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Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Temple Life


The Life of Ancient Egyptians

Inside the Temples


Every visitor to Egypt is intrigued by the large number of ancient temples, mostly of mammoth proportions. On their thick stone walls, massive gateways and slender sky-scraping obelisks the relief-carvers left forever the evidence of an ideology whose religion, with its pantheon of revered gods, secured the maintenance of cosmic order and of harmony between humans and the natural world all around them.


The very ubiquity of the temples shows how essential they were to the society of their day. But their religious purpose was not the whole story. Their sheer size, whether they were dedicated to gods or to the spirits of dead kings, hints at the ceaseless activity that went on inside their walls. Created though they were for religious ends, the temples had their estates and workshops, their libraries and the Houses of Life, al1 of which played a major part in the economic and intellectual life of the country. And often one temple was so close to another that whole temple complexes, even temple cities, arose like Giza, Abusir and Saqqara under the Old Kingdom, or the Western Town of Thebes, or Karnak, under the New.



The priestly caste with its rigid structure was a very numerous one. Thanks to all manner of privileges conferred on it by the king, the economic and hence the political influence of its leaders, the high priests, grew continually. They played an increasing role in government and in some periods, such as the end of the 20th dynasty, the High Priests of Amun aspired to and even attained the power of a pharaoh.


In serving the gods the priests were acting on behalf of the king whose decisions implemented the will of the gods on earth, and who was alone entitled to immediate contact with them by means of religious offices. This is why, in every period of Egyptian history, we find temple-wall reliefs forever repeating the motif of a king standing face-to-face with this or that god, to whom he is making an offering. Being himself a 'living god', he is drawn on the same scale as the supernatural being in front of him, with whom he is essentially on a par.


In view of the great number of deities and their temples the king could not cope alone with all the duties ensuing from his privileged status. Accordingly he devolved them on the priests, who day by day performed religious rites on his behalf throughout the realm. If we consider the creative energy and material resources that went into the running of the temples, we cannot avoid the conclusion that they were a considerable burden on the economy. Before a priest could enter the innermost parts of the temple, where the god was pleased to reside with one part of his being in a statue in the dimly lit sanctuary, a complex purification procedure was necessary. This was not, as in Christianity, a spiritual act involving the avoidance and forgiveness of sins, but a sequence o physical operations. The largest group of low-ranking priests were in fact styled the purified ones. Priests normally married and enjoyed family life.

Their garb also distinguished priests from the rest of the population. In order to be ritually pure their clothes had to be woven from clean, fine linen thread and cut to a conservative Old Kingdom pattern. Whereas common folk went barefoot, the priests wore white sandals. Lector-priests usually wore a ribbon across the chest. The higher ranks were favored with special robes such as the leopard-skins worn over the shoulders by the sem priests; the high priest of Heliopolis had a dress sewn out of leather stars and his colleague of Memphis was adorned with a special necklace and a long plait fastened to his head.


After complying with all the requirements a priest still had to undergo the prescribed ritual ablution before he entered the inner sanctum. With large temples, we find on the inside of the periphery wall a capacious stone pool with a long set of steps leading down to the water so that the priest can sprinkle himself with it. Lesser temples had small pools or cisterns for the same purpose. The ablution was intended not only to wash away all the dirt of the home and the street, but to fortify the priest with the fresh vigor imparted by water as the cradle of life and the source of the sun's perpetual renewal.

Ritual purification contributed no doubt to the priests' relatively high standard of health. If one also takes into account their relative affluence, adequate diet and housing, and tranquil mode of life under a strict regime that avoided crises, excitement or exertion. they enjoyed every prospect of a long and trouble-free existence.



As well as being clean in body the priests were supposed to abide by a strict code of ethics, though how far they respected it we cannot be sure. '.'Never enter a temple in a state of sin or impurity', they were warned. 'Lay no false charges, be not desirous of profit, accept no bribes, spurn not the lowly in favor of the mighty, use no false measure or weight, tell no gossip about the rites you perform, for these are secrets peculiar to the temples.'

In contrast to Christian practice, laymen could only enter the forecourt of an Egyptian temple, the inner parts being reserved for the priesthood. It will be useful to imagine ourselves watching a temple service. After the heavy gates have been opened each morning the priests advance into the great hypo-style hall whose ceiling rests on great columns with capitals carved in
lotus or papyrus patterns. Some of the priests carry plates of food or jugs of drink, others boxes with toiletries, still others water and incense. As they make their way one room succeeds another, each with its ceiling lower than the last, so that less and less light filters in through the ventilation holes and the air of mystery deepens. The procession comes to a
halt before the closed doors of the central chapel. A clay seal, which has preserved the god's privacy all night. has to be broken and a bolt drawn. Then the leaves of the door swing open. At the exact moment when the sun appears over the horizon the priests intone the dawn hymn 'Awake in peace, great god . . .' In the gloom of the chapel, lit only by a flickering candle, the
most senior priest approaches the sanctuary (a special structure, usually of basalt or granite), breaks its seal and opens it: the statue of the god is revealed.

