Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Page 25; Ancient Egypt's New Kingdom Temples

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A number of scholars now feel that the traditional division of ancient Egyptian temples temples into the categories of 'mortuary' and 'divine' is false one, arguing that the functions and symbolic characteristics of all ancient Egyptian temples were both too varied and too intertwined to support this distinction. Certainly, it would be a mistake to ignore the common elements which underlie the wide variety of temple structures which existed in Egypt; and hut or 'mansion' was the common term used by the ancient Egyptians for all types of temples. Also, because it was believed that the ancient Egyptian king became a god in the afterlife, any distinctions between divine and mortuary spheres necessarily blur in both theory and practice. 'Divine' temples often had mortuary significance and 'mortuary' temples often had divine associations. Nevertheless the distinction is perhaps too established to shake off easily and in some ways it may still be a useful one.

The ancient Egyptians themselves followed it to the extent that divine cult temples were usually referred temples was simply one of tenure. Although in theory they were established as temples of millions of years, many of the mortuary temples of the New Kingdom monarchs did not, in fact fare well in that regard: a number were deserted and used as quaries forstone even before the New Kingdom was over. The cults of the Egyptian gods tended to enjoy more continuity, but they too were not immune to turmoil and, sometimes, disaster.

During the Amarna Period the heretic king Akhenaten (1353 - 1333 BC) not only severely curbed the power of the burgeoning cult of Amun but also promulgated a system of worship in which the Aten solar disk was intended to supersede all other deities. Not even the Egyptian gods were safe from the agents of this king, and while the temple closures and suppressions of other deities may have been short lived, the scars of desecration are still visible in most of the major temples which have survived from the New Kingdom. In the years after Akhenaten's death thousands of names and images of Amun and other deities had to be recut into the temple walls from which they had been expunged, and thousands more remain in only hacked and chiselled outline.

If the Amarna Period can only be seen as a decisive downturn for the fortunes of most of ancient Egypt's cults of the following Ramessid era was characterized by recovery and unprecedented growth. Ramesses II (1290 - 1224 BC) is credited with building more to as 'mansions of the gods' and mortuary temples as 'mansions of millions of years' - an allusion perhaps to the desired continued cult of the deceased king. In practical reality, one of the greatest differences between the divine and mortuary temples than any other monarch in ancient Egypt history. Although none of his successors completed anything like the number of his monuments, temples continued to be built throughout the later New Kingdom. Perhaps more importantly for the cults themselves, the power and relative autonomy of the major temples - especially that of Amun at Karnak - recovered and grew steadily.