Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt, Part VI: Beyond the Hypostyle Hall and the Southern Opet

Luxor Temple of Thebes in Egypt, Part VI: Beyond the Hypostyle Hall and the Southern Opet

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

A view of this section of the temple

Along the main temple axis south of the Hypostyle Hall, in the Temple of Luxor in Luxor, Egypt, low steps lead up to a room originally with eight columns, the bases of which can still be seen in the floor. This space is known as the First Antechamber, or more correctly, the "Chamber of the Divine King." It served as a barque shrine during the Pharaonic Period proper, but was converted into a chapel for the Roman imperial cult. At that time, the columns were removed and the floor level raised, using drums from the columns of the Kushite (Nubian) kiosk that once stood before the Ramesside Pylon.

The Roman Aspe, with the doorway leading through it just visible

Here, scenes of Amenhotep III and Amun were overlaid with plaster and painted with depictions of Roman officials. Nevertheless, Amenhotep III and Amun-Re can still be seen on the south, or rear wall, where the plaster has fallen away. Also on this back wall, an apse with flanking Corinthian columns was built in what had been a doorway and painted with standing figures of Diocletian and Maximillian with their two Caesars, Constantius Chlorus and Galerius. Interestingly, immediately to the left of the apse is an Egyptian artist's error. Two, almost identical scenes show Amenhotep III kneeling before Amun, who touches his crown.

The lower scene of Amenhotep III bowing before Amun

However, close examination of the lower scene shows that the artist placed the wrong crown on this figure, even though in the scene above it is correct. Traces of the alterations, which would have been disguised further with plaster and painting, are still visible. Very interestingly, this room was long believed to have been converted into an early Christian church. This view is, however, no longer accepted. In fact, we believe that it was here that Christians were forcibly made to declare their allegiance to the Roman god-emperor. If they failed to do so, they would be tortured and often killed. The doorway through the apse was cut by the Antiquities Department in the 1950s. Off this chamber open two small peripheral chapels to the left and right, now in a ruinous condition, that perhaps served as shrines for the Royal Ka and the Royal Barque. Beyond the apse (one must stoop to go through the doorway) lies the four pillared Second Antechamber, known as the "Offering Vestibule." This is where the principal temple offerings were made to Amun. Here, the roof is almost complete, and a lot of paint survives on the splendid reliefs.

One of the offering scenes

Depictions on the walls of this chamber portray Amenhotep III driving cattle to the temple to be slaughtered before the god. He also offers Amun, the State God during much of the New Kingdom, flowers, vases and incense. He is then accepted by the god (on the south wall) and conducted into his presence in the sanctuary. Immediately behind this vestibule is the Barque Shrine of Amun-Re, inside what is often referred to as the Third Antechamber. The shrine was rededicated to Alexander the Great after it was reconstructed by him. Representations in this chamber depict Amenhotep III or Alexander the Great standing before figures of the ithyphallic Amun.

Alexander the Great before an Ithyphallic Amun

Alexander the Great is, of course, dressed as a pharaoh, and in these scenes he receives the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. He also participates in offering rites. At one time four pillars defined the space where the sacred barque of Amun (of Karnak), and his image were placed during the Opet Festival, but these were replaced during the time of Alexander the Great with an inner shrine. Above the lintel of the doorway into this antechamber, a small chamber was built into the wall that was just large enough to accommodate a man. It was concealed by removable slabs, and accessed by holds cut in the wall. Some scholars believed this to be a priest-hole, where a priest would conceal himself during religious ceremonies.

