Libyans To Luxor, temple of (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)


For the pre-classical world, the term "Libyans" generally refers to all non-Egyptian peoples living in the large and little-known area to the west of Egypt, which makes up the modern country of Libya. These certainly comprised different ethnic groups and there were important changes in population during Dynastic times, but not much is known about the pre-classical archaeology of Libya. The ancient frontiers in this region are also unknown, although Egyptian control of some of the Western Desert oases was already being attempted in the Old Kingdom. The Libyans were not literate in their own languages in antiquity and, until the 26th Dynasty, textual evidence of them comes entirely from scanty Egyptian sources. The first synthetic account was not written until the fifth century BC, when Herodotus, recounting the early history of the Greek colony of Cyrene, also described the city’s Libyan hinterland and its people.

Our knowledge of the Libyans is therefore largely confined to their interactions with Egypt. Until the 18th Dynasty, two words, "Tjehenu" and "Tjemehu," were used both for the geographical areas west of Egypt and for the peoples who lived there. The two words originally had specific meanings, but were already generalized and interchangeable by the Middle Kingdom. The term "Tjehenu" tended to describe the area immediately to the west of the Nile Delta, from the Mediterranean coast south to about the latitude of the Fayum. The word "Tjemehu," in contrast, referred to an area which stretched at least as far south as Wadi es-Sebua in Lower Nubia, based on the evidence of a 19th Dynasty stela of the Viceroy of Kush (Nubia), Setjau. The 6th Dynasty inscription of an official named Harkhuf suggests that at that time it may even have extended to the Third Cataract.

Not much is known of this early period. Libya was of relatively little interest to the Egyptians because it lacked rich mineral deposits. There was certainly trade, and more aggressive activity is evident in Egyptian raids for booty, slaves and cattle. The earliest record of this may be the "Libyan" Palette, a ceremonial slate artifact of the late fourth millennium BC carved with a symbolic representation of attacks on settlements. The mortuary temple of Sahure (5th Dynasty) preserves a depiction of a defeated Libyan group, including a chief and his family, and there is a reference in the 12th Dynasty Tale of Sinuhe to an expedition in search of captives and cattle.

More is known about Libya later, from the 18th Dynasty onward, when the earlier Egyptian dominance was eventually reversed. Although the old names continue to be used, two new groups, the "Libu" and the "Mesh-wesh," are found in texts. "Libu" is probably the origin, via Greek, of the word "Libya," while descendants of the "Meshwesh" were possibly a people whom Herodotus calls "Maxyes." These peoples initially occupied the area west of Tjehenu, in Cyrenaica, and gradually moved east along the Mediterranean coast toward the Nile Delta. The appearance of these new ethnic terms marks Egyptian recognition of relatively recent arrivals, perhaps from farther west, who were themselves affected by population upheavals (the Sea Peoples) around the Mediterranean then. Represented differently from their predecessors, these new arrivals were depicted in Egyptian art with pale skin, distinctive hair styles, long pointed beards and extensive body decoration, possibly tattooed or painted. Feathers in the hair are symbols of status.

In the 19th and 20th Dynasties, there was mounting pressure from these newcomers on the western Delta. A very fragmentary papyrus painting from Tell el-Amarna suggests that hostilities had already broken out in the late 18th Dynasty. From the reign of Seti I to at least that of Ramesses III, there was a series of conflicts in which the Libyans slowly gained ascendancy. A chain of forts built by Ramesses II near the Mediterranean coast (for example, at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham and el-Alamein) ultimately failed to halt them. By the end of the New Kingdom, substantial numbers of Libyans had settled over much of the Delta and the northernmost part of the Nile Valley. Upper Egypt was less affected, although Ramesses III constructed new enclosure walls to protect temples there, and even Thebes suffered raids.

The Libu and the Meshwesh seem to have been essentially nomadic pastoralists. Meshwesh cattle were already known in Egypt in the 18th Dynasty, and sheep and goats were also important to their economy. They possessed bronze weapons, as well as metal vessels, which were probably acquired through trade or battle. Their incursions into Egypt, of whole populations and their livestock, have usually been explained as the result of famine or population displacement, but these can also be interpreted as aggressive expansions into territory occupied by sedentary agriculturalists.

