Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements Part I: Approach and Entrance

Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements

Part I: Approach and Entrance

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

An Avenue of Sphinxes

Ancient Egyptian temples, particularly in their fully developed state, became complex structures with many different architectural elements. The essential parts of the temple proper can be viewed as increasingly sacred zones. Usually consisting of an approach and entrance together with the outer areas of the temple enclosure, which was open to the general Egyptian population, its outer courts within the pylons that were accessible to temple priests and occasionally, some of the general population, its inner halls where only purified priests were allowed, and the inner sanctuary, restricted to the king and priests of a very high rank.

Other religious elements could exist, such as sacred lakes, and of course, there could be many subsidiary secular structures as well, functioning as administrative offices, storage areas, gardens, schools, libraries as well as other uses.

Many people who visit ancient Egyptian temples will simply think of the massive pylon gateways as the temple entrance. Yet this is not really the case, and in fact the pylons were usually located well within the structure. The actual elements of the temples entrance usually included the landing quays, kiosks, gates and processional ways that preceded the temple's outer enclosure walls, which finally led to the pylon gateways themselves.

Landing Quays

It cannot be denied that the people of Egypt were given a true gift of the gods. The Nile River, with its northern flow, but predominately southward winds, made navigation throughout most of the empire proper easy. The Egyptians took complete advantage of this river system and used it for almost all of their transportation. Hence, from the very earliest times, most temples were located either near this sacred river, or a canal that communicated with the Nile. Thus, a landing quay often represented the initial encounter with a temple. Many of these docks were very large. Not only would they have to accommodate boats carrying the king and his entourage, but sometimes huge building components such as obelisks or monolithic statues.

Landing quays were often built on canals cut back from the Nile both to allow for a more stable waterway free from the river current, as well as to locate the quay closer to the temple proper. The advantages of such a canal was very useful when loading and unloading boats, particularly when considering objects of great weight. However, even with canals, the landing quays themselves had to be designed to handle the variable level of the Nile as much as possible, though even the largest of these would usually be covered with water at the height of the annual flood.

The landing quays were also the initial point of greeting during the ceremonial journeys made by the cult statues of the gods. Most temples celebrated these processional festivals on a regular basis, and it was at the landing quay that the cult statues would be greeted by officials, common Egyptians and sometimes even by the royal family.

Causeways and the Path to the Temple Proper

The King between the paws of a sphinx

From the earliest times, a path leading from the landing quay to the temple proper was at least marked, often paved, and in the case of Old Kingdom mortuary temples, roofed. Also from early times, this path was frequently marked by statuary along the route, which from at least the New Kingdom on, also served as protective elements. While statues of gods or the king might be found along the paths during earlier times, after the Second Intermediate Period the most common sculptures were those of Sphinxes. These protective sphinxes could have a human head, filling the role of king as guardian of the temple approach. Others might fuse the body of a lion with any number of different images for the head, depending on the nature of the god associated with a particular temple. An obvious example of the latter would be the ram headed sphinxes along the processional way leading to the Temple of Amun at Karnak. In some instances where the sphinx did not have the head of a king, a small image of the ruler might also be placed between the outstretched paws of the lion's body.

As a notation, the processional path leading to a temple entrance did not always lead from a landing quay, though the main entrances to the temple enclosure almost always involved a processional way. Sometimes, such processional ways leading to the enclosure walls ran between temples as is the case in the Karnak and Luxor Temples.

The Way Stations

The Way Station  of Seti I

Undoubtedly the best example of a way station is that built by Senusret I. Used as fill in the ninth pylon at Karnak, it was rebuilt during our modern era. However, other examples exist, such as that of Seti I in the forecourt of the Temple of Amun at Karnak.

These structures seem to have been built as a resting area for the ceremonial processions, as well as to refresh the image of the deities that were transported along the causeways or processional avenues. They were usually fairly simple structures, with little or no decoration, and only large enough to house a low altar like base and the god's portable barque that was placed atop this base. However, in the case of the Way Station built by Seti I, the structure was designed to house three of these ceremonial boats for the Theban triad, consisting of the gods Amun, Mut and Khonsu.

