Quft/Qift (Coptos) To Religion, state (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Quft/Qift (Coptos)

Ancient Coptos is on the east bank of the Nile, 38km northeast of Luxor (26°00′ N, 32°49′ E). Inhabited from at least Early Dynastic to modern times, it was the capital of Nome V of Upper Egypt. Located at a point of the Nile closest to the Red Sea, it was an important trade center and gateway to the mineral resources of the Eastern Desert from earliest times. In Graeco-Roman times, with the opening of trade routes from the Mediterranean to India by way of the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea, it became a major trans-shipment point. Today the greater part of the site lies under the modern village of Quft/Qift.

Large-scale excavations at the site were conducted by Flinders Petrie in 1893-4, and by Adolf Reinach and Raymond Weill in 1910 and 1911. Both expeditions focused on the ruins in the southeast sector of the modern town, where Petrie found remains of a sacred enclosure (temenos) dominated by a temple to Min, Isis and Horus. According to Petrie, this temple was built by Tuthmose III and was probably rebuilt and enlarged by Ptolemy II, with numerous dedications by later Ptolemies and Roman emperors through Caracalla. Although Petrie found no architecture earlier than the 18th Dynasty, artifacts excavated under and around the temple, including torsos of three colossal statues, indicate cultic use of the area by the Early Dynastic period, and probably earlier.

For the most part, Reinach and Weill worked to the southwest of the temple, where they found several small temples, shrines and dedications ranging in date from Nectanebo II (26th Dynasty) to Ptolemy XIV, and Roman emperors from Augustus through Claudius. The earliest temple here was dedicated to the god Geb, who appears to be the principal deity worshipped in this sector. Houses attributed to the reign of Diocletian were built over the temple wall and signal the end of the cultic use of the area. Reinach and Weill also explored an area of Christian churches to the west of Petrie’s temple. The size and architectural quality of this complex convinced Reinach that Coptos must have been one of the metropoleis of the Coptic church. The French team also explored some Roman houses outside the east wall of the temenos (Kom el-Ahmar) and a temple in the northern suburb of el-Qal’a, built during the reign of Tiberius.


From 1987 to 1992 a University of Michigan—University of Asyut team, led by Sharon Herbert and Henry Wright and overseen by Ahmad El-Sawy, excavated in Ptolemaic-Roman levels to the north and east of the Min temple. The primary goal of this expedition was to produce a datable stratified sequence of local ceramics, which, analyzed in conjunction with finds from the fortified stations in the Eastern Desert, would allow close dating and better understanding of the Graeco-Roman trade routes to the Red Sea. Stratified deposits ranging in date from the Middle Kingdom to the fifth century AD were recovered and are currently under study. Evidence which dates the eastern temenos wall to the reign of Nectanebo I or II was discovered, as well as a sequence of early Ptolemaic houses within the temenos. Remains of a later (mid-second century BC) temenos wall, supplanting that of Nectanebo, were found to the north of the temple. Interestingly, the room in the northeast angle of this wall was decorated by painted stucco in Macedonian style imitating carved stone blocks.

Due to Coptos’s continuous occupation and strategic position, excavations there have produced a rich array of epigraphic, architectural and artistic remains. Early finds include three fragmentary colossal stone cult statues of the fertility god Min, discovered by Petrie. As restored, these would have stood 4.1m high and weighed almost two tons. Although there is some debate about the precise date of these statues, it is clear that they are some of the earliest colossal images from Egypt.

From the Graeco-Roman period come the numerous royal dedications to the Egyptian gods of the city, testifying to the rich religious syncretism of the era and complementing the Roman geographer Strabo’s description of the site as a cosmopolitan trade center (Geography 17.1.45 10). Most interesting in this respect is the so-called tariff inscription found midway between the city and the desert. Dated to the reign of Domitian (AD 90), the inscription lists the fees levied on travelers over the route between Coptos and the Red Sea ports, the highest fee being placed on prostitutes.

Oddly, the bulk of the excavated remains from the city somewhat contradict the image of the thriving and cosmopolitan trade center. The most striking aspect of the Coptos classical period ceramic corpus (as documented by the 6,000kg found in the Michigan/Asyut Expedition) is its poverty. There is a restricted range of forms: innovation was infrequent, decoration rare, tablewares crude and visually dull and, perhaps most interestingly, there were very few imports. Similarly, there are few coins and no glass. The residents of this quarter of the site, at least, seem to have shared very little, if at all, in the luxury products passing through their city.

Today, the growing market village of Quft encircles ancient Coptos and is encroaching upon the numerous but yearly diminishing exposed archaeological remains, and the site is clearly in danger of disappearing entirely.

Qus

The town of Qus (25°56′ N, 32°46′ E)—Geza or Gesy in ancient Egyptian and Apollinopolis Parva in Greek—is located in Upper Egypt