Not Just Another Bit of Karnak Temple

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.

Temple of Mut, Showing the Sekhmet Statues that Remain in the First Court

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!

Resources Used:

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.

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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 in front of offerings

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”.

Resources used:

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.

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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.

Statuette of Ahmose-Nefertari

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.

Resources used:

“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

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

She Who Loves Silence

Not all gods in Ancient Egypt had great big fancy temples dedicated by Pharaohs, a state run cult and stories of how they created the universe or such like. Some were much more domestic in scale – Bes and Taweret, for instance, who were invoked in ordinary people’s homes for protection. And some fell in between these poles – the goddess Meretseger is one of those. Worshipped by ordinary people, but not really part of the domestic sphere.

The cult of Meretseger was mostly geographically constrained to the Theban necropolis and centred on Deir el Medina, although her worship does show up in Elephantine – probably taken there by craftsmen from Deir el Medina sent to work on construction projects. She is also known as Dehenet-Imentet which means “The Peak of the West”. This name refers to the pyramidal shaped mountain that looms protectively over the tombs of Pharaohs, queens & other nobility in the Valley of the Kings and the rest of the Theban necropolis. The goddess was believed to dwell in this mountain & in some sense was this mountain. Meretseger means “She Who Loves Silence” which is an appropriate name for a goddess whose domain was mostly inhabited by the dead and a small village of craftsmen and their families. I once walked from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina and once you’re up & out of the Valley there’s a sense of being the only people in a vast empty landscape. I imagine this would’ve been enhanced for the original occupants of Deir el Medina as they walked from the hustle & bustle of a living village to a valley where the quiet was only broken by themselves working on another royal tomb. Although having said that, they presumably made quite a bit of noise themselves so probably most of them didn’t really think about it!

Ostracon Showing Meretseger as a Snake

Despite the strong association with the mountain peak Meretseger wasn’t represented as a mountain. She was mostly shown as a snake or a woman with snake’s head (or vice versa), or sometimes as a scorpion. There are quite a few snake deities in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon – male snake deities can be either good or bad but generally dwell in the Duat (the afterlife or underworld). Female snakes, in particular cobras, were regarded as good protective mothers and female snake deities show up more often in the living world. For instance the uraeus worn by a Pharaoh is the symbol of the goddess Wadjet protecting the king. Meretseger takes on this protective role for the whole Theban necropolis. And on a more prosaic level – the only things that seem to live natively in her desert home are snakes and scorpions so they are the most appropriate symbols for her.

During the peak of her cult many stelae (both formal and in the form of ostraca) were dedicated to her at Deir el Medina. I tend to think of Ancient Egyptian religion as emphasising knowledge over actions – if you know the right things to say then that will override the things you may’ve done. For instance if you have the spell to tell your heart not to testify against you then you will make it through the weighing of the heart regardless of your deeds in life. But some of the stelae dedicated to Meretseger show a different side to the religious life of more normal people. They show more of a sense of humility before the divine and implore the goddess for her forgiveness. From these stelae we learn that she was believed to punish people for their wrongdoing by blinding them or subjecting them to venomous bites, and that she could show mercy and cure the punished wrongdoer as well. The most famous of these stelae is now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin and was dedicated by a wealthy craftsman called Neferabu. It talks about how he was ignorant & foolish and knew not good from evil. He was punished by the goddess being “in her hand by day as by night”. But he propitiated her and “She was merciful to me, having made me see her hand. She returned to me appeased, she made my malady forgotten”.

Her cult was restricted in time as well as geography, and the period in question correlates well with the period when the Valley of the Kings was an active cemetery. She’s not attested as a goddess before the New Kingdom. Then once no more tombs are being built and the craftsmen leave Deir el Medina worship of Meretseger fades away leaving her in the silence that she loved (until the treasure hunters, tourists and archaeologists descended on the Valley of the Kings!).

Resources used:

“Interfaith Dialogue in Ancient Egypt. The anthropology of intercultural discourse in New Kingdom Elephantine and Deir el-Medineh” Martin Bommas (in “The Gods of the others, the gods and the others, Studi e Materiali di Storia delle religioni” ed P. Buzi & A. Colonna)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Lives: The Story of the Pharaohs’ Tombmakers” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods & Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

The One Who Unites the Two Lands

If you’ve been to Luxor to see the ancient sites, then you have almost certainly been to see Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. While there you may not’ve paid much attention to the ruins of a temple just to the south – certainly I didn’t the first time I visited, and I don’t think tourists are allowed to go and walk round it. But that temple was one of the reasons Hatshepsut put her temple where she did, and that temple’s terraced design formed the inspiration for her own more elaborate version. This was a deliberate association of herself with the great king Montuhotep II who reunified Egypt and was venerated alongside Narmer and Ahmose I as one of the three founders of the state.

