At the beginning of July Lucia Gahlin visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about the Small Temple at the site of Medinet Habu which was actually more important to the ancient Egyptians than the big temple of Ramesses III that we go to visit as modern tourists. Click here to see my write up of this talk on my sister blog, Other People’s Tales.
The temple at Karnak is a vast site – the biggest temple complex built, ever, anywhere. And when you visit it, it feels like that – overwhelmingly huge, and you only seem to have time to see a fraction of it no matter how many hours you are there. But even that isn’t the whole of the religious structures in the area: there’s more there than most tourist trips even tell you about. The bit that you get taken to is the main precinct, which is dedicated to Amun (and has all sorts of other temples inside it too, e.g. one to Khonsu, one to Ptah). But there are two more precincts – one to the north which is dedicated to Montu, and one to the south which is dedicated to Mut. The Mut precinct has only relatively recently been opened to tourists and I was lucky enough to visit in 2014 just a few months after its opening. There’s not much still standing at the site, it’s one of those places where you have to use your imagination to see what it once was. But once you do, it’s not just “another bit of Karnak” – it’s a fascinating site in its own right.
All three precincts at Karnak are dedicated to key gods in the Theban region. Montu was once the primary god at Thebes, and in the early Middle Kingdom he was the primary god for the state religion (in the era of the Montuhoteps). Amun, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the primary state god from the later Middle Kingdom onward (and even the Amarna Period is in a sense centred on Amun as it’s a reaction against him). Mut is Amun’s wife – Egyptian gods were often grouped into groups of three to form families: father, mother and child (normally a son). And when Amun was the primary god his triad or family were the most important triad – so Mut and Khonsu were also prominent gods in the pantheon. But Mut wasn’t only important because she was Amun’s wife – as a uraeus goddess and a Daughter of Re she was important in her own right. The separateness of her complex from that of her consort reflects this, and it’s not until the late 18th Dynasty that her relationship becomes the most important aspect of her. Before the time of Amenhotep III there were no images of Amun in her temple, just mentions of him by name. When the damage done by Akhenaten’s iconoclastic removal of the images of the Theban Triad was repaired (by later kings) Amun’s image was added to many scenes in the temple (including replacing Mut herself in some cases!).
As with Amun’s complex the temple of Mut does not stand in splendid isolation. Within the precinct walls there are several shrines, of which the primary one is her own temple. The complex faces north, towards the precinct of Amun along an avenue which is lined with sphinxes dating to the reign of Tutankhamun. Or at least, that’s the way they are now: ram-headed sphinxes with a statue of Tutankhamun cradled protectively between their front paws. But these statues started out life as human-headed sphinxes depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they once lined an eastern avenue towards Akhenaten’s temple of the Aten at Karnak. Tutankhamun had them re-carved as rams and his own image added, then re-dedicated them to Amun – Horemheb later usurped them and carved his own cartouches on to the pedestals.
The temple of Mut itself is also aligned in a north-south direction, with its entrance facing the compound entrance and the avenue of sphinxes. A large first pylon led to a narrow court, at the end of which was the second pylon. Behind this were the inner areas of the temple. The temple was surrounded on three sides (east, south and west) by an unusual curved sacred lake (normally they are rectangular). Its name is isheru, and Mut is referred to in this temple as “Mut of isheru” – the word derives from the name of a lion’s watering hole, which links it to the lioness form of Mut (and Sekhmet). There were two quays on the lake – one on the east and one on the west – which if you look at it now seems a bit silly as it’s quite some way from the Nile, but the course of the river once ran much much closer to the temples. And even once it had shifted away there were canals connecting these quays so that the sacred barque of Mut had direct access to the Nile allowing her to travel for festivals. These quays also have stairs leading into the water so that the priests could enter the water in order to purify themselves.
There are two other shrines still visible within the complex walls that are of a reasonable size. To the west of the sacred lake is a small temple built by Ramesses III – it’s a single room structure, again with its entrance facing north. The outer walls, as with many temples, are decorated with military scenes, some of which survive. And at the front of the temple stood two colossal statues of Ramesses III, which are now missing their heads. The other of these shrines is dedicated to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu the child, which is the form most associated with the Theban triad. This structure was mostly built from reused blocks from New Kingdom structures. Here the decoration that survives is appropriate to the nature of this god as a divine child of Amun – there are a number of birth and circumcision scenes, calling to mind the mythology of the Pharaoh also being divine child of Amun. At the back of the complex was a contra-temple that dates to much later in Egyptian history – it was built or extensively re-worked by Ptolemy II. Geophysical surveying of the precinct has also shown traces of other structures that no longer exist (and haven’t been excavated yet). There is a chapel positioned to the south of the shrine of Khonsu the Child on the same axis, as well as some sort of structural elements to the north of the Ramesses III temple.
Outside the entrance to the complex are two more structures – to the east is a temple of Amun-Kamutef (“Amun, Bull of His Mother”, the ithyphallic form of Amun), and to the west is a small barque shrine dating to the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III . The barques containing the gods “rested” at this barque shrine and others whilst the procession of the Festival of Opet was moving between Karnak and Luxor – and decoration on the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut shows her burning incense in front of these shrines.
