Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements Part IV: The Sanctuary and its Environs

Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements
Part IV: The Sanctuary and its Environs

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

Beyond the hypostyle hall in smaller temples we might find the sanctuary, but in many instances there could be several other chambers or halls.

Offering Halls and their Altars

One of the rooms preceding the sanctuary was typically dedicated as an offering hall which included one or more altars. In such cases, this would be where sacrifices to the gods were made. If not, then the altar was usually placed in the inner sanctuary itself, though in extensive temples, large altars might also be placed in other courts and halls. These altars could take any number of different shapes and sizes, but were often square blocks carved and decorated on their sides, or flat slaps surmounting cylindrical bases. However, some altars could be table-like or taller, flat topped and we also find examples of altars with raised corners that may have originated in Syria. The larger altars could be very significant structures with steps leading to their roofs.The early sun temples at Abu Ghurab have an interesting altar made up to resemble four hetep signs, each representing a simple offering mat with a loaf of bread placed on it.

Decorations within these offering halls, or wherever the altar might be located almost always depicted the king making offerings in a kneeling or bowing position before the deity of the temple. In return the deity often provides a reciprocal gift to the king that is explicitly set out within the accompanying text.

Barque Chapel

Just prior to the sanctuary there might also be located a barque chapel, which was a room that housed the portable barque on which the statue of the god rested during processional ceremonies and other occasions on which it was moved. The barque is a form of boat, though in the case of portable barques it was more of a symbolic concept, for these did not usually take on the shape of an actual boat. Rather, itwas designed to be carried on the shoulders of the priests and would be loaded on a real boat if transported by water. Most temples had some form of barque shrine to house this sacred means of transportation for the god, though in some temples it might be located in the inner sanctuary itself. Wherever it was located, adjacent walls were usually decorated with scenes of the king leading a procession in which the barque was depicted.

Sanctuary and Shrine

Though it was hardly ever the most architecturally impressive part of a temple, the inner sanctuary was the most holy part of the temple complex. It was the heart of every temple, and regarded as the innermost chamber of the god's home. Therefore, it was a physical extension of the Egyptian heaven. Structurally, the sanctuary was often a deep and narrow room., usually incorporated into the very rear of the temple. The sanctuary of the principle deity honored within the temple almost always stood on the temple's main axis. Offset to the main sanctuary there might also be additional sanctuaries build for associate deities, sometimes in symbolically oriented alignment, or shrines to these other deities might be positioned in the single central sanctuary.

It was the most restricted part of the temple complex, usually only accessible by the king or high priests, and then only after the highest standards of purification. The sanctuary was so holy that a breach in this policy, for example, where the sanctuary was entered by an unpurified invading force, the whole temple was considered to be desecrated and hence would require a complete rededication.

Within the sanctuary, the god's statue would usually be housed within some form of shrine. While there seems to have been only two basic designs for these shrines, the ancient Egyptians had a number of terms for their shrines. The most common terms were seh netjer, kari and khem, which probably reflected slight design differences or functions of the shrine . The shrine might be constructed of find hard stone with bronze or gold plated wooden doors, or in smaller temples, completely made of gilded wood. The most common form, known as a "naos" shrine, was completely closed on all sides with a double door that was oriented towards the temple entrance. In some instance, this type of shrine might be elevated on a raised podium accessed by steps. However, when the temple did not have a separate barque chapel, the shrine might have open ends, resembling a canopy like structure on which the god's barque stood on a pedestal (plinth). In these shrines, the god's image would reside within the cabin of the barque. Each shrine, like every other major component within the temple complex, had its own specific name. They could be called, for example, "favorite of [the principle deity of the temple]" or "the holy shrine of [the principle deity of the temple]".

The actual image of the god in the form of a statue could very considerably in both quality and size. Some statues could be almost monumental in size, while others well below life size in dimension. Larger statues were frequently made of wood or stone which was then gilded in either gold, or in the case of lunar gods, silver. Smaller statues were frequently made completely of gold, the mythological flesh of the gods, or silver for the lunar gods. Regardless, they frequently had inset eyes of semiprecious stones and inlays of lapis lazuli, which was considered the hair of the gods. This image was normally waited upon, or served by the pharaoh, or his priestly representatives three times a day.

An element within the sanctuary dating back to the Old Kingdom mortuary temples in pyramid complexes was a decoration we refer to as a false door. To the ancient Egyptians, there was nothing false about this door, for it allowed access to the sanctuary by the gods (specifically the deceased king in the case of mortuary temples) or access to the outside world by the gods in the case of non-mortuary temples. It was usually located in the very back of the sanctuary, and in the case of non-mortuary temples, might be associated with a chapel of the "hearing ear". Other decorations within the sanctuary usually depicted the daily ritual performed for the statue of the god and for the offering rituals.

The Chapel of the "hearing ear"

While the last room in the back of many temples was the sanctuary, in others there was located directly behind the sanctuary a chapel of the "hearing ear". This was a very interesting development of the temple complex, acting as a back door to the complex which allowed those who were not purified, the common people, indirect access to the inner sanctuary and thus to the temple deity. It was actually situated within the outer walls of the temple, and might consist of only a niche, or at times, could be surprisingly elaborate. This chapel could house a complete statue of the god, or at other times, simply a carved pair of the god's ears to which the people could address their prayers. In may cases, a small chamber might be built into the back of the chapel. Called "priest holes", a priest might sit within this chamber where he could hear the prayers of the people and perhaps, at times, deliver oracles on behalf of the god.

We know of no earlier examples of this temple then those of the New Kingdom, and the earliest surviving example is that of Tuthmosis III which contains large alabaster statues of both that king and the god, Amun. These chapels continued to be incorporated into many temple complexes through the Graeco-Roman Period. The Karnak complex actually includes a number of these chapels behind the Great Temple of Amun. However, it should be noted that this type of chapel could be detached from a temple complex completely. For example, Ramesses II built a complete small temple of "the hearing ear" at Thebes (modern Luxor).

The most common form of prayer (petition) to the gods in these chapels usually concerned a plea for recovery from poor health, though certainly all kinds of requests were made by the common people.

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

History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C.

Badawy, Alexander


University of California Press

LCCC A5-4746

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