Meaning and Function of the Great Hypostyle Hall
Mansions of the Gods: Egyptian Temple Design
Egyptians called their temples "mansions of the gods" and considered them the deities'
houses. Like other Egyptian homes, most temples shared a three-part design consisting
An outer courtyard
A central public room
Private inner chambers
Visitors entered the house through a doorway in its walled outer courtyard that might
have a portico porch at one end resting on columns. Opposite the main entrance was
a second doorway leading to a roofed public room where homeowners received visitors
and carried out important family activities such as worship of the household's deities.
Even in modest houses, this public room had a high roof supported by at least one
pillar and small windows set high in the walls to admit sunlight. Behind this public
room lay the family's private quarters.
Most Ancient Egyptian temples possessed a hypostyle hall. Hypostyle is an Ancient
Greek term denoting a building having rows of columns supporting its roof. As befitting
a "divine mansion," Egyptian temples were imposing structures often built of stone
on a large scale. Some even had two or more hypostyles. Rather than one or two modest
wooden pillars, temple hypostyles usually boasted at least four stone columns. Usually,
temple columns mimicked the appearance of papyrus reed stalks, their capitals resembling
either closed floral buds or massive bell-shaped papyrus flowers in full bloom. Larger
hypostyles might be populated with a dozen or more columns.
Columns along the central axis were built taller than the rest to support a higher
roof in the central nave. The difference between the height of the nave and the side
aisles resulted in a design similar to ancient Roman basilicas and medieval Gothic
cathedrals and, like these structures, allowed their builders to insert windows in
an attic space called a clerestory.
|Diagram showing the layout of the Hypostyle Hall, with its columns, architraves and
A Model of the Universe
Ancient Egyptian temples were not just homes for the gods, they were also replicas
of the universe at the moment of creation. In Egyptian mythology, the universe emerged
from a vast cosmic ocean of nothingness. For countless eons, the creator-sun god Atum had drifted asleep in this primordial sea which the Egyptians called Nun. Eventually,
the creator god awoke and willed a small island to emerge from out of the cosmic sea.
From atop this hill, which the Egyptians called the mound of the "First Event," Atum
proceeded to call all things into existence starting with the male god Shu (the air) and the goddess Tefnut (moisture). Next came a third generation of deities in the form of the male earth
god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. After further generations, every feature of nature was born, each with a god or
goddess to govern it.
|Drawing of the layout of a typical Ancient Egyptian temple.
Egyptian temples were replicas of this early universe with inner sanctuaries representing the primeval
hill. As visitors moved from the outer courts, through the hypostyle hall and into
the holy of holies, the floor level gradually rose while the ceilings became lower.
It also became darker as the open roofed courts and the hypostyle halls with their
clerestory windows gave way to dark inner chambers with just one small light shaft
in the inner chapel to illuminate the god's cult statue. This confined and shadowy
atmosphere transported the visitors privileged enough to see the god in his home back
to the very beginning of time—but just a few priests and Pharaoh himself could enter
this holy of holies. Within this sacred model of space and time, a hypostyle hall
mimicked a thicket of papyrus reeds that grew in the swampy edges of the primeval
The Name of the Hypostyle Hall
Ancient Egyptian pharaohs always bestowed grand sounding names on their monuments,
and Sety I was no exception. Compounding it with his own royal name, the pharaoh dedicated
it as "The Divine Mansion (called): Sety-Beloved-of-Amun-is-Effective-in-the-Estate-of-Amun."
In fact, this was just one of a parallel set of Sety's temple foundations sharing
comparable titles. Just across the Nile River from Karnak lie the ruins of Sety I's
memorial temple at Gurnah. During the New Kingdom, each pharaoh dedicated his royal
memorial temple on the west bank of Thebes to his personal godhood and funerary cult,
and simultaneously, to his close association with Amun-Re. Gurnah Temple bears almost
the identical name as the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak, but with the added qualification
"On-the-West-of-Thebes." Like other royal memorial temples, Sety I's Gurnah shrine
operated as a satellite of Amun's main Karnak residence.
|The name of the Hypostyle Hall in hieroglyphs:
Ax %ty mr.n-Imn m pr Imn
"Effective is Sety-beloved-of-Amun in the estate of Amun."
At Karnak, Sety emblazoned the Hall's official sobriquet at several points throughout
the building. It turns up on the north gateway and in long dedicatory inscriptions
on the architrave beams atop columns in the central nave, and in religious scenes
on the walls and columns, various gods are said to dwell within the so-named building.
