Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements Part II: The Outer Courtyards

Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements
Part II: The Outer Courtyards

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

In what Egyptologists might refer to as more or less the "standard temple", for their design could vary considerably, there was usually a courtyard after the massive pylon gateway. In fact, in some huge complexes there could end up being pylon followed by courtyard in repetitions. It should be noted that there were indeed many variances in temples, and for example, private mortuary temples, while they did usually have a courtyard, functioned somewhat differently than other temple complexes. Also over time, temples did of course evolve. We are most familiar with the New Kingdom temples as the fully evolved complex.

A view of Medinet Habu including its open courtyards

In a practical sense, the outer courtyard had a transitional purpose, serving as an interface between the outside world and the sanctified regions deeper within the temple.

We may refer to the courtyard after the pylon as an outer court. It was usually of the same width as the following hypostyle hall and took on a rectangular plan. It was almost always an open peristyle court that would be partially surrounded on its sides by a colonnade that was covered by an ambulatory. The courtyards were almost always paved. Within the court was often located a great altar for the offerings, usually on one side of the central axis (for example, at Medamud). In the earliest temples the portico, sitting upon a raised platform, seems to have stretched only in front of the rear wall of the court and was reached by way of a ramp.

Notation: A column structure usually consists of a base, shaft and capital. Above the capital is a small support known as an Abacus, and above that is the Architrave that that in turn supports the roof. The partial roof structure is called an Ambulatory.

The outer courtyard could be referred to by several different names by the ancient Egyptians, depending on the type of column employed. It was the columns themselves that distinguished both the structure and the symbolic function of this area.

It was the outer courtyard that gave the common people a sense of belonging to the temple precinct, for although it was a part of the temple proper, they were often given access to this area, at least in part or to celebrate special occasions. In fact, during the Greek period (Ptolemaic), the name given to this area was "the court of the multitude" and the nekhyt

The courtyard at Kom Ombo

hieroglyphs that represented the people of Egypt were often inscribed on walls or columns within this court. This hieroglyph in fact indicated where people should gather during the great processions and festivals.

Hence it is no surprise that the decorative theme of the outer court often portrayed the pharaoh, in painted low or sunk reliefs, in various historical or religious activities, leading military expeditions for the benefit of the local deity, worshiping the gods, and playing his part in festivals or in foundation ceremonies. However, nothing of the divine mysteries would be revealed in the scenes.

Furthermore, in many temples, there were probably specific areas within the court (or at times outside the temple) where people could lodge petitions, meet priests on personal matters, or conduct business with the temple officials.

In a very real sense, the outer courts of ancient Egyptian temples bought the common people and the temple complex together. Here, from the Middle Kingdom onward, we find private statuary along side the royal statues of kings and gods. These types of statues were usually unobtrusive, taking the form of a block statue depicting the private individual sitting, squatting on the ground or kneeling before a deity in humble reverence. Practically, this created a patronage and bond, but religiously, these statues of commoners perhaps provided a great deal of comfort. The Egyptians believed that their soul could reside in a statue as a physical, alternative host after their death. With their personal statue located inside the temple proper, it would give them access, or at least close proximity to the cult's gods. Moreover, inscriptions on the statues implored the utterance of their names which would keep their spirits alive, while other inscriptions might request that an offering formula be recited on their behalf. During the Middle Kingdom, the private statuary was almost always of men, though there were a few exceptions. However, by the New Kingdom, private statues of women were not uncommon.

Like royal statues, those of highly regarded individuals were thought to potentially be able to act as an intermediary between common people and the gods. For example, an 18th dynasty block statue of Amenophis, son of Hapu at Thebes even implores the viewer to "come to me and I will transmit your petitions" to the god Amun. However, this service was not offered free of charge, for the requester in return had to pronounce the deceased's name, and recite the offering formula on behalf of Amenophis.

Granite Sphinx of Tuthmosis III found in the Karnak Cachette

One must remember that many temple complexes existed for countless centuries. In this vast space of time, the outer court could become very crowded with private, as well as royal statues. Yet, the temple priests were always required to accept new statuary. There solution to this problem was, at times, to bury the older statues beneath the temple courtyard in caches, which have at times been a bonanza for Egyptologists. In 1903, for example, Georges Legrain made the discovery of a lifetime while working at Karnak. The cache of statues he discovered over three years of excavations, now known as the Karnak Cachette, consisted of some 900 stone statues and statuettes dating mainly from the 20th Dynasty through the Greek period. More recently, another cache was discovered in the nearby temple of Luxor, though somewhat less grand in size.

See Also:






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Valley of the Kings

Weeks, Kent R.



ISBN 1-5866-3295-7