Adding Column Inches: New Books on Egyptian Temples

By Thomas, Susanna | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Adding Column Inches: New Books on Egyptian Temples


Thomas, Susanna, Antiquity


Egyptian temples (and pyramids connected to them) are the primary visible symbols of a great civilization. Palaces, cities and towns have all but disappeared but temples, especially from the New Kingdom onwards (1550 BC), remain in monumental splendour, receptacles and purveyors of instructions, both implicit and explicit, about how the Egyptians viewed their own existence. They encompass many layers of meaning, not all of which are accessible to us. They represent the beginning of the world, with the sanctuary as the primordial mound whence all life began, as well as being microcosms of world order, with a perfect Egypt being mirrored within their enclosure walls. Temples may have existed within sacred 'cyclical' time, with non-linear concepts of perpetual renewal. A temple was a house where one or more gods actually lived in the form of statues, and indeed the form of New Kingdom temples loosely copies that of contemporary private houses.

These images of the god were protected and hidden by the temple. Temples also acted as divine auditoria where on specific occasions, devotees could enter the outer parts in order to be closer to their gods (see particularly Bell, in Schafer (chapter 4)). Gods as cult images could perform visitations, travelling in sacred barques, the obvious form of transport for a riverine civilization. They sometimes visited other gods. Amun of Thebes could call on various 'mortuary' temples on the West Bank, and gods from all over Egypt could attend pharaonic 30th-anniversary Sed jubilees (architectural provision for these excursions in the Old Kingdom are well discussed by Arnold, in Schafer (chapter 2)).

There are comparatively few studies of the Egyptian temple, the only exceptions in recent years being Die Tempel Agyptens (Arnold 1992), which remains a closed book to determinedly monoglot undergraduates, and Snape's Egyptian temples (1996), a fine but brief introduction to the subject.

The temple in ancient Egypt: new discoveries and recent research, edited by Stephen Quirke, is a collection of essays from a British Museum colloquium 'The temple in ancient Egypt' held in July 1994. The book is unparalleled as an overview of recent archaeological work in the field, and indeed the depth and breadth of new and exiting research and discoveries will surprise even those who work on the subject. The studies divide into new work at well-known sites like Giza and Saqqara, and at other important but hardly known sites, like Coptos and Shanhur. The range in time (Early Dynastic to Graeco-Roman) and space (the Nile Valley, the Faiyum, the Delta and the Sinai desert) indicates how much material evidence is still available. A welcome element is the illumination of the nature and purposes of temples with reference to architectural form and function and judicious use of monumental inscriptions.

Rainer Stadelmann looks at the development of royal pyramids, focusing on Fourth Dynasty Giza. Examining the evolution of the pyramid complex as a whole, and the interrelationship of pyramids and their ancillary structures, he shows that there was a direct relationship between the sacred spaces within and around pyramids, and offers reasonable explanations for the changes in internal layout. He demonstrates admirably how even the best known monuments can yield new information.

Christian Leblanc discusses major iconographic themes in 'Mansions of millions of years' at Thebes (see Haeny, in Shafer, for identification and discussion of such buildings) and distinguishes political, military, cultural, and familial motifs, each with specific functions and meanings. Betsy Bryan catalogues the identifiable statuary from a now-destroyed temple for the cult of Amenhotep III (the building which once stood behind the 'Colossi of Memnon') and discusses the role that these statues might have played in various rituals, especially the king's Sed jubilee.

Quirke uses archaeological and hieroglyphic evidence (complemented by hieratic papyri) to illuminate the role of the temple at the Middle Kingdom royal site of Lahun. …

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