The Great Aten Temple at Amarna in Egypt

The Great Aten Temple at Amarna

by Jimmy Dunn

Plan of the overall   Great Temple of Aten complex

Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, is such an anomaly. It was purposefully destroyed (building material being used elsewhere) at the end of the Amarna Period by the ancient Egyptians because of the Akhenaten heresy, but because of its location and other lucky characteristics, certain elements of the city are some of the best preserved from the New Kingdom in Egypt. Hence, rather than obliterating Akhenaten's memory as they wished to do, the ancient Egyptians helped it to survive. On the other hand, it is somewhat of a curse to Egyptologists, for many elements of the city could not be called typical. Not only were the temples unique, but because of the need to expedite its construction, many other aspects of the city differ from the ancient Egyptian norm as well.

Residential housing, though perhaps providing us with clues as to the general elements included in ancient Egyptian homes, was at the same time also atypical. Specifically, the Amarna type of house is remarkably uniform, even in upper and middle class residences. Here, we have hundreds of houses that have been excavated and because of their uniformity, we may derive certain characteristics that were common to all residences at Amarna.

Outside of the workers village, the characteristic Amarna house was essentially a country home on large grounds and surrounded by a courtyard comprising a garden, a kitchen, servants' quarters and stables or silos, all within an enclosure wall. In fact, the typical house at Amarna was more of a mansion than a town house. The walls were generally made of brick, supplemented by stone for the bases of columns and even for doorways. Columns, roofs and staircase supports were of wood, while floors were made of mud or of brick, that whitewashed and painted.

Most of these houses at Amarna had a somewhat square plan, oriented parallel to the river, and consisted of two well defined sections of private and public living areas.

In the public area, there was what might have been considered a living room that developed into a broad hall, sometimes called a loggia, and a deep hall or central square hall, to which an entrance vestibule was added occasionally. Sometimes there were simply two broad halls. Basically, housing differed for the rich, middle class and poor in that they had two, one or no broad halls respectively.

A ramp or stairway would also ascend to a northern lobby, which has been described, though on no substantial grounds, as a porter's lodge. Adjoining the ramp or stairway is a broad hall or reception room, sometimes also called a loggia on the assumption that it had large windows opening above the steps and facing the north. We know from ancient texts, and from studies of climatic conditions prevailing in later times and the present as well, that the cool breeze blew from the north or west, and the arrangement of a reception room open to the north and west was to take advantage of these conditions.

The central chamber was usually square and opened upon the loggia. It forms the nucleus of the house plan and could have also been used as a living area. This room had higher walls than those elsewhere in the house, probably allowing for clerestory lighting just below a ceiling that was supported on wooden columns, typically painted a reddish brown. Other rooms surrounded the central chamber providing additional insulation against the heat of the summer and the cool evenings in winter. Numerous doorways opened off of this central chamber according to a strict pattern of symmetry and niches. This consisted of niches in the shape of doorways set opposite or symmetrical with the actual doorways. The larger niches would have probably contained a stela representing the royal family and another with a prayer to the Aten disk. These would have functioned as domestic shrines.

Featured in the chamber as permanent furniture was a raised dais along the middle of the rear wall that acted as a divan. Cushions and chairs were placed on this dais for the owners visitors. A brazier container sunk into the plastered floor, and a lustration slab were also present, evidencing its use as a living room. At the tops of the walls, the this room would have been decorated with a frieze of plants such as water lilies or perhaps pendent ducks, flowers or festoons of fruit. Doorways were frequently painted with horizontal stripes of various colors, while the ceiling would have been a rich blue as in the house of Nakht.

In one of the rooms leading off from the central chamber, a staircase consisting of two or more flights would have led to a roof terrace, though in larger mansions a columned loggia was built above the broad hall and possibly over other rooms as well.

The private areas within residential houses at Amarna typically consisted of a square hall, the master's bedroom, a few smaller rooms and a bathroom and a latrine. The square hall, which was perhaps the women's quarters, would typically be similar to the central hall but is smaller, fitted however, with the same type of furniture. Lighting would usually be provided by windows opening high on the south wall.

