If you are interested in how Egypt is imagined in the book of Ezekiel, please read Safwak Marzouk’s book entitled Egypt as a Monster in the Book of Ezekiel and my monograph entitled Mapping Judah’s Fate in Ezekiel’s Oracles against the Nations (pp. 123–182). Below I would like to share with you the image of Egypt from another perspective—through the ancient Egyptian edifices.
Winter. The perfect season to visit Egypt. Before my departure from Israel to Australia at the beginning of 2009, I decided to undertake a journey up the Nile. Due to the reported political instability at that time, I ended up being the only tourist in the organized tour I had signed up for. It was lonely to be the only audience of the different guides during the tour, but the magnificent monuments of ancient Egypt kept me good company.
The Giza Pyramids
Ancient Egyptians placed great emphasis on death and afterlife. Dated to the Old Kingdom Period (2575–2134 BCE), the Giza Pyramids near modern day Cairo testify to this obsession. The pyramids functioned as the pharaonic tombs, where the mummified bodies of Pharaoh were preserved, awaiting to be revivified and led into the glorious afterlife. A pyramid was more than a tomb of a king. Alive, the pharaoh was the incarnation of the god Horus. After death, the pharaoh became identified with Osiris, the divine father of Horus. Somehow, the pharaoh was also related to the sun god Ra. As such, each pyramid was also a temple-complex dedicated to the Horus-Osiris-Ra divinity.
Khufu, reigning between 2551 and 2528 BCE, built the largest ever pyramid, which was called Akhet Khufu “the Horizon of Khufu.” Its base length is approximately 230m and its height about 146m. Near this magnificent monument were found 3 queens’ pyramids, boat pits, and a satellite pyramid. The boats could have been connected with Khufu’s transportation to his pyramid or his journey to the Netherworld. Standing on higher ground was the smaller Pyramid of Khafre, who was another son of Khufu (2520–2492 BCE). The smallest of the three Giza Pyramids is the Pyramid of Menkaure, who ruled between 2490 and 2472 BCE.
The Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (right to left)
In front of Khafre’s Pyramid stands the 20m tall Sphinx, which is a fusion of man and lion sculpted in about 2500 BCE. Some speculate that the Sphinx’s face was carved in Khafre’s likeness, while others perceive it as an image of the sun god. Between the forepaws of the Sphinx was a granite stela set up later in 1401 BCE to record the dream of Thutmose IV. According to the “Dream Stela,” the Sphinx or the sun god appeared in a dream of Thutmose and helped him gain the throne of the Upper and Lower Egypt. The Sphinx’s broken nose remains a mystery. According to a popular belief, Napoleon’s soldiers broke off the nose when using it as a target for rifle practice. An alternative theory is given by the Arab historian El Makrizi (d. 1436 CE):
In our time there was a man whose name was Saim-el-Dahr, one of the Sufis. This man wished to remedy religious matters, and he went to the pyramids and disfigured the face of Abul-Hol [one of the Arabic names of the Sphinx], which has remained in this state from that time to the present. From the time of disfigurement the sand has invaded the cultivated lands of Giza, and the people attribute this to the disfigurement of Abul-Hol (Fakhry, 1961: 159).
The Valley of the Kings
In the New Kingdom Period (1550–1070 BCE), the growing importance of the Theban god Amun and the robbery of the royal burials probably prompted pharaohs to build their tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes (modern day Luxor). This communal graveyard is situated on the Nile’s western side, which has long been associated by the Egyptians with the sinking sun, death, and afterlife. The famous tomb of Tutankhamun with its glittering golden treasure was discovered inside this valley in 1922. To prevent further deteriorations of the painted walls, no photo is to be taken inside the royal tombs. Luckily, the colourful photos and detailed explanations in Im Tal der Könige: von Grabkunst und Totenkult der ägyptischen Herrscher edited by Kent R. Weeks and illustrated by Araldo de Luca (Augsburg: Weltbild, 2001) helpfully recreate the scenes in the valley tombs and bring them to life.