The Enclosure Walls

Temple enclosure  wall in the Fayoum

The causeway or processional path leading from the landing quay eventually entered the temple proper marked by its surrounding enclosure wall, called sebty during Egypt's New Kingdom, when they were most common. During that period, they sometimes were built around whole towns. These walls actually served several purposes. There was the obvious intent to protect the temple complex from outright attack, either during times of civil strife or foreign invasion. Of course, the wall also marked the boundaries of the god's estate, sealing it from the countryside and the surrounding inhabitants. However, more subtly, the enclosure wall blocked out, both symbolically and physically, the confusion and disorder of the outside world, creating an atmosphere conducive the temple's sacred role.

There were also physical attributes of these enclosure walls that had a symbolic purpose. They were often built with alternating concave and convex sections that many Egyptologists believe to have represented the waters of the mythical primeval waters. Others believe that this wave pattern was simply a practical method of preventing the walls from cracking due to shrinkage of the bricks or swelling ground during the Nile floods. However, it should be noted that, while other enclosure walls exist, only those surrounding temple complexes (or areas controlled by the temple estate) take this form.

This wave pattern could be complex, including a wave design in the width of the wall. At other times, the wave might be built into only the upper reaches of the wall above regular horizontal layers of brick, as we find in the Temple of Edfu, or above a regular stone foundation such as that at Philae.

Enclosure walls were almost always built out of mud brick, though in large temples, they were sometimes laid over a framework of wooden beams and reed mats. The walls were certainly not simply ornamental, for many were as thick as 10 meters (30 feet). Some even had rounded battlements and occasionally, bastions or fortified gateways, features that took many years for the medieval knights of Europe to reinvent. usually, and also for defensive purposes, the number of entrances in the enclosure wall was kept to a minimum.


Obelisk of  Tuthmosis I and Hatshepsut at Karnak

Obelisks were one of Egypt's most ancient symbolic structures that perhaps evolved out of an irregular shaped upright sacred stone. These predecessors of the fully developed Obelisks may have originated in the sun cult at Heliopolis during Egypt's earliest period. We see definite refinement in their shape in the sun temples of the 5th Dynasty, though in those monuments they were more squat, as well as the very center of attention. However, the fully developed obelisks were most common during Egypt's New Kingdom, when they were often erected in pairs. Often, these were placed in front of the pylons but at times they were also placed on the central axis of the complex. However, they usually lay outside of the main temple structure, being enclosed only as the precincts grew around them.

Obelisks, if one reflects their form, were unusual constructs that have fathomed the test of time. In there mature state, they usually consisted of stone, sometimes weighing hundreds of tons, in an elongated, tapering four sided shaft that was then polished, inscribed and surmounted by a sharply pointed pyramidion. They represent some of the ancient Egyptian's greatest achievements in stone cutting and handling. Often, they were cut from Aswan red granite and in those quarries remains the largest obelisk ever attempted, weighing some one thousand tons, but never completed. When completed, obelisks were transported on the Nile, raised to a vertical position and mounted on a pedestal.

However, we still to this day do not exactly know the manner in which Obelisks were erected, and it is possible that different methods evolved over time, or were used preferred depending on the location. Though a relief depicts an obelisk being raised with the use of ropes during the time of Ptolemy XII, we believe that they were more probably dragged up some sort of ramp and then lowered in some banner, base first, onto their pedestal (socles).

Obelisks were usually erected to commemorate some important event, such as a Sed-festival celebration, a victory in battle, or sometimes simply as a major gift to the gods. Because of this, they were often depicted on the temple walls in order to record their donor's contribution.

Depiction of  Hatshepsut's Obelisks

Depiction of Hatshepsut's Obelisks

After erection, many obelisks stood higher than the temple itself, and with their bright, gilded points, were the first and last elements of the temple to catch the suns rays as it rose in the morning and set in the evening.

Obelisks have been very popular since the time of the ancient pharaohs, and thus today there only remain a few standing obelisks in all of Egypt. We know that the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal removed two and erected them in Nineveh. Later, the Romans took a number of them to Rome and Constantinople. Even during the 19th century, the continued to be removed and thus we may today find more of these structures spread about the world than in Egypt itself.

Colossi Statuary

An example of  colossal statues at Egyptian temples

Often larger in at least volume than even obelisks were the Colossal statues, usually of kings, cut out of monolithic blocks of limestone, sandstone, quartzite or granite. We find such statuary, usually erected along the temple approaches or major processional ways, as well as in front of the temple entrance, from as early as the Old Kingdom.

