Egypt: The Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep II on the West Bank at Luxor

The Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep II
on the West Bank at Luxor

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

The 11th Dynasty terraced tomb of Mentuhotep II, the ruler who united Egypt at the end of the First Intermediate Period, on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes) is an anomaly. It was built deep within Egypt's pyramid age, and incorporates many of the elements of pyramids. It may have even had a pyramidal superstructure. The name of this temple was "Mentuhotep's (cult) sites shine blissfully".

A view of the Mortuary Temple Complex of Mentuhotep II on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in Egypt

In many respects, Mentuhotep II's mortuary temple complex had important historical overtures, so it is not surprising that various teams have investigated the site. It was the first temple in Western Thebes to house a cult to the goddess Hathor, and foreshadowed a new theological concept of the "Temples of Millions of Years" that would gain popularity during the New Kingdom. While it was Lord Dufferin who discovered the temple complex in the later half of the 19th century, Henri Edouard Naville and Henry Hall may have been the first modern scholars to examine the site between 1903 and 1907. They were supported by the Egypt Exploration Fund. Between 1911 and 1931, the site was further investigated by a team from the Metropolitan Museum of New York directed by Herbert Winlock. However, neither of these groups completed their excavations, so the site was not fully investigated until the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, under the direction of Dieter Arnold, excavated it between 1968 and 1971.

Mentuhotep II selected a site on a rocky hillside at modern Deir el-Bahari where some of his predecessors of the First Intermediate Period built their saff tombs. Saff is an Arabic term meaning "row", and these tombs were so named for their row of pillars along their facades. Most Egyptologists agree that the ground plan of Mentuhotep II's complex combined architectural elements of both the staff tomb and the pyramid complex, though few seem to agree on the original appearance of his tomb.

The complex consisted of a valley temple, the ruins of which lie under the fields at the edge of the Nile valley and probably also under the ruins of Ramesses IV's valley temple, a causeway, a stepped, terraced mortuary temple that is partially cut into the rock cliff face, and a subterranean burial chamber. Winlock believed that the temple went through three construction phases, while Arnold thought there were four phases. The complex is generally oriented east-west, but bends slightly to the north.

Ground Plan of the Mortuary Temple Complex of Mentuhotep II on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in Egypt

Ground Plan of the Mortuary Temple Complex of Mentuhotep II

While not much is known of the Valley Temple, the causeway, unlike most of its counterparts in the Old Kingdom, was open, and had Osirian statues of the king located along its sides at irregular intervals. It terminated at the main temple complex in a large courtyard surrounded by a limestone wall.

At the back of the courtyard (western end) stood the massive, terraced mortuary temple. The facade of the lower, pillared hall consisted of a portico built of limestone blocks. This portico, which had two rows of pillars, was divided in half by a ramp leading to the second terrace. Originally, the portico walls were decorated with scenes of battle.

Like later temples located here, the main second level was accessed by a broad ramp of limestone blocks with a grove of parallel sycamores and tamarisks planted to either side. This terrace may be divided into three sections, consisting of an outer pillared portico hall surrounding an ambulatory on the north, south and east sides, with a core at the center of the ambulatory.

The outer portico section of this level, like the lower level, consisted of two rows of limestone pillars. It is often referred to as the "upper pillared hall". The front of these pillars were decorated with scenes depicting Mentuhotep II and various gods, and were inscribed with text in low relief. The rear limestone walls of the pillared hall around the inner ambulatory were slightly inclined and decorated both inside and out, suggesting that it once composed the outer facade of the ambulatory. This, and other evidence, has led Egyptologists to believe that the pillared hall itself was built at a later date.

An entrance on the east wing of the pillared portico hall, located on the main axis of the complex as a whole, lead to the inner ambulatory. An ambulatory can, at least in terms of ancient Egyptian architecture, be defined as a partial roof that ran around the edges of a structure, and was supported by pillars. Most often we find ambulatories surrounding an open courtyard but in this case it surrounds an inner core. Within this ambulatory stood 140 octagonal pillars arranged in two rows on the west (rear) side, and three rows on each of the other sides. The ambulatory was dimly illuminated by shafts in the exterior wall near the outer portico.

Inside of the ambulatory was a central core that Egyptologists believe was a symbolic version of the primeval mound. We believe it was made of hard clay shaped roughly into a cube, and probably surrounded with limestone slabs. It may have extended into the upper or top terrace through the ambulatory. It is the object of considerable debate.

One Idea of how the Mortuary Temple Complex of Mentuhotep II  might have looked in ancient times

Naville, the first investigator of the temple, believed this core to be a pyramid built upon the rock subsoil. A number of different views contradict his assumption. For example, Arnold rejected Naville's argument mostly because there was simply no evidence to support it. There are no ruins of a pyramid's inclined walls and no casing, so he sees this structure as a more or less a rectangular flat roof terrace with a stylized representation of the primeval mound. Stadelmann offers us a variation on Arnold's prospective with a sand hill planted with trees. This would combine Osirian beliefs with that of the primeval mound.

Debate on these issues is not only influenced by the lack of any ruins of this upper terrace structure, but also by conflicting documentary sources. For example, the Abbott papyrus definitely refers to the structure as a pyramid. Arnold also came across two fragments of inscriptions that contain the structure's name and seem to elude to it being a pyramid. We also find other similar references to its name elsewhere. American Egyptologist L. Bull saw the name as a "truncated obelisk or pyramid, projected above another structure. The obelisk appears to be a sun-disk from which Bull tells us that there, "usually extend two rays of light on each side". In an inscription on the 12th Dynasty stele of Tutu, the temple is actually represented by the hieroglyphic sign for a pyramid. Nearby the temple was found New Kingdom graffiti that refers to the tomb more as a terrace with an obelisk that terminated in a pyramidion.