The temple of Mut as I’ve described it and as we see now (albeit in ruins) was primarily constructed by Amenhotep III, and provided with a plethora of statues of Sekhmet! As I discussed when talking about Sekhmet there are two main reasons put forward for why there were so many of these statues. One is that Sekhmet was increasingly merged with Mut, and so the temple of Mut was an appropriate place to worship Sekhmet in addition to her primary cult centre at Memphis. The other possibility is that there was an outbreak of plague during the reign of Amenhotep III so he was dedicating many statues to Sekhmet to seek her help against the sickness. There were later additions by kings such as Taharqo of the 25th Dynasty (who built a colonnade in front of the temple and renewed the sacred lake) and Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty.
But this was not the first structure on the site. The earliest known structure dates to the Middle Kingdom and is a mudbrick platform that once supported a Middle Kingdom temple. Although not much of this structure has been excavated it’s known that it was oriented on the same axis as the currently standing temple. In the mudbrick platform the excavators found a fragment of relief that has a partial text on it – with part of the name of one of the Senwosrets (all three of whom were kings of the 12th Dynasty), and also part of the word isheru. So this means that a temple dedicated to Mut of isheru was on the site from at least the 12th Dynasty onward.
At that point the landscape surrounding the Precinct of Mut and the Amun Precinct was very different to what we see today. As I alluded to above, the course of the Nile has significantly altered over the millennia. It’s not just that it shifts from side to side exposing or covering different parts of the land, it also creates land. Islands get formed due to build up of silt during the inundation, and the main complex at Karnak and the Precinct of Mut were once on separate islands. This state of affairs lasted until the early New Kingdom – it was only in the reign of Hatshepsut that the land between the two structures (and the mainland) became dry for most of the year. So this explains the unusual shape of the isheru lake – this is remnant of the water that once flowed around the back of the island. It also explains why the processional ways aren’t developed until the New Kingdom – there wasn’t land there before to put sphinx lined avenues on! And may well be why the relationship between Amun and Mut gets less distant during the New Kingdom – theology influenced by the fact that they were no longer on physically separate pieces of land.
At the back of the precinct, to the south of the isheru there is quite a large area that is now open space. In the Second Intermediate Period this was a domestic space across the river from the temple, with lots of houses. And rather unusually also a large number of burials in amongst the houses – generally burials aren’t in the same place as settlements, except sometimes those of infants. There are a lot of unanswered questions about these burials, but one suggestion is that some sort of illness that swept through the town and for some reason people were buried in situ rather than being taken to the usual burial ground. One burial from the late Second Intermediate Period has a more obvious interpretation – a rather gruesome one. The position he was found in suggests that his feet were tied to his elbows behind his back, and then he was tied to a stake in the ground. He was then executed by having his neck broken, and covered over where he lay without being properly interred in any fashion. He might have been of Near Eastern origin, so was possibly a Hyksos prisoner from the conflict at the beginning of the New Kingdom. A physical reminder that the bound prisoners in Egyptian iconography aren’t just art, they’re a representation of something that was done. Ancient Egypt was not the New Age paradise of social harmony that some people would have you believe, it was also a place where brutal punishments like this took place.
In the early New Kingdom the rear wall of the complex enclosed much less space than the current precinct, just outside the lake boundaries on the east, west and south. So the settlement I discussed above was outside these boundaries, but the parts near the south wall become re-purposed as an industrial area for the temple in the 18th Dynasty. These facilities include granaries, grain processing areas, bakeries and breweries to serve the temple. All watched over by an overseer sitting in a raised kiosk – built directly on top of the executed prisoner!
This industrial area serviced the new stone-built temple constructed during the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. A lot of the stone of this temple has been found under the Amenhotep III temple acting as foundations. Some of the blocks that have been found were decorated, and because temple decoration tends to follow a formula more can be figured out about the structure than you’d expect for “just” a collection of blocks. One part of this iteration of the temple was large room on the western side called the “Hall of Drunkenness”, which was probably built on the site of an earlier hall as the inscriptions talk about Hatshepsut building it “anew”. It was the site of a form of worship that was unique to the goddesses who were referred to as the Daughter of Re. These were mass participation festivals, where the worshippers drank until they were drunk and fell asleep, before being woken up by the arrival of the statue of the goddess to communicate with them accompanied by drums to communicate with them. To help with the sleep and the communication the drink was laced with soporific and hallucinogenic herbs. It might also be coloured red in a reference to the myth where Sekhmet’s destructive fury is brought to an end by tricking her into drinking beer by making it look like blood. Given that Egyptian society generally frowned on public over-indulgence (judging by the wisdom literature) these festivals remind me a bit of the Lord of Misrule appointed at Christmas time in Tudor England to rule over a festival where the strict hierarchy of society was turned upside down. A release valve that kept society ticking along properly the rest of the time, as well as a means of communicating with the goddess in this case.
So I hope I’ve been convincing – not just “another bit of Karnak”, not just “where they found the Sekhmet statues” but a genuinely interesting site in its own right. I wish I’d known all this before I visited it myself!
Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. New York, NY: Routledge.
Bryan, Betsy M. 2020a. “Introduction & Excavation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, April 29.
———. 2020b. “Interpreting the Ancient New Kingdom Temple and the Rituals of the Goddess Mut.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 20.