Undoubtedly, they were used to portray the power of the king placing him on a level with the gods. In fact, some archaeologists have labeled this monumental statuary as powerfacts (rather than artifacts). Hence, they were usually placed in a position where the common people could gaze in awe upon them (though sometimes only on special occasions).

The largest such statues that we know of were those of Amenhotep III, known as the Colossi of Memnon, a naming error made in antiquity, and the Colossi that Ramesses II produced. Both were used in the mortuary temples (Amenhotep III Temple, Ramesses II Temple) of those respective rulers on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor), and represent some of the largest objects ever cut from a single block of stone.

However, it is apparent that Ramesses II dearly loved such statuary of himself, for he had more and larger statuary carved than any other pharaoh during Egypt's ancient history. He produced so many colossi that fragments of these statues seem to continuously turn up in the cultivated fields of farmers, who simply refer to any monumental fragment as "Ramesses". And while Ramesses II had to have these larger colossi carved, this did not seem to quench his thrust, for he usurped many smaller statues produced by previous kings.

The artistry of this style of monumental statuary is truly impressive. Most of the time, the colossi were carved from a single block of stone with the feet remaining attached to the base. However, in the case of the colossi of Amenhotep III south of Karnak, even the soles of the feet were carved prior to its mounting. No less daunting was the transportation and erection of these massive statues, which was probably accomplished in a similar manner to obelisks.


A goof view of  Egyptain pylons

We first see pylon shaped structures in the mortuary temples of the Old Kingdom pyramid builders, from which the later, more massive structures may have evolved. Not only were they one of the most distinctive architectural element within the temple complex, but were also very popular with the pharaohs. Thus, while they acted as the entrance gateway to the temple proper, they were very often enclosed within the temple itself, as successive rulers extended temple complexes.

As the rulers added pylons to the temple complexes, particularly later in Egypt's history, they often tore down existing structures that they felt were no longer useful and stood in their way, and used this rubble to fill the interior of their new pylons. Interestingly, the material from these prior buildings was thus preserved, encased in the mortar of the standing pylon. Some, such as the White Chapel of Senusret I and the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut (in the Open Air Museum at Karnak) have been salvaged when pylons have been restored, and pieced together to form as nearly as possible the original structure. Their decorations often represent some of the finest and best preserved examples we have from Egypt's ancient monuments.

In some cases, blocks from such structures were also reused in the outer walls of the pylons, as in the case of the first pylon at the Temple of Amun at Karnak. Later pylons, such as the one built during the Greek period at the Small Temple of Medinet Habu, were constructed simply of some combination of brick and stone.

Like the enclosure walls, pylons served both a defensive and religiously symbolic function. They provided a physically defensive position in times of real chaos or attack, but they also, like the enclosure wall, provided a symbolic barrier to the chaos and evil beyond the temple grounds. In fact, the Egyptian name for pylons during the 18th Dynasty, Bekhnet, seems to derive from a term meaning "to be vigilant".

The king smites  his enemies

Furthermore, the most common form of decorative theme related to pylons from the New Kingdom onwards is the smiting of enemies by the King. From the earliest dynastic periods, we find scenes depicting the Egyptian king, towering over his opponents, in the act of smiting them with a club or short sword called a khepseh. This motif may have also adorned earlier pylons, though most of these are lost to us.

However, symbolically the pylon had one other important role, mimicking the shape of the akhet, or horizon hieroglyph. It was here that the sun rose over the earth's horizon between the outer world and the hidden, sacred grounds of the temple.

Colorful flags decorated with fetishes were mounted on poles which were than set into the face of the pylons. These flags had their origin in the very earliest of Egyptian temples, and their shape was almost surely responsible for the flagpole hieroglyph for god (ntr and variations such as nutar). Though not a single example of such a flag has been discovered, documentary evidence suggests that they may have been monumentally large, reaching heights of some 60 meters (200 feet) and weighing more than five tons. It seem, like all things monumental in Egypt, the raising of these flags into the pylon niches would have been a difficult task, but it has been suggested that this was accomplished by a rope/pull system that may have been used to raise sales on the Egyptian boats.

Regardless, the pylon represents the end of the beginning, for through this monumental gateway stood the courts of the temple proper.

See Also:

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Valley of the Kings Weeks, Kent R. 2001 Friedman/Fairfax ISBN 1-5866-3295-7