Egyptian Temples and Tombs

During the earliest dynasties in ancient Egypt, from about 3000 B.C.E. onwards, royal burials, increased steadily in size and complexity. However, it is the construction of huge pyramids that tor most people epitomizes ancient Egyptian burial customs and captures the imagination.

Large stone architecture first appeared during the Third Dynasty (twenty-seventh century B.C.) in the form of the 77-meter- (254 foot-)high stepped pyramid at Saqqara, some ten kilometers (six miles) south of modern Cairo. Pyramid building reached its peak (after some initial shortcomings) during the fourth Dynasty lib 13-2494 B.C.E.) with the construction of the famous Pyramids of Giza. Pyramids actually formed part of complexes, typically built on the edge of the desert plateau above the fertile river valley where they would dominate the surrounding landscape yet remain inaccessible to the masses: they were enclosed, together with other sacred structures, within a high wall. The precinct interior could only be reached by means of a covered causeway leading up from a separate temple in the valley, accessible by boat.

The subsequent Fifth Dynasty is particularly characterized by the construction of temples dedicated to the sun god, Ra (or Re). The pharaoh's power depended upon sun worship, and these "sun sanctuaries" followed the design of the mortuary complexes in having two enclosed precincts on different levels linked by a causeway. Six of the nine pharaohs of the Filth Dynasty built temple complexes; the best preserved is that built by the sixth pharaoh, Neuserre, at Abu Ghurab .All of this happened during Old Kingdom limes, up to the mid-twenty-second century B.C.E. Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for a further two millennia, its complex history including periods of political instability and social upheaval as well as two further periods of relative stability: the Middle Kingdom (mid-twenty-first century to mid-seventeenth century) and the New Kingdom (mid-sixteenth century to mid-eleventh century). Monumental tombs and temples proliferated in these later times, but they were generally more modest and not just the preserve of the kings themselves. However, the New Kingdom has left us some spectacular remains in the vicinity of its sacred capital, Thebes, some five hundred kilometers (three hundred miles) upriver to the south of Cairo, near modern Luxor. Amun (or Anion), the patron god of Thebes, had become identified with the existing sun god Ra. and the Great Temple of Anmn-Ra at Karnak provided a spectacular setting at the heart of the city for public ceremonials relating to the sun god.

On the opposite side of the river is the so-called Valley of the Kings, which contains over sixty underground pharaohs' tombs, including the famous (because it was discovered intact) tomb of Tutankhamun.
The most obvious clues to astronomical associations of temples and tombs are found in the inscriptions within them. A number of New Kingdom tombs and temples, for example, contain painted "astronomical ceilings," listing and depicting stars, constellations, and even planets. But why should these be placed inside tombs? The answer is that ancient Egyptians' understanding of the sky was framed within a worldview that bound together inextricably the gods, the otherworld Dual, the afterlife, and what was seen in the night sky. lt had long been engrained in ancient Egyptian minds that the sun god Ra traveled nightly through Duat, the world beyond the horizon, on his journey to the eastern side where the sky goddess Nut would give birth to him once again. Similarly, most of the stars in the sky disappeared from view for a period of some weeks in the year, between their heliacal set and heliacal rise; during this rime they too were understood to pass through Duat.

Likewise, the deceased were required to pass through the twelve parts of the underworld in order to join the gods in the sky. As far back as Old Kingdom times, pharaohs' tombs contained sets of spells known as pyramid texts that were designed to ensure a safe passage. Circumpolar stars, on the other hand, were immortal: ever present in the night sky, they never crossed the horizon into Duat, never died, and were never reborn. It was these stars that the human soul, striving for immortality, endeavored to join.
These beliefs, and especially the deep importance attached to the north direction with its imperishable stars, may well have given rise to a practice during Old Kingdom times of aligning tombs and temples with the cardinal directions.


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