The priest stretches out a hand to 'give the god back his soul' and reassert his earthly shape, while he recites a prescribed prayer four times over. Amid the smell of incense the priests lay on the altar a breakfast of bread and cakes, meat, vegetables and fruit, not forgetting jugs of wine and beer. It will of course suffice the god (or, in funerary temples, the deceased) to consume the spiritual essence of these sacrifices. so that the material 'remainder' can be removed later and shared among the priests and the temple workshop staff. To ensure supplies of food for god and priests, every temple has its own estate, given to it by the king.

After breakfast follows the god's morning toilet. This is entrusted to the stolist-priest (medjty), who removes the old garment from the god's statue, washes the statue, rubs it with oil and dresses it in fresh clothes. This attire, like that of the priests, is made of finest linen from the temple's weaving shops and kept in a special storeroom. Every day four lengths of cloth,
white, red, blue and green, are in this way sacrificed for the god.

Festival rites conducted on holidays were of quite a different kind. At these times the god's statue was taken out of the temple and carried in procession, or transported down the river, so that everyone could see it and even put questions to it. For such occasions it was richly adorned with jewelry from the temple treasury magnificent necklaces, bracelets, scepters,
amulets and trinkets of gold or silver encrusted with lapis lazuli, enamel, glass and semi-precious gems which, glinting in the sun, underlined the god's greatness and majesty.

The statue was then put into a wooden shrine of the same shape as the stone sanctuary, standing in the center of a light wooden barque. There was one of these in every temple on a stone platform beside the sanctuary or, in the case of large temples, in an open-sided chamber of its own. (In the temple of Amun at Karnak it was actually housed in a separate building.

The larger the temple, the bigger and heavier the barque, so that it might take several men to carry it on a sledge-shaped stretcher over their shoulders: sometimes it needed as many as 30 bearers walking in pairs, with poles resting on their shoulders. In front of the boat walked a priest with smoking incense, while other priests and onlookers followed behind. A less usual procedure was for the statue, like that of Min in the Delta town of Buto, to be conveyed on a cart drawn by men or by a pair of horses.

The cortege would halt from time to time to allow the bearers to rest and the priests to carry out the prescribed rites, burning incense, making offerings of food and drink, reciting more formulae and so forth. This also gave an opportunity for the god to 'respond' by oracle. If his reaction to the question put was favorable, the bearers would bow or proceed: if negative,
they drew back.

Commoners were allowed to put questions to a god also in his temple and for this purpose, exceptionally, were admitted to special audience rooms. The priest would intone the answers either through a concealed window high up in the wall, or from inside a hollow statue.

Judicial functions were also performed by the priests at the temple gates. In the Late Period there are frequent references to 'the gate that delivers justice'. People with a guilty conscience would come to ask for a ruling, which the priest then pronounced in the god's name. We have no further information about these courts or the kind of cases they dealt with. Priests, moreover, sat on the bench at lay trials, which were often held in or near temples. This demonstrated the particular god's role in maintaining the rule of law on earth.

Many duties fell to the priests on connection not only with running the temples but with organizing the operations of the temple workshops and farmlands. and the building or rebuilding of houses. They also spent time studying theology, law and other subjects in the temple libraries and Houses of Life, while at night they would climb up to the flat roof of the temple to observe the movements of the stars.

One often saw a priest bound on of official business outside his temple. He was usually on a religious errand such as taking part in major festivals of neighboring temples and shrines dedicated to the same deity as his own, or to that deity's spouse. The highest-ranking priests attended councils of state in the royal palace and accompanied the king during his jubilee celebrations or on trips abroad. In the Ptolemaic Period priestly delegates, who had previously only met when the occasion demanded it. began to hold regular annual 'synods' to discuss matters of common interest under the chairmanship of the overseer of the 'Prophets of the Two Lands'.

The priest's profession conferred not only, as we have seen, social standing and an assured livelihood, but also a share in the life of the gods and consequently spiritual armor against any perils that loomed. So it is not surprising that the priesthood was a rather tight society into which few entered from non-priestly families.

Herodotus states that 'when a priest dies, he is succeeded by his son'. The steles of some Late Period priests carry lists of up to 17 generations of forebears who had served the same god. Succession was of course not automatic, since it required not only the royal assent (usually a formality) but approval by all the other priests of the temple in question.

If there were no other suitable candidate to fill a vacancy the priests would choose a young man from outside the caste, usually no doubt one whose father had benefited the temple in some way or performed honorary functions as a layman. A third method of succession was the purchase of a priestly function. There are occasional records of this from the Middle Kingdom, but in the Roman Period it became quite common.

The strict hierarchy of functions that we have seen in other callings was nowhere more elaborate than in the priesthood, at least in the larger temples - in small ones the personnel was limited to a few men. At the top of the pyramid, for each particular god, was his High Priest or 'First Prophet', in the New Kingdom it was the High Priest of Amun of Thebes who exercised
supreme authority and who was chosen by the king himself, usually from among subordinate priests of the temple of Amun, senior courtiers or army generals.

The temple estates and workshops employed many laymen of various trades alongside the clerics. Old people, too, sometimes sought refuge under the wing of a temple, acquiring in return for an initial donation and casual help a place to live in for the rest of their days. Temples, finally, were the cradle of the Egyptian theatre. On important feast-days religious plays were performed outside the gate of the temple at Abydos, relating the life, murder, resurrection and deification of Osiris, patron of the dead.

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