The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut
Mortuary temples of various pharaohs also sprinkle on the west bank of the Nile. Offerings used to be brought to these temples to serve the spirit of deceased kings and to ensure their comfort and rule in the hereafter. The stunning mortuary temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BCE) at Deir el-Bahari is characterized by ascending ramps, lengthy colonnades, with inner courts built against and into the precipitous mountain cliffs.
Osiride statues of Hatshepsut before each pillar line the upper colonnade. The female pharaoh was shown as a male king with a fake beard and without female breasts, wearing the double crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. She holds the crook and flail, which are the pharaoh’s emblems.
The main temple is dedicated to the god Amun and the pharaoh Hatshepsut, while a Hathor chapel is situated at the southwestern corner of the temple. Hathor is the goddess of fertility, motherhood, and sexual pleasure. She was often depicted as a cow, who gave birth to and protected the pharaohs. In the following relief, the baby Hatshepsut is suckling the milk of the cow-goddess. This scene reflects part of Hatshepsut’s scheme to legitimize her rule as a pharaoh.
Elaborate Hathor-headed columns stand inside the chapel. If you look closely at the heads, you will discover the cows’ ears of the goddess, which represent her docile character.
Throughout Hatshepsut’s reign, her successor Thutmose III was a co-regent and his figure was incorporated as part of the original decoration of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. When Thutmose III became the sole ruler, he systematically eliminated Hatshepsut’s names and figures from the mortuary temple. This decoration constitutes an example of the removal of Hatshepsut’s names. Below the winged sun disk three lines give the Horus name, throne name, and given name of King Thutmose III on the right. They were originally balanced by the Horus name, throne name, and given name of Hatshepsut on the left, but these have been chiselled out (Robins, 1997: 129).
The Colossi of Memnon
Little remains of the mortuary temple of Amenophis III (1391–1353 BCE) beyond the two immense “Colossi of Memnon” at the entrance. These nearly 18m high quartzite statues of Amenophis III are flanked by small figures of his mother Mutemwia (by his left legs) and his wife Tiye (by his right legs). Following an earthquake in 27 BCE, the northern figure cracked and started to emit a bell-like tone at sunrise. Greek travellers creatively related the sound with the greeting of Memnon (a mythic Ethiopic ruler, who had died in the Trojan War and was then granted immortality by Zeus) to Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Repairs to the statue in the reign of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (199 CE) silenced the sound forever.
The funerary temple of Ramesses III (1194–1163 BCE) at Medinet Habu is the best preserved of all the mortuary temples of Thebes. The first pylon is richly decorated with images of the king trampling Egypt’s enemies.
Many of the walls and monuments in the temple have left vestiges of bright colours. Here the top register shows the blue-skinned god Amun-Ra wearing the double plumed crown and the pharaoh in the blue khepresh crown (worn in battles and ceremonies); while the lower register shows the deity’s consort Mut and the pharaoh in a kind of headress.
Due to the practice of usurpation of the predecessors’ royal monuments, sunk relief, especially royal cartouches, in Ramesses III’s mortuary temple was carved at great depth in order to prevent the recarving of the stone by future kings.
The Transition from the West to the East
The colourful local boats on the Nile take the tourists from the west bank of Thebes or the land of the dead, where royal tombs and mortuary temples are concentrated, to the east bank of Thebes or the land of the living, where divine cult temples such as the Karnak and Luxor temples are found.
The temple-complex at Karnak contains not only the Great Temple of Amun but also numerous contiguous chapels or temples dedicated to other deities. Because of its religious significance as the palace of Amun, almost all pharaoh attempted to leave some of their marks inside the temple. Cryosphinxes—their rams’ heads symbolizing the god Amun and each holding a small statue of the king between its lion’s paws—line the processional way leading to the first pylon of the temple.