Bryan, Betsy M., and Salima Ikram. 2020. “Bioarchaeology & Conservation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 13.
Bryan, Betsy M., Kristian Strutt, and David Anderson. 2020. “Unexpected Discovery & Geophysical Survey.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 6.
Dodson, Aidan. 2020. “Sethy I – King of Egypt.” presented to the Essex Egyptology Group, June 7, see my writeup on my other blog.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and expanded ed. British Museum.
Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press.
Weeks, Kent R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
We talk an awful lot about Egyptian sun deities, but not so often about moon ones. Well, one of them does come up quite often but not in the context of his association with the moon – and anyway, he’s not the deity I was planning to talk about today. But it is the case that at first Thoth was the primary deity associated with the moon, but he became a more general god of knowledge and time, and so Khonsu took over his role as the god of the moon. Much later, in the Late Period, Iah takes on this role – as the concept of Khonsu too has shifted away from association with the moon.
Before I move on to talk more about Khonsu, let’s just back up a moment and I’ll point out something I learnt while reading for this article that I had never really considered before. The names of the “cosmological” gods of Ancient Egypt generally bear little to no relationship to the name of the element of the cosmos that they are associated with. For instance the word for moon is jʿḥ – yes, the Late Period moon god called Iah is the same (accounting for anglicisation of the transliteration), but neither Thoth nor Khonsu are very similar at all. And Erik Hornung cautions that one should therefore avoid a simplistic assignment of a deity as “the moon god” or whatever it might be – the relationship between deity and element of the cosmos is clearly more complex than a straightforward personification.
One of the two proposed etymologies for Khonsu’s name does fit in well with his being a moon god, however – which is that it derives from the verb khenes which means “to cross over or traverse”. Khonsu therefore means “the wanderer” or “he who traverses [the sky]”. The other possible etymology is dismissed by Richard Wilkinson as outdated, although at least one author I read prefers it – this explanation splits the name into kh (meaning placenta) and nesu (meaning king), and sees Khonsu as also being a personification of the king’s placenta. In his book “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby Wilkinson prefers this explanation as it makes sense of a piece of kingly regalia – early depictions of the king show him accompanied by standards topped by various objects which are perhaps each an aspect of kingship. One of these is a bag-like object later associated with Khonsu. There are a few suggestions for what this might be but Toby Wilkinson’s preferred explanation is that it represents a placenta. He also says that the royal placenta may’ve been associated with the royal ka – the spirit that conveys divine kingship on the mortal king – and cites parallels for the deification of the placenta in other related African cultures. However he also says that the royal placenta may’ve been thought to be the king’s stillborn twin, which I’m afraid I completely boggle at – the Egyptians must surely’ve been able to tell the difference between the afterbirth and a dead baby!
Khonsu, as well as Thoth, was involved in the reckoning of time – an appropriate activity for a god associated with the moon. He’s the god associated with Hour 8 of the day, but I didn’t find any discussion of why particular gods had particular hours in my books. His more general involvement in the reckoning of time included influencing the gestation of humans and animals (which again fits well with an association with the placenta). And both he & Thoth were believed to assign a fixed lifespan not only to people but to the gods as well.
Khonsu’s roles change over the length of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Pyramid Texts he is a bloodthirsty deity who helps the king catch and slay the gods, so that the king can eat them and absorb their powers (as described in the Cannibal Hymn with hotly debated levels of symbolism vs. realism). Later he is associated with childbirth, which again ties into the association with the placenta and with an influence on the time of gestation. From the New Kingdom and afterwards he’s most often thought of as part of the Theban Triad, the child of Amun & Mut and worshipped with them in the vast temple complex at Karnak. And as so often the Egyptians didn’t feel the need for strict consistency in their religious thought: he’s also the child in another more minor triad – Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu, who were worshipped at Kom Ombo.
By Ptolemaic times he’s part of a complicated rebirth story for Amun as well – during this time period the Egyptians believed that when Amun died he took the form of Osiris and entered the body of Osiris’s mother Opet-Nut, he was then reborn as Khonsu – and there was a temple for Opet-Nut next to the temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex where this rebirth was supposed to’ve taken place. Khonsu was also linked to Osiris at Edfu temple (a Ptolemaic structure) and called the “son of the leg” (which was the body part of Osiris that was believed to’ve been found there when Osiris’s body was scattered by Seth). And also by this period of Egyptian history Khonsu’s role had morphed once more and he (or at least one form of him, see below) was seen as a healing god. Ptolemy IV believed that Khonsu had personally healed him, and used the epithet “beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits”.
Khonsu is generally depicted as a mummiform human figure or wearing a tight-fitting garment. He might have a hawk head, and is sometimes represented by the same sort of baboon as Thoth (the cynocephalus baboon portrayed in a squatting position). If he has a human head he generally wears the sidelock of youth, and may wear the curved beard of the gods. His arms may be partially or completely unrestricted by his tight clothing or mummy wrappings. And if that sounds a lot like Ptah then Richard Wilkinson provides a handy diagnostic – generally Khonsu wears a necklace with a crescent shaped pectoral and a keyhole shaped counterpoise, Ptah’s necklace will not have that shape of counterpoise. In his hawk headed form to distinguish him from other such gods you need to look for his headdress – he wears a full moon sitting inside a horizontal crescent moon on his head. In his hands he may carry a crook & flail – the sceptres associated with Osiris or Horus, and with the king – and he may carry a was and/or djed sceptre as well or instead of those.
