Art of Ancient Egypt during Middle and New Kingdom periods – The Egyptian Temple

Memorable temples of Ancient Egypt include those of Hatshepsut, Gourna, Ramses II (built on the left bank of the Nile west of Thebes, also called the Ramesseum), and finally, the temples of the right bank of the Nile called Karnak and Luxor both dedicated to Amun and united in antiquity by a monumental avenue. These buildings were the real centers of religious and political activity of the Theban Empire.

The avenue of the Sphinxes at the temple of Karnak.

The difficulty of describing an Egyptian temple was initially noticed in antiquity by Greek polygraphs as Herodotus and Strabo. In fact, the Greek names of pylons, hypostyle halls, and obelisks (which they applied for the first time in their brief descriptions) are still the terms we use these days.  An Egyptian temple was always disposed in the same way. The temple was reached by the avenue of the sphinxes immediately after which was the first pylon. The sphinxes of Karnak’s Avenue had a lion body and a ram head, and between their front legs stood the pharaohs figures. They were the symbol of Amon, the synthesis of Ra and Harmakhis the two ancient sun-gods of the Nile Delta. Crossing the door was the first courtyard, a public place where anyone could enter. Passing through this first courtyard was a room dedicated to the ceremonies which is what it is usually called the hypostyle hall because of its construction by columns. At the bottom of the hypostyle hall was the entrance to the naos, or holy place, reserved for the priestly community. After the naos was a second courtyard in the bottom of which were the offices, warehouses, and rooms of the guardians of the sanctuary. The whole temple was enclosed in a rectangle formed by a double wall with a corridor that completely isolated it from the exterior. As we see, there was only a succession of three elements: the pylon, the courtyard and the hypostyle hall. We will describe, therefore, each one of them.

Pylon of the temple of Luxor.

The pylon, which is the triumphal gate (with no other utility than purely decorative) had two solid square towers on each side. The large flat surfaces of the inclined walls of the pylon’s towers were decorated with reliefs representing episodes from the life of the Pharaoh who led the construction of the building. The pharaoh was also represented by large figures situated on both sides of the door. To further enrich this entrance, sometimes the Egyptians added granite obelisks carved in one piece of stone. The pylon’s square towers were topped with the only cornice of Egyptian construction or the inverted gorge (Egyptian gorge). Sometimes, instead of the two great monolithic obelisks there were two gigantic columns on each side of the door which also served as decorative elements.

Partial view of the great courtyard and the second pylon of the temple of Karnak. This temple was the main center of religious and political activity during the New Kingdom. The few standing columns indicate that an original double row of columns formed an avenue as an extension of the “Avenue of the Sphinxes”.

The courtyards sometimes had no columns surrounding them.  Some other times these columns were arranged in one or two rows but only along the sides.  Finally it was possible to find instances where the columns formed a real cloister on the four sides of the open area. The first courtyard of Karnak had in the center, from door to door, two monumental colonnades which served as an avenue in the middle of the vast squared courtyard. Some of these courtyards were decorated with a row of colossi along the two lateral walls as can be seen in Karnak and the Ramesseum. When columns were on the four sides of the courtyard sometimes they weren’t all of the same order (or type); for example, the ones located at opposite sides had bell-shaped capitals, while the other two had lotus flower buds capitals. As a general rule, as happened in Luxor, columns at the four sides of the courtyard were of similar shape. These courtyards should had free access to the people. They were the antechamber to the sanctuary itself and they will come to represent the cloister or narthex of the Christian church. The authentic worship was celebrated in the hypostyle hall which came immediately after the courtyard and was not accessible to the common citizens.

Reconstruction of the hypostyle hall of Karnak.

The name hypostyle hall is of Greek origin and means colonnaded hall. The hypostyle hall received light from above. This was achieved by dividing the hall into naves (or aisles) by using rows of columns which were bigger and taller in the central nave and shorter columns supporting the roof of the lateral naves. The difference in elevation of these naves leaved a space in the ceiling through which light entered through as if there were high lateral windows. A hypostyle hall was thus a large hall supported by columns with a flat roof consisting of large lintels, and with the central nave higher than the laterals and covered with rocky blocks. These hypostyle halls had no windows on the walls, but had lighting coming from the ceiling. The Egyptian temples’ hypostyle halls were always decorated with bright polychrome reliefs and were surely the masterpiece of Egyptian construction and art. The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak is still the largest stone covered hall in the world. It is 152 meters long by 51 meters wide with 134 columns that supported the roof. A Gothic cathedral might well fit within this hall whose construction begun in the reign of Sethi I and was completed by Ramses II. This colossal work of the pharaohs of the XIX Dynasty is the biggest religious space built by men of any epoch or country.