In front of the temple’s second pylon, which dates to the time of Sethos I (1306—1290 BCE) stands one of the remaining colossi of Ramesses II (1290—1224 BCE). Between his feet stands the diminutive figure of the princess Bent‘anta.
The second pylon opens into the Great Hypostyle Hall, the most impressive part of the whole Karnak complex. The hall was filled with 134 papyrus columns, symbolizing the primeval papyrus marsh from which, according to the Egyptian mythology, creation begins. Although the hall was initiated by Amenophis III (1391–1353 BCE), the decoration was begun by Sethos I (1306—1290 BCE) and completed by Ramesses II (1290—1224 BCE).
The centre 12 columns are larger (some 21m tall), the remaining 122 along the sides smaller (some 15m tall). Look at the tops of the columns! The centre columns are decorated with open-flower capitals, while the side columns are with closed-bud capitals.
Look how wide each column can be! The diameter of the large column is over three meters.
Beyond the fourth pylon lie the obelisks of Thutmosis I (1504—1492 BCE) and Hatshepsut (1473—1458 BCE), the latter being the larger. Obelisks were the royal gifts to the gods and were erected to record their donors’ piety, jubilees, and other notable events.
Luxor Temple lies in the south of the Theban east bank and, like Karnak, was dedicated to the god Amun, but some argue that the Luxor temple was dedicated to the living Egyptian ruler. Mainly constructed by Amenophis III, it was expanded over the centuries by Tutankhamun, Ramesses II, Nectanebo I, Alexander the Great, and the Romans. The human-headed sphinxes on the processional way linking Luxor to Karnak temples were erected by Nectanebo I (380-363 BCE), probably to replace the ruined New Kingdom examples.
Two seated statues of Rameses II (1290—1224 BCE) flanked the two sides of the entrance at the first pylon. The pharaoh wears the double crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt as well as the nemes headress, in front of which is the rearing cobra emblem (uraeus). The walls of the first pylon are decorated with scenes of the pharaoh’s military expeditions, especially his triumphs over the Hittites at Kadesh.
Beyond the first pylon lies the peristyle court built by Rameses II (1290—1224 BCE). Seventy four closed-bud columns, along with some remaining statues of the pharaoh, stand in this courtyard.
The peristyle court leads to the imposing colonnade of Amenophis III (1391-1353 BCE). Decorated with its 19m tall open-flower columns, this colonnade served as the architectural prototype for the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak. The walls were decorated by Tutankhamun (1333-1323 BCE) and preserve scenes of the great Opet Festival, during which the sacred boats of the Theban gods were brought from Karnak to the Luxor Temple.
Within the colonnade sit the added statues of a young Tutankhamun and his consort Ankesenamun.
Beyond the colonnade lies a further court built by Amenophis III featuring double rows of closed-bud papyrus columns. The southern side of the courtyard consists of a hypostyle hall that leads to the inner sanctum (cf. http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/luxortemple2.html).
Alexander the Great took control of Egypt in the 4th century BCE. He built a chapel inside the innermost sanctuary of Amenophis III. On the walls of this chapel, Alexander the Great is depicted as a pharaoh, standing in front of Amun.
Later still, in the 4th to 6th centuries CE, the Romans came and deployed the site as a fortified military encampment and converted the antechamber into a chapel for the Roman imperial cult. The following apse flanked by the Corinthian columns shows the images of the Roman emperors and caesars (cf. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/luxortemple6.htm).
D. Abu Simbel
The Great Temple
The rock-cut temple of Ramesses II lies on the west bank of the Nile at Abu Simbel. The massive facade of the temple is dominated by four seated colossi of Ramesses II, which rise to a height of about 21m. Their location at the ancient border between Egypt and Nubia suggests that the colossi once served to impress the neighboring country of Egypt’s might and power.