The main temple for Khonsu was inside the Amun precinct at the Karnak temple complex, as I mentioned above. It’s well worth a visit if you’re at Karnak as it still has a roof so a lot of colour has survived and it has recently been cleaned (within the last decade) – I remember the decoration as very striking with a white background and lots of reds & golds. This particular temple building was started in the 20th Dynasty by Ramesses III, and finished by later kings. It’s not unusual for multiple gods to have temple buildings or shrines within one larger complex, but I did find it noticeable that (with one exception) all of Khonsu’s shrines are within other larger complexes. The exception is at Tanis where there is a temple to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu-Neferhotep. At Tanis there is also a temple to the Theban Triad as well as a temple that has shrines for Mut, Khonsu and Astarte. These are all Late Period (and later temples), mostly built when the 21st Dynasty moved the capital north to Tanis.
As part of the Theban Triad Khonsu took part in two major annual festivals in the Theban region. These were the Beautiful Festival of the Valley and the Opet Festival. Both were processional festivals where the cult images of the triad were taken in their sacred barques to visit other parts of the area – Khonsu’s barque had falcon heads at stern & prow. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley had begun in the Middle Kingdom, when it was just Amun who was taken from Karnak to Deir el Bahri. It became more elaborate during the New Kingdom – cult images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu plus statues of dead kings and queens were carried first to Deir el Bahri and then along the West Bank to visit each king’s mortuary temple (such as Medinet Habu) as it was built and added to the route. The Opet Festival was a similar occasion, the three cult statues of the Theban Triad were taken in procession from Karnak to Luxor temple. It’s not documented before the 18th Dynasty and when it began the gods travelled by land on the way to Luxor and by river on the way back, but later in the New Kingdom they travelled by river in both directions (being towed along in their sacred barques). It too became more elaborate over time, and by the time of Ramesses III it lasted for month. The central moment of this festival didn’t directly involve the Theban Triad at all – while they rested in their shrines at Luxor the king entered the most sacred part of the temple where he performed a ritual that merged his mortal self with the royal ka, thus renewing his divinity. None of the books I read that talked about Opet Festival mentioned the possibly outdated link between Khonsu and the royal ka that Toby Wilkinson discusses in the context of Early Dynastic Egypt, but it seems suggestive to me for Khonsu (and family) to be involved in this ritual.
As well as temples, festivals and the trappings of state religion there are also amulets of Khonsu dating to later Egyptian history. And small plaques depicting Khonsu are also found. There are two types of these – the first depicts Khonsu with his Theban parents. The second ties into the healing aspects of Khonsu’s later role – they are cippi, which normally depict Horus the Child standing on a crocodile and are intended to have healing properties. These cippi, however, replace Horus with Khonsu but presumably have a similar function.
Khonsu comes in at least three forms (which don’t seem to correlate with the various roles I talk about above), and one of the only stories about him that we have involves one of them sending another to perform a miracle (essentially). This is a lovely piece of propaganda we call the Bentresh Stela which is now in the Louvre – the story purports to be set in the time of Ramesses II but was almost certainly written in Ptolemaic times. In the story Ramesses II is married to a foreign woman, whose sister (called Bentresh) back home in her native land (somewhere in modern day Syria) falls ill. Pharaoh is asked for help, and after consulting with Khonsu of Thebes (the most important form of Khonsu) agrees to send a statue of Khonsu the Provider (a junior form of Khonsu particularly adept at driving out evil spirits) to take the god to this princess to heal her. On arrival of the statue the evil spirits leave the princess and admit the superiority of even this junior form of Khonsu. Bentresh’s father was supposed to send the statue back, but he was so impressed by its ability to heal that he neglects to do so – until Khonsu the Provider appears to him in a dream where the god flies back to Egypt as a golden falcon. Realising he cannot force a god to stay, the statue is returned.
This story is clearly based in some sense on history in that Ramesses II did exist, as did a foreign queen with almost the same name as on the stela (Nefru-Re on the stela, Maat-nefru-Re in history). But its primary purpose is to assert the hierarchy of the different forms of Khonsu – it was found in Karnak, so unsurprisingly the senior form is Khonsu of Thebes who is worshipped there. And of course it makes a point about the innate superiority of even junior Egyptian gods over these foreign spirits and peoples – asserting a sense of national pride during a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek outsiders. Yet another role, for a god who turns out to be a rather more complex concept than just a “moon god”.
Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. London: British Museum Press, 1990.
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2008.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Weeks, Kent R. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2005.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
———. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.
It’s easy to visit Medinet Habu and think of it as just the one temple, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, standing in proud almost-isolation with only a brief mention of the palace next door and something something harem conspiracy. A bit like a great medieval cathedral, self-contained and singular. But that’s really not true of Medinet Habu (nor necessarily of cathedrals, but that’s a story for someone else’s blog entirely!).