Detasil from the Central Wall of the Barque Shrine modified by Alexander the Great

He would then be the voice of Amun, when priests asked questions of the god. Other, less cynical of Egyptian religion, think it was a secret annex for storing ceremonial objects. To the east, or left of the Barque Shrine, a doorway leads into two rooms. The first of these is known as the "Coronation Room," while the second one is known as the "Birth Room." In these rooms, we find depictions not only of Amenhotep III's divine birth cycle, but also his apotheosis as the sun god, his coronation and one of his jubilees. In the second chamber, the north lateral one on the east, scenes depicting the divine birth of Amenhotep III adorn the west wall. They are oriented to be read from bottom to top. Here, we find scenes of Queen Mutemuya, the mother of Amenhotep III, together with Amun, during the divine conception, executed in low-relief. The fingers of the god touch those of the queen and "his dew filled her body," according to the accompanying hieroglyphic caption.

A view of the Birth Room

This was the "divine marriage" that was celebrated between the god and the queen, or "God's wife", during the Opet Festival. Next, the god Khnum fashions Amenhotep III and his ka on his potter's wheel. These scenes also show the pregnant Mutemuya in the presence of Isis and Khnum along with Amenhotep III's subsequent presentation to the gods and nurturing.

Finally, there is the the determination of the future king's realm. Many of these scenes are similar in subject to those of Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahari. They affirm the overall theme of renewed royal and divine vitality celebrated in the festival. The mound on which this area of the temple stood was also held to be the very site of the birth of Amun so that the theme of birth was clearly one shared by temple and festival alike. Otherwise, small chapels line the eastern walls of these rooms. They held either statues of deities or temple furniture. Many scholars believe that they apparently received the statues of various gods associated with Amun-Re, such as members of the Theban Ennead. South of the barque shrine of Amun-Re are a series of pillared halls. Originally, there was no doorway into this suite of rooms as there is today. The Barque Shrine was the end of the axial way of Luxor Temple. Beyond it, during dynastic times, was the so called Southern Opet, in effect a separate temple within a temple, and its entrance was through the west wall. This was the sanctuary of the distinctive form of Amun at Luxor Temple, known as Amenemopet. The first of these chambers is a broad "hall of the offering table" (wsekhet hetep), with twelve columns, which actually proceeds the shrine of the statue. The twelve columns possibly symbolize the hours of the day since depictions of the sun-god's day and evening barques appear on the room's opposing east and west walls (and in fact, the chamber is often referred to as the "Hall of Hours"). It was in this hall that Cocteau noticed a more recent curiosity:

"Suddenly I was struck dumb. What could that be? High up, on top of the wall, Rimbaud had carved his name. He carved it, at the height of a man, and now that the temple is cleared, it shines forth like a sunflower. It blazes out, royal and sunlike, above suspicion, dreadful in its solitude." Arthur Rimbaud was, of course, a controversial and well known French poet who stopped writing at the age of 21 and spent the remaining 16 years of his life traveling in the Far and Near East, including parts of Ethiopia where no European had ever been before. The twelve column broad hall is flanked by two small rooms, the eastern one being in fact a smaller "hall of the offering-table".

Beyond the twelve columned broad hall, in the central location, is the original sanctuary or "holy of holies", containing the base of the block which once supported the god's image. The seated statue of Amun was of colossal proportions, placed on a socle abutting on the rearmost columns, like the socles of thrones in temple palaces. Unfortunately, the cult statue itself is one, though the base remains. There were two lateral balustrades. We know the composition of this room because of a represented in low relief in two scenes flanking the entrance doorway to the rear shrine.

About this room are other chambers that form the suite of private or intimately secluded chambers which gave the temple its name of Opet or "harem". However, it is now thought that the temple served a very different purpose than as a harem. Here, we find niches that contained the statues of other divinities. These innermost parts of the temple stood on a low mound which was thought by the ancient Egyptians to be either the original site of creation, the mound which rose from the primeval waters, or at least symbolic of that place. Hence, the roles of the chief gods Amun and Re and the concepts of creation and cyclic solar renewal were here particularly intertwined.

The outer surfaces of the eastern walls of the inner temple area can be seen to contain many blocks apparently randomly decorated with unrelated images. This area represents a practice wall where the ancient masons and sculptors learned the skills of temple decoration. These surfaces were then plastered over, only to be revealed again in the course of centuries as the underlying stone became exposed.

See also:






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