possessed magical divine power, and his rule could not succeed. This branch of royal policy is generally designated “cult policy,” and most kings had a temple-building program.

Every king was expected to expand what existed and to surpass his predecessors, even though in theory these predecessors had already attained perfection. Thus, in the Instructions of Amenemhet (composed during the reign of his son, Senwosret I), Amenemhet I charges his successor to “pursue perfection even more.” Thus, many temples were continually expanded, with a portico being added, or another temple room, or obelisks; or decorations were merely extended or modified. Even the substitution of royal names belongs in this context. Significant examples of this are the Amun temple of Karnak, the Small Temple of Medinet Habu on the western side of Thebes, the Luxor temple, and the Hathor temple of Serabit el-Chadim. The restoration inscriptions of Sethos I in many temples, which were demolished on the orders of Akhenaten, are also evidence of centrally planned cult policy.

Extensive, centrally planned erection of temple complexes throughout the land can almost never be documented with a text referring to a program, but it becomes clear through comprehensive interpretation of archaeological evidence. The first major temple-building program was initiated by Senwosret I in the first half of the twentieth century BCE. Apparently his goal was to connect the whole country to the divine by means of these royal communication centers. The next extensive program occurred under Amenhotpe III (fourteenth century BCE). He connected royal tomb buildings (royal tomb in Western Thebes, Apis tomb in Saqqara), royal mortuary temples (areas of Medinet Habu and Saqqara), temples of the sun god (Giza/Heliopolis/Memphis, Karnak temple and Luxor temple, Gebel Barkal in the vicinity of the Fourth Cataract, and temples for the sed-festival at Bubastis, Malqata, Elephantine, and Soleb) into a network of temples that spanned the country. The temple-building program of Ramesses II (thirteenth century BCE) included many rockcut temples in Lower Nubia. It may also be assumed that the thirteenth dynasty (fourth century BCE) initiated a temple-building program, which was then carried out under the Ptolemies.

Classification of Temples

One can start from the assumption that it is the function of Egyptian temples that primarily determines their content and shape. Almost all previous attempts to classify Egyptian temples utilized groupings that overlapped as little as possible. The Real-lexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte by Hans Bonnet lists “normal” temples dedicated to gods, mortuary temples, sun temples, birth-houses, temples for the New Year's festival and bark stations. The objection may be raised that mortuary temples, at least in Thebes, where the great majority of them are located, are temples to gods in the central area, with bark stations. They also contain sun temples. Dieter Arnold classifies temples into localities for divine cult, localities for royal cult, and so forth, correctly starting from function. Since the general function was communication, and the human partner in this dialogue, according to dogma, was always the king, a classification can be derived according to the central recipients of the cult. Beyond this, there is the perspective of the temple's location, architecture, and decoration. It is often not possible to classify whole temples, but only parts of temples: every Egyptian temple is a singular (and frequently complex) phenomenon. The central recipients of the cult were gods (including deceased kings who were equated with gods), living kings, deceased kings, and (if we include private mortuary cult complexes) deceased private individuals.

Temples dedicated to gods

These temples principally served the purpose of ensuring the rule of the reigning king. In them the cult was directed to a cultic image, a statue or a stela portraying the divinity. Examples are the closed temple in Luxor and some other smaller temple complexes in the area of Karnak. Very often temples dedicated to gods contain not only a central cultic image, but also a bark shrine with a processional bark, as at the Amun temple of Karnak. The barks were used in processions that carried the deity to other temples, which I would call “visitation temples.” A significant portion of the temple complexes in Thebes are such visitation temples—for example, the open temple in Luxor (visited in connection with the festival of Opet), the Small Temple in Medinet Habu (for the festival of Amun), and the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut I in Deir el-Bahri, or its replacement which Thutmose III erected (in the context of the Festival of the Valley). All these temples are destination temples for processions that started in Karnak. In the Festival of the Valley, however, all the “mortuary temples” of the deceased kings were visited: the barks of the Triad of Thebes (Amun-Re, Mut, and Khons) each spent one night there, so that Amun could be “united” with the deceased king. The central sections of the mortuary temples provided for this purpose were thus station temples. From the depictions of the festival of Opet of Hatshepsut, we know that its procession also utilized station temples of this kind.

