Egyptian Temples

Egyptian Temples

by Margaret A. Murray

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Survey of the architectural styles and histories of Egyptian temples built thousands of years ago. Over 120 photographs and diagrams depict exteriors, interiors of many sacred structures, including the ruins of the Temple of the Sphinx, and the remarkable structures at Karnak; the Temple of Luxor; the great temples at Abu Simbel; more.  See more details below


Survey of the architectural styles and histories of Egyptian temples built thousands of years ago. Over 120 photographs and diagrams depict exteriors, interiors of many sacred structures, including the ruins of the Temple of the Sphinx, and the remarkable structures at Karnak; the Temple of Luxor; the great temples at Abu Simbel; more.

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Egyptian Temples

By Margaret A. Murray

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14882-3



FORMERLY this was known as the Temple of the Sphinx as it is in close proximity to that monument; the plan, however, shows that there is no reason to suppose that the Sphinx and the temple are necessarily connected in any way.

The temple was first excavated in 1853 by Mariette who, in his usual reckless manner, cleared every chamber without making records of anything except the statues. These interested the excavator; but the small objects and pottery, from which the modern archæologist learns so much, were entirely neglected. Consequently nothing is known of any finds within the precincts, with the exception of the Khafra statues, even the basalt figures of the apes of the god Thoth were left lying on the floor of the temple for many years.

The temple belongs to the Second Pyramid, and is part of the funerary buildings of the Pharaoh Khafra of the IVth dynasty. To the east of the Pyramid lies the Pyramid-temple, which is connected with the Granite Temple by a causeway, one of the most remarkable examples of Egyptian work (pl. V, 2). The road is skew to both temples, as it is cut in the ridge of rock which divides two shallow valleys across the desert. Though the ancient Egyptian engineer was probably not afraid of the labour involved in filling up one of these valleys with masonry, so as to make a flat surface for his road, and at the same time orientating it like the causeway of the Great Pyramid, he preferred the basis of natural rock rather than an artificial foundation. To hold the paving-blocks in place the rock itself was cut in squares, and now presents the appearance of ashlar masonry. On this foundation a layer of blocks of fine white limestone was fitted; a second layer of blocks was then laid over the first, making a smooth and even surface, fifteen feet wide and a quarter of a mile long. Time and human depredations have destroyed the greater part of the causeway, but enough remains to show the magnificence of the work.

The walls of the temple are built of rough-hewn blocks of limestone of great size, some weighing at least a hundred tons. Over these, on the outside of the wall, a fine ashlar masonry of white limestone was built, while on the inside of the wall the rough core was covered with great blocks of dark-red granite or veined alabaster.

The original entrance (pl. VI, 1) was by two great doors on the eastern side (A), opening into a long narrow hall (B), but the present entrance is in the south-west corner through a long corridor (c) lined with dark-red granite, which was actually the exit from the temple to the causeway. The corridor descends into a T-shaped hall with pillars (D), all of the same dark-red granite as the corridor. The hall has a single row of pillars along the whole length of the crossbar of the T, and down the stem of the T is a double row (pl. VI, 2). Each pillar is a monolith, square in section and standing eighteen feet high. On the pillars rest square beams of the same material and colour, which originally carried roofing-slabs across the whole extent of the hall. Against the walls stood formerly twenty-three statues, the emplacements of the pedestals being still visible on the pavement.

A doorway (E) on the east of the hall opens into the original entrance chamber, which is without decoration of any kind. It was in this chamber that Mariette found a well containing the famous diorite statues of Khafra, which had probably been hidden there to preserve them during one of the periodic political upheavals to which Egypt had always been subject. To every Memphite, whether priest or layman, all sculpture and especially statuary was peculiarly sacred, for the god of Memphis was Ptah, the god of stone-working in its most artistic form. Wanton destruction of artistic products was to the Memphite blasphemy against the god. It is a noticeable fact that statues found at Memphis often appear to have been deliberately lowered to the ground and there buried, presumably for safety, as only in a few cases are they ever battered and mutilated like the statues found further south.

From the south-west corner of the T-shaped hall a passage leads to three cupboard-like chambers (F), nineteen feet long and five feet wide, each divided into two floors by a granite shelf, twenty-eight inches thick; the lower floors are lined with red granite, the upper with alabaster. At one time these chambers were considered to be for burials, but the arguments against this supposition are very strong, the chief one being the impossibility of introducing a long object like a coffin into the side-chambers; they are now generally regarded as the storage rooms for the temple vessels and the less perishable offerings. The magnificence of the stonework is quite in keeping with the character of the Pharaoh, whose own statues are still the wonder and envy of all sculptors and stone-workers.