The temple the name Medinet Habu conjures up in the mind isn’t even the earliest remaining temple on the site – that is what is now referred to as the Small Temple, which was founded by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. And beneath that are the remains of a Middle Kingdom structure. This temple was built to house the primeval mound the creator god Amun-Re Kamutef rose from and returned to to be rejuvenated – referred to as “The Mound of Djeme” or “The Genuine Mound of the West”. Every 10 days a festival procession came to the temple bringing the image of Amun from Luxor Temple to be rejuvenated at the mound, before returning to Luxor. This didn’t stop when Ramesses III built his much bigger temple just next door some 300 years later. It is a measure of its continuing relevance that the Small Temple was still the occasional recipient of royal building works well into the Roman Period. The last structure here is an unfinished court & portico begun by Antoninus Pius in the 2nd Century CE.
It is fair, however, to say that the mortuary temple of Ramesses III dominates the site. For a long time I thought mortuary temples were just sites where the king was worshipped after he died, a bit like the medieval practice of saying masses for the deceased in a chantry chapel. But, as seems to be the theme today, there’s more to them than that somewhat misleading name. The Egyptians called them Temples of Millions of Years and they were not solely concerned with the king (deceased or otherwise) nor were they solely religious in nature. I mustn’t downplay the mortuary function too much, though. The practice of making offerings to the deceased king goes back to at least Early Dynastic times if not before, with kings of the 1st & 2nd Dynasties constructing large enclosures within which their funerary cult was practised. Over time the forms and rituals evolved with changing beliefs, but the basic idea of ensuring a smooth (and permanent) transition into the afterlife for the king by means of a funerary cult remained the same. The decoration scheme of some of the innermost chambers of Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years reflects this. In one set of chambers he is shown partaking in the Osirian afterlife – ploughing and harvesting in the Field of Reeds. In chambers on the other side of the same hall he is shown travelling with Ra in his sacred boat. Both sets of scenes are intended to guarantee the successful rebirth of the king.
Other festivals not directly connected with Ramesses III’s afterlife were also celebrated at this temple, during the king’s life and beyond. There’s a calendar of these festivals on the outside of the south wall of the temple which gives details of the necessary offerings, and some of the major ones are shown on the walls of the second courtyard. There are daily offerings to be made, as well as much bigger annual festivals. One of these was the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, where the sacred boats of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu came across the Nile from Karnak Temple. Originally they visited the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, and then as each new Temple of Millions of Years was built it was added onto the processional route so the festival got longer with each Pharaoh’s reign. There was also a one day annual festival of Min and a several day festival of Sokar, both of which are shown on the walls of the second court of the temple.
The king visited the temple to take part in these ceremonies (the major ones, that is), and so he needed suitable accommodation. To the south side of the temple are the remains of a palace. Or rather remains of two palaces – the original buildings were pulled down and rebuilt during Ramesses III’s reign. The palace was attached to the south of the temple, with access into the first court as well as a window of appearances overlooking this court. From the window Ramesses III could view and participate in festivals, and be seen by his courtiers and priests – it makes me think of the Royal Box in the Royal Albert Hall (and other theatres). As well as providing access to the religious ceremonies the palace was also the seat of royal ceremony. There’s a throne room with a raised dais, where presumably Ramesses III would sit in state. And as almost every book and tour guide is keen to point out, the throne room also has an en-suite loo accessed via a door in one corner.
As well as the ceremonial rooms of the palace there was other accommodation provided for the king and/or his household. The whole of the site is surrounded by a double wall, through which there were two gates. One of these was small and at the back (west) of the site – the servants entrance, for minor officials, temple employees, delivery men and the like. At the front (east) of the site there is a much more impressive structure – modelled on a Near Eastern fortress called a migdol. And within this imposing gatehouse are other rooms for the royal household. Often these are referred to as the harem where the king’s women would stay, and the internal decoration is said to represent the king indulging in pastimes with his concubines. But Betsy M. Bryan (writing in “Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed. Kent Weeks) suggests that these might’ve been the more functional accommodation for the king, leisure rooms away from the formality and ceremony of the palace proper. And she then interprets the young women in the reliefs as Ramesses III’s daughters. A reminder that we don’t actually know for sure the purpose of these rooms, and that we are still working our way through the hangover from what 19th Century Europeans thought about “exotic eastern cultures”.
So, a couple of temples, some fortifications and palaces – is that it for Medinet Habu? It’s not even the end of what was built on the site during the time of Ramesses III! As I said there are two enclosure walls around the site – the outermost one is a real fortification, whereas the inner one is more symbolic and intended to protect the temple from the profane outer world. Between these two walls were the houses for the priestly and administrative staff necessary to keep the temple functioning. This is the equivalent of the rather more famous Middle Kingdom town next to the pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun. And inside the inner enclosure wall around the back and north side of the temple were great storage magazines for grain. These are far far bigger than would be necessary for feeding the residents of the temple and the offerings presented in the temple – if full they would hold 56,972 sacks of grain, which would be enough to feed something on the order of 1,000 families for a whole year. Instead one must remember that grain was wealth in Ancient Egypt, and that people were paid with rations of grain. These magazines were the stored wealth of the king used to fund the wars he showed off about on the temple walls, as well as being a significant part of the local economy.
