The ancient Egyptian temple formed the focus of a great cluster of buildings and estates at the centre of each community. It was not a place of worship for the common people, but housed the statue of a specific god to whom offerings were made daily. Only the pharaoh and the priests could enter the temple. The estates surrounding the temples were managed from here, and they employed many local people.
At the front of each temple, stood a massive pylon (Greek = doorway/gate). Often obelisks and colossal statues of the kings, who built the temples, were placed in front of the pylons.
The front courtyard (one or two) stood open to the sky, with columns with lotus or papyrus capitals, around the sidewalls. Beyond the open court(s), a doorway led into a roofed, columned hall, the hypostyle hall. The only light within the hypostyle hall came through clerestory bars.
The outer wall of an Egyptian temple was always rectangular, but the rooms within become progressively smaller. Deep in the heart of the temple was the sanctuary – standing at the highest and deepest point. It was here where the statue of the god stood within a shrine or naos.
Few remaining temples date from before the New Kingdom. The majority that are visited today date from the Graeco-Roman Period or the New Kingdom. Many kings also contributed to one specific temple for sometimes as long as 2000 years, extending and rebuilding all the time. The Graeco-Roman temples are also in a much better condition than the earlier temples, although the paintings and inscriptions on the walls were very often damaged by the first Copts, and later inhabitants of villages around these temples.
One of the most beautiful temples of the Graeco-Roman Period is the temple of Isis of Philae (pictured right). The temple was reconstructed on the island of Agilkia to protect the temple buildings from the rising waters of the High Dam. It still functioned as an Egyptian temple for many years after a Roman decree closed all the other temples. Even after Christianity came to the area, local Nubians continued to worship Isis here. The last recorded hieroglyphs were written here in 394 CE. Even Napoleon’s presence was recorded.
Some other notable temples that remain today are:
Edfu Temple: Considered the best preserved cult temple in Egypt, it is dedicated to the god Horus.
Karnak Temple: Know to the ancient Egyptians as Iput-Isut, ‘the most esteemed of places’, this complex has three different temples – the most majestic being the Precinct of Amun. It is situated in the city of Luxor.
Abu Simbel: This awe-inspiring temple was completely buried under fine sand until its rediscovery by a Swiss explorer in 1813. The building of Lake Nasser in the 1960s threatened its existence and UNESCO undertook a colossal project to save it by moving it 210m above the original site, piece by piece.
The temple of Ramses III, also refered to as Medinet Habu (c) Iziko Photo Archive
The Kiosk of Trajan at the temple of Isis (c) Iziko Photo Archive.
The Great Hall at the Karnak Temple (c) Iziko Photo Archive