On the south of the present entrance-corridor a passage leads to a plain chamber lined with granite and alabaster (G); this was either the room of the temple-guardian, or where some of the priests rested while others performed the memorial ceremonies. Immediately opposite this chamber on the north side of the corridor there opens an inclined way (H) to the roof of the temple. The roof is flat, and at one time was surrounded with high walls, forming a kind of court open to the sky.

As the whole of the temple was roofed with stone the problem of lighting and ventilating the interior must have been carefully considered by the architect, for in all Egyptian temples light had to be excluded to as great an extent as possible. To obtain, therefore, a sufficiency of both light and air horizontal slit-windows were made at the top of the walls immediately below the ceiling. From each slit rose a square shaft of white limestone, which was taken high above the flat roof against the wall of the roof-courtyard, somewhat in the fashion of a chimney. The only light which entered the building was the reflection from the white walls of the shafts cast down through the slits; the light was also so arranged as to fall on the row of statues against the walls. The slits and shafts served at the same time as ventilators, and kept out the extreme heat in the "evil days of summer".

In all Egyptian temples a "dim religious light" was as essential to the cult of the god, and particularly to the cult of the dead, as the offerings themselves. The brilliant glare of the sunshine and the glowing sand outside made the contrast with the darkness within still more marked. In the dim twilight of the halls, where the dark-red walls and columns would absorb rather than reflect the light, the statues of polished stone would be clearly seen against the dark background, every detail softened by the subdued light which fell upon them from above. Barefooted priests and worshippers passing noiselessly among the huge columns would be lost to sight in the gloom. What more impressive building for the cult of the dead could be imagined?

Even in ruin the Granite Temple is the most stately of all Egyptian temples; for grandeur and simplicity of design and for beauty of workmanship no other can compare with it. Though it has no decoration of sculpture on the walls, no jewelling of colour, no inscriptions, it stands in its strength and dignity as one of the greatest religious monuments of past times. The squareness of pillar and architrave adds to the impression of strength and power, and the deep rich colour of its stones gives a magnificence which is lacking in the later more decorated temples. In the buildings of Zoser, beautiful as they are, over-decoration had already appeared; but the architect of Khafra, even with the example of the Zoser temples before him, resisted the temptation to hide bad work under pretty surfaces, and resolutely depended for his results on simplicity of design, solidity of building, and the splendour of an almost intractable material. He succeeded beyond his imaginings, for his work is known and appreciated by generations far removed from him in time, by peoples and nations who in his period were scattered tribes of barbarians.



BETWEEN the paws of the Sphinx is a small hypaethral chapel, too small to be called a temple. It was first discovered in 1817 by Caviglia, who was working for an English Society.

The breast and paws of the Sphinx form the walls of this tiny place of worship, which may date to the XVIIIth dynasty. Against the breast of the great lion is a smaller human figure, possibly representing a god, but more probably representing that King in whose likeness the Sphinx was sculptured; the figure is, however, so weatherworn as to be little more than a lump of rock. Below this figure is a stele recording the famous dream of Tehutmes IV; though the stele is of considerably later date than the event recorded, the tradition must belong to the time of the dream; the stele is probably a copy of an original record, for other steles of Tehutmes IV are found in the temple. Rameses II also left records of himself here. The whole area has been paved with great care, and just outside the paws is a platform, on which stands an altar of Ptolemaic date.

It is a remarkable fact that the classical authors never mention the Sphinx, though it must have been a more conspicuous object then than now, as it was complete. On the other hand, Arab authors evince great interest in it, and even state that there were two Sphinxes, one on either side of the Nile. If this statement were true the eastern Sphinx was destroyed long ago, for no trace of it remains.



THE temples at the side of the Step-pyramid are the earliest known stone buildings in Egypt; they date to the IIIrd dynasty, and were erected by King Zoser the builder of the Step-pyramid. They are extremely important in the history of stone-building, and show the first efforts of Egyptian architects in that material. As early as the Ist dynasty granite and limestone had been used in the Royal Tombs at Abydos, though only for floors; actual stone building, i.e. the placing of stones one above the other to form a wall, does not appear to have been practised so early. Walls in the prehistoric and the earliest historic periods were of lattice smeared with mud, of wood, or of sun-dried brick, and it is not till the time of Zoser that stone building first appears. Manetho records that Tosorthros (now identified with Zoser) was the first to build a house of hewn stone. This might be a reference to the pyramid or to the temple or to its dependent mastaba-tombs; but the statement indicates that building in stone was so novel a method of construction as to be worthy of remark by those ancient recorders from whom Manetho drew his information.