Traditionally, the accession of Sheshonk I, a great chief of the Meshwesh, as the first king of the 22nd Dynasty, has been seen as marking the beginning of "Libyan" rule in Egypt. However, recent research has suggested that the "Libyan period." when many Egyptian rulers were of Libu or Meshwesh stock and Libyan social structure was clearly influential in Egypt, had already begun as early as the late 20th Dynasty. At that point, control of Egypt was divided between a severely weakened king in the north and the high priest of Amen at Thebes. The latter post was attained by Herihor, an army commander who also became Viceroy of Kush and Vizier, an unprecedented accumulation of power for any one individual. Several of Herihor’s sons are known to have had Libyan names, as did a later high priest and at least one of the contemporary kings of the 21st Dynasty, Osorkon "the Elder."

It has been assumed that the Libyans assimilated pharaonic culture, but in reality this was a slow process. The retention of Libyan names is seen in a succession of kings called Sheshonk, Osorkon or Takelot. Some elements of dress, especially hair feathers which identified the chiefs, survived for several centuries. Above all, the looser system of government of the Libyan period reflects their tribal structure, under the various chiefs of the Meshwesh and the Libu. Another factor was the use of members of a ruler’s family in government, to an extent without precedent in Egypt. Beginning with Sheshonk I, sons of the king were appointed as military commanders at strategically important sites, such as Memphis, Heracleopolis and Thebes, but also as high priests of local cult centers. Hereditary tendencies inevitably led to conflict between collateral branches, and a prolonged power struggle is vividly described in the text, the Chronicle of Prince Osorkon.

The best illustration of such divisions is a stela of the 25th Dynasty Kushite king, Piye, which records his defeat of the Libyan rulers in the late eighth century BC. Four Libyan kings and many more chiefs of the Meshwesh, each ruling a different part of Egypt, are named. Although still distinguished by regalia and titulary in the Egyptian record, the kings were really paramount chiefs, who received the allegiance of other chieftains. The principal organizer of opposition to Piye was not a king but a great chief called Tefnakht, who pressed the other chiefs into a coalition.

During this period, traces of the Libyans’ cultural background can also be detected in the archaeological record. Coffins, statues and stelae were often provided with lengthy genealogies, whereas in earlier periods only the names of parents had been included. Oral traditions of Libyan families’ roots thereby took on a permanent form through Egyptian language and mortuary practices. Reflections of the Libyan presence may also be seen in changes in burial practices, developments in language and the hieroglyphic script, and in the increased prominence of women in Egypt.

The Kushite kings (25 th Dynasty) were content to leave Egypt politically fragmented, but the divisions did not survive the advent of the 26th Dynasty. Although the new kings were also of Libyan descent, and one of them, Apries, is said by Herodotus to have intervened militarily on the side of the Libyans against the Greeks of Cyrene, their reunification of Egypt was accompanied by the disappearance of many of the features which had characterized the Libyan period, including the chiefs of the Meshwesh. With the founding of Cyrene, and the fame which the oracle of Amen in the Siwa Oasis rapidly acquired in the Greek world, a new era in the history of Libya and its relationship with Egypt began.


El-Lisht is a small modern village about 65km south of Cairo and 3km west of the village of el-Matania on the west bank of the Nile, probably in the vicinity of the Middle Kingdom capital of ("Possessor of the Two Lands"). On the desert plateau west of the village is a cemetery which is dominated by the remains of the pyramids of Amenemhat I and his son Senusret I, the first two kings of the 12th Dynasty. The cemetery was first used in the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. Burials continued in the Middle Kingdom and well into the 13th Dynasty. The cemetery extends about 3km north-south and 0.5km east-west (29°34′ N, 31°13′ E) and includes smaller rock-cut tombs along the ridge of the desert plateau. Large mastaba tombs and templelike tomb chapels of the more important nobility of the early 12th Dynasty are located around the two pyramids.

After Gaston Maspero unsuccessfully attempted to open the blocked entrance corridors of the two pyramids in 1883, Joseph-Etienne Gautier and Gustave Jequier conducted the first extensive excavations at this site for the French Institute of Archaeology in 1894-5, during which they found a cache of Osiride statues as well as the seated statues of Senusret I now in the Cairo Museum (CG 411-420). In 1906 the most thorough investigations of the site were begun by the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the direction of Albert Lythgoe and Ambrose Lansing. These excavations continued, with brief interruptions, until 1934. In 1984 the Metropolitan Museum resumed work at the site, concentrating on the pyramid complex of Senusret I and the surrounding cemetery. These excavations uncovered the remains of the tomb chapel of the vizier Mentuhotep, with its elaborately painted granite sarcophagus.

