On the West Bank in Luxor many of the New Kingdom pharaohs built their mortuary temples. These would be vehicles both for the worship of the King after he died and became a God and additionally they were cult temples. They were used for events like the Feast of the Valley. Thereby ensuring continuity of worship at the temple, for many hundreds of years.
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It is interesting to contrast the styles of the various pharaohs and the condition of the temples today. For this very personal and subjective analysis I have chosen the mortuary temples of Seti I, Rameses II and Merenptah. The nice thing about these three temples is that they have few visitors. After trying to view Hatshepsut’s temple with its hoards of chattering tourists following the harassed tour guides with their umbrellas and clip boards. It is pleasant to be in a different tour of Egypt, to stand in the quiet and be the only tourist admiring the site.
I love the temple of Seti I; it is one of my favourite sites. You get a picture of a very religious man from this temple. Anxious to adore the Gods as much as possible. A filial man who honoured his own father within the complex, providing him with the mortuary temple Rameses I did not have time to build himself. The current site has recently been superbly restored and is a total joy to visit. With clear signs and the temple layout provided on a clear map, this temple is now one of the most interesting for the discerning visitor. You enter from the side; the entrance pylon being ruined now and the door way bricked up. However standing in the remains of the gateway and looking along the axis it is easy to get a picture of the complex. The temple palace to the side has also been restored and I love to take people to the site of the window of appearances. Children especially love to pretend to be pharaoh and award collars of gold and golden flies to the plebs (parents) below. It is hard not be moved as you stand there and imagine the triumphant general and long serving civil servant getting their rewards from the king.
Passing through the second courtyard the restoration team have planted up the avenue. It gives it the feel of ancient Deir el Bahri with its potential of shady groves. The enclosed part of the temple has many, many chapels dedicated to the various Gods and carries most of the surviving decoration. But here is no boastful general with an army of spin doctors decorating an ego centric mortuary temple but relief after relief is of Seti adoring the Gods. Much of this relief work in the inner parts of the temple is in raised relief and very reminiscent of his work at Abydos. . There is a walk way round the boundary wall and having gone through the temple your return to the exit along this wall. The view of the outside of the temple is exactly the same as the inside relief after relief of Seti worshiping the Gods.
The overall impression is of a pious man who took his religious duties seriously. There are no battle scenes, no prisoners about to have their heads bashed in. I find it a very peaceful temple.
Moving on to his son’s mortuary temple, the Ramasseum. Firstly I have to confess a dislike for Rameses II which does colour my view. I mean the guy wouldn’t know artistic merit if it hit him in the face. Yes he knew big and yes he knew quantity. Quality however was not his strong point; his big give away is the use of incised relief everywhere. Raised relief takes a lot longer and Ramses couldn’t be bothered with that. Let’s get it up and covered with decoration as soon as possible. Having said that I do like the temple. Actually having said all the things about the wonderful restoration work at Seti I temple I actually like the Ramasseum for its deserted, unkempt look. The first courtyard consists of sand and tall clumps of grass, much of the temple and statuary is ruined. It has a peculiar charm of its own with the graffiti of ancient visitors including that of Belzoni. I like to stand in the deserted first courtyard and recite Shelley’s poem. Especially the lines
“Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of the Colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The fallen statue of Rameses is without doubt a truly impressive piece of engineering. I am particularly impressed with the way the nemes head cloth is shown by getting the granite to be in smooth and matt stripes. When you think about the tools available to them at this time it is amazing what they achieved.
The wall decoration is of course the battle of Kadesh; it is a bit like the emperors new clothes to see the scenes. You know he didn’t win but you are carried away by his version of events. The other thing in abundance is pictures of his children. Well he did have a lot of them but they are everywhere. Finally in the innermost rooms we get some religious scenes but mostly it is Rameses that dominates the reliefs in this temple. The colour is spectacular and I can never tire of looking up at the column capitals and admiring the rich and colourful designs. I can’t understand why this temple has fallen out of favour as a place to visit.
Poor old Merenptah, it must have seemed an age waiting for the throne. Firstly 12 of his older brothers had to die; he must have wondered would he also miss the chance as Rameses II went on and on. The relief as he finally mounted the throne. But he was already elderly and with life expectancy much lower than today he was taking no chances. His temple is much smaller and he reused blocks from the temple of Amenhotep III in his mortuary temple. This is not actually as bad as it seems because it is suspected that the first temple had already been partially destroyed by the flood water. So it was just a case of lifting stuff that had already fallen not actually destroying it. Although his temple is much smaller it follows a similar pattern to that of his father and grandfather.
Today it is very ruined but it has been superbly restored by the Swiss Institute. They have taken the idea of posting metal plaques with a picture of the relief and an outline of the block you are looking at. It is a terrific idea and makes even very ruined blocks come alive.
Having said that little remains of the temple but the layout is well defined by the restorers and it is not difficult to visualise the complete temples. I personally felt the quality was better than Ramses, there was use of raised relief and the decoration as a whole was less brash. All that I could see on display was religious scenes although with so much missing there well could have been a similar attempt at self glorification. But you didn’t get that impression.
The huge black granite Steele recording the existence of Israelites was truly impressive. This was reused by Merenptah and on the reverse it is inscribed by Amenhotep III. This stele records the earliest mention of the Israelites as Merenptah describes his subjection over foreign peoples.
But overall the temple is dominated by the wealth of remains from Amenhotep II. There are two underground chambers with remnants of his monumental gateway and a museum with artefacts, statuary and relief’s all with wonderful colour. For these 3 rooms alone the site would be worth visiting but with the added bonus of being a mortuary temple of a great Ramaside king the third in one family them it has much to offer the serious scholar.
So three very different temples all with their own charm
Seti I – a pious pharaoh with an eye for quality
Rameses II- untouched by the restorers, invoking a David Roberts scene
Merenptah – ruined but compensated by Amenhotep III remnants.