Colonnade in the Ramesseum. Note the columns with capitals in the shape of a lotus flower.
View of the hypostyle hall of Karnak.
Temple of Luxor, the colonnade of Amenhotep III viewed from the north. In the temple of Luxor, Amenhotep III built a colonnade with seven pairs of papyrus columns of about 16 meters each.
Courtyard of Amenhotep III at Luxor. This courtyard is surrounded on three sides by a double row of papyrus columns. Each column represents a bundle of papyrus collected in a collar right below the capital, and each capital forms a compact bud that supports the weight of the architrave.

The sanctuary itself was located in a second room and sometimes after another smaller courtyard smaller. The sanctuary was the quintessential holy place where perhaps only the Pharaoh and the high priest could enter, and was the place in which the deity’s image was kept. Along an ancient Egyptian temple courtyards and rooms were reducing in size.  The ceiling is lower, ground level rises, and the light is dimmed: all these with the purpose of preparing the mind before entering into the hidden place where the divine fetish was. In this secret place inside the temple there were anthropomorphic statues of the god alongside magical relics.

Hypostyle hall of Karnak, view of the remains of the ceiling with the big decorated horizontal lintels and part of the clerestory.
Stone clerestory still “in situ” that illuminated the hypostyle hall of Karnak by taking the light above the lateral aisles.

The Egyptian column included a variety of forms that coexisted at all times during the history of Ancient Egypt: the square pillar in the temple of the Sphinx has been widely found in Upper Egypt and the columns with flat facets were also found there in abundance. The capitals in the form of lotus flowers or papyrus found in the courtyards of Luxor and Ramesseum at Thebes had their predecessors in the columns of the Old Empire. There were some preferred column types used during the Old Empire like those with palm shaped capital, whereas other complicated capital designs were a more recent invention and were mostly used during the time of the last pharaohs. The Osirian pillars, or columns in the form of Osiris, shrouded with divine emblems which we can observe in the Ramesseum, and seem to have been mainly built during the rule of the Ramessides. A typical characteristic of the Egyptian column is the complete absence of plinth (the base of a column) which is reduced at most to a simple ring bearing little elevation so that the column appears to rest directly on the ground. The charm of the temple of Luxor, built under Amenhotep III during the 15th century B.C., comes from its wonderful columns in form of papyrus. These columns resemble bundles of papyrus stems collected in a collar below the capital. The capital widens into a mighty chalice bearing the weight of the architraves (the lintel or beam that rests on the capitals of the columns). These graceful columns make Luxor one of the finest pieces of architecture of Ancient Egypt. Karnak beats Luxor by its size, Luxor beats Karnak by its beauty.

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*Clerestory: A high section of a wall that contains windows above eye level. The purpose is to admit light, fresh air, or both. Usually a clerestory is located on the walls of the tallest nave of a church or temple above the rooflines of the lower aisles or naves, and is covered with windows to allow light into the building.

 

 

*Column: In architecture a structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below. They are large usually vertical, cylindrical structures composed of the plinth (or base), the shaft (or vertical support) and the capital (or top of the column, usually decorated).

 

 

*Egyptian Gorge: The characteristic cornice of Ancient Egyptian architecture, consisting of a large concave molding with a curvature of near a quarter circle and decorated with vertical leaves and a roll molding below.

 

 

*Hypostyle Hall: A hall or big room whose roof is supported by several columns.

 

 

*Naos: (Naos, Greek word for temple; cella in Latin). The sanctuary, the innermost chamber of a temple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Narthex: An architectural element typical of early Christian and Byzantine basilicas and churches consisting of the entrance area, located at the west end of the nave, and opposite the church’s main altar.

*Nave: The central part of a temple or church, intended to accommodate most of the congregation.  The main space of a temple or church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Obelisk: A tall, four-sided, elongated and narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top. These were originally made by Ancient Egyptians who called it “tekhenu”. The Greeks who saw them used the Greek ‘obeliskos’ to describe them, and this word passed into Latin and then English.

 

 

 

 

 *Pylon: The monumental gateway of an ancient Egyptian temple. It consisted of two towers, each topped by a cornice, and joined by a less elevated section which enclosed the entrance between them.  In ancient Egyptian theology, the pylon mirrored the hieroglyph for ‘horizon’ or akhet, which was a depiction of two hills “between which the sun rose and set.” Consequently, Pylons played a critical role in the symbolic architecture of a temple which was associated with the place of recreation and rebirth.