Pyramid complex of Amenemhat I

The funerary complex of Amenemhat I was the first since Pepi II (6th Dynasty) to follow the Memphite building tradition of the late Old Kingdom. Like its Old Kingdom prototypes, it has a valley temple, attached to an open causeway, which leads up to the mortuary temple on the east side of the pyramid. A granite false door found near the entrance to the pyramid proves the existence of a northern chapel.

Many building stones from the complex were later robbed. A settlement of the Late period was also built over the temple precinct, destroying the plan, and a reconstruction of the building is not possible now. In the debris a few blocks were found decorated with reliefs of both Amenemhat I and Senusret I. Why both kings appear in the temple decorations has not yet been explained convincingly.

The pyramid was originally 55-60m high and had a base length of 84m. Many limestone blocks were reused ones from the Old Kingdom and still retain reliefs from the pyramid complexes at Giza, Saqqara and Abusir. The entrance to the pyramid corridor lies in front of the north face of the pyramid. A slightly sloping corridor with portcullises still in place can only be entered through a robbers’ tunnel. Beyond this is a small chamber with a square vertical shaft. Because of the rising ground water, this shaft has never been entered in modern times and it is not possible to investigate the flooded burial apartments of the king.

Although the plan of this complex generally follows Memphite building traditions, there are also elements which seem to reflect Upper Egyptian/Theban traditions employed in the temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri. These include the open causeway, the terrace between the temple area and the pyramid, the row of burial shafts in the western court and the corridor system within the shaft.

Pyramid complex of Senusret I

Only with the much better preserved and better known pyramid complex of Amenemhat I’s son and successor, Senusret I, were Upper Egyptian elements abandoned in favor of the Old Kingdom traditions of the Memphite region.

Senusret I’s pyramid was surrounded by two walls. The inner stone wall was decorated on both sides with panels of a fecundity figure underneath a palace fagade design. The panels were surmounted by Horus falcons elaborately executed in high relief. The destruction of the pyramid, which appears to have begun during the Second Intermediate Period, was already far advanced in the New Kingdom. The destruction, however, has exposed the construction of the core, which consists of a grid of stone walls filled with stones and rubble. This new technique of core construction was used for three generations until the pyramid of Senusret II.

In the eastern court of the pyramid complex a large temple was built abutting the pyramid casing stones, and a small chapel decorated with reliefs and a false door is located to the north of the entrance corridor. Following the examples of the Old Kingdom (and unlike that of his predecessor), Senusret I also built a "ka pyramid" (for the king’s ka) in the southeast corner of the inner court.

Remains of a valley temple, which is probably deeply buried beneath floodplain deposits, have never been excavated. A long causeway flanked on either side by Osiris-form statues of the king wearing the Crown of Upper or Lower Egypt connected this building with the mortuary temple. Surrounding the pyramid in the outer court were nine subsidiary pyramids, which were probably built for members of the royal family. Most of these pyramids were finished and had small chapel-like buildings on the east and north sides. The pyramid to the south of the ka pyramid differs in size and construction from the others and may have belonged to Senusret I’s queen, Neferu.

The importance of this site is further enhanced by the fact that the remains of several slideways, construction ramps and dressing stations for limestone and granite were found in the area and provide much information about the technology of pyramid construction and the organization of a building site. In addition, many quarry marks copied from the undressed sides of the remaining foundation and sub-foundation blocks provide information on the progress of constructing the monument as well as on the origins of the workmen and how they were organized.

Private cemetery

Both pyramids were surrounded by extensive cemeteries. Besides the large mastabas or tomb chapels of the high officials of Amenemhat I and Senusret I, hundreds of shaft tombs were carved into the ground. The more important of these tombs include the mastaba of the vizier Intefiker, southeast of the pyramid of Amenemhat I, and the tomb of the vizier Mentuhotep, in the southeast corner of the enclosure of Senusret I’s pyramid complex. The High Priest of the temple of Re-Horakhty at Heliopolis, Imhotep, built his mastaba immediately to the north of Senusret I’s causeway. To the northeast of this, the remains of the huge mastaba complex of the High Priest of the Ptah temple at Memphis was excavated.

