The Temple Opet (Ipet, Apet)

The Temple of Opet (Ipet, Apet)

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jim Fox

An older photo of the Temple of Opet at Karnak

An older photo of the Temple of Opet at Karnak

The small, but apparently important temple dedicated to the hippopotamus goddess, Opet (Apet, Ipet, Ipy) is located immediately to the west of the temple of Khonsu at Karnak on the east bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes). Opet was venerated as a helper of women in Childbirth, and her rather odd temple was primarily built during the Greek Period by Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, and represents one of the last cult buildings erected at Karnak during this period.

Line recreation of the Temple of Opet at Karnak

Decorations were added by several later rulers including the first Roman emperor of Egypt, Augustus. The decorations, though blackened by ancient fires, are quite well preserved. Though nominally dedicated to Opet, the temple really was used in the service of Amun, and particularly with reference to the mythic resurrection cycle which associated Amun with the god, Osiris. Hence, it was closely associated with the temple of Khonsu, for this myth relates a cycle whereby Amun-Re dies in the form of Osiris and enters the body of Opet-Nut, to be reborn as Khonsu. Despite the fact that this temple sits just beside the Temple of Khonsu with its gate named Bab el-'Amara, the Opet temple had its own gateway through the Amun precinct's western backed-brick temenos wall, suggesting a level of importance and interaction with other cults.

Ground Plan of the Opet Temple at Karnak

Entrance into the temple is by way of a door in the back wall which opens into the sanctuary and then the outer offering hall. The temple consists of a the gateway in a large enclosure wall, a kiosk, a pylon and two courtyards, the first of which is occupied by another kiosk. This is followed by the main temple building which is completely preserved and stands on a raised platform which perhaps represents the primeval mound. The temple has several crypts hidden within its walls as well as larger ones build beneath ground level which served as a "tomb" for Amun-Osiris, a birth chamber and as repositories for the equipment used in the Festival of the Resurrection of the god. The gateway leading to the Opet temple stands 6.6 meters wide at its outer frame and has a passage that is 12.55 meters in length. The interior faces both north and south of the passageway each included five tableaux depicting King Nakhtnebef making an offering to a male and female god. The king is shown presenting vessels of wine to his mother, Opet the Great. Though the royal titulary seen behind the king is in Nakhtnebef's name, all have been retouched by Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III, who mention their "renewal" in the splaying and the western portion of the gate.

Drawing of the lion headed bolt to the gate of the temple of Opet

A. Varille, in "La grande porte du temple d'Apet a Karnak", tells us that" "The single door leaf was closed by a bolt that is one today... A text of five columns allows us to confirm that the piece that bolted the gate was one of those moving bars in the form of a lion, of which several examples can be seen in museums. The working principle of these bolts, whether made of wood, bronze, or stone, is always the same: a small lion slide-bolt partially emerges from the housing encased within the doorpost so that it may be used to block the door proper..., pulled by a small chain of seven double links from the last of which hangs a heart... The perfection of the symbolism behind these bolts is astounding. The heart that caused the lion to emerge is therefore the bolt's "motor.

" Now, the heart is the organ that, through contraction and dilation, "opens" and "closes," prompting the vital flow of blood through diastole and systole." The inscription on the bolt of Opet read: "I am the wife of he who appears in gold, the wife of Ka Nefer. I am the bolt of the great gate to the dwelling of my lord. I drive off whoever approaches him. I am the great uraeus, the terrifying mistress, who repels the unprovided, who represses the opposition. I attack the vile enemy by knife. I... his companions. I eat their hearts. I devour their lives in the name of Sekhmet-Menhit. I swall ow their blood and I do not let them climb into this temple of eternal life." A. Varille goes on to tell us that: "The lion is frequently used as a symbolic guardian of the temple; statues of lions before a gate, images of lions on doorjambs and pillars, a lion figurine like the bar of a bolt."

The East Facade and the entrance to the Lower Chapel of Osiris

Though the main temple entrance is on the western side, we may first wish to take a look about the exterior of the temple, particularly on its back side facing the temple of Khonsu. On this eastern facade is a door that provides access to a small Osirian chapel that is completely independent. This doorway is accessed through a narrow corridor that separates the east facade of this temple and the northeast corner of the pylon of the Khonsu temple. The base reliefs on the Opet facade are in the name of Augustus. Below, on each side of the doorway, is the king, wearing the red crown on the right and the white crown on the left. He is presenting an offering platter filled with vases and vegetables to Osiris. Behind him, Hapi (or a personification of the Nile), representing the Nile, wears on his head the symbolic flowers relative to his orientation consisting of reeds on the south and papyrus on the North. On the east end of this outer north wall, the nomes (provinces) of Upper Egypt are carved on the two tiers of the pedestal, starting from the northeast corner.

The list is introduced by Augustus, who wears a blue helmet on top and and the crown of the North on the bottom.

The nomes and their gods on the Temple of Opet

In the top register, each nome emblem is preceded by its particular god. In the top register each nome emblem is preceded by its particular god, while on the lower register Hapi and a kneeling female figure bear the emblems of "flooded land" and "agricultural territory" for the corresponding nome. The first god, or neter, is Ptah-handsome-in-contenance, who is upright and walking. His principal temple is in Memphis, or the place preeminent, also called "the scales of the Two Lands, because this location represents the dividing line between Upper and Lower Egypt. A female figure behind Ptah carries on her head the symbol of the first nome of Lower Egypt which was "the White Wall", where the triad of Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertum and the great deified sage, Imhotep, son of Ptah, were worshipped.

