Built over the course of thousands of years in dedication to a diverse and complex pantheon, the ancient Egyptian temple is a hard thing to pin down. But one thing remained constant: more than just elaborate stone constructions, the Egyptians always perceived their temples as something organic, or even alive.
Thanks to their impeccable craftsmanship, many of Egypt’s most important temples remain in excellent condition today. But unlike the pyramids, which reveal themselves all at once, Egyptian temples require a slow, careful walkthrough to truly appreciate.
Basic temple architecture evolved greatly throughout the centuries, but not a whole lot of the Old or Middle Kingdom temples survive. As such, most visitors focus on temples from the New Kingdom onward, many of which share a lot in common.
In the following guide to ancient Egyptian temples, we’ll cover the basic temple types and their functions. After that, we’ll cover the main architectural features you can expect to find at Egyptian temples, along with their meaning and function.
Types of Ancient Egyptian Temples
Ancient Egyptian temples can be divided into several different categories. But it’s not clear if the Egyptians themselves ever saw any clear distinctions between them.
Broadly speaking, there were temples for gods and temples for deceased pharaohs. Yet both temple types share numerous architectural elements in common. And given how the Egyptians essentially viewed the pharaoh as a deity, the lines were often rather blurred.
Beginning in the Old Kingdom (or likely even from Predynastic times), the Egyptians built several important temples to the main solar deity, Re (or Ra). As these early solar temples mostly followed their own architectural style, we’ll put them in a separate category.
Up until the Ptolemaic era, the temple complex of Heliopolis was the main center of solar worship in Egypt. Heliopolis was so important, in fact, that the pyramids of Giza were aligned so that their southeast corners formed a line pointing right to it!
Sadly, today, almost nothing of Heliopolis remains. But we at least know where the temple once stood: in what’s now Cairo’s El Matareya district.
The site was once full of granite obelisks (more below), but only one, erected by Senusret I, remains standing today. The others have all been hauled off to Europe and even New York City.
THE SPHINX TEMPLE: Giza’s Sphinx Temple could technically be considered a solar temple, as the Sphinx itself was a solar symbol. But this mysterious temple is quite unlike the other solar temples we know of – or anything else in Egypt, for that matter! Sadly, it’s off-limits to visitors.
Though not in the best of shape, Nyussere’s Sun Temple at Abu Gorab gives us an idea of Heliopolis’s original layout. It features an early prototype of an obelisk, which was much thicker and comprised of limestone and granite blocks.
In front of the obelisk base is a large, open-air altar. At Abu Gorab, there’s a noticeable absence of enclosed sanctuaries found at most other Egyptian temples.
The open-air layout of the early Sun Temples were briefly brought back into style a full thousand years later. The controversial ‘heretic king,’ Akhenaten, built his Great Aten Temple as a solar temple with no enclosed shrines.
Some scholars believe that Akhenaten spent much of his childhood at Heliopolis, meaning he surely would’ve been influenced by the early Sun Temples of northern Egypt.
The early pyramid builders of the Old Kingdom typically built two temples to go along with their pyramids. Just nearby the pyramid they built a Mortuary Temple (see below), while an additional temple was built some distance away.
It was connected to the pyramid via a long causeway which was often roofed. While today scholars call these Valley Temples, their exact purpose remains unclear. Perhaps they were used for some kind of purification rituals for visitors entering the sacred precinct.
KHAFRE’S VALLEY TEMPLE: The Valley Temple of Khafre is totally unique in that it hardly features any of the architectural elements covered down below. Not only does Khafre’s Valley Temple lack any sort of inscriptions, but it was entirely made of huge monolithic stones.
While many later Egyptian temples were certainly monumental in size, later builders would never try building with such massive stones again.
The early Mortuary Temples were built just outside of pyramids. They functioned as a place for the living to place offerings to help sustain the ka of the deceased king. Once mummified, the spiritual goal of an Egyptian was to unite his ka (animating life force) with his ba (individual soul) to become resurrected and unified with the gods (learn more here).