Luxor, temple of

Known in ancient times as "the private sanctuary [opet] of the south," the temple of Luxor (25°42′ N, 32°38′ E) is located several km south of the state temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. Its god, "Amen of Luxor" (or Amenope), was a fertility figure with strong connections to both Karnak and West Thebes. Neither the cult nor any part of the temple appears to predate the early 18th Dynasty; the few Middle Kingdom fragments found here probably came from another site and were transported to Luxor after the original buildings were dismantled. The present temple is built on a rise (never excavated) that may conceal the original foundations. The most substantial remnant of Luxor temple’s Tuthmoside phase is the triple shrine at the northwest corner of the present first court (G). Although rebuilt by Ramesses II, this building preserves many blocks from the structure that was originally built during the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III. During the 18th Dynasty it stood at some distance from the front of the main temple, and it is clearly the last of the bark stations that are mentioned in Hatshepsut’s coronation inscription as having stood along the road from Karnak to Luxor.

Although the position of the 18th Dynasty road must have coincided approximately with the avenue visitors see in front of Luxor temple today (A), the latter, along with the sphinxes beside it, date to the reign of Nectanebo I (30th Dynasty). The mudbrick ruins on either side of the road are all that remain of the town of Luxor during the later and post-pharaonic ages. The gate through which the visitor passes from the avenue to the esplanade in front of the temple is also late, for the brick wall around this courtyard is contemporary with the Roman fort (B) built around the temple at the beginning of the fourth century AD. Substantial remains of this camp (mudbrick walls, as well as gates and pillared avenues of stone) can be seen east and west of the temple. Earlier buildings in the forecourt that were sacrificed to this transformation include a chapel (C), erected during the 25th Dynasty and dedicated to Hathor. A modest mudbrick shrine built in honor of Serapis during the reign of Hadrian, and still containing a statue of Isis, survives at the court’s northwest corner (D). Later than all of this is the ruined building (E) diagonally across from the Serapis chapel, at the southeast edge of the court, which was one of the several churches (F) built here during the early Christian era with blocks taken from this and other sites at Thebes.

Plan of the temple of Luxor

Figure 57 Plan of the temple of Luxor

The pylon and first court of Luxor temple are the work of Ramesses II, who is also responsible for the colossal statues (some of them usurped from earlier pharaohs) in and outside this part of the building. Ramesses II erected two obelisks in front of the pylon, but only one remains in place today: the other was removed to the Place de la Concorde, Paris, in 1835-6. When the first court (G) was built, the porticoes of closed papyrus columns around its sides were broken at the northwest corner by Ramesses II’s reconstruction of the 18th Dynasty bark station into a triple shrine. The three rooms of this building briefly lodged the portable shrines of Amen (middle), Mut and Khonsu when they entered Luxor temple once a year for the temple’s premier event, the "Beautiful Feast of Opet"; but at other times it also served as a focus for local piety and the delivering of oracles. A false door at the back of Amen’s chamber served to evoke the god’s presence. Back in the courtyard, a more conspicuous eruption into the Ramesside plan came about early in the Christian era, when a church (F) was built in the court’s northeast corner. Its remains can be seen under the mosque that now occupies this space. Dedicated to Luxor’s Muslim saint, Abu’l Haggag, the mosque was founded in the thirteenth century AD and has remained in active use down to the present day.

Ramesside influence also extends into the great processional colonnade (H) which lies beyond the first court: the present gateway, in the name of Philip Arrhidaeus, replaced a late 19th Dynasty prototype, and at the same time, Ramesses II’s reliefs inside the passage were covered over by his immediate successors. The colonnade itself, with twelve open papyrus columns that are among the largest ever made in Egypt, had already been added by Amenhotep III to the front of the temple he had completely rebuilt earlier in his reign. Carving of the scenes and inscriptions had barely been started when the king’s death, and then the distubances of the Amarna period, brought all work at the site to a halt. Tutankhamen finished most of the carving in the interior, but he had died before reaching the fagade, which was executed during the reign of Ay. At some points in the hall (most conspicuously on door jambs and columns) the figure of the deceased Amenhotep III alternates with those of his successors, showing both their piety toward the builder of the colonnade and their eagerness to associate this last orthodox king before the heresy period with their own precarious regimes. In the end, however, a political eclipse befell both Tutankhamen and Ay, whose names can be detected only intermittently under those of their usurper, Horemheb. The few scenes still left in paint at the south end of the hall were finally completed in relief a few years later by Seti I. The walls of the building, which once completely enclosed its great columns, have for the most part been reduced to their lowest register of scenes, which has luckily preserved two extraordinarily detailed sequences depicting the processions north and south during the Opet Feast.