A special class of the temples dedicated to gods are the sun courts. These were open courts with an altar from which cultic contract was established not with a particular cultic image, but with the sun in the sky. The sun itself almost certainly functioned as the cultic image. Examples include the sun temple in Heliopolis, the sun wings of the mortuary temples, and the Aten shrines in Tell el-Amarna.

Besides these, particular festival temples should be mentioned: the Osiris chapels on the roofs of Ptolemaic temple complexes; temples for the New Year's Festival in the same place; and the birth-houses (mammisi) from the Late and Greco-Roman periods, where the birth of the son of a god was celebrated.

Temples dedicated to a reigning king

These temples differ fundamentally from temples dedicated to gods, because here, rather than a god in the other world, the living king was both receiver and performer of the cult. These temples celebrate the stages of a king's coming to rule, particularly his begetting, birth, and nursing, the assumption of the throne, the sed-festival, and the king's capacity to rule. The birth-houses of the late period go back to the birth cycles that were documented from the eighteenth dynasty. In the so-called mr.t shrines of the Old Kingdom (known only from texts), the reigning king, as divine father, regularly celebrated the sacred wedding with the queen Kamut effect principle), in order to renew himself as the divine son. Birth temples or birth rooms certainly existed in the New Kingdom, for example in connection with the “house of princes” in the ritual palace of Hatshepsut, outside the temple of Karnak, and south of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. The birth-houses of the Late period go back to the birth cycles connected with the so-called mammisi. The next stage in the cult consisted of a procession to a Khemnis sanctuary, in which the divine mother (Hathor or Isis) suckled and protected the new-born Horus. The Hathor sanctuary of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahri and the Small Temple of Abu Simbel are examples. The renewal of the kingdom after the passing of a generation was the purpose of the temples for the sed-festival; the earliest representation of such a complex is on the Narmer Mace, while the last trace is the Gate of Osorkon II in Bubastis. In the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties there were temples hewn in the rock (e.g., the Ellesija temple of Thutmose III, or the Great Temple of Abu Simbel), in which the king is depicted as enthroned together with deities in the cultic image chamber, portraying the reception of the reigning king into the company of the gods. Since the decoration of these temples depicted this reception as following proof that king had ensured his domination over the world and the performance of the cult, I call them “royal maturity temples.” Connected to this are cultic areas that combine the reception of the king into divine company with the theme of the homage of officials—for example, the grottos of Qasr Ibrim.

Temples dedicated to deceased kings

The most important temple complexes for kings in the afterworld are the royal funerary cult temples, which essentially consist of a funerary offering place and offering places for their statues. There is evidence of complexes of this kind going back to dynasty zero: in the U cemetery in Abydos, for the earlier kings there was apparently a common place for offerings, though without any particular architectural features. In the pyramid temples, a site in the outermost western position in front of the pyramid was the most important funerary offering place. It was supplemented with offering places for statues, particularly in the valley temples. The statues in the valley temples of Unas in Saqqara became the focal point for his cult after he became a local god. Pyramid complexes, especially of the Old Kingdom but also in the Middle Kingdom (e.g., the pyramid complex of Amenemhet III), contained sed-festival temples for the deceased king; the earliest examples are the large brick enclosures or valley districts in Abydos, and the Jubilee Court in the Enclosure of Djoser. In the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom there are offering places for statues (five shrines for statues) at the transition from the festival temple of the afterworld to the funerary offering temple.

Practically all the royal funerary cult complexes contain sun chapels, the purpose of which was to introduce the deceased king into the course of the sun, or else to bring the sun magically into the king's tomb. The best-known examples are the sun temples of the fifth dynasty in the area of Memphis and the sun courts in the mortuary temples of western Thebes. The former are also known as “mortuary temples of Re,” which makes it clear that they can be seen as a form of divine image temple and also of the temple of the deceased king.

The cultic operation of the centers for the funerary cult was complemented by chapels for royal statues in the temples dedicated to gods. The significance of these cult chapels, as far as the king was concerned, was to allow him to partake in offerings to a god. In exceptional cases we find statue cult chapels of this kind even for a reigning king, such as the chapel of Mentuhotpe II in Dendera, through which a Horus statue of the king as conqueror of the Heracleopolitan Northern Kingdom was involved in the cult of Hathor. The purpose of this chapel was to ensure the subjugation of the Northern Kingdom, which had not yet actually taken place. The cultic statue chapels probably included the royal palaces adjacent to the mortuary temples (south of the forecourt): a statue of the king, present at the Window of Royal Appearances, would attend the processions of deities between the palace and the forecourt.

