Egypt: False Door

The False Door

by Jimmy Dunn

False Door of Meresankh from the Old Kingdom

False doors are a common element within Egyptian temples of the New Kingdom dedicated to their ancient gods, as well as much earlier mortuary temples dedicated to the deceased and within the tombs themselves (beginning with the 3rd Dynasty). They represented thresholds that allowed gods or the deceased to interact and link with the living world, and are most commonly associated with offering rituals. However, in New Kingdom temples they were also associated with the so-called "hearing" chapels, or chapels of the "hearing ear", which were usually located at the very rear of many temples directly behind the sanctuary in the outer walls of the temple structure. These "hearing ear" chapels gave those outside the temple access to their gods.

Funerary Uses

However, the most frequent occurrence of false doors are found in the mortuary elements of tomb complexes, including those attached to pyramids and mortuary temples of New Kingdom royalty located some distance from their actual tombs. The false door is one of the most common elements found within Egyptian tomb complexes, particularly those that were decorated. Hence it is also one of the most important architectural features as well as the focus of the offering chapels, and they are found in both royal and non-royal tombs complexes, beginning with Egypt's Old Kingdom. They are called a "false door" because spiritual entities of the deceased were believed to have the ability to pass through the door, though for the most part they had no ability to open or close as a normal door.

Weni false door in situ

The false door was intended to allow the deceased a link between the living and the dead so that, perhaps most importantly, the deceased could receive sustenance from the land of the living.

Often called a Ka-door, they were frequently made of a monolithic piece of fine limestone that were then often painted red with black spots probably to imitate granite, a good example of which is found in the tomb of Seankhuiptah in the Teti cemetery at Saqqara. However, in the tomb of Hesire and in other rare instances, they might also be made of wood, or simply painted on the flat surface of a wall. Interestingly, though false doors were almost always completely fixed, in the case of Hesire, and perhaps in a few other rare, early examples, they could have been furnished with moveable wooden panels.

False Door of Fefi of the Late Old Kingdom

The typical form of the false door probably evolved out of the "palace facade" external architecture of the Mastaba tombs of the elite in the Early Dynastic period. False doors were really not copies of real doors, bur rather a combination of an offering niche and a stela with an offering table scene and formula. They often possess one, two or even three pairs of jambs leading to a central niche. Above the niche there was often a rounded element called a drum, that probably represented a rolled-up woven curtain. A panel on which the tomb owner is depicted at an offering table, together with an inscription of the traditional offering formula, is frequently present. It was usually located above a false or real lintel that extends across the jambs. In addition, a pair of outer jambs and an architrave often forms a frame around the door. From the middle of the 5th Dynasty, one also finds several new elements to a false door. These include a torus (rounded) molding and a cavetto cornice, both elements deriving from a door constructed of plants and representing a frame bound with fiber and a palm cornice.

In front of the false door there was often built an offering slab in the shape of a hetep symbol, representing a loaf on a mat. Here food and drink were placed for the Ka (soul) of the deceased. These were also most commonly made of fine stone, and frequently included a number of depressions used as dishes and basins. These elements might also have depictions in relief of a loaf of bread and occasionally other items such as a goose or an ox head. These slabs were certainly used for real offerings to the deceased. However, they were probably later redistributed among priests and necropolis workers.

An offering slap that lay before a false door

Most of the elements of the false door are usually inscribed with the name and titles of the owner, and frequently adorned with his figure, together with other text. For example, on the left jamb of the false door of Redi-ness at Giza (G 5032) from the 6th Dynasty, the text reads:

"The scribe Redi-nes says: Never did (I) do any evil thing against people. (As for) those who will do something against this, it shall be protected from them."

The right jamb reads:

"The scribe Redi-nes says: (I) have constructed this my (tomb) with my own means. It is the god who will judge (my) case along with him who does anything against it."

In some cases, there is also a statue of the owner in the central niche, and for example, in the the tomb of Neferseshemptah in the Teti cemetery, there was an engaged, standing statue in each of its outer jams and a bust statue in the central panel instead of the more typical offering table scene. Such raised relief statuary depicted the deceased immerging from the false door.

A Painted False Door from the tomb-cahel of Nakht in Western Thebes

False doors were most typically placed on the west wall of the main room in the chapel, known as an offering chamber. This was usually the back wall of the chapel or mortuary temple, and when the chapel or temple abutted the tomb, such as in the case of a pyramid, it would be on the wall adjacent to the tomb. In some instances, there were two false doors affixed to the west wall, with the southern one serving the tomb owner while the northern door was meant for his wife. However, in some instances of mastaba design, there might actually be one false door for each member of the family buried in the tomb, usually located near the shaft leading to their respective burial chambers.

Where present, false doors are often one of the most beautiful elements within tomb complexes, and many survive, some in their original positions, while others have been removed to various museums throughout the world.

Gallery of False Doors

False Door of Mehu at Saqqara, 6th Dynasty Rare Wooden False Door of Ika, 5th Dynasty
False Door of Mehu at Saqqara, 6th Dynasty Rare Wooden False Door of Ika, 5th Dynasty
False Door of Redi-nes, Giza (G 5032), 6th Dynasty False Door of Shery
False Door of Redi-nes, Giza (G 5032), 6th Dynasty False Door of Shery
False Door of Senenmut (TT353) False Door of Kaihap at Saqqara, 5th Dynasty
False Door of Senenmut (TT353) False Door of Kaihap at Saqqara, 5th Dynasty
False Door from the Unas Pyramid Complex False Door of Puyemre at Thebes (TT 39)
False Door from the Unas Pyramid Complex False Door of Puyemre at Thebes (TT 39)


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