Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements - Associated Element

Ancient Egyptian Temple Elements
Part V: Associated Element

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

A temple complex was virtually never constructed in isolation, for most at least needed an estate in order to survive at all. In fact, the temple itself was almost always surrounded by other support facilities, or facilities needing support from the temple. Some of the structures were directly related to religious functions of the temple, while others were more administrative in nature. Unfortunately, many such structures, such as the Sanatoria, the House of Life, storage and support facilities, were built of mudbrick and are therefore significantly deteriorated.


The mammisi, which is often referred to as a birth house and considered by some to be a temple in its own rite, was certainly a structure with considerable religious significance, especially for the king. This term, which is actually a coptic word for "birth-place", was originally invented for the structure by Jean Francois Champollion. Located within the temple precinct and often oriented at right angles to the main temple axis, this type of structure was associated with the mysterious birth of the gods and the celebration of their births. Particularly in New Kingdom mammisis, the divine birth of the king might also be celebrated. While the birth of a god, such as Horus the Younger was primary in the mammisi, the king's divine relationship with the gods is also frequently stressed.

Mammisis were very common in the Greek and Roman period, when they were present in all known, major temples, but their origin was probably Egypt's Late Period. However, their appears, evidenced by 18th Dynasty reliefs describing the divine birth of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri and that of Amenhotep III at Luxor, to have been earlier counterparts.

The best known mammisi is associated with the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, which was dedicated to Ihy (the son of Hathor and Horus). This mammisis was built by Augustus, but not decorated until the reign of Trajan. This particular structure is especially useful, for its inscriptions and decorative theme provide explanations and information on mammisis. At Dendera there was also an earlier birth house begun by Nectanebo I during the 30th dynasty, while other such structures are known by us at Philae, celebrating the birth of Horus, Kom Ombo, for the birth of Panebtawy and Edfu, celebrating the birth of Harpre.

The best preserved of these is the frontal part of the mammisi at Edfu and the rear section of that at Dendera. From these, we see a somewhat unique architectural style, at least from the Greek and Roman Periods, where an entrance vestibule opens into a relatively shortened building. Surrounding this room, a peristyle structure with screen like walls between the columns, might also be erected.

The decorative theme within these structures was obviously related to the birth of a god and his or her godly parents. Hymns were often included but text might describe the complete act of procreation, from the courtship of the parent deities through the birth and presentation of their child. In the mammisi located in the Temple of Hathor celebrating the birth of Ihy even depicts his formation on the potter's wheel.

However, these birth houses did not just depict the divine child and parents, but often included other associated deities, who were frequently portrayed in the act of praising the young god. Bes was frequently carved in relief on the abaci of the columns, and in several birth houses, Hathor is not only the goddess of motherhood, but is also shown in her role as goddess of music and intoxication.

Sacred Lakes

We believe that most temple precincts included a sacred lake. Archaeologists have excavated a number of these, and therefore we know that at least from the New Kingdom times, these lakes were rectangular in shape with straight, or sometimes with sides that were slightly curved inward. However, other forms of sacred lakes existed as well, such as the horseshoe shaped pool (known as an isherw-water) that enclosed the main buildings in the sacred precinct of Mut at Karnak. Another form, which was the pool that completely surrounded the main cult place called the Osireion at Abydos and also encircled the shrines of the Maru-Aten at el-Amarna.

These lakes were usually cut deep enough to take advantage of the underlying ground water and then lined with stone. On the side of the lake facing the actual temple complex, a stairway was included in order to reach the level of the water, which could vary at different times of the year.

Sacred, or divine lakes (pools), were known to the Egyptians as shi-netjer (she netjeri), but they were also provided with individual names like most major elements of the temple complex. They usually functioned on both a symbolic and practical level. Physically, they could provide the priests of the temple with a reservoir of water to bath in at dawn before entering the temple to begin their day's work, as well as a source of water for ritual purification and offerings.

But symbolically, the lake was an important piece in the ancient Egyptian's concept of creation. It was from the primeval waters that life first arose, and each morning as the sun got was renewed each morning, the Aten (sun disk) would rise above the sacred lake, representing in a tangible manner the same underlying forces of life and creation. Furthermore, at Karnak, special pens which held geese would allow the birds to escape each morning through a narrow tunnel on to the surface of the lake. The goose was one of the great god Amun's forms in his role as creator. There were, of course, also sacred lakes associated with the cult of Sobek, that held crocodiles. Other ritualistic ceremonies such as those associated with the resurrection of Osiris at Sais were also performed on the shores of that temple's divine lake.