Montuhotep II was born around 4000 years ago at the end of what we nowadays call the First Intermediate Period, and the Egyptians themselves saw as an era of disorder and disunity. Following the reign of Pepi II at the end of the Old Kingdom the central government of Egypt began to disintegrate and the country splintered with each region operating autonomously. Although at first these local rulers paid lip service to the idea that they were ruled by an overall king by the time Montuhotep was born this was not even nominally the case, and new powers were jockeying for the title. In Lower Egypt the House of Khety had taken control, governing from their home base of Herakleopolis. In Upper Egypt Montuhotep’s predecessors, three generations of rulers called Intef, had done the same from their home base of Thebes.

Ruined columns of the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri.
Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri

The local war god worshipped at Thebes was called Montu, and Montuhotep means “Montu is satisfied” – and our king certainly did his best to live up to that name. Given the length of his reign (50 or so years) he must’ve taken the throne in his teens or early 20s, and all seems to’ve been quiet for the first 14 years. In Year 14 of his reign he took advantage of the rebellion of a province to his north (called This, which includes the town of Abydos) to make his move. Having crushed the rebellion he then swept north with his armies and eventually defeated the House of Khety at Herakleopolis itself. The timeline other than the turning point of Year 14 isn’t entirely clear. There’s evidence of unrest rumbling on for a while, so it wasn’t a single campaign and done. Certainly by Year 39 he feels he has completed the job – at some point before this (probably when he celebrated his jubilee) he changed part of his royal titulary to reflect that. His Horus name is changed to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

Montuhotep II’s reunification of the land ushered in a new golden age of high culture in Egypt. During the fragmentation of the country art styles in the regions had diverged from each other, and early reliefs from Montuhotep II’s time (including some of the decoration of his mortuary temple) are in a local Theban style. The Old Kingdom style of art had survived in the Memphite region, where the capital had been in that period. As part of asserting his legitimacy as a continuation of the Old Kingdom Montuhotep II employed artisans from Memphis on his own building projects and over his reign both styles merge with the Memphite style coming to dominate. As well as a return to a sophisticated and unified art style there is also a increase in historical documentation surviving from his reign and an increase in building projects throughout the country.

A fair amount is known about Montuhotep II’s family, mostly from burials within his mortuary temple complex although also from other sources. We know that he was the son of Intef III* and Iah, and we know the names of several wives although only one child. His chief wife was his sister Neferu who appears to’ve died early in his reign. The other senior wife was called Tem, and she had the title of “Mother of the Dual King” – this means that Montuhotep II’s successor (Montuhotep III) must’ve been her son. There are also six other female burials in Montuhotep II’s mortuary complex. Three of these women were definitely wives: Ashayet, Henhenet (who died in childbirth) and Sadhe. One was definitely not: a child of 5 or 6 years old called Mayet. And two who might also have been wives or concubines: Kawit and Kemsit. Montuhotep III is the only known child of Montuhotep II – which is one of those cases where one needs to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Records of royal children are often patchy, particularly of sons until they are adults. And we only have evidence of Montuhotep III because he rules after his father, not during his childhood.

*Although Gae Callendar, writing in “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw, is less sure of this – she feels he makes too much fuss about his father being Intef III for it to’ve been that straightforward.

As well as Montu other gods were also important to Montuhotep II. The women buried in his mortuary complex all have titles that call them Priestess or Prophetess of Hathor, as did Montuhotep II’s mother. And Hathor was behind his choice of site for his mortuary complex – she was thought to dwell as a cow in the Western Mountain at Thebes. So Montuhotep II’s tomb and temple were situated so that he would spend eternity in the embrace of Hathor. The temple also faces towards Karnak across the Nile – the temple of Amun. I think the evidence for his support of the cult of Amun is circumstantial but it is known that this is the period when the cult begins to rise.

Another god that was important to Montuhotep II was … himself. There’s evidence Montuhotep II was, unusually, deified in his own lifetime – the only one of the three founder kings who achieved that. It may be that this was a key part of reasserting central control over the newly reunified kingdom. During the First Intermediate Period local rulers had begun justifying their authority as having been handed to them by this god or that god rather than from the king. So by setting himself up as a god Montuhotep II fit neatly into this new narrative for propaganda purposes. He was also to be worshipped after his death as a god – which doesn’t seem so unusual to us because that became the standard situation in the New Kingdom several hundred years later. But he took it further than had been the previous norm. And his self-deification appears to’ve stuck, despite his relative lack of name recognition in the modern day. There is evidence that later Middle Kingdom rulers venerated him, erecting statues of themselves in his temple precinct or dedicating objects to him. Hatshepsut clearly felt the association with him would enhance her status. Even into the 20th Dynasty there are private tombs which have inscriptions celebrating him as a founder of Egypt.

In many ways Montuhotep II is the archetypal Pharaoh – great war leader; bringer of peace, prosperity and order from chaos; a god to his people. Montu must indeed have been satisfied with this monarch.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Ancient Egyptian Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt Volume II: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

Changing Over Time

A fragment of limestone depicting the god Montu.