Alongside the complexes for the funerary cult were so-called memorial temples, which the Egyptians called “mansions of millions of years.” These include the Hypostyle Hall of the Amun temple in Karnak, built by Sethos I, in which there was no particular cult for the king, but through which the processions of the major Theban festivals passed.

A particular type of temple for deceased kings is the predecessor chapel. These were located in the southern (Sokar-Osiris) sections of New Kingdom mortuary temples. Parallel to the places for the sun cult in the mortuary temples, which were erected north of the station temples, here on the western end were built places for the funerary cult, and the predecessor chapel was situated east of these. They are dedicated to the predecessor of the royal owner of the temple and also (in the temple of Ramesses II in Abydos, for example) to all legitimate predecessors, who are listed by name. The purpose of these chapels was to document the legitimacy of the royal builder—and, in the case of Ramesses II, to establish his connection with primeval times.

In the central station temple of mortuary temples of the New Kingdom, there is a special space provided for a ritual associating the deceased king with Amun-Re, performed during the Festival of the Valley (for example, room V of the mortuary temple of Sethos I in Gurneh). The statues of the god and of the king were purified or enlivened together.

Private cult complexes

Along with the cultic parts of tombs of private individuals, mention should be made of private statue cult spaces in temples (for participation in offerings), and especially of private chapels along processional routes. In the Middle Kingdom there were such chapels in Abydos on the path (“stairway of the Great God”) taken by the burial and resurrection procession of Osiris; such a chapel featured a stela with a likeness of the deceased, through which he might participate in the processions. There are similar private chapels in Gebel el-Silsila, the Upper Egyptian stone quarry, to enable the chapel-owners to maintain contact with the Nile.

Classification according to site

The fact that the east bank of the Nile lies toward the sunrise, and the west bank toward the sunset, is the basic reason for the selection of burial sites. As noted above, however, there are many examples in which the cardinal directions east and west are redefined symbolically. The mortuary temple and tomb of Mentuhotpe II were fitted into the middle of the basin of Deir el-Bahri, on the west bank across from Karnak; Hatshepsut then inserted her mortuary temple into the middle of the remaining part of the valley. In the city of Akhetaten, we know that the basin of Amarna was seen as a reflection of the cosmos and interpreted as the “horizon of Aten.” What was important in many cases was the proximity of the Nile, as in the case of the private chapels in Gebel el-Silsila, the South Temple of Buhen, or the rock-cut temple of Ramesses II in Lower Nubia. The Speos Artemidos at Beni Hassan is situated at the entrance to a wadi, which was interpreted as the gateway to the land of Punt. The temple of Amenhotpe III in Wadi Hellal east of Elkab has a similar relationship to the eastern desert. The temple of Kanais in the eastern desert secures access to the gold mines of Barramija, while the Hathor temple of Serabit el-Chadim secures the area of the turquoise mines in the western Sinai.

Classification according to structure

First, a distinction must be made between free-standing temples, to which the majority of Egyptian temples belong, and temples cut into living rock. I have noted that rock walls represent a boundary between this world and the next, and that the choice between a rock-cut or free-standing temple had nothing to do with the site (I cannot concur with the conjecture that rock-cut temples are mainly former stone quarries): the temple of Amenhotpe III in Wadi Hellal is free-standing, even though there are rock faces available, and the same holds for the Hathor temple in Serabit el-Chadim. The decision to built temples hewn in rock was certainly based on function; for example, Khemnis temples, as mythical localities, were built into rock walls. The Great Temple of Abu Simbel served the purpose of regenerating the reigning king through the light of the sun: here too, there is a mythical place involved. The principle that the function determines the shape accounts for the fact that from an architectural standpoint there are many kinds of temples: divine image temples provide for at least one room for the cultic image: temples for divine barks additionally have a bark shrine and places for the procession (hall of appearances, festival court): visitation temples may be limited to a bark room, and so forth.