Amun-Re and the Theban Triad
Amunwas the chief god of ancient Thebes, and Karnak Temple was the most important of several
temples in the city dedicated to his worship. During the New Kingdom period (ca. 1550-1100
BCE), Amun was the most important deity in the Egyptian pantheon. His name means "The
Hidden One" and prior to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2055-1650 BCE), he was relatively
obscure. To mark his new prominence, his identity merged with that of the ancient
and prestigious sun god Re of Heliopolis in the north. The composite god Amun-Re then
became "King of the Gods," "Lord of Heaven" and "Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands"
to give only three of his many impressive titles.
|Examples of representations of Amun-Re in the Hypostyle Hall, with remnants of paint
showing his original blue skin (right).
Amun-Re appeared in two humanlike forms. In one he wears the typical costume of male
deity with a knee-length kilt and a corselet supported by shoulder straps. From the
top of his helmet-like crown emerge a pair of tall feathers, while a long red ribbon
dangles behind it. As with most gods, he grips a staff in one hand and an ankh symbolizing
his life-giving powers in the other. Amun's skin could be red, although by the end
of the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1300 BCE), it was usually blue and sometimes black;
to the Egyptians, both colors symbolized the abundant fertility of the Nile Valley's
In his alternate form, Amun closely resembles the fertility god Min. Like Min, he appears wrapped in a tight fitting white garment and resembles a mummy.
Both gods personify masculine sexual potency. Reflecting his procreative aura, this
fertile avatar is often entitled Amun-Kamutef, meaning "Amun-the-Bull-of-His-Mother."
In other words, he is the self-created god who metaphorically impregnated his own
|Amun-Re in his ithyphallic form (left) and as a ram-headed deity (right).
Projecting from his wrappings, his erect penis is Amun's most unique attribute in
this incarnation, underlining his fertility. Resembling a mummy, his legs and feet
are bound so closely together that he seems to have just one. Amun-Kamutef holds one
arm aloft, which in two-dimensional wall scenes appears to be raised behind his head;
in reality, he extends it to his right side as three-dimensional sculptures make clear.
His hand points straight up, balancing a flail-scepter on his fingertips. His headdress
is identical to that of his alter ego, with tall plumes as its defining feature. Sometimes
he lacks the helmet crown and has a skullcap. A headband then secures the quills of
his tall plumes to his head, fashioned from the same long ribbon that dangles behind
Amun, Mut, and Khonsu
Ancient Egyptian priests often divided their many gods into family groups of three,
called Triads. In ancient Thebes, the local Triad consisted of Amun-Re along with
his consort goddess Mut and their son Khonsu. Mut-the-Great, "The Great Mother," was par excellence a maternal goddess while her
son Khonsu personified the moon. Mut resembles a human female wearing a tight-fitting
dress, long wig, and the vulture cap of a queen. Resting atop her vulture crown, a
royal Double Crown is Mut's defining attribute, a combination of the Red Crown of
Upper Egypt and the White Crown of Lower Egypt, otherwise restricted to Pharaoh himself.
Mut sometimes appears as a woman with a lioness's head wearing a large solar disk
encircled by a uraeus-cobra as her crown.
|The Theban Triad: Amun-Re enthroned, accompanied by a lion-headed Mut and their son
Khonsu (left), and an example of Mut in her more common human form (right).
|Relief of Ramesses IV showing Mut in her human form, with a vulture headdress and
Double Crown (left) and Mut with the head of a lioness wearing a solar disc (right).
Khonsu possesses a variety of forms. Most often he is mummiform man with a shaved
head and side-lock of hair symbolizing his youth. He may also appear as a falcon-headed
man, but in any case he wears both a crescent moon and a full lunar disk on his head.
Less commonly, he may appear in the guise of the moon god Thoth with an Ibis head or as a clone of the falcon god Monthu, a falcon-headed man with a solar disk, two tall ostrich feathers and a pair of uraeus-cobras
on his head.
| Different representations of the god Khonsu, in his more common human form (left)
and as a falcon headed deity (right).
Amun-Re had a second female consort separate from the Theban Triad. This "other woman"
in his life was a female alter-ego called Amunet, "The Female Amun." She appears in a typical goddess dress wearing the Red Crown
of Lower Egypt. Unlike Mut and Khonsu, Amunet did not enjoy a separate temple of her
own within the Karnak complex.
|Amunet with her characteristic Red Crown.
Festivals and the Royal Cult
Like the public room in any house, the Great Hypostyle Hall provided a venue for an
assortment of activities. Dedication texts on the architraves provide us with terms
the Ancient Egyptians used to describe the Hall and its function. Although the main
sanctuary buildings pertaining to the cult of Amun-Re—mostly dating to the Eighteenth
Dynasty—lay further to the east, the Ramesside kings considered the Great Hall to
be a "divine mansion," or temple, in its own right. What, then, was its purpose? The
Great Hypostyle belonged to a class of temples the Egyptians called "Mansions of Millions
of Years." In such buildings they celebrated not just the cult of gods like Amun-Re,
but that of the pharaoh deified.
|Sety I receiving jubilees from Re-Horakhty and Weret-Hekau.