The sun court (I) which lies beyond was virtually identical to the equally grandiose court in front of the inner part of Amenhotep III’s funerary temple in West Thebes. As with the Great Colonnade, the original effect of this part of Luxor temple is now compromised by the reduction of its outer walls, which gives undue prominence to the columns. Statues of divinities and the king may have been arranged around the porticoes in ancient times: a number of these images were found buried in the courtyard in 1989.

At the back of the sun court’s southern portico (J), a number of chapels that provided lodging for the gods’ portable shrines during the Opet Feast flank the entrance to the temple proper. Small rooms off the first hypostyle inside the temple apparently served other participants in the festival procession, but this part of the temple was completely transformed when the Romans changed what had been a columned hall into an open room (K). The doorway leading further on into the temple was blocked up and turned into an apse in which the divine standards of the legion were probably displayed. The stone walls were covered with plaster and painted; the emperor Diocletian and his three partners are displayed inside the apse, while members of the imperial court pay homage on the adjoining walls.

A modern doorway pushed through the masonry of the Roman apse gives access to the temple’s second columned hall, sometimes termed the "offering hall" (L) because of the ritual equipment shown being brought into the temple on its walls. A door in the southwest corner leads to a passage that communicated with a "service entrance" into this part of the building on the temple’s western side. Back in the offering hall, a wide portal leads into the bark sanctuary of Amen (M). This portal was subsequently adapted to include a small "priest’s hole" inside the masonry of the doorway, perhaps to assist in the delivery of oracles. The bark sanctuary includes a freestanding building added by Alexander the Great within the larger chamber created by Amenhotep III. The reliefs, showing Amen’s portable bark shrine and other scenes of the king in the presence of the gods, are well preserved, but the focal point of the original room—a colossal false door at the center of the south wall, where now a modern doorway communicates with the back rooms of the temple—has been all but obliterated by changes to this chamber over time.

A doorway at the northeast corner of the bark shrine leads into a two-room "coronation suite" (N) dedicated to the central mystery of the Opet Feast, the annual regeneration of the pharaoh as the son of Amen. In the northern room, after the king’s divine birth (east wall), he receives the powers of his office from other divine fathers and mothers (north and south) so that he may appear in triumph at the sed festival (E). Other scenes of divine nurturing and recognition are found in the southern room of this suite and at other points inside the temple, for example, inside Amen’s bark sanctuary, and on the walls of the first columned hall (the Roman sanctuary), where the king is suckled by one of his divine mothers and presented in public by Amen as his son.

Opening onto the "coronation suite" on the east, and similarly on the west side of the building, are a number of small cult rooms (O) that once served the gods with subsidiary cults in the temple. Most of these chambers on the east were destroyed when the Romans built an alternative southern entrance into the building’s interior. More significantly, a narrow doorway at the south end of the "coronation suite" provided the only means of access into the back of the temple, the "southern sanctuary" or opet itself. This suite is itself a temple in miniature. A broad columned hall (P) stands in front of the leading cult chambers. In Amenope’s sanctuary, there still remains the foundation of the altar on which stood the giant naos which contained the god of Luxor’s statue (Q). The opet functioned on one level as a conventional sanctuary in which its god dwelt. The false door, directly in front of the columned hall, was the medium through which the god was able to "communicate" with his alter ego, Amen of Karnak, in the bark sanctuary, and thence with the triple shrine in the first court by means of its false door. On another level, though, Amenope’s sanctuary operated as a mortuary temple, in which the god was regularly brought back to life through the "opening of the mouth" ritual performed by his son, the king. It seems likely that (1) the god’s rebirth was also one of the purposes of the Opet Feast, and (2) this aspect of Amenope’s nature secured his place in the Feast of the Decade, when the god of Luxor traveled to Medinet Habu every ten days to undergo a further cycle of rebirths.

Luxor temple is one of the few major cult buildings of the New Kingdom that can be studied in detail. Its preservation owes much to the solid construction of Amenhotep III, which was only lightly modified by later pharaohs. Just as important, however, was the site’s later history. First, the temple was converted into a Roman military camp (the Latin castra was preserved in the Arabic el-Aksar, which became the modern Luxor). Subsequently, its reuse as the core of the medieval and modern town protected large parts of the temple until it was cleared (1880s to 1950s).

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