A history of Egyptian temples has not yet been written, though Badway included them in his history of Egyptian architecture. Dieter Arnold has proposed some fundamental principles and presented an overview of individual temples. Here we can only describe their development in broad terms. Following are central perspectives and their application in various periods of Egyptian history.

Early period and Old Kingdom: Predominance of kingly recipients

There is evidence of sacred places in Egypt at a very early date. As soon as there existed an idea of sacred powers with which one might communicate—and here statuettes that date from the Badari an phase of the Predynastic period at the latest may stand as evidence—we can assume that there were places and sites where contact with those powers took place through cultic objects. Even before the origin of the Egyptian state, the magical influence of sacred powers was invoked: a famous bowl from the Naqada I period shows the rising and setting sun. An offering cult was certainly practiced at the tombs of kings (and, no doubt, private individuals), but we know nothing about it before the beginning of burials in the U cemetery in Abydos: however, we may conjecture that the temples had many forerunners. The earliest “temple” is the sanctuary in a rock niche at Elephantine, first used as early as the Naqada era and maintained almost without interruption into the Roman era. The sacred center of this cultic place was a crevice through which the divine could emerge. There is evidence not only of natural cultic structures of this kind, but also of buildings, in representations on D-ware pottery (Naqada II) and on tables of names from the Thinite period. These were found in huts made of perishable materials (wood and reed mats), built in Lower Egypt and probably elsewhere. We can already recognize the deities represented in these huts by cultic statues. A particular type is the Min sanctuary, the so-called sḥn.t, which may originally have been a temporary tent sanctuary in the eastern desert. Thus, by the Thinite period, two types of sanctuaries can be distinguished: small local temples dating back to the prehistoric period, and kings' tombs, which by then were certainly the primary cultic sites in Egypt. The distribution of tombs of kings and cenotaphs throughout Egypt (Abydos and Saqqara) already shows the intention to connect the land to the divine by means of cultic places. In the Old Kingdom, the royal tomb districts, the pyramid complexes, must have been the central cultic places of Egypt, especially since the deceased king not only assumed the role of the sun god in the next world but also was responsible in this world to the cult and the welfare of his posterity. His leadership in the circle of Polaris, becomes evident in the third dynasty with the Djoser precinct, where the deceased king reigns over the night sky. This site is also valuable in that it contains tent sanctuaries reproduced in stone, confirming the earlier representations.

The most important temple dedicated to a god before the end of the Old Kingdom was the Horus temple of Hierakonpolis, where cultic contact was maintained between the king as sun god on earth and sun god who travels through the heavens, both identified with Horus (as shown by ornament incorporating reports on government). The outward form of this temple is unknown to us because it was torn down by the time of the New Kingdom and then rebuilt.

There was already a sun court in Heliopolis which functioned well into the Greco-Roman period. Among other things, it served as a cult center for the rising sun god, while the pyramid complexes (in the fifth dynasty the sun sanctuaries were specialized) on the west side were dedicated to the setting sun.

In many places in the land there were temple buildings in which the pantheon as related to the king was maintained—for example, the Min temple in Koptos, and in Abydos the Temple of Khontamenti, the “First of the Westerners,” the first among the deceased kings who protects the royal necropolis. In the Old Kingdom he is still identified with Osiris, and out of this the central site of the Osiris cult for the whole land developed: Osiris as the father of the reigning king and the underworld equivalent of the sun god.

For Hathor, the divine mother of the reigning king, a temple was built in Dendera during the sixth dynasty at the latest. This temple continued to exist in changing architectural forms until Roman times.

The break of the First Intermediate Period: Creator god and moral renewal

The collapse of the rule of the kings in Memphis with the end of the sixth dynasty deprived the temples of their royal leadership, which was taken over by the nomarchs. The priests of this period turned to debate, holding the sun god to be the creator, and to the moral renewal of Egypt. New designs of temples from this period are unknown to us.

