In New Kingdom Thebes, a temple’s location and plan was inspired by its role in religious processions. The religious year at Thebes was an almost constant round of parades from one part of a temple to another or from one temple to others. Statues of kings and gods were carried in shrines on the shoulders of priests along grand sphinx-lined avenues or on boats up and down the Nile. During the Opet Festival, held every year during the Nile inundation, the king and Amen-Ra moved from Karnak to Luxor Temple for ceremonies to reaffirm the divinity of the king.
Five months earlier, during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, statues of king and god were carried from Karnak across the Nile to visit each memorial temple in turn, finally reaching the Dayr al-Bahari cirque, an area that for millennia had been sacred to the goddess Hathor. Canals connected the West Bank temples to each other and to the Nile, and by the late New Kingdom extended from the Sety I temple in the north to that of Rameses III at Madinat Habu in the south.
Unlike the memorial or mortuary temples of earlier times, those built in New Kingdom Thebes were separated from the royal tomb, often by distances of several kilometers. The reason for this was functional. Tombs had to be cut in a secure area, away from destructive ground water. Temples had to be accessible during festival processions that often moved by boat. Thus, kings were buried in the Valley of the Kings several kilometers into the Western Desert, while memorial temples were built along the edge of the cultivation, where canals could be dug.
All Theban temples shared features in common, including a bilaterally symmetrical plan laid out along a single (often eastwest) axis, with pylons that defined the monument’s increasingly sacred interior spaces. As one walks into a temple, one moves from open-air courtyards to chambers of increasing darkness, from large spaces to smaller ones, from rooms with high ceilings to rooms with low ceilings and raised floors. Such architecture was meant to emphasize the increasing sacredness as one moved toward the shrine where the statue of the god was housed. Most memorial temples were built of sandstone. Their surrounding buildings were of mudbrick and included priests’ quarters, administrative offices, a small royal palace, outbuildings, and huge granaries and storerooms.
The latter were used to store the great amounts of produce collected by the temple priesthood as rents and taxes. The storerooms in the memorial temple of Rameses II, the Ramesseum, for example, could hold over sixteen million lite ers of grain, enough to feed twenty thousand people for an entire year. Assuming that the temple levied a rent calculated at 30% of a field’s yield, priests in the Ramesseum alone would have had the right to tax over 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) of fields to collect such an amount. In addition, the temple received a portion of other crops, as well as cattle, sheep, goats, fish, beer, wine, oils, quarried stones, ores, minerals, cloth, wood, tribute and booty from foreign lands. Clearly, such temples played major roles in the redistributive economy of Egypt. Like other ancient Egyptian monuments, the plans of temples changed over time depending on current theological views, available raw materials, and the state of the economy.
Over thirty temples were built on the West Bank at Thebes, but today most are little more than jagged stones jutting through alabaster factory parking lots and rubbish heaps. One day these monuments, too, will be cleaned and protected. Many still contain decorated blocks whose texts could make important contributions to the history of ancient Thebes. In the meantime, seven West Bank temple complexes are open to tourists. Each is well worth a visit. Queen Hatshepsut’s temple at Dayr al-Bahari is the earliest of the temples now open and certainly one of the most beautiful. It is seen to best advantage from the low wall lying a few hundred meters to its east near the parking lot; from here its relationship to the surrounding cliffs is most apparent. The elegant carvings on its walls, unfortunately, are very difficult to see because no raking light is available to bring out the relief. The temple of Amenhetep III and the Colossi of Memnon are a brief stop on everyone’s tour of Thebes. Excavations currently underway at the western end of the temple complex are bringing many new features to light. If time permits, a walk along the adjacent roadway to see the newly-exposed statues and column bases is worthwhile.
The Ramesseum, memorial temple of Rameses II, is justly famous for the fallen statue that inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” Battle reliefs on the second pylon and scenes of the king’s many sons in the temple interior are worth study, and it is interesting to wander through the many mudbrick outbuildings, some of them only recently cleared, that served as storerooms and offices of the priests.
Behind the Amenhetep III temple sits the newly-opened temple of Merenptah. Parts have been reconstructed as an open air museum, and significant pieces of statuary are on display in three small storerooms on the site. The sculpture is fascinating and well worth a visit. Madinat Habu boasts the best-preserved West Bank temples, including the huge memorial temple of Rameses III. Its beautifully carved and painted walls, especially in the northwest corners of the first three courtyards, are astonishingly well-preserved.
The royal palace and the surrounding village also deserve a visit.
At Dayr al-Madina, a small but well-preserved Ptolemaic cult temple at the north end of the village provides a good example of the art and architecture of that later period. The temple of Sety I, at the northern end of the necropolis, inspired the design of the temples of Rameses II and Rameses III. Recent excavations within its enclosure walls have uncovered several interesting architectural features. Unfortunately, some of them were badly damaged during a torrential 1994 rainstorm and flood.