Mortuary Temples, therefore, were closely associated with Egyptian tombs and funerary rites.
BASALT FLOORING: Basalt was commonly used in the flooring of Old Kingdom Mortuary Temples. While we don’t know for sure, it likely had some symbolic meaning behind it.
As an igneous rock, basalt was commonly used to represent the fiery aspects of nature. For whatever reason, the basalt flooring tradition seems to have ended after the 5th Dynasty.
Later on in the New Kingdom era, kings were buried in rock-cut tombs carved in close proximity to one another. Space would not allow for Mortuary Temples just outside of the tombs, so they were built elsewhere throughout Luxor’s West Bank.
While the architecture had changed greatly from the early Old Kingdom pyramid temples, the overall purpose of these Mortuary Temples remained the same.
Presumably, once the pharaoh attained his spiritual goal in the underworld, he could also answer prayers and offerings to those who sustained his cult.
Houses of the Neters
The majority of Egyptian temples were built in dedication to particular gods. And in many cases, groupings of different deities (triads were especially popular in the ancient Egyptian religion).
But to simply label Egyptian temples as abodes of this or that deity would be overly simplistic. In the Egyptian pantheon, each deity, or neter, represented an eternal principle of nature and creation.
MEMPHIS: Like Heliopolis, the temple complex at Memphis was hugely important and persisted from the beginning of Egyptian civilization up until its demise. Sadly, also like Heliopolis, almost nothing remains except for some stone blocks and statues.
Memphis was the abode of Ptah, the divine architect and creative fire. He was also worshipped as part of a triad alongside Sekhmet and Nefertum.
Temples were not just built in order to please certain gods, but to convey particular teachings to the priests. According to researchers like Schwaller de Lubicz, the teaching emphasized by a particular temple was even expressed in its measurements, dimensions and overall layout.
“The temple was not only a sacred structure, it was the embodiment of the relevant cosmic laws,” writes John Anthony West. “And as such, symbolically, it was ‘alive,’ an ‘organic’ structure in its own right.”
Common Temple Elements
Below we’ll cover most of the common architectural elements you’ll encounter when visiting ancient Egyptian temples. The list mostly pertains to features that became popular during the New Kingdom and then persisted throughout the Greco-Roman era.
Many of the common temple features can be found at both Mortuary Temples and the ‘Houses of the Neters.’
Outer Enclosure Wall
Every ancient Egyptian temple complex was surrounded by an outer enclosure wall. Their purpose was to symbolically separate the profane from the sacred and order from chaos.
The paths leading to the temple entrances were commonly lined with statues of sphinxes. Typically, the sphinx statues were human headed and often took on the likeness of the pharaoh who commissioned them. They were believed to spiritually protect the sacred precinct.
A notable exception is Karnak temple, where we see ram heads on a lion’s body. The rams are a symbol of the god Amun, the invisible force behind all of creation.
There was once a 2 km processional way linking Karnak and Luxor Temple that was entirely lined with sphinxes. At the time of writing, the Egyptian government is working on restoring it, complete with hundreds of sphinx sculptures!
Like many creation myths from various world cultures, Egyptian mythology details a mound rising out from the primordial waters. It was called the benben, and it was upon this mound that the very first rays of light shone at the beginning of time.
Obelisks (and pyramids) likely symbolize the benben stone and man’s link with the cosmos. They also probably represented the djed pillar, or the backbone of Osiris.
Though the original obelisks were thick structures comprised of granite and limestone blocks, they took the form of tall granite monoliths from the Middle Kingdom onward. Amazingly, these huge blocks of stone had to be quarried from Aswan before being shipped north and erected.
Obelisks were always placed outside of temples in pairs. Interestingly, they were always made to be different heights. But sadly, there’s not a single original pair of obelisks remaining in Egypt, preventing us from studying why.