Middle Kingdom to New Kingdom: Predominance of the divine recipient

With the eleventh dynasty, a new era of Egyptian temple-building began, specifically with the takeover of the Hathor temple by the nomarchs of Thebes and the conception of Amun-Re as the sun god of Thebes. If we classify the Hathor temple of Dendera as a normal temple of the divine image (the statue cult center of Mentuhotpe II took part in the sacrificial procession of this temple), then the Amun temple in Karnak, in contrast, may have been conceived from the outset as part of the Thebian cult association. From the period preceding the twelfth dynasty there are hardly any remains of the temple at all. However, Intef II had Amun-Re conceived by combining aspects of Min and Re, in parallel to the Heliopolis-Memphis cultic association; and, at the latest, beginning from the time of Mentuhotpe II there is evidence of the cultic joining of Karnak and Deir el-Bahri with the ceremony of “Rowing for Amun.” Remains of chapels from the eleventh dynasty under the Small Temple of Medinet Habu suggest that a parallel cultic association existed between Luxor and Medinet Habu (later documented as the Amun festival for the mortuary temple of Amun)—in other words, for the rectangular area that made up the cultic surroundings of Thebes. The Amun temple was then expanded by Senwosret I and retained this shape until the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty. This king undertook the first temple-building program intended to bind the whole land to the divine world. A feature of this program was the incorporation of a numerous pantheon from Buhen in Lower Nubia to the Delta. The king, who was no longer the “sun god on earth” as in the Old Kingdom, gradually became identified with the most important gods and took over their roles.

In contrast to temples dedicated to gods, the royal tomb complexes decreased in importance. A kind of transition between these two groups of sacred places is represented by the cultic association of Osiris in Abydos with the royal tomb of Djer, which was interpreted as the tomb of Osiris. The burial and resurrection procession of Osiris up the “stairway of the Great God” is designated the “mysteries of Osiris.”

The beginning of the eighteenth dynasty was also the start of great temple-building projects in Egypt. Thutmose I made Thebes the center of the world, renewed the Amun temple, and thus established its conception for a century. The determining principle was the rectangle, which was expanded through successive placement of the mortuary temples of the kings in the context of the Festival of the Valley (in their respective identification temples, each deceased king is identified with Amun). By the time of Hatshepsut, the cultic location of Karnak began to change through the introduction of the divine oracle and the ceremony of the divine birth of the king in the ritual palace in front of the entrance of the Amun temple. The cultic association between Karnak and Deir el-Bahri was expanded with the Khemnis procession to the Hathor temple on the west bank.

Thutmose III continued the temple-building program of Hatshepsut, extending it to Gebel Barkal, which was now the southern boundary of the kingdom. This was followed by an extensive new temple-building program under Amenhotpe III at the beginning of the fourteenth century BCE. This greatly altered the cultic conception of the Amun temple in terms of its construction and in terms of the rectangle: it encompassed the Heliopolis-Memphis parallel (each with a triad of a tomb, a mortuary temple, and a temple dedicated to a god) and covered the land with a series of temples for the sed-festival.

The Amarna period represents a temporary break, when a new capital was intended to effect the magical refounding of the state as a model of the world and of Egypt. The new capital, designed according to the cultic model of Thebes, complete with sun courts, was understood as the “horizon of Aten,” the newly defined sun god (the concomitant closing of the earlier temples was reversed after Akhenaten's death).

In the Ramessid period, the cultic concept of the land remained essentially unchanged. However, the Amun temple with its many subsidiaries became the most important association of temples. There had been a gradual decline of the traditional royal ideology, which Ramesses II attempted to stop with a series of rock-cut temples in Lower Nubia, in which the reigning king is taken up into the world of the gods. The predominance of divine recipients of the cult ended with the assumption of the Egyptian kingship by the sun god; the earthly king was now merely his vicar.

Third Intermediate Period: God as the king of Egypt

In the centuries that followed, there was limited expansion of the temples which did not alter their design. The cultic principle of god as king of Egypt was determinant in some degree until the end of the ancient Egyptian civilization in the sixth century CE.