Of the sacred lakes that are known to us, the one at the Temple of Karnak (by far the largest) is notable, for it has been cleaned and flooded in order to give us an idea as to the original appearance of this element of the temple precinct.


Ancient Egyptian life revolved around the level of the Nile river. It's high floods bought fertile growth to the Nile Valley, and when the flood was lacking, so was the abundance that Egyptians came to expect. In order to measure the height of the river and thus predict when the flood would arrive, an open or well-like gauge was used at sites from Aswan (Elephantine) to Memphis, and later deep within Nubia at the second and fourth cataracts (rapids). There gauges were known as Nileometers, and the records of concerning the level of the Nile were archived, which have at times been instrumental in various type of analysis by Egyptologists.

Varying considerably in size, the Nileometer usually consisted of measuring steps at the water's edge but could be entirely open, or flanked by walls, sometimes with a roof. They could consist of only a few steps, or like have as many as ninety, such as the one on Elephantine Island at modern Aswan which was built during the Roman Period. Many temples had their own Nileometers, which were obviously not only important gauges of Nile flood levels, but of the god's favor (and the king's performance in his role as intermediary god) as well. For example, on the island of Philae, there were two such structures within only a few hundred meters of each other, one descending down a cliff from the colonnade near the temple of Nectanebo I on the southwest corner of the island, while another further to the north was near a Greek Period mammisi. Obviously there was no real world need for two Nileometers in such close proximity to one another.

It should be noted that the Nilometer, while connected with aspects of the ancient Egyptian religion, continued to be an important device long after the last temple was closed. For example, there is an Islamic Nilometer dating to about 705 to 715 AD at Geziret el-Rhoda in Cairo, and in 1870, the Khedive Ismail had the one at Elephantine repaired for practical use.


A sanatoria was basically the very ancient equivalent of a medical (or magical) clinic (with hospital attributes), where the sick or injured could come to seek healing from the gods and perhaps, the wisdom of the priests and scholars of the temple. Unfortunately, few such structures remain, though there are ruins at several temples that are thought to perhaps be sanatorias (including one at Hatshepsut's temple on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor). However, in the Graeco-Roman Period temple at Dendera dedicated to Hathor we do find a clear example of this structure. In fact, that sanatoria was probably very important and it developed a reputation for healing, drawing people from great distances due to Hathor's reputation as a goddess of compassion.

The sanatoria at Dendera consisted of many chambers where the sick rested while they awaited the dreams that might bring divine prescriptions for their recovery. Within this sanatoria was a central courtyard where temple priests would pour water over statues that had been inscribed with magical texts, allowing the magic to pass into the water. This was then given to the sick for drinking or bathing.

It is entirely possible that the Sanatoria may have been partially connected with the "house of life", for there we find the study of medicine in ancient Egypt.

The House of Life

The institutions associated with the ancient temples and known to the Egyptians as per ankh, or "house of life", were nothing less then the forerunners of our modern universities, though they probably also served as an administrative archive of the temple complex as well. They were a central point of concentration for scribes and ancient scholars. We know from documentary evidence of these institutions at Memphis, Akhmim, Abydos, Koptos, Esna and Edfu, though there must certainly have been one located at Thebes. However, archeological evidence of their existence is rare, though we have bricks stamped with the words "per ankh" that were discovered at el-Amarna.

The precise relationship between the temple and the "house of life" is not entirely known, for they certainly also had an important role within the palace court. Some of these institutions may have developed somewhat independently, while others may have had a close relationship with the temple complexes.

Regardless, the per ankh certainly functioned as a scriptorium, where religious and magical texts associated with the cult of the gods were written, copied, collated, edited and archived in the associated House of Books (per medjat). Many of the texts that were created or copied and archived in the "house of life" were considered sacred as they dealt with divinely revealed matters, called by the ancient Egyptians, the ba re, meaning the "soul" or "emanation" of Re. All manner of cult text were produced, including mythical and theological treaties, texts used in the recitations performed at temple rituals and the master text that would later be inscribed on the the temple walls, obelisks and other architectural elements. In this regard, the priests and officials of the "house of life" may have even been concerned in a supervisory role with the work of temple craftsmen.

