Art of Ancient Egypt during Middle and New Kingdom periods – Tombs and Temples in the Middle Kingdom

During the XI Dynasty the Egyptian government moved to the upper Nile valley away from the delta. Thus, during the Middle and New Kingdoms the capital moved to Thebes contrary to the Old Kingdom that had its capital at Memphis. Amun was the local god of Thebes but was identified with Ra (god of Memphis) and was in Thebes where the greatest religious buildings of the whole Nile Valley were built (the largest ever built by humankind). During the five hundred years from the XVIII to the XXI Dynasty, i.e. from 1570 to 1085 BC, Amun-Ra the great god of Thebes won national worship in this city’s temples. During the New Kingdom period the temple was more important than the grave, and the Pharaoh was considered solely as the son of Amun-Ra the omnipotent father of heaven and earth.

Reconstruction of Mentuhotep II’s mortuary temple.

When the court moved to Thebes the pharaonic tombs continued resembling for some time the pyramid shape but only as a symbol to show the royal character of the grave. In the tomb of Mentuhotep II, the first Pharaoh of Thebes, it is curious to observe how the atrophied pyramid is shrinking down to fit inside a courtyard. In contrast, the pyramid was surrounded by its temple, porticoes and rooms instead of resting at its base on one of its sides. This tomb of Mentuhotep inaugurated the series of Pharaonic tombs of the Middle Kingdom: it explains the disposition of brick dwarf pyramids whose destroyed nuclei are still present in Thebes’ plain. These dwarf pyramids were purely honorary and didn’t represent the final refuge for the mummy as they did during the Old Kingdom. The last pharaohs of the XVIII Dynasty renounced completely to the traditional element of the pyramid and carved their hypogea inside the cracks of the mountain. The pyramid came to be replaced by the natural mountain while its temple was in the distance, close to the river valley with no communication with the tomb.

The tombs of the Valley of the Kings (the royal necropolis of Thebes) show the same purpose that we have seen in the pyramid, that is to preserve at all costs the royal body claimed by the rite of Osiris. Galleries and halls were built within the mountain  and represented the places where the deceased’s ghost was suppose to inhabit, the tomb’s walls were decorated with paintings that reproduced certain moments of the deceased’s life. The hallways (the longer and deeper the more important the tomb was) were sometimes interrupted by pits where the opening has been hidden, and that were supposed to lead to the burial chamber. Before reaching the burial chamber a false tomb containing a monumental opened sarcophagus can make you believe that the mummy has been taken away and that the tomb is empty… You have to make your way through a new series of chambers and overcome some other difficulties to finally reach the real tomb with a second sarcophagus, usually made of wood, that actually contained the royal mummy.

All these graves dug into the cliffs of Thebes are no more than the first element of the pharaonic burial. In the plain near the river the deified pharaoh’s temples were located, and they corresponded to the temples built at the base of the pyramids during the Old Kingdom. The monumental seated figures of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, known by the ancient Greek travelers as Colossi of Memnon, are reminiscent of these temples built in the plain; they are two colossal statues of about twenty meters in height, each carved from a single block of granite.

The Colossi of Memnon depict Amenhotep III and are the only remains of the huge mortuary temple dedicated to his name, which the architect Amenhotep built on the left bank of the Nile, west of Thebes. The Greeks gave them the name of Memnon, a hero of the Trojan War, King of Ethiopia and son of Aurora.

Of these Pharaonic pantheons the most unique is the temple/tomb of the famous Queen Hatshepsut located in the slopes of the mountain. This building, which now bears the Arabic name Deir el-Bahari, or “Convent of the North”, has a disposition that was a real novelty. This temple was not arranged in successive courtyards as the other Egyptian temples were, but instead taking advantage of the terrain cliffs, it stood at different levels in a series of terraces surrounded by colonnades which served as a portico to the chapels dug into the rock. This set of ascending terraces resembled the general idea of ​​the old step pyramid of King Djoser of the Third Dynasty.

Aerial view of the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari, built by Senmut, the architect of this queen of the XVIII Dynasty.
A view of the front portico of the temple of queen Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari.
Another type of Egyptian column, the “Osirian column” -bearing images of the God Osiris- from the portico of the temple of queen Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari.

Actually, the only pharaonic tomb that archaeologists have found intact (which means that thieves hadn’t previously plundered it) was that of Tutankhamun’s. Discovered in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings, this finding excited almost everyone more than any other archaeological discovery since Schliemann found Troy. Today its treasures (statues of gold, jewels, ivories, enamels…), which apart from their artistic value have incalculable material value, are the pride of the Cairo Museum. Howard Carter was the archaeologist who led the excavations. After six years of fruitless efforts, the excavators discovered the entrance to the tomb and cleared the stairs. In front of them it was a stone door with its seals intact. On November 24- 1922, the door was knocked down to only found at the other side a gallery full of debris. After several days of work the explorers reached a second door. Carter’s hands trembled in such a way that he could hardly hold his tools. Finally he managed to make a hole through which he introduced a lit candle. At first he saw nothing but when his eyes adjusted to the gloom according to his journal “…details of the room began to emerge, strange animals, statues, and gold, gold glittering everywhere!”. Unable to bear his doubt, his patron Lord Carnarvon asked “Do you see anything?” Howard Carter turned slowly and was finally able to articulate: “Yes, amazing things!” They had found the antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The following months they worked in the exploration of the tomb which every time was providing extraordinary surprises: the annex to the antechamber, the burial chamber and the treasure chamber.

Above: the extraordinary funerary mask of Tutankhamun (Cairo Museum) in gold and precious stones. Below: Left – view of the Treasury chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb as it was found by Howard Carter in 1922. Right – a reconstruction of the Treasury chamber for public exhibition.