Late period and Greco-Roman period: The temple state under foreign rule

The most important temples of Egypt, with the exception of a few temples dedicated to gods, were expanded or modified before the Greco-Roman period and after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. The practice of including the king's tomb and placing the deceased king in the course of the sun was abandoned toward the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period. In a sense, the relationship is reversed: in many cases the king's tomb is moved into the temple area, and therefore belongs to the intermediate zone between the inner and the outer periphery. The continuing operation of the temples concentrated on the traditional divine image temples and divine bark temples (with the now canonical sequence of cultic image chamber, bark sanctuary, hall of the Ennead with chapels on the sides, hall of the offering table, hall of appearances, and festival court): from the Late period onward, we see the mammisi or birth-houses, situated outside the main temple in the intermediate zone and forming their own sacred centers with a periphery. It is from the main temple that the goddess (e.g., in Dendera) moves forward in procession to the birth-house in order to give birth to her son, who becomes king of Upper and Lower Egypt in the succession of pharaohs through history. This succession supersedes the earthly rule of the sun god (from the twenty-first dynasty) and continues the tradition of the birth cycles, as depicted in Deir el-Bahri and Luxor. The earthly vicar of the divine king—the Ptolemaic king or the Roman Caesar—is now only the pro forma leader of the cult and carries out the temple-building program. The last such project may have been planned by the thirtieth dynasty before Alexander the Great; it was carried out by the Ptolemies. Although the earthly king was the administrative superior of the temple personnel, the royal son of god magically exerted rule. However, in the Greco-Roman period, the actual pharaonic state in its traditional form existed only in the framework of the temple, as a “temple state,” and then only as long as the temple cult endured. The cult ended long after the definitive closing of most of the temples by the Christian Roman emperors in the mid-sixth century, when the Byzantine commander Narses put an end the operation of the Isis temple on Philae, where the cult had survived for a time as a joint Egyptian-Meroitic enterprise.

See also ABU SIMBEL; ADMINISTRATION, article on Temple Administration; ECONOMY, article on Temple Economy; KARNAK; LUXOR; MEDINET ABU; MUT PRECINCT; and PRIESTHOOD.


  • Arnold, Dieter. Die Tempel Ägyptens: Götterwohnungen, Kultstätten, Baudenkmäler. Zurich, 1992. The best survey of Egyptian temples.
  • Bonnet, Hans. Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte. Berlin, 1952. “Tempel,” pp. 778–788.
  • David, Rosalie. A Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos. Warminster, 1981. A unique description of the significance of temple decoration.
  • Gundlach, Rolf, and Matthias Rochholz, eds. Ägyptische Tempel: Struktur, Funktion und Programm. (Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 37.) Hildesheim, 1994.
  • Kemp, Barry J. ]Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London and New York, 1989.
  • Kurth, Dieter, ed. Ägyptologische Tempeltagung: Systeme und Programme der ägyptischen Tempeldekoration. (Ägypten und Altes Testament, 33.1). Wiesbaden, 1995.
  • Lauer, Jean-Philippe. Saqqara, the Royal Cemetery of Memphis: Excavations and Discoveries since 1850. London, 1976. A survey of one district of Old Kingdom pyramid complexes.
  • Lipinska, Jadwiga. The Temple of Tuthmosis III: Architecture (Deir el Bahari II). Warsaw, 1977.
  • Murnane, William J. United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu. Chicago, 1980. A good introduction to the royal mortuary temples of the New Kingdom.
  • Nelson, Harold H. Key Plans Showing Locations of Theban Temple Decorations. (University of Chicago, Oriental Institute Publications, 56.) Chicago, 1941.
  • Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind Moss, eds. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings. Vol. 2, Theban Temples. 2d edn. Oxford, 1972. Many of Egypt's temples were built in Thebes, and this volume includes many plans.
  • Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind Moss, eds. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings. Vol. 6, Upper Egypt: Chief Temples (Excluding Thebes). Oxford, 1939.
  • Quirke, Stephen, ed. The Temple in Ancient Egypt: New Discoveries and Recent Research. London, 1997.
  • Reymond, E. A. E. The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple. Manchester, 1969.
  • Shaw, Ian. “Balustrades, Stairs and Altars in the Cult of the Aten at El-Amarna.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 80 (1994): 109–127. An introduction to temple implements at this site.
  • Simpson, William K. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: The Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. (Publications of the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Egypt, 5.) New Haven and Philadelphia, 1974.
  • Spencer, Patricia. The Egyptian Temple: A Lexicographical Study. London, 1984.
  • “Tempel (als Institution)” and related articles. In Lexikon der Ägyptologie 6: 355–420.

Rolf Gundlach; Translated from German by Robert E. Shillenn