Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements Part III: On the Path to the Sanctuary

Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements Part III: On the Path to the Sanctuary

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

Hypostyle hall in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos

The open courtyard was the last area of the temple generally available to at least some of the common population. Beyond lay regions that were only accessible by purified priests, and deeper still to only high priests or the king.

The Hypostyle Hall

If there is a modern, recognizable icon of the ancient Egyptian temple, it would almost certainly be the chamber (or chambers) directly beyond the open courtyard known as the hypostyle hall. While not the most sacred or even important area of the temple, to many modern visitors the hypostyle hall is the most impressive. The first area of the inner temple where the general public was never allowed, it was usually transverse to the courtyard, being broader than it was deep, and filled with sometimes over one hundred massive columns. In some instance, especially with regards to the larger prominent temples, there might be a repetition of these chambers which acted as a transition into the most sacred areas of the temple. In the Nineteenth Dynasty, there might be as many as three secondary hypostyle halls added beyond the first great hall, with different names that reflected the types of rituals ceremonies performed in each. It is an element of the fully evolved temple, though we may recognize an archaic form of this hall in the fore temple of the Old Kingdom mortuary complexes.

Hypostyle Hall in the Temple of Khnum at Esna

It has sometimes been suggested that the dense forest of columns within these chambers were meant to act as a screen to block the view of the inner shrine from the more public courtyard. In reality, there was a processional way on the center axis of this room where the columns were separated, so it was more likely the increasing darkness (a row of clerestory windows with gratings set high in the walls let in little light) and doorways that actually hid the most sacred areas of the temple from public view.

The hypostyle hall had both practical and symbolic functions. It did allow a solemn and rather awesome transition leading to the inner sanctuaries. The large number of columns was needed in order to support the sandstone architraves and roofing slabs of these massive chambers.

But the columns of these halls also had considerably symbolic meaning, though caution must be applied here because the ancient Egyptian religion had a complex theology that we will probably never completely understand. However, in some of the mythologies, the celestial ream of the sky was supported above the earth on columns, which are sometimes depicted as framing devices at the sides of temple representations.

When Amenhotep III tells us of the temple of Karnak that "Its pillars reach heaven like the four pillars of heaven", we can see that they were thought of as cosmic in nature. Of course, their plant like design, usually as a single papyrus or lotus stem with open or closed buds for capitals might also represent the marshland plants that grew up around the

Top of Column Shaft and Capital. Note rings at top symbolically holding the papyrus stalks together

primeval mound of creation, which was in turn symbolized by the temple's inner shrine. The large variety of column types can also be seen as representing the metaphor of original creation. The larger temples might contain a great number of these massive columns. For example, the Karnak temple alone has some 134 columns, some of which stand up to 24 meters (79 Feet) tall. In the 19th Dynasty, a characteristic of the hypostyle hall was the central nave, which acted as the processional way, bordered by papyriform open columns, while the aisles have shorter columns usually of the bud, or closed papyriform type. The decorative theme in this part of the temple usually consisted of scenes depicting sacred ceremonies such as jubilees and processions of the sacred barque. In the public areas of the temple the king was most often shown fully clothed, but in the hypostyle hall we now find him wearing a short kilt as he approaches the deity. It should be noted that there was a striking similarity between what Vituvius called the "Egyptian Hall" (hypostyle hall) and the Roman basilica.


Image of king symbolically purifying those who enter the inner temple on a door jamb

Perhaps more symbolic then one might first think the doorways within the temple were useful for ceiling the inner sanctum from the eyes of the common Egyptian.

But they were also thresholds that acted as liminal points necessary in the enactment of ritual processions. The doors themselves were usually made of wood, but often covered in metal and it is possible that some smaller door leaves (awy) may have been cast entirely of metal. However, wooden doors were usually covered in copper, but in some cased might be plated in bronze, electrum or gold. They were mounted on wooden pivots set into sockets in the threshold and lintel of the doorway (seba). Like most elements in a temple complex, each had its own name, and they were decorated with texts and inscriptions consistent with the adjacent walls. For example, one doorway at Karnak build during the reign of Tuthmosis III was called "[The doorway] Menkheperre, Amun-great-of-strength, whom-the-people-praise".

It was made of Lebanon cedar with its name written in electrum. In many doorways were images of the king symbolically cleansing all who might enter into the sanctity of the inner temple. These doorways, along with providing protection, also acted as symbolic gateways that were thresholds of other worlds or states of being. They were often depicted in the representations of the shrines of gods, and the ritual act of opening them was symbolic of the opening of the doors of heaven, or for that matter exactly the reverse. For example, the false doors found in some temple were not for mankind's use, but for the gods themselves who might use them to enter our physical realm.

Storerooms, Crypts and Other Chambers

Temple at Kom Ombo showing primary and secondary Hypostyle halls, along with doorways

The statues of gods were considered to be physical manifestations of the gods themselves, and as such were treated in a very physical manner by temple priests. They were washed, clothed, fed and upon various occasions, even taken to visit the gods of other temples. Hence, about the principle shrine of a temple might be built chambers, and even suites of chambers, for visiting gods and their attending priests. In addition, there could be storerooms for cultic equipment such as clothing for the god's image, incense, vesting chambers where the priests could prepare themselves for these special ceremonies, and other rooms associated with the daily rituals performed in almost every temple to wash, cloth and feed the gods. There were also hidden crypts and small, mysterious chambers are large niches built into the walls or beneath the floors. We find these in temples from the 18th Dynasty through the Roman Period. Sometimes these have been referred to has priest holes, and we believe that they were mainly used by hidden priests while providing oracles. Some may also have hidden away particularly valuable treasures of the temple, or may have had some unknown symbolic purpose. Within Karnak the small temple of Opet, dedicated to a hippopotamus goddess, while small, has a large number of these hidden crypts. Here, crypts located in the floor of the temple are thought to have possibly been a "tomb" for the god Amun when he is associated with Osiris.

Stairs and Roofs

A waterspout at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera

Access to the temple roof was needed both to maintain the temple, and for religious purposes. Here, we find drainage systems to handle rainwater runoff, which sometimes needed repairs. The outpour spouts of these systems were often decorative, and represent some of the earliest forms of gargoyles. The Hathor temple at Dendera has a few excellent examples of these. However, the roof was also incorporated with a number of rituals, which, depending on the god (such as solar deities), could be very important. It is actually the stairways that provide most documentation of these rituals, for the processions of priests and gods are often depicted on their walls. For example, at Dendera, we know from a particularly well documented depiction that the New year's festival was celebrated by taking the image of Hathor in a ritual procession to the roof, where she would await the sunrise of the new year in a rooftop chapel. And at Edfu, the falcon god Horus was carried in his portable shrine, accompanied by ancestor gods, to the roof of the temple for khenuem-aten, his uniting with the sun disk. At times, the god might be transported from a below ground niche up through the temple and to the roof, a ritual that embraced the god's activities in the underworld, on earth and in the heavens.

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