These administrative functions are probably the reason the site is so well preserved – each Temple of Millions of Years was set up like this, but as each Pharaoh built a new one it replaced his predecessor’s one as the administrative hub. Ramesses III built the last one, and so it continued to be the centre of the local economy. For instance this is where the workers at Deir el Medina get their rations (wages) from not only in the reign of Ramesses III but in those of his successors – and this is why when they go on strike over non-payment of wages it’s Medinet Habu they go to. During the 21st Dynasty they even move into Medinet Habu, safe behind the fortifications in the more unsettled times after the end of the New Kingdom.
And so the site continues to evolve and be built on even after Ramesses III is long gone. The neat rows of houses don’t long out last the New Kingdom, Barry Kemp positions this as a triumph of self-organisation rather than decline, however. The palace gets remodelled for senior priests, and may even have been occupied by the God’s Wife of Amun during the 25th & 26th Dynasties. At this time the role was occupied by a daughter of the king and she exercised his authority in Upper Egypt. Four of these priestess princesses were buried in the forecourt of Medinet Habu, Amenirdis of the 25th Dynasty and three more from the 26th Dynasty.
The town that Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years has evolved into continues to thrive into the Coptic era. There may’ve been a gap in occupation before the Roman Period – although it’s hard to tell if this is a real gap or if the Romans levelled out the site before they built on it and destroyed the traces of the immediately preceding houses. Later the Copts converted part of the mortuary temple in the second court into a church, as the Copts were prone to do. And even into very modern times the site retained some significance in the eyes of the local population – in Kent Weeks’s Illustrated Guide to Luxor he says that until the 1970s local women still came to pray for children or to avoid illness.
Not just a temple for the soul of a dead king, not just a religious centre for the state religion, a place of worship and separation from the world – instead a thriving hub for a widespread community, full of bustling bureaucrats and people living their everyday lives.
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” Bill Manley
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Illustrated Guide to Luxor: Tombs, Temples and Museums” Kent R. Weeks
“Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed Kent R. Weeks
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson
I remember one year when I was in primary school we collected frog spawn from some local pond and put it in a fish tank in the classroom so we could watch the tadpoles hatch. And I remember being a bit in awe of just how much there was – all that frog spawn and we’d only taken a little bit of it, and there were so many tadpoles in our fish tank! There were going to be so many frogs! Of course some years later I realised that most tadpoles would get eaten by fish long before they got to be adult frogs, but the point still stands. So it should be no surprise that the ancient Egyptians, who were a lot closer to nature than a city girl in the early 1980s, should have a similar association between frogs and fertility & rebirth. It’s even embedded in their writing system – there is a frog shaped hieroglyph (used as an ideograph for the phrase wekhem ankh “repeating life”) and a tadpole shaped hieroglyph which is used to write the number 100,000.
Frogs appear in Egyptian art & artifacts from Prehistoric Egypt right through into Christian times. In Predynastic times the most common frog shaped object is small stone jars – a suitable size and material to hold small amounts of a precious or volatile liquid. Some of these have been found in non-funerary contexts and have features (like handles suitable for hanging them up) that suggest they were used in life. Sadly none of the jars that have been discovered contained any residue that could be analysed. One always needs to be cautious about making assumptions about prehistoric Egypt based on known Pharaonic beliefs but even with such caveats Diana Craig Patch speculates (in “Dawn of Egyptian Art”) that these may’ve contained substances used during childbirth.
As I alluded to in the last paragraph in Pharaonic Egypt there’s an association of frogs with childbirth. The deity most associated with the frog is a goddess called Heket. She is venerated as the female counterpart of Khnum, and is sometimes shown as a frog-headed woman assisting him at his potters wheel while he forms the person & their ka. Heket first shows up in the Pyramid Texts, helping the deceased king on his way to the sky and his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom she is associated with childbirth and in particular the final stages of labour – she features in the Middle Kingdom story about the founding of the 5th Dynasty assisting with the birth of the three kings that inaugurated the dynasty. Also in the Middle Kingdom midwives might’ve been referred to as “servants of Heket”. She’s shown on ivory wands from the Middle Kingdom as a frog, and frog shaped amulets are fairly common from the New Kingdom onward. They’re never as common as Bes or Taweret amulets, but even during the Amarna period they are still found in reasonable numbers.
Heket had some of her own temples and her main cult centre was at a place called Herwer (but it’s not known where that actually was). She also appears depicted in temples dedicated to other deities, for instance she shows up in Seti I’s temple at Abydos receiving an offering from the king himself. Due to her association with birth and fertility she becomes associated with the Osiris mythology, for instance there’s a relief in the Late Period temple at Hibis where she’s depicted as a frog overseeing the conception of Horus. Her cult survives through until at least the end of the Late Period, as she’s mentioned in the reliefs of the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel which dates to around 300 BCE.
Heket was not the only deity to be associated with the frog. There are also the four male deities of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The Ogdoad are the eight primordial gods that existed before the world was created in the Hermopolitan mythology. They were Huh and his consort Hauhet, Nun and his consort Naunet, Kuk and his consort Kauket and Amun and his consort Amaunet. At first they are depicted as human deities, but later in Egyptian history they are shown as pairs of frog (male) and snake (female) headed deities. As well as this the frog is sometimes depicted with the god Hapi as part of a symbol of fecundity – for instance at the temple at Philae. Frogs as a symbol of rebirth don’t even die out when Pharaonic Egyptian culture fades away – they make it into Coptic Christian iconography as a sign of the resurrection!