The construction of both pyramid and temple bears out Manetho's statement, for it is evident that the builders were unaccustomed to their material and were experimenting, not always with success. The structures are built entirely of small blocks of stone, small enough to be lifted by a few men, quite unlike the great masses so common in the succeeding dynasty when stone had become the only material used for royal monuments. Zoser's architects and builders had no experience in handling and moving heavy blocks, and were obliged, perforce, to employ stones of a manageable size and weight.

The architecture, as well as the actual construction, shows that the builders were attempting to employ the technique of wood and brick in a different material, not understanding the capacity of stone in building. They had no knowledge of the stresses that stone would stand, and the resulting architecture is timid to a degree. But at least they had made a beginning, and although they themselves were not altogether successful they led the way to the magnificent architecture of later times.

A feature which occurs throughout the whole complex of buildings round the Step-pyramid is the door carved in stone, imitated from a wooden original. The doors are sometimes represented shut, and this is the prototype of the closed doors in the temple of Sethy I at Abydos. More often they are represented open (pl. X), the folding leaves are sculptured on either side of the doorway, and the detail of the pivot on which the door swung is carefully delineated; the ever-open door is found at almost every entrance; there is an occasional variation where the entrance is at an angle, then the door is shown half-open.

The Step-pyramid stands in the centre of a vast temenos, which is bounded by a thick wall recessed on the outside (pl. VII, 1). The entrance to the temenos is at the south-east angle (A), and the entrance corridor is one of the wonders of Egyptian architecture (pl. VII, 2). The forty pairs of piers, which are carried down its entire length, originally stood eighteen feet high; at each end of each pier is an engaged column carved to imitate a bundle of reeds. The piers are of white limestone, and the entrance was guarded at the outside by a pair of towers.

Opposite the second pair of piers is a passage, which turns twice at right-angles, and then runs due north for the greater part of its length; it finally turns to the west and opens into the south end of the temple of the Sed-festival (B); crossing the end of this temple it continues to an ever-open door which leads into another smaller temple (c). This building lies between the Sed-festival temple and the temenos (D); another entrance through a half-open door also gives access to the same temple. This building consists of a series of passages where were several little shrines, each approached by an ever-open door, while closed doors are found along the walls of the passages. There are two main sets of passages, one towards the west and the other towards the south.

The temple of the Sed-festival is the most complete example of the kind known; chapels for the celebration of the ceremony occur in later times, but none have been found so little destroyed. The exact significance of the Festival is not yet understood; it appears to have been of the utmost importance in the eyes of the Pharaohs, who throughout the historic period record its occurrence with great particularity. The idea that the festival was calendrical in the early periods cannot be proved though it may possibly have been celebrated at regular intervals in the Saite and later times. It was undoubtedly connected with fertility rites, and as the royal heiress played a prominent part it may represent the Sacred Marriage, such as was known among the ancient Greeks. The meaning of the words Sed-heb is "Tail festival," and it may therefore be connected with the custom of every Pharaoh to wear a bull's tail on great and ceremonial occasions. If, as is generally acknowledged, the dynastic Kings had a falcon as their totem some ceremony was necessary to admit them into membership with the Cattle-people who were the inhabitants of many parts of Egypt; the bull's tail would then represent the fact that the King was a bull as well as a falcon. The Sed-festival temple contains a series of chapels, each approached through an ever-open door, and each divided from the next by a stone wall carved to imitate a post-and-rail fence of the type seen in representations of early shrines (pl. X).

The temple of the pyramid (E) is set at the north side and adjoins the pyramid. The only entrance is through the temenos, and at all the narrow passages as well as at the actual entrances stands an ever-open door. The arrangement of the pyramid temple is not unlike a maze; the entrance is on the east into a corridor, which after several right-angled turns finally reaches the north-west corner, it then turns back on itself and runs eastward till it reaches the western hypæthral court, from which other passages lead into the eastern hypæthral court and into a labyrinth of chambers and passages. The two hypæthral courts, whose axes run north and south, are set side by side more or less in the middle of the building; engaged pillars form a façade to the south, from which access is obtained to a long gallery with openings into two chambers; from this gallery a corridor led to other chambers and corridors.

Every building within the temenos, with the exception of the pyramid, is asymmetrical. The innumerable chambers and passages appear to follow no known plan, and to have been altered and enlarged as the pyramid was altered and enlarged. The style of the buildings is unique; as far as is known it is not a development of any earlier form of temple, and it does not seem to have affected the later architecture, for the present therefore the whole complex remains sui generis.


Excerpted from Egyptian Temples by Margaret A. Murray. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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