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cult temple, rising slope, virgin soil, open courts

Egyptian Temples, part III: God's Home

Author: Mirjam

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The cult temple in ancient Egypt was more than a place of worship. It was the home of the god, it was believed the deity took up residence in the building and used it more or less for all those various purposes as humans did. It was the place he was given food and shelter, where he was cleaned and clothed. The temple was built to take care of these needs. It provided a rest area, a reception area and storerooms for possessions. There was also a processional access, leading from the outer pylons all the way through the open courts and the hypostyle halls into the sanctum where the statue resided.


The Foundation


Every temple was orientated so that the sun would follow its main axis from east to west during the course of the day. The second axis was orientated to follow the course of the Nile from its source to the delta. Often it was located on a rising slope to help the architecture recreate the conditions of the Primeval Mound.

The ritual for the laying out of the foundation of a new temple building was very precise. It was carried out at night with only the king and certain priests present. The goddess Seshat overlooked the procedure with the king marking out the foundation by stretching a cord between two poles. The cornerstones of the temple was determined by the position of the stars and for this the king used a specific sighting tool.

When this had been done and Seshat had assured the king that the ground plan would endure in eternity, he had to dig down to the watertable, to reach the Primeval Ocean. After that he molded bricks from moist silt mixed with straw to place as cornerstones, symbolizing the thousands of brick that it would take to finish the building. From these cornerstones he built the caissons and filled them with sand, thereby creating the primeval virgin soil. This part of the foundation work was overseen by Horus. When this step was completed the king placed foundation deposits consisting of small plaques with his name in a cartouche, small-scale models of containers, tools and offerings, to leave his mark and to safeguard against possible destruction.

Next the king tamped down the flagging and this part concluded the foundation rituals. The builders, stoneworkers, carpenters, painters and other workers could continue. When the whole temple was completed, it was purified with incense and natron.



The Consecration


Even though the statues and reliefs of the various deities were in place in the newly built temple, it was necessary that the gods actually took up residence there. The statues were all made by human hands and so they were still not imbued with divine presence. For this the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth was used on all images of the deities in the temple. Priests impersonating the various deities performed these rituals with instruments resembling a carpenter's or sculptor's tools, with which the deity's mouth, eyes and nose was touched. By this they were "opened" so that the deity could enter. Then there were animal sacrifices and other offerings presented, and finally the whole ceremony was repeated for the temple as a whole. Only then it was considered to be a functioning home for the god, and with the god in actual residence.



The Symbolism


Every Egyptian temple building was a microcosm. All the parts of the temple structure had its specific symbolism, which is most clearly seen in the developed New Kingdom temples. It was a model of the universe. Its' form was rectangular, there was a mud brick wall surrounding the whole temple area, which was built on an alternatingly concave and convex foundation. This symbolized Nun, the primeval waters, out of which Creation had risen. The temple pylons opened into one or several open courtyards which lead into one or several roofed halls with grouped, decorated pillars.

The floor slanted gradually upwards along the processional route through the temple towards the innermost sanctum where the god resided. It symbolized the great wet marshes from where the primeval ground had emerged and the gods had once appeared.

The pillars in the open courtyards and the covered halls accordingly represented papyrus plants, lotus and palm trees while the lower parts of the temple walls depicted different plants which grew in the marshes.

The ceiling in the roofed halls symbolized the sky of this microcosm, it was decorated with stars and flying birds representing different protective deities.

These structural designs of the temple recreated the conditions at the beginning of Creation. There were also those which reflected the daily recreation of Zep Tepi, i.e. 'the First Time':

The symbolic meaning of the pylons was the same as the hieroglyph for "horizon", that point where the sun rose each day. At Edfu the pylons are called "Isis and Nephtys who raise up the sun god who shines on the horizon". They reflect the sun's journey each day as it rises above the pylons in the east, moving across the courtyards and halls during the day, at midday the rays of the sun reaches all the way into the innermost chamber and finally it sets in the west.

The architecture of the Egyptian temple was a symbolically recreated cosmos, fully functional according to Ma'at, the inner sanctum being the most well-protected part, where the god could be in residence in actual effect. The same principles were used with mortuary temples, tombs, and palaces.


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