And the last bit of frog-related iconography to look out for is tadpoles sitting on shen rings, or associated with notched palm leaves or staves. The tadpole is here as the hieroglyph for 100,000 and the two or three symbols taken together express a wish for the king to reign or live for hundreds of thousands of eternities. I didn’t know about this till I was reading up on frogs for this article, and I wish I had – so many missed opportunities to look out for tadpoles in reliefs!
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
The queens of the late 17th and early 18th Dynasty appear through the mists of time to’ve been formidable women, involved in the running of the kingdom that their husbands were re-unifying. They were also much longer lived than their male counterparts and so provided the continuity necessary to keep the family in power. Ahmose-Nefertari’s 70 or so years meant that she saw the reigns of at least 5 different kings, and was an active participant in at least two of them.
She was born in the early 16th Century BCE around 1570 BCE, possibly in the brief reign of her grandfather Senakhtenre Ahmose. He was a king of the 17th Dynasty (in the Second Intermediate Period) and really only ruled in Thebes. His son, Seqenenre Tao, began the process of reunifying Egypt which was taken up after his death by his son (or brother) Kamose, his wife Ahhotep and finally the job was finished in the reign of his son Ahmose I who is considered the first king of the 18th Dynasty. Ahmose-Nefertari was married to Ahmose I and she outlived not just him but their son Amenhotep I – she didn’t die until early in the reign of her son-in-law Thutmose I in around 1505 BCE.
During these fairly turbulent times the ruling clan believed firmly in keeping power in the family – Ahmose-Nefertari’s parents were both children of Senakhtenre Ahmose and his Great Wife Tetisheri. Ahmose-Nefertari herself was a full sister of her husband Ahmose I, and it seems likely that their son Amenhotep I was also married to one of his sisters. As well as simplifying the power structure at court this would’ve had theological justifications – it mirrors the relationships between the gods from whom all kings are supposed to be descended. A new pantheon for a rebirth of the Egyptian state.
Ahmose-Nefertari’s brother-husband came to the throne around the age of 10 after the deaths of both his father and brother (or uncle) during the wars against the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt. Their mother Ahhotep was regent for him at the beginning of his reign and kept the momentum going in the fight against the Hyksos. This is not a situation like that of Hatshepsut and her stepson – when Ahmose I becomes an adult he rules in his own right – but Ahhotep is still the preeminent woman in the court and it’s not until after her death that Ahmose-Nefertari becomes more visible.
Along with the titles that define her by her relationships to the men of her family (King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, King’s Great Wife, King’s Mother) Ahmose-Nefertari holds significant religious and political titles of her own. She is, like her mother before her, Mistress of Upper & Lower Egypt – a mirroring of one of the king’s titles. She also holds multiple titles in the priesthood of the cult of Amun, which gave the royal family some control of and presence in this politically significant cult. The three titles she held were Divine Adoratrice, 2nd Prophet of Amun (deputy high priest, in effect) and God’s Wife of Amun. It’s not clear from what I read whether Ahmose I created this last title for her or whether she inherited it from her mother (who would then have been the first). It is clear that she regarded this as one of her most important titles: she used it more than any of her other titles, including King’s Great Wife. The role of the God’s Wife of Amun was as a female counterpart to the high priest – in rituals she would play the part of the god’s consort. The title was passed down from queen to queen during this period and reinforced the mythology of the 18th Dynasty which depicted each king as the son of Amun (who was supposed to impregnate each queen by impersonating her husband). Later in Egyptian history it acquired a different significance – in the Late Period each God’s Wife of Amun was a virgin daughter of a king instead of his wife.
Ahmose-Nefertari and Ahmose I had at least 5 children – 3 daughters and two sons. The eldest of their sons, Ahmose-ankh, was named crown prince but sadly predeceased his father. This meant that when Ahmose I died in his thirties his heir, Amenhotep I, was young and so Ahmose-Nefertari followed in her mother’s footsteps by being regent for the new king. And she transitions from this to acting in place of his consort for the rest of his reign – it seems his sister/wife died young and even though there may’ve been another wife she was not family or Great Wife.
Amenhotep I died both young (like his father) and childless (unlike his father). Which does rather make one wonder about what recessive genetic traits were coming to light because of these full sibling marriages! One of the books I looked at tried to argue that the fact that Pharaohs married other women who weren’t their sisters as well meant that “the line was not enfeebled”, but given that the heirs were the product of the incestuous relationships that doesn’t really hold water. And even though the Egyptians would have no conception of the dangers of inbreeding the royal family was nonetheless forced to bring in some new blood at this point due to the lack of a male heir. Thutmose I appears to’ve been an outsider, who was then married to a sister of Amenhotep I to provide legitimacy for his reign. Ahmose-Nefertari remained matriarch through this transition too, presumably still providing continuity and stability despite her advancing age.