THE UNFINISHED OBELISK: The ‘Unfinished Obelisk‘ in Aswan would’ve been the very largest created by the Egyptians. It’s the only partially formed obelisk to have been abandoned in a quarry.
If finished, it would’ve weighed around 1,090 tons and stood 42 meters high. Which pharaoh commissioned it remains an unsolved mystery.
Egyptologists believe that obelisks were shaped with dolerite pounder balls, though nobody has been able to replicate the process. How the obelisks were removed, finely carved, and then transported is also a mystery.
In regards to their placement outside of temples, scholars theorize that the Egyptians used a combination of mudbrick platforms and sand-filled holes to set them in their place. The process was successfully replicated for a documentary, but the obelisk used was much smaller and lighter than those the Egyptians created.
One of the first structures you’ll encounter when visiting an Egyptian temple is the pylon. Along with obelisks, pylons are what most people picture when they think of ancient Egyptian temples.
The gate resembles the hieroglyph for akhet, or horizon. As such, pylons symbolized the sunrise and therefore resurrection. The shape also represents the division of unity into duality at the beginning of creation (and man’s spiritual goal of returning to that state of unity).
Pylons feature four vertical niches which were designed to hold flagpoles. The ancient Egyptians loved their wordplay, and there were plenty of ways to implement hieroglyphs into architectural design. It’s surely no coincidence that the symbol for neter, or god, closely resembles a flagpole!
Some temples only have a single pylon, while others have multiple. Karnak alone has ten, with one set running along an west-east axis and another set built north to south.
Pylons seem to have been a New Kingdom invention. And though they were still being built during Greco-Roman times, some temples like Dendera utilized a simpler entrance gate instead.
Ancient Egyptian temples were hosts to frequent religious processions that involved the transport of idols from temple to temple.
And near temple entrances, special shrines were built to temporarily house statues and their portable barque shrines which scholars call Way Stations.
The statues would receive a ritual cleansing here before being taken deeper into the more sacred precincts of the temple.
The most well-known Way Station is the one built by Seti II near the entrance of Karnak. It features three shrines for the Theban triad of Amun-Mut-Khonsu.
At many of the larger New Kingdom and Greco-Roman temples, you’ll soon find yourself within a spacious open-air court after passing through the first pylon. These courts are almost always surrounded by rows of columns.
At some temples, such as Luxor Temple, all of the columns appear identical. At temples such as Edfu and Philae, on the other hand, you’ll find a great variety of column styles within a single courtyard.
The courts acted as an intermediary space between the open-air, outer portions of the temple and the enclosed inner halls.
Though we can’t see them on-site today, these courts would’ve also been home to a plethora of statues of gods and kings (more below). Sometimes, the collections grew so large that statues had to be buried to free up space!
Usually situated just past the open courts, Hypostyle Halls consist of multiple rows of large columns within a dimly lit room. And these impressive halls are often the architectural highlight of entire temples, such as at Karnak and Dendera.
And Karnak and Dendera are also fine examples of how Hypostyle Halls were constructed with the temple’s core teachings in mind.
For example, at Karnak, a temple consecrated to creation itself, the columns represent the papyrus thickets that emerged from the primeval swamp at the beginning of time.
Dendera, meanwhile, was dedicated to the Great Mother, Hathor. All of the columns’ capitals have been carved in her likeness, affirming her role as the cosmic mother.
Additionally, the ceilings in the Hypostyle Halls of Dendera and temples like Edfu are entirely covered in astronomical imagery. They convey important information about the zodiac and various decan stars.
In contrast to the intricate carvings all over the columns, the bases were often left rough – possibly to represent the fiery underworld.
The brilliant Egyptians took just about everything into consideration when building their temples. Sunlight shining in through the narrow gaps in the ceilings would highlight certain parts of the halls at different times of day. And particular reliefs were likely meant to be appreciated by the priests as time gradually progressed.
