Understanding the Difference Between Cult and Mortuary Temples

I got asked a question by a guest who stayed at Flats in Luxor, we were looking at the temple of Hatshepsut which you can see from the balcony. It was perfectly answered by an essay I had to do and he suggested I share it.

What are the differences and similarities between a cult temple and a royal mortuary temple of the New Kingdom?

It is surprising that the terminology used by Egyptologists for many years, to describe the temples, is actually quite difficult to define; this seems to be a recognised problem. There are also slight variations on these terms such as divine instead of cult and memorial instead of mortuary. Should they even be used?

The ancient Egyptians refer to the two varieties of temple differently, “Mansion of Millions of Years” (Hwt-n t-HH-m-mp.wt), for mortuary temples and “Mansion of the God” (hwt-nTr) for the cult temple, but without defining what is actually meant by the terms. Traditional differentiations such as mortuary temples being situated on the west bank and cult temples on the east don’t help as there are examples of both on the opposite sides. Some kings also built more than one temple of each type on a different side of the river. For example Tuthmosis III built a Temple of Millions of years at Karnak, on the East Bank, the so called Festival Hall; he also built on the West Bank in the northern Assasif. This temple is also called a Temple of a Million of Years. He also built at Deir el Bahri and dedicated that temple to Amun, so that is an example of a cult temple on the West Bank.

To use the area devoted to the royal mortuary cult as a definition as to whether the temple is a mortuary temple is also problematic. Can the Gurna temple of Seti I seriously be called a mortuary temple when the royal cult is a tiny part off the back of the building which is reached by exiting the temple proper and going down the side to the back on the southern wall. Whereas the main temple has chapels to Osiris, Ptah, Amun, Mut and Khonsu as well as a sun altar which are so much bigger and more prominent. Then there are temples like the Seti I temple at Abydos which, although it does have a chapel dedicated to Seti I, it also has numerous other chapels, which precludes us from saying that if the temple has a chapel to the king, no matter what size, that makes it a mortuary temple. The temple at Abydos is a very special cult temple to Osiris. Consequently, actually defining what is a mortuary or cult temple is fraught with difficulties.

Thankfully for the purposes of this essay other sources are more willing to come down on one side of the fence. The cult temple is the easiest for us to understand for it is the place where a particular god or gods resided and where cultic activities took place, which we might term worship. The mortuary temple, in contrast, was the royal version of the mortuary chapels attached to private tombs, and it’s most basic purpose was to provide offerings for the use of the dead king and to ensure his beneficial survival in the afterlife. So for our purposes we can take this simplified definition. Indeed the very first mortuary temple built by Hatshepsut was built on the eastern side of the monument surrounding the tomb mimicking the Old Kingdom mortuary temple on the side of a pyramid. It was just that her structure was the rather large natural mountain.

It wasn’t until the New Kingdom that temples were built of stone. Our knowledge of what preceded them or how the design came about is necessarily slim as their predecessors do not survive. Kemp suggests that temple history and design can be categorized as Early Formal, Mature Formal and Late Formal. The temples of the New Kingdom come into the Mature Formal category. It is probable that the layout was similar to earlier temples; there must have always been a special sacred area where the statue of the God resided. This was at a higher level than the rest of the area and the later design of slightly ascending floor level copies this.

It seems as though the overall plan was loosely defined and the selection of, and number of elements, courtyard, hall and sanctuary, was a matter of personal choice. The mortuary temple used these same elements, open courtyard, hypostyle halls, sanctuary, in the same order making the cult temple the inspiration for the mortuary temple. The temple did not only consist of the temple proper but all the ancillary buildings, gardens, storage, workshops and housing. See Fig 1. So both secular and divine requirements could be met. Processional ways, although outside the temple boundaries are an important part of the overall design, where God met the people even if he was hidden in the barque shrine. The temple precinct overall design was also not rigid, although various elements are generally incorporated. For example although it has been diligently searched for, no sacred lake or well has been found at the Ramasseum. So each king would select or emphasis elements he favoured.

As well as following the pattern of a house the temple also followed the design of world around them. Ceilings are covered in stars, columns take the form of papyrus and lotus and maybe that the undulating walls may have been built to mimic the waters of Nun and that the pylons represent the hieroglyph for the horizon. Orientation is generally East to West although there are occasional exceptions like Luxor temple. This meant that the sun would rise and set between the pylons.

The external decoration of the temple shows what the king wanted people to know about him and the internal what he wanted the Gods to know about him. The front of the pylon often shows war like scenes. The king smiting his enemies is a common theme and carries the hidden meaning of the king subduing external chaos in his role of upholder of Maat. The pylons at Karnak have many examples of this. Another common scene is the king being heroic and warlike in a chariot firing arrows against enemies. Various gods accompany the scenes, often the God of the cult temple, a recording God like Thoth or Seshat or an alternative warlike God like Neith or Sekhmet. Often there is a list of captive towns and this would have added a propaganda advantage.

Within the temple the king would be shown making offerings to the Gods, both the God of the temple and other Gods in the pantheon. At one and the same time the king is showing reverence for the Gods and the Gods would be rewarding the king for this act of devotion. Important events in the king’s life are often recorded. For example the coronation of the king, examples are at Medinet Habu and Karnak.

The function of a cult temple was to provide a hidden place for the statue of the god and a place of theatre. The temple was a possible site(s) of a Heb Seb or coronation celebration but most importantly it was the house of the God, where he/she resided, where offerings were received, incense burnt, specific clothing worn, dances performed and the God revitalised. Cult temples could be at a national or local level, national ones could host functions like the coronation of the king or his Heb Seb festival.