Another Idea of how the Mortuary Temple Complex of Mentuhotep II  might have looked in ancient times

Despite all of this, most Egyptologists seem to believe that the top superstructure did not take the form of a pyramid. For example, in the Abbott papyrus, other tombs that are clearly not pyramids were also designated as pyramids. Therefore, Egyptologists believe that the ruins of the tomb either took on the look of a funeral mound or pyramid, or more likely, the tradition of monumental royal tombs was so strongly associated with the pyramid at this time that the hieroglyph of a pyramid was used to represent all such tombs. Yet it is important for us to point out that this debate is far from over. Perhaps new archaeological discoveries will someday put it to rest.

On the west side of the second level terrace were discovered a row of six shaft tombs cut into the rock. These tombs were apparently integrated into the temple when an expansion project to the west was inaugurated. Their subterranean sections were built of limestone blocks, with false doors and cult statues. Apparently woman of the royal family were buried in these tombs. Interestingly, all of these women died young, the eldest at about twenty-two, and the youngest at only five. Egyptologists speculate that they may have all died at about the same time, due to some accident or epidemic. Only four of them bore the title of Royal Consort. Arnold believes that others may have been priestesses of the goddess Hathor, though Callender contends that they were diplomatic marriages arranged for Mentuhotep II in order to stabilize and unify the country after the chaotic years of the First Intermediate Period.

Among the consort, two are especially notable. One, a Nubian whose obvious importance is evidenced by her decorated wooden coffin, was named Aashait (Ashait). The other, Kauit (Kawit), had a large limestone sarcophagus with fine reliefs, now located in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo.

The expansion to the west was made some time after the initial construction of the mortuary temple. This expansion included an open, pillared courtyard, Egypt's first grand hypostyle hall, a chapel to various gods, and a rock hewn temple, referred to as a Speos. Sandstone was used in the construction of the courtyard that was surrounded on the south, east and north sides by octagonal pillars. There were also 82 pillars in the hypostyle hall. The hypostyle hall had a limestone floor with walls built of sandstone.

Another View of the Mortuary Temple Complex of Mentuhotep II

The Speos at the far west end of the complex is a long, vaulted room with a statue niche in the very rear. Here, the paving is sandstone while the walls are made of limestone. There was a low ramp that led to a limestone altar at its rear (western most part) that set in front the niche and the oversized statue of the king.. This altar seems to have been the center of the entire temple complex, according to Mark Lehner. This room originally also had a false door. Among other cult objects found in the Speos, a seated statue of the god Amun was discovered. However, a small chapel situated off the eastern corner of the western addition's courtyard served the worship of several important gods including Amun, Mont, Osiris and Hathor, of whom a statue was discovered that now resides in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum.

On the axis of the pillared courtyard's pavement in this western addition is a vaulted, descending corridor, first clad in limestone that abruptly ends with its remaining length consisting of rough bedrock walls. It leads down to what is referred to as the king's burial chamber. Naville investigated the corridor and burial chamber in 1906, and Arnold again studied it in 1971. Niches along the corridor walls held some six hundred wooden figurines that were once part of the models of workshops, bakeries and boats. The burial chamber is located about 12 meters down the entrance corridor. It was made of granite and had a saddle ceiling. Actually the room is divided into two sections, with an alabaster chapel topped by a single, gigantic, granite slab, entered by way of a double wooden door, taking up the larger part. Naville concluded that this room was for the symbolic burial of the king's "ka", or soul, because no sarcophagus was found here, but most Egyptologists now disagree with his findings. They now believe that the alabaster chamber probably held the king's sarcophagus.

Front view of a drawing of how the temple might have looked in ancient times

One reason for this is that in 1899, the well known discoverer of Tutankhamun's tomb, Howard Carter, or rather his horse, literally stumbled onto a new riddle in Mentuhotep II's complex. While riding across the initial courtyard in front of the complex, his horse stumbled. He dismounted to see if his horse was injured, and discovered the entrance to an underground part of the tomb complex. Because of the manner in which the discovery was made, not unlike more than one future find in Egypt, Carter's crew named the substructure Bab el-Hussan, meaning "horse door, or gate".

The entrance started out as an open trench that soon turned into a vaulted corridor. Some seventeen meters deep, Carter discovered a door sealed by a four meter thick mudbrick wall. Behind this simple barrier, the corridor continued westward before finally turning north. At this point, the excavators found a shaft in the floor. Though it was only two meters deep, in it were found the remains of a wooden chest inscribed with the ruler's name. Further down the corridor a second shaft opened into an actual burial chamber.

Here, Carter's team discovered the ruins of an empty, uninscribed wooden coffin, ceramics and the bones of sacrificial animals. However, the most important discovery was a now famous polychrome statue of Mentuhotep II made of sandstone, wrapped in fine linen, and bearing the crown of Lower Egypt on its head. This item too is now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Perhaps because of this statue, Arnold believes this subterranean section was symbolic (a cenotaph) perhaps connected with the Sed-festivals of Mentuhotep II. Apparently, Arnold and now many others believes that the burial chamber in the upper part of the temple is really that of this king.






Reference Number

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