Furthermore, the number of columns in each Hypostyle Hall were chosen with numeric significance in mind. The Egyptians saw a close link between numerology and mythology, and they often utilized numeric symbolism in their architecture.
This complex topic is beyond the scope of this introductory article, but see recommended reading list below.
Most ancient Egyptian temples, from the New Kingdom onward, contained a series of dimly-lit inner sanctuaries that were considered to be the holiest part of the temple. And the most sacred of all was the sanctuary at the very center.
The central sanctuary was home to the idol and small barque shrine of the main deity to whom the temple was consecrated.
The solar barques were portable devices used to carry the idol for religious processions. The imagery of the barque is closely related to the mythology of Re, the solar deity who rides a barque through the cosmos and also through the underworld each night.
Currently, you won’t encounter a single original barque at a temple in Egypt except for Edfu, a temple consecrated to Horus.
Visually speaking, the main sanctuaries at temples (especially without their barques and shrines) aren’t particularly interesting to look at – especially when compared with the outer portions of the temple.
Be that as it may, the central sanctuaries were typically the first things built, and their proportions and geometry acted as a ‘seed’ upon which the rest of the temple was based.
Surrounding the main sanctuary, you can often find a multitude of other shrines on all sides. Narrow hallways connect the various rooms, and of course, everything was entirely carved in reliefs.
These other sanctuaries were dedicated to other gods, especially those who shared a common mythology with the central deity. Additionally, many of the smaller rooms also functioned as treasuries, and the images of the treasures once contained within were inscribed on the walls.
Some temples, like Dendera, feature underground crypts for storage in addition to extra sanctuaries with religious imagery on the rooftop.
In ancient Egypt, art was never just mere decoration. Every relief carving in a temple had a practical purpose. The Egyptians believed that to draw or carve something’s likeness was to replicate that entity or scene in another realm.
Within the darkened sanctuaries, the reliefs on the walls typically represented the ceremonies that took place within. Many scenes at temples show the king presenting offerings to various deities.
And at temples like Abydos, the gods are shown wearing a wide variety of outfits and headdresses. Surely there was some deeper symbolic meaning to each depiction that is now lost on us.
Aside from depictions of offerings, mythological scenes – particularly from the Osiris/Isis/Horus myth – make frequent appearances. And at temples such as Luxor Temple and the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, we can see a series of carvings depicting the divine birth of the king.
Battle scenes typically adorned the outward-facing parts of the temple, such as the pylons and walls. Symbolically, scenes of war represented light vanquishing the forces of darkness. Since such scenes commonly faced outwards, perhaps they were intended as a protective talisman.
Rather than wait until the end to carve them all at once, reliefs were likely carried out as construction was ongoing. At Karnak Temple, we can even see the remains of a mudbrick ramp built to help artisans to reach the upper portions of the walls.
Statues played a major role in Egyptian religious life. They were placed in a person’s tomb, for example, to house the ka or sometimes ba of the deceased.
A statue of a deity functioned in a similar manner. The Egyptians (and a great many other cultures) believed that a deity could descend to earth and inhabit a statue bearing its likeness. That way, it could receive the essence of daily prayers and offerings.
The statue, therefore, was not seen as a literal god, but as an intermediary object between man and the divine.
COLOSSI: The entrances to many New Kingdom temples were flanked by monumental colossi of the king. They are no doubt incredible feats of engineering. But they’re rather off-putting to our modern sensibilities. What could be the reason behind such statues other than megalomania?
But if we are to temporarily adopt the mindset of the ancient Egyptian, who genuinely saw their pharaoh as a link between the earthly and divine realms, the practice becomes more palatable.
But whatever the true intention may have been, one can’t help but feel tiny when approaching the mammoth facade of a temple like Abu Simbel.
Relatively few statues can be seen at ancient Egyptian temples today, as they’ve mostly all been taken to museums (if not looted). A visit to the Cairo and Luxor museums, therefore, is a must.