Sometimes you hear Ancient Egyptian culture treated as if it was a static thing, staying the same over the whole course of its history – someone (often in a documentary voiceover!) making statements about how “the Ancient Egyptians” did things as if all of them did the same from the time of Narmer through to the fall of Cleopatra some 3000 years later. This is, of course, nonsense – over the course of three thousand years a lot changes, even in a culture that made such a point of (talking about) doing things the way they had always been done. Their religion was no exception – the importance of different gods in their pantheon waxed and waned as the importance of different regions and priesthoods waxed and waned. Your mind might go to Akhenaten and his failed attempt to move from an Amun-centred pantheon to worship of the Aten, but I think that’s a bit different as he also changed the way worship happened and the architecture of temples – an attempt at a more seismic shift in the religious culture. The changes I have in mind are those that seem more organic (at least as far as one can tell), more like reshuffling of priorities than disruptive alterations – things like the rise and (relative) fall of the god Montu in the early Middle Kingdom.

Montu is the ancient principle deity of Thebes and the surrounding area. He’s most often represented in art as a falcon-headed man or as a falcon, but he may also be depicted as a bull or bull-headed man (particularly in the Late Period and after). He wears a headdress of a sun-disk and uraeus with two feathered plumes, and these plumes serve to differentiate him from depictions of Re or Horus or other falcon-headed deities. He may also carry a curved sword called a khepesh, emphasising his martial nature. He is referenced in the Pyramid Texts and there is also archaeological evidence of him in the Old Kingdom period. At this point he is primarily important on a local scale but this changes with the 11th Dynasty. They have a particular veneration for Montu – three of the rulers from this dynasty (and an ancestor) are named Montuhotep, which means “Montu is satisfied”. An appropriately warlike choice for a family who used force of arms to reunify the fractured land that was the Egypt of the First Intermediate Period!

With the 11th Dynasty’s rise to power so comes Montu’s rise to national importance as one of the key state gods. But he was not to remain preeminent for long. The 12th Dynasty began with the reign of Amenemhat I, and again the name gives a clue – during the time of “Amun is at the forefront” and his successors the cult of Amun begins its rise to centre stage. Montu doesn’t completely fade back to being a purely local god, however. Instead he becomes the deity who represents the aggressive side of kingship. During the New Kingdom the more martial rulers use epithets that reference Montu, for instance Thutmose III fights “like Montu in his might”. As well as this his cult remains important in the Theban region right through into the Roman period.

Fragment of a limestone relief showing the god Montu.
Relief Fragment Depicting Montu. Photo by John Patterson.

There are four main sites near Thebes where there are temples to Montu – Armant, el Tod, Karnak and Medamud. Karnak surprised me when I read about it, as I associate that temple complex so strongly with Amun (and his consort Mut & their child Khonsu) that I wasn’t expecting Montu to show up there as well. This is an artifact both of the dominance of the New Kingdom buildings on the site and of which bits of the complex I’ve actually visited. The precinct of Montu is to the north of what I think of as “Karnak temple” (the New Kingdom precinct of Amun-Re), and is dwarfed by it.

The temple at Armant was the main cult centre for Montu, and it was here that his sacred bull was buried. In much the same way that the god Ptah had the Apis Bull at Saqqara as an avatar, so too Montu had the Buchis Bull. There was only one Buchis bull at any one time, and when it died it was mummified and buried with full honours in a catacomb at Armant called the Bucheion or Bucheum. The bull’s mother was also buried in a catacomb nearby, called the Baqqariyah. The next bull was chosen on the basis of its markings – a white hide and a black face, according to one ancient author but this doesn’t always seem to’ve been the case. It was particularly renowned for its ferocity, and was depicted in bull fighting scenes in Old Kingdom Upper Egyptian tombs.

As with most Egyptian gods Montu had a consort – or rather he had different ones in different times and places, another iteration of the idea I started this article with. At a Middle Kingdom era temple in Tod the god was shown with the goddess Tjenenet. There’s a double sided relief dating to the reign of Montuhotep III which is now in the Louvre which has Montu on one side and Tjenenet on the other, both receiving offerings from the king. This is part of a wall that used to divide two of the chapels in the temple – one dedicated to each deity. But by the time of the late New Kingdom (and afterwards) the consort of Montu depicted in reliefs is Raet (also sometimes called Raettawy). She began as a female counterpart for the sun-god Re and is known from the 5th Dynasty. She doesn’t really show up much in mythology though, the roles that you might expect the counterpart of Re to fulfil in a story are more often taken by Hathor. Even later in Ancient Egyptian history Montu and Raet complete their triad with a child (in the temple at Medamud at least). This child is the deity known to the Greeks as Harpocrates – Horus the Child. Who is more often, in (most) other times and places, identified as the son of Isis and Osiris conceived after Osiris’s death …

So altogether the rise and fall, and the relationships, of Montu are a good illustration of the fluidity of Ancient Egyptian religious culture over time. There’s a core of Montu-ness around which are a variety of attributes and relationships which reflect what place Montu has in that specific place at that specific moment.

Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Conceptions of God in Egypt: The One and the Many” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, Kei Yamamoto
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyledesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.