It may have been in these institutions, from the New Kingdom onward, that copies of the Book of the Dead were produced, perhaps sometimes individually for important individuals, and as templates to be personalized later with an individual's name. Such books were considered to be divinely inspired in much the same way that the scriptures of our modern faiths of today. However, in addition to religious text, it is thought that a separate area of the per ankh, or perhaps within a separate building attached to it, temple accounts, contracts, correspondence and other temple records were also archived, and in fact, all manner of secular information may have been stored within these institutions.

With his boast that he had studied all the texts of the per ankh in order to discover the secrets of the gods, Ramesses IV implies that the institution was regarded as a center of learning in every aspect. Perhaps more encompassing, the Priest Pa-ti-Ist , who was selected to accompany the Pharaoh Pasammetichus (Psamtik) II on this expedition to Syria was told, "Look, you are a scribe of the House of Life, there is nothing on which you could be questioned to which you would not find an answer!" This statement seems to imply a vast coverage of both secular and religious knowledge associated with the per ankh.

Indeed, the "house of life" appears to have not only been a place where religious texts were copied and archived but also a center for scholarly learning in many fields. It was here that priests and scribes studied subjects such as writing, art, theology, rituals, magic, astronomy, law, mathematics and medicine, among others. And while there may have been no classrooms, it is likely that children of the royal court and other elite may have received instructions in these fields as well.

As libraries, with their wide collection of knowledge, they became famous throughout the world. For example, in the 2nd Century AD, the medical writer Galen tells us that Greek physicians visited the library of per ankh at Memphis to learn from its texts. In fact, there is little doubt that the most famous institution of learning during ancient times, the Library of Alexandria, was modeled after the more ancient per ankh.

Support Facilities

Larger temples might literally employ thousands of people in various capacities, and around these institutions, various industries matured. Often within the temple's perimeter walls, they supplied the real world needs of the cult, as well as offerings to the gods, and could include slaughterhouses, bakeries and kitchens, breweries workshops and artistic studios. They might produce everything from bread to furniture and even the floral arrangements and other gifts for the gods.

The Temple Estate

Temples were endowed by the kings of Egypt, an arrangement that gave the pharaoh, as well as the temple, considerable power. These estates were used to both fund the temple operations, as well as provide the personnel with their basic necessities. The endowments included agricultural land near the temple complex, but might encompass considerably more complex holdings. The estate would almost certainly include farm land, but might also consist of vineyards and orchards, gardens and even quarries and mines as well as areas such as marshlands, all for the temple's use.

While these estates were most often adjacent to the temple, the could at times be remotely located as well. For example, during the New Kingdom, the Temple of Seti I controlled large areas even south of the second cataract in Nubia.

Storage Facilities

Granaries were an important storage area for most temple complexes. The usually consisted of independent or a series of adjacent silos made from mud or mudbrick. Independent silos were usually arranged in groups of two to five, arranged in a square courtyard.

Besides the products of the temple estate and items produced in the temple workshops and other facilities, temples also received gifts and offerings brought in from outside sources. Hence, not only were granaries needed to store the yield from the temple's agricultural land, but other various types of storage facilities might also be needed. These structures were often located behind the temple in the vicinity of a roadway. Others, particularly those associated with mortuary complexes, were frequently build around the temple within its enclosure, a feature probably due to their isolation.

Interestingly, while these facilities might at first seem to be a relatively secular component of the temple complex, they often had religious aspects as well. Our knowledge of the religious activities surrounding these storage facilities is highly lacking, but for example, we know that Granaries were often the site of specific religious rituals. Various New Kingdom tomb scenes show offerings that were made to gods at granaries, and specifically at the granary of Amun at Karnak, there is a relief depicting Hapi making offerings of to the grain and harvest goddess Renenutet. Perhaps such ceremonies predate the modern religious concept of tithing, which might induce the various gods to allow a bountiful crop.

Even at other storage facilities we find evidence of cult activity. A stone dais adjacent to the magazines at the end of the portico along the facade of the Ramesseum on the West Bank at Thebes, as well as another in the court next to the magazines of the mortuary temple of Seti I at Abydos appear to include features that might have been related to cult activities.

The Living Quarters

From the above discussion, it is clear that priests were far from the only members of the temple complex staff. There were ordinary field hands, administrators, scholars and scribes, artists, bakers, warehousemen and others. Many of these people might reside in local villages, but others, and specifically the priests as well as high officials and administrators, often lived in housing on the temple estate, or sometimes even within the temple walls. At times, in association with huge temple complexes, such developments could constitute entire villages.

See Also:

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011






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