With that being said, there are still a few places to see statues in their original setting. Statues of Sekhmet can be seen in Karnak’s Temple of Ptah and also the Precinct of Mut. Luxor Temple is home to granite colossi of Ramesses II in addition to statues of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, while Edfu features statues of Horus in his falcon form.
OSIRIS STATUES: Many Mortuary Temples feature sets of the pharaoh posing as Osiris, lord of the underworld. They’re depicted with their arms crossed, holding the Osirian symbols of the flail and crook.
The first example of this can be seen outside the 3rd Dynasty Step Pyramid, and the practice persisted for thousands of years.
Osiris, according to legend, was also one of the original kings of Egypt, and all pharaohs strove to identify themselves with him.
A NOBLE STATUE: Amenhotep, son of Hapu was the vizier and architect under Amenhotep III. And he was rare among non-royal Egyptians to be divinized after his death.
Statues of the noble were placed outside of Karnak, and ordinary locals who were unable to enter the temple arrived en masse with offerings. He was considered to be an intermediary between the people and Amun.
Within the vast complexes of ancient Egyptian temples, smaller shrines and chapels were commonly built outside the main temple structure. One of the most well-known is the White Chapel of Senusret I at Karnak.
The limestone chapel’s platform doubles as a measuring rod. And there are also inscriptions detailing the precise measurements of Egypt’s various nomes, or territories.
Also on display at Karnak are alabaster and red quartzite chapels built during the New Kingdom era. But for whatever reason, they were dismantled and incorporated into a new pylon by Amenhotep III.
Thankfully, archaeologists managed to salvage all the pieces and rebuild them.
From the Late Period through Greco-Roman times, pharaohs started building Birth Chapels outside of significant temples. Also known as mammisi, the chapels were dedicated to the divine birth of the king.
Accordingly, they feature murals showing the pharaoh being divinely conceived by Amun and molded by Khnum, much like the ‘Hall of Theogamy’ reliefs at Luxor Temple.
You can find Birth Chapels at temples like Dendera, Edfu and Philae.
Larger temple complexes featured Sacred Lakes. The lakes symbolized the primordial waters of Nun at the very beginning of creation. (Interestingly, the lakes or ponds at Hindu temples share the same purpose.)
But the holy water of the lake could also be used to ritually cleanse the idols and portable barques. The priests themselves would also bathe in the waters to purify themselves before starting their daily temple duties.
While you can see a few empty ones at temples like Dendera, the lake at Karnak is currently the only one filled with water.
Ancient Egyptian temples are a complex topic, and the article above only scratches the surface. If you’re looking to learn more about temple architecture along with things like major festivals and daily temple life, be sure to pick up The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson.
The book is informative and full of pictures. And it also provides a complete list of just about every temple ever discovered in Egypt!
But if you really want to dive deep into the symbolism, and the why of the Egyptian temple, look into the works of R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz.
He spent years meticulously studying and measuring temples throughout Egypt, and his numerous books examine them from a symbolist perspective that the average Egyptologist won’t get into.
But Schwaller de Lubicz is by no means easy or casual reading. For a great introduction to his work, start off with Serpent in the Sky by John Anthony West.
We’ve also covered most of Egypt’s prominent temples in previous guides:
- Abu Gorab: Sunset at Nyussere’s Sun Temple
- A Guide to Karnak: Egypt’s Largest Temple
- Luxor Temple: The Temple of Man
- Touring the Temples of Luxor’s West Bank
- Abydos: The Abode of Osiris
- Dendera: The Temple of Hathor
- Esna & El Kab: On the Road to Aswan
- Edfu & Kom Ombo: The Falcon and The Crocodile
- Shadowing the Aten: Hunting for Amarna Art Across Egypt
- The Amazing Rock-Cut Temples of Abu Simbel
- The Island Temples of Philae and New Kilabsha
- An Introduction to Balinese Temple
- An Introduction to Thai Temples
- Tracing the Architectural Evolution of Angkor