The master's bedroom was the most private of all the rooms, and was most often situated in the southwest corner of the house. It was accessible either through the square hall or a lobby. The bedroom was discernable from the alcove for the bed, which was somewhat narrower than the room and set in its rear part on a raised floor. There were small, stone blocks in the shape of a truncated pyramid that were placed under the feet of the bed. The alcove was not simply a mater of aesthetics. Because of the greater thickness of its walls scholars believe that it may have been roofed over with a vault carried high above the ceiling and opening on the terrace for ventilation. Representations of the royal palace all show such a device for the cool northern breeze.

Near the bedroom a group of rooms function as a bathroom, latrine and robe room or closet. The bathroom would be fitted with a slightly inclined stone-slab floor and the walls wee typically lined to a certain height (about half a meter) with battered stone slabs to protect against dampness and splashing. Drainage of waste water was provided by setting a basin beneath the spout of the floor lab in the bathroom, or sometimes by drainage channels running through the outer wall into a vessel or straight into the desert sand. Lacking any water pipes, the bathroom must have been a primitive shower system where water was poured over the bather by an attendant from behind the partial wall. Often, only a partial wall some 1.25 meters in height separated the bathroom from the latrine.

The latrine was a simple earth-closet equipped with a removable oblong vessel placed under the slit in a brick or wooden seat. Such devices should be considered as common throughout Egypt at this time. Likewise, the side rooms had transverse low walls abutting against the main wall and were equipped with wooden frames used as shelving for the storage of linen, just as in temples and palaces at Thebes.

Many Amarna homes had outbuildings that were situated according to a specific layout. Often, there was a main entrance doorway at an end of the enclosure wall that opened onto a pathway bordered with trees growing in puddles of Nile River mud which led to a small chapel. When present, these chapels were elevated on a rectangular socle and accessed by a stairway. Usually, the chapels had a very small porch and a roofless shrine with an altar for the Aten. From the chapel, the path would make a right turn toward the house.

Behind the house there were typically granaries, storerooms, a chariot room and stables, servants' quarters and kitchens. The granaries were in the form of a truncated silo on a circular plan, covered with cupolas (dome). These silos were paired, with a stairway winding up to the aperture through which grain was poured. There was a square doorway at the bottom to disperse the grain. The storerooms were deep rectangular contiguous rooms.

The stalls and stables for horses sometimes had an extremely ingenious device. They were stone paved where the horses stood, with a built-up manger and tethering-stones that were bordered by a feeding passage running behind the manger and accessible from the outside.

Servant housing generally featured a large room with pillars. The kitchens, which were well equipped with a range of simple pottery ovens, sometimes had attached living quarters for the cook. These ovens were cylindrical jars, about one meter high and open at both top and bottom. They were thickly coated with mud or brick. There was a small hole for stoking the fire at the bottom. Flat loaves were introduced from above. An adjacent room was equipped with racks for drying and storing loaves, and a cement coated slab for mixing dough.

A well was essential in most mansions. That of Ra'nefer had a circular shaft in which a stairway descends in two flights to a ring platform around the well itself. However, some scholars believe that there were few if any ponds in these mansions, suggesting that places where ponds have been recorded were simply from covered over wells.

Though many aspects of Amarna were unique to Egypt, most elements of housing in this location, even though more uniform then elsewhere, must have at least for the most part imitated residences elsewhere in Egypt, and the number of remains do indeed provide us with a rich source for domestic living not usually found elsewhere in Egypt.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Akhenaten: King of Egypt Aldred, Cyril 1988 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-27621-8
Amarna Letters Forbes, Dennis C. 1991 KMT Communications ISBN 1-879388-03-0
Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle) Reeves, Nicholas 2000 Thmes & Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05105-4
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C. Badawy, Alexander 1968 University of California Press LCCC A5-4746