One of the Hathor headed capitals within the Opet Temple

Directly below, Hapi carries the symbol of the basin on his head, which signifies flooded land, designated here as chen-ur, "the great loop". A female figure is crowned with the name of agricultural territory, the "field of Re" Again looking at the upper register, Horus-who-rules-with-two-eyes preceded the symbol of the second nome of Lower Egypt, Letopolis, where the nape of Osiris's neck is preserved. It should be noted that a part of the dismembered body of Osiris was worshiped in each nome. While the scapula became symbolic of the second nome, the right leg, for example, was symbolic of the third nome where Hathor was the principal goddess. Now returning to the west side entrance to the temple, we find within a two columned chamber just before the sanctuaries. Here, the four faces of Hathor are carved on the abacus placed upon composite capitals decorated with four umbels, eight palm leaves and sixteen buds. The cartouche on the cornice of the doorway leading to the sanctuaries is in the name of Ptolemy VIII. Within, a doorway to the left provides access to the north lateral sanctuary, known as the "dwelling of User-menu", where the resurrection of Osiris is depicted. To the right is the south lateral sanctuary that Varille referred to as "the high seat of the linked souls", and at the back is the entrance to the axial sanctuary called the "dwelling of the Golden One", located above the Osirian chapel that connects the court of the temple of Khonsu.

Paving in this chamber opens into a well, and at the back is a niche, on the walls of which are depicted two forms of Opet.

Detail from the door to the north lateral sanctuary

On the north facade of the niche in this wall, the king wearing the red crown is standing before a bust of a hippopotamus on a pedestal of Ma'at. Here, an inscription reads: "The Great Opet [Universal Opet], who brings to life the Principles, mistress of Heaven, the vessel of the two Lands, she who sublimes the Waset". On the south facade, the king, wearing the white crown, is offering the clepsydra to a head of Hathor supported by a small column on a cubic pedestal, with the legend, "The Univeral Opet who brings to life the Principles, the vessel of the Neters [gods], she who sublimes in Waset. On the wall of the entrance to the north lateral sanctuary, just to the left of the doorway are carved the cartouches of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II and Cleopatra III. The Horus name of the king receives life from a seated Amun above the cartouche of Un-nefer-maa-kheru (Osiris Triumphant). Further left is a depiction of Isis wearing a vulture crown surmounted by two horns flanking a sun disk. Within this chamber, on the west wall, Ptolemy VII is offering the royal bondage to Osiris who resides in Thebes, followed by the feminine principle of Amun wearing the Red Crown.

Osiris waking from his bed

Osiris waking from his bed

However, the most important and famous scene is no the north wall. It depicts "Osiris who is at the heart of Waset" in the guise of a young man, stretched out on a lion shaped bed. He is in the process of waking up, and Varille explains that: "The neter is beginning to move, bending the right arm and lifting the left foot, below the bed's lion tail, which is very long and curved in a peculiar fashion. The horizontal legend specifies that this concerns 'this day of the bull Neg, regenerated (wab) in the marsh, brought to life by Mut, the Osiris who is within the temple of the Great Opet, on the west side of the temple of Khonsu....' This Osiris reborn is overshadowed, at the area of his thigh, by a composite bird that has the shape of the soul ba with the vulture body of Mut, the talons of the bird of the flood, and the bearded Amunian head with feathers. A counterweighted necklace goes around its neck. This flying creature is named 'Amun-Re, sublime soul of Osiris, that perches on his cadaver in the dwelling of his delivery'. It should be noted that the bird is endowed with a phallus, which gives this soul the power to emit a seed. As for the prone Osiris, presented as the counterpart of the bird, it appears very much to be an abstract of Khonsu who has been issued from the western darkness toward which the sanctuary of Opet opens, and who must be resuscitated in the east. The Ptolemaic temple of Opet therefore reveals, at the moment when Egypt is at its peak of initiation, the final phase of the generation of the Theban Khonsu, the son of Amun in Mut, Ptah become the royal man, in complete equilibrium. The decoration of the temple of Opet sums up all the principles of the natural work, from the times of the primordial ones to royal Khonus.

" Hence, the complete scene shows the four "primordial" couples, represented in the shapes of frogs and serpents, behind Isis and Nephthys, who are standing to either side of the waking Osiris. To the east are Nun and Nunet, Amun and Amunet, behind Isis, while to the west are Heh and Hehet, Kek and Keket, behind Nephthys. Across from the this chapel is the south lateral sanctuary, where, on the lintel of the doorway is written "The dwelling bau", which Varille translates as "the high seat of the linked souls. Crypts have been worked into the thickness of the north and south walls of this sanctuary.

The examination of their partitions with the aid of an ultra-violet light has revealed the existence of figures and texts that are totally invisible to the naked eye.

Interior facade of the Lintel in the South Chapel ion the Temple of Opet

Within this sanctuary we find the depiction of a female hippopotamus holding two knives in her paw, which is resting on the sa sign. This sign is reminiscent of gestation in the womb, which is the preeminent symbol for the protection of life. Above it is the guardian deity of the North, Wadjet, who has a cobra head on a vulture's body, with its wings extended. The guardian of the South, while in the center is the falcon, Horus, son of Isis, wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. He is emerging from a papyrus grove that recalls the marsh of Buto in which Isis secretly reared her son Horus to hide him from the pursuit of Seth. Horus is standing on the sma sign (to link or bind), around which are knotted the papyrus of the North and the reeds of the South. In summary, the Temple of Opet at Karnak is much more than a sanctuary for this god's worship. It became, during the Greek Period, an integral part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding Amun and Osiris. Admittedly, the symbolism and purpose for this temple is somewhat complex, it having been built as part of a complex temple system almost at the end of 3,000 years of theological evolution. However, the rich and interesting depictions recorded in this temple make it a worthy visit.






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