The pharaoh was carved wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt as well as the nemes headress. Next to the giant statues stand diminuitive figures of his wife Queen Nefertari, his mother Queen Muttuya, and several children. At the bottom of these sculptures are the carved figures of bound captives from Africa and Asia (not shown in this picture, but if you would like to have a look at them, please refer to the amazing pictures in this website: http://www.mafengwo.cn/i/6364553.html).
The entrance to the temple is crowned by two images of the king worshipping the sun god Ra holding the User (sign of power) in one hand and Maat (sign of truth) in the other. This is a clever way to spell out the king’s throne name (User-Maat-Re). See http://www.touregypt.net/asimbelram.htm.
The top of the facade shows a row of baboons raising their hands to worship the rising sun.
Inside the temple sit the figures of the deified Ramesses and his companion gods, including Ra-Horakhty of Heliopolis, Ptah of Memphis, and Amun-Ra of Thebes. No photo is allowed for tourists inside the temple, so I have to download this picture from the following website: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/abusimbel.htm
Here is one interesting fact about the solar alignment of the temple:
In many ways a fusion of “divine” and mortuary temples, the Great Temple of Abu Simbel was constructed to face eastwards so that the sun’s rays illuminated the structure’s facade each sunrise. First the sunlight lit the row of baboons (symbolic greeters of the sun god) carved along the top of the cliff-face facade, then as the sun rose its rays illuminated the four colossal faces of the king and the central niche statue of Re which formed a rebus of Ramesses’ throne name. Finally, the solar rays entered the temple itself. The temple’s axis was aligned in such a way that twice each year, in February and October, the sun’s rays penetrated some 60m through its inner halls to the very depths of the rock-cut monument where they iluminated the status of the deified Ramesses and his companion gods-though the statue of the chthonic deity Ptah remains in partial shadow (Wilkinson, 2000: 227).
The Small Temple
Close to the Temple of Ramesses II is a smller temple built in honour of Ramesses’ chief consort, Nefertari, and the goddess Hathor, the deity most closely associated with queenship in ancient Egypt. The facade is decorated with six 10m tall statues, with four representing Ramesses II and two representing his queen Nefertari. Smaller figures of the royal children are by the feet of the colossi. Wikipedia says this is the only instance when the Egyptian art shows the king and his consort in equal size.
The ancient temples in Egypt are so numerous that I have not managed to tour through all of them. These stone monuments, however ruined, have remarkably survived in enough pieces after so many centuries to bear witness to the pharaoh’s eagerness to record their glorious military triumphs, their proximity to gods, and even their own deification. I can’t help but bring the scenes preserved in these ancient monuments in comparison with the narrative scenes preserved in the Hebrew Bible. I believe that the ancient Egyptian culture could have influenced the ancient Israelite culture, whether directly or indirectly. However, the ancient Israelite kings in the Hebrew Bible are generally depicted in a rather different light than the pharaohs on the walls. The scribes or editors of the Hebrew Bible did not hesitate to picture their first king Saul as a traitor of their deity, the second king David an adulterer, the third king Solomon a womanizer, who was ultimately responsible for the violent divisions of his own kingdom. Can you think of any Egyptian tradition that is as brutally honest as those preserved in the Hebrew Bible? I would be interested to know the answer. At this stage, it is just interesting to observe two different outlooks on royalty in the preserved traditions, right? (Open for discussion) 😉
I am not an Egyptologist, but a tourist. In addition to the websites cited in the text, I have learned some of the aforementioned information from the following resources:
- Fakhry, Ahmed, The Pyramids (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961).
- Lehner, Mark, The Complete Pyramids (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997).
- Reeves, Nicholas; and Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Valley of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt’s Greatest Pharaohs (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996).
- Robins, Gay, The Art of Ancient Egypt (London: The British Museum Press, 1997).
- Weeks, Kent R.; and Araldo de Luca, Im Tal der Könige: Von Grabkunst und Totenkult der ägyptischen Herrscher (Augsburg: Weltbild, 2001).
- Wilkinson, Richard H., The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000).
First Composed: 19th January 2017
Last Updated: 17th June 2017