The Mountains and Horizon of Ancient Egypt

The Mountains and Horizon of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

The djew, the mountain symbol

At various locations, such as at Aswan, the banks of the Nile quickly turn into hills, or mountains, to the ancient Egyptians

The hieroglyphic sign for "mountain" (djew) and that for "horizon" (akhet) are closely related. The djew glyph is depicted as two rounded hills or peaks with a valley or strip of earth between them. While this sign could depict two individual peaks in any mountain range, it approximated the mountain ranges which rose on either side of the Nile valley, and also had a deeper cosmic significance. The Egyptians visualized a universal mountain split into a western peak (Manu) and an eastern peak (Bakhu) which served as the supports for heaven. The ends of this great earth mountain were guarded by lion deities who protected the rising and setting sun and were sometimes portrayed as part of the cosmic mountain itself.

Hathor emerges from the mountain in the Book of the Dead

Because the Egyptian necropolis was generally located in the mountainous wasteland bordering the cultivation, the mountain was also closely related to the concept of the tomb and the afterlife. It may be in this context that the sacred symbol of Abydos is to be interpreted, where the plumed cult symbol stands on a pole which is set upon the mountain sign. Texts referring to the mortuary deity Anubis as "He who is upon his mountain," and the frequent representations showing the cow goddess Hathor emerging from a mountain side as "Mistress of the Necropolis" are also manifestations of this symbolic aspect of the mountain.

The hieroglyph for mountain also appears in more mundane contexts at a secondary level of association. Because the mountain hieroglyph was divided into two peaks, the concept of a "hill" or "heap" of some substance such as grain is often expressed representation ally by means of the mountain sign. For example, in the tomb of Menna at Thebes, there are various scenes where grain is being harvested. in which this principle is used. The cut grain is raked into large heaps, then threshed by oxen which are driven over it. After the grain is winnowed to remove the chaff, the final crop is carefully measured and recorded by scribes. At every stage in this process, the artist represents the heaps of grain in the form of the mountain glyph to convey not only the shape of the heaps themselves, but also the concept of their large size.

From the tomb of Menna, showing twin piles of grain

Another slightly different hieroglyph, which shows a range of three peaks, was also used as a determinative in writing words related to the desert and cemetery areas, as well as for quarries and foreign countries. Iconographically, however the three-peak "mountain is used almost exclusively with the sense of "foreign land," while the twin-peaked mountain is the form usually used in representations with cosmic, afterlife significances.

The Akhet, the horizon of ancient Egypt

The double Lion deities, Aker, with the horizon sign between them

The connection of the mountain symbol with the solar cycle is seen in the closely related akhet sign, which shows the sun rising above the mountain horizon. The symbolism of the horizon, with the sun rising or setting, became an important one in ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphic sign for "horizon" (akhet) shows the two peaks of the mountain glyph with the solar disk appearing between them on the horizon from which the sun emerged or disappeared. The horizon thus embraced the idea of both sunrise and sunset and was protected from early times by the Aker, a double lion deity who guarded both ends of the day. This double deity was represented in a number of ways, often as a long narrow tract of land with a human, or more usually leonine, head at each end. When lions are used, the clearly are made to mirror the shape of the mountain-glyph,. with the circular space between them representing the sun in the image of the horizon.

The Great Sphinx, with the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre flanking it.

In the New Kingodm, Hor-em-akhet (Horus in the Horison) was the god of the rising and setting sun and is variously represented as a child, a falcon, or more commonly, as the leonine sphinx. Probably also because of the Aker lion deities, The Great Sphinx of Giza thus came to be viewed as a literal "Horus in the Horizon" and it lay between the twin peaks of the giant akhet formed by the pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) and the pyramid of Chephren (Khafre). In the relief scene carved on the famous "Sphinx Stele" at Giza, Tuthmosis IV is shown making offerings to twin sphinxes which represent the two aspects of the same god, Horus in the Horison (who's name appears above the animals' heads). Because these sphinxes are placed back to back with the winged sun disk above and between them, this whole composition can be seen to be a complex elaboration of the horizon hieroglyph.

The headrest of Tutankhamun, with the two opposing lions

Other allusions to the horizon sign are frequently found in Egyptian art. The curved headrest, for example could imitate the akhet in its form and symbolism, for the head of the sleeper rose from it like the sun from the horizon. Sometimes in two-dimensional representations the Egyptian artist would depict the mountains of the akhet as the two breasts of a reclining goddess who holds the sun aloft. In other instance the form of the hieroglyph was used not to suggest the rising sun, but as a visual metaphor referring to the related concepts of fire and heat. From the tomb of Puimre in Thebes, dating to the 18th Dynasty, we find a metal worker blowing on a fire which he uses as a forge. The raised lip of the fire pit is shown in sectional profile with the heaped charcoal fire in its depression appearing just as the glowing sun between the two peaks of the horizon.

The dual pylons at the Temple of Luxor

The hieroglyph was also applied in architectural forms, and because the Egyptian temple was theoretically aligned on an east-west axis, the two towers which flanked its entrance may well have signified the two peaks of the horizon between which the sun rose. In an inscription at Edfu the pylon towers are, in fact, specifically referred to as the goddesses Isis and Nephthys "...who raise up the sun god who shines on the horizon." The statue of the sun god was thus sometimes displayed to the people from the terrace between the towers, and the term for this "appearance", khaai, was the same as that used for the rising of the sun over the horizon.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture Wilkinson, Richard H. 1992 Thames & Hudson LTD ISBN 0-300-27751-6