In practice, Egyptian devotion to Amun and Pharaoh were not separate, but intimately
linked through complex theology and ritual practice. Annual religious celebrations
best exemplify this sacred connection, chief among them "The Beautiful Festival of
Opet" and "The Beautiful Festival of the Valley." During both of these grand yearly
feasts, Amun, Mut, and Khonsu left Karnak to "visit" nearby shrines.
|Ramesses II censing before the divine bark of Amun-Re.
Sacred Barks and Divine Rest Stations
Central to these festivals were magnificent processions in which priests transported
the golden, bejeweled cult statues of the gods within a type of portable shrine. Taking
the form of miniature boats called sacred barks, these model vessels were covered
in gold foil and encrusted with precious gemstone inlays of lapis lazuli, turquoise,
and carnelian. Each deity had his or her own sacred bark which priests transported
over land on platforms with several long carrying poles. Two impressive figureheads
at the prow and stern of each bark identified its owner. Amun's bark had ram's head
figureheads since that animal was sacred to him, Mut had a woman's head fore and aft,
each wearing the Double Crown, and Khonsu had falcon's heads with lunar crescents
|The procession of Amun-Re's divine bark. Relief from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut.
Festival processions departed from the inner sanctum of Karnak and advanced along
sacred avenues towards Luxor Temple or to waiting river barges that conveyed them further upriver to Luxor or across
the Nile to the royal memorial temples on the West Bank of Thebes. Occasionally, the
gods—not to mention the priests supporting them—needed to rest from the heat and dust
of their tiring journeys. Many pharaohs, therefore, kindly provided them with convenient
resting shrines along the way. Never missing a chance for self-promotion, the king
would name the wayside shelters after himself and would remind the gods of his piety
in temple inscriptions and representations describing them. For example, scenes on
the "Red Chapel" of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (ruled ca. 1473-1358 BCE) at Karnak depict several wayside shrines that she erected
between the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor.
|Depiction of a wayside shrine built by Hatshepsut. Relief from her Red Chapel.
Egyptian gods and priests were apparently never in a hurry to reach their destinations,
nor did they pass up any opportunity for taking advantage of these resting areas.
Scarcely had Amun-Re left his sanctum when he came to rest from his exertions on his
very own front doorstep. The great First Court of Karnak possesses at least three
resting shrines built by the pharaohs Sety II (late 19th Dynasty 19), Ramesses III (early 20th Dynasty), and Taharqa (25th Dynasty) for the use of sacred barks and their priestly cortège. The first of these
resting shrines both in date and location was built by Sety I, who intended that his
Great Hypostyle Hall should grant Amun-Re a rest stop before he had even left his
own "living room." Architrave dedication texts in its nave describe the Hall as "a resting place" and a "place
of appearance for the Lord of the Gods (i.e. Amun), with Mut and Khonsu following
him, to rest in his monument." Sety claims he built it as "a beautiful resting-place
for the Divine Conclave in which Amun may repose and as a place of appearance for
the Lord of the Gods during his yearly festival." Inscriptions such as these emphasize
the key role the Great Hypostyle Hall played in the grand sacred promenades at the
heart of major celebrations like the Opet and Valley Festivals.
The Royal Bark
Accompanying the sacred barks of the Theban Triad on these festival outings was a
fourth shoulder-borne model vessel consecrated to the reigning king. Pharaoh himself
possessed an indwelling divine spirit closely linked to Amun-Re who, it was believed,
had actually fathered him. Although every pharaoh was considered Amun-Re's progeny,
this mythology was articulated most explicitly in the "Divine Birth" inscriptions
of King Amenhotep III (ruled ca. 1390-1352 BCE) at Luxor Temple and those of Queen Hatshepsut in her memorial
temple at Deir el-Bahari in Western Thebes. As with the gods themselves, perambulation of the king's cult
statue in his sacred bark was integral to the Opet Festival and Valley Festival, both
of which celebrated the mystical connection between Amun-Re and the king. At Luxor
Temple during Opet, their spirits temporarily melded as one, recharging both of their
mystical energies for another year.
|Representation of the king's processional bark, as indicated by its aegis showing
a king's head wearing a nemes head cloth and an elaborate hemhem crown. Relief from
the Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple.
Sety I and Ramesses II commanded elaborate scenes to be added to the Hypostyle Hall's
walls depicting the journey of the divine and royal sacred barks during these festivals.
Accompanying them are hieroglyphic captions describing their royal piety in carrying
Amun's bark on their own shoulders during processions and in constructing the Hypostyle
Hall as monumental infrastructure for these festivities.
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