It was also important for the king to be seen to build temples. The king had to be seen to be offering to the Gods in perpetuity.

Our use of the word priest carries much baggage from our own culture, for example it implies pastoral care of the congregation, teaching the theology and rites of passage such as christenings. These were not aspects of the role of an Egyptian priest. He was a servant to the God and his role was to serve the god. Just like a servant in an ordinary house.

What are the differences and similarities between a mortuary temple and a cult temple? A mortuary temple has a chapel for the benefit of the king and the royal ka. This mortuary temple is the place for offerings and the temple itself is based cult temples. This does not have to be the prime or only function of the temple but can be restricted to a small part of the temple like that of Seti I. The design however is the same for both temples selecting one or more of the various elements from all the possible ones for both temple complex and the actual building.

There are also other, less important differences as well. Rather than God related heads to the sphinxes, such as rams headed sphinxes at Karnak and Luxor temples there are jackal headed sphinxes. Merenptah and Ramses II had dozens of these at their temples and there are still examples on site. There is often a temple palace attached to a mortuary temple. This was not where the king lived but merely a summer house or picnic hut used during ceremonies held at the temple as there were no kitchens.

So it is the function that is different in the two types of temple, not the design, location or elements and this function can be limited to a small part of the temple

A good example of a mortuary temple is the temple of Seti I. The gateway of the first pylon is made from limestone and is decorated. It has two open courtyards with a possible roofed colonnade leading to a portico with three entrances. To the left or southern side of the first courtyard is a small temple palace. It has two entrances and in the middle there is a pillared hall with a flight of steps leading to a window of appearances. These windows allowed the king to appear to selected individuals surrounded by scenes showing power and majesty, often to present costly rewards such as collars of gold.

The second courtyard is at a higher level than the first courtyard and is the Heb Seb courtyard. This courtyard is surrounded by a wall. The right (most northern) entrance leads to an open area with an altar used for the worship of the sun. The central entrance leads to a hypostyle hall with a number of side rooms. Side chapels show the king offering or having libations poured over him.

This then leads to 5 chapels dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khonsu, the Theban triad, with the addition of chapels to Osiris and Ptah. These chapels are decorated with pictures of the barque shrine and the king making offerings to it. Above the entrances are pictures of the god to whom the chapel is dedicated. The central area was decorated with 2 goddesses suckling the king and many scenes to celebrate the ‘Beautiful Feast of the Valley’. Seti’s temple would have been the first stop on the west bank in this important festival. The King is invariable shown bowing, kneeling or inclined before the gods. The temple lines up with Karnak temple and from the hill behind the temple the first pylon is clearly visible. The hill surmounting the Valley of kings dominates the temple

The left hand or southern entrance leads to a chapel dedicated to Ramses I, who never had time to build his own mortuary temple. To the rear of this sub temple are some fine false doors. Exiting the chapel at the side and going to the back behind the false doors of the Ramses I temple area there is a further chapel for the royal mortuary cult. This is the part that makes it different to a cult temple; there was a specific area where offerings could be made to the king who was buried in the Valley of Kings. The entrance halls are interconnected. The sanctuary floor is higher than those preceding it and the roof is lower, the smallest, darkest place. The roof of the temple has footprints carved into the floor so this must have had some significance.

The temple of Khonsu at Karnak is an excellent example of a cult temple as the design is cohesive being executed by a limited number of kings Ramses III, IV and XII. When there are a lot of kings involved in the design, like at Karnak, the design is harder to see as there are so many additions and reworking. The gateway should be ignored as it is outside the time period being Ptolemaic.

The temple is connected to the both the Temple of Mut and Luxor temple by an avenue of sphinxes leading to a pylon. The axis is south/north which is probably dictated by the need to line up with Luxor temple via the avenue of sphinxes. A similar axial alteration was made at Luxor temple by Ramses II,

This avenue would have hosted the processions between the various temples and an opportunity for the populous to see the barque containing the statue of the God. Inside the pylon is a staircase leading to the top and several ‘windows’ can be seen at the top.

Behind the pylon there is just one open courtyard with a roofed colonnade, the columns are closed papyrus bud capitals. A set of steps lead to the hypostyle hall, which is lit by celestory windows and contains examples of open papyrus capitals. The columns support a higher central roof with closed bud capitals which support the side roof. The celestory windows are built in to the side wall between the high central roof and the side roofs. The temple further ascends until the area of the barque shrine and ambulatory around it. As the temple floor ascends the roof level descends. Leading off, in the south east corner, is a stairway leading to the roof which has a chapel. There are side rooms and at the back in the smallest, darkest place, the sanctuary.

The interior decoration is of the king making offerings to a selection of gods and barques of the gods, not just to Khonsu. Only the ambulatory and inner chapels were decorated by kings of the New Kingdom, principally Ramses III and Ramses IV. The Theban triad dominate but the other moon god, Thoth is also present. Khonsu is shown both as a falcon headed god with a moon crescent and a young boy with a forelock of youth and moon insignia

There are also important iconic images like the king receiving libations and unification of the two lands. The outside of the pylon is not decorated but if finished would have no doubt show the king smiting his enemies or a similar war like portrayal. The temple would have had a number of statues and there are still some remaining including a baboon which is associated with moon and sun gods.

In conclusion there is no or little difference in design or decoration between a mortuary and cult temple, just the function. Elements such as pylons, courtyards, sanctuaries could appear in both