When Ahmose-Nefertari finally died she is thought to’ve been buried with her son Amenhotep I. They had a joint mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri which has almost entirely vanished now – a few remnants and stamped mudbricks have been found but nothing substantial. It’s unclear where their tomb originally was – there’s a case to be made for a tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga, and a case to be made for KV39 in the Valley of the Kings. Either way their bodies were moved along with many other royal mummies during a period of state-sanctioned tomb robbery – the kings & queens were re-wrapped and re-buried at TT320 at Deir el Bahri where they were found in modern times. An enormous coffin labelled as Ahmose-Nefertari’s was found there – it is 3m in height even without the detachable pair of plumes that are its headdress! Inside were two mummies – one of these still enclosed in a cartonnage outer layer was assumed at first to be the woman herself, but turned out to be Ramesses III. The other has no identifying labels but is assumed to be Ahmose-Nefertari. If so, she was in her 70s when she died and was a fairly small woman by modern standards (being about 5′ 2″ in height). The mummy appears to still have quite a lot of hair – but this is mostly false, braids added by the embalmers so she has a full head of hair in the afterlife. Rather gruesomely when unwrapped in 1885 her body appeared to putrefy before the eyes of the horrified onlookers and she was reburied briefly in the grounds of Cairo Museum! This cured the “putrefaction” which was more likely a consequence of remaining natron paste on the mummy being exposed to damp air than anything happening to the body itself.
Ahmose-Nefertari had another, rather less gruesome, afterlife as well. She was one of the few Egyptian queens who was deified after death, and she was worshipped along with her son Amenhotep I as the patron deity of Western Thebes for several centuries. She and her son are credited with founding the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina and so were particularly favoured deities there – perhaps the most important ones for this community. There is no hard evidence that they did found the village – it certainly seems possible, but the earliest inscribed mudbricks date to Thutmose I’s reign. As a goddess she’s often depicted with a black face – this is almost certainly symbolic rather than literal (particularly if the mummy in her coffin is hers, as that woman shows no sign of Nubian origins). Black is a colour the Egyptians associated with fertility – the colour of the soil left behind after the Nile flood had renewed the land. And Ahmose-Nefertari (as a goddess of the necropolis and those who worked in it) was associated with resurrection.
As so often in ancient history this is more of a skeleton of a biography than a fully fleshed out picture, there must be so much she saw and did that we’ll never know.
“An Ancient Egyptian Case Book: Intriguing Evidence that Undermined Incredible Headlines” Dylan Bickerstaffe
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson
Come! Listen! I will tell you a tale of before. Before now and before the time of our fathers. Before Pharaoh and before the Two Lands. Before the inundation and before the Nile. Before the gods and before time itself.
Had there been eye to see there would have been nothing to see. All that was were the still, dark waters stretching far, far around. The waters were Nun and Naunet. And in their infinity the waters were Huh and Hauhet. In their darkness the waters were Kuk and Kauket. And in their hiddenness the waters were Amun and Amaunet. There was no time and no change, no life and no motion, that which was was that which had been, and that to come was that which was.
Listen now to how everything became!
The hidden one, Amun, stirred within the vast limitless waters pregnant with possibility. He spoke words into the silence. He cried out while all around was in stillness! And the seed of order concealed with the vast and limitless chaos was hidden no more. The egg inside which was the spark of life was revealed to him. He looked upon it and with the creative energy of Ptah he caused the egg to crack open and life to burst forth.
Now there was change where once there was stillness!
The first land rose in a great mound, separating itself from the vast deep waters. Land rose up out of Nun like the land after the inundation. Rich, black, fertile land and on that land a lotus bud solitary in its perfection. As it emerged from the waters the bud opened, and on that perfect flower sat Atum who shone upon the land as the sun shines upon us.
Solitary Atum was, upon the new land that Amun had caused to be. Although there was change there was not yet time, yet nonetheless Atum grew lonely and desired companionship. And so he took himself in hand and spilled his seed upon the land. From that divine first seed were born the twins Shu and Tefnut. Tefnut of moisture, of order, of eternity. Shu of the air and of the cycles of time. And so the one of Atum became three, and time began.
With the passage of time Shu and Tefnut grew and became close, and they knew each other as husband and wife. From their union was born Geb, he of the fertile earth, and Nut, she of the sky. And in the manner of their parents brother loved sister and sister loved brother. Their children were manifold and clustered around Nut shining as the stars in the sky. Yet this joyous state was not to last, for Nut turned upon her children as a sow will sometimes turn upon her piglets, and she swallowed them down. The fury of Geb, her brother, their father, was like the rumbling of an earthquake and Nut fled before it stretching herself across the upper limits of the world to escape. Their father Shu saw what had happened and put himself between them, he of the air kept them apart from one another. And thus was born the world as we live in it with the sky above, the air between and the land beneath it all. Each night Nut swallows the sun and gives birth to her children, and each morning she turns on her children and gives birth once more to the sun. Thus is the cycle of our days.
And the days rolled on, one after another, every one new and yet every one the same. As time passed Geb and Nut became reconciled, and they conceived more children. These were not stars for Nut to swallow, they were gods who would walk amongst men and rule over them. But their story, my friends, is a tale for another day.
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
The creation myth of the Ancient Egyptians comes in many variants around some common themes, and isn’t written down as a coherent story in the sources. I’ve taken bits and pieces of the imagery that Shaw & Tyldesley discuss and stitched them into a narrative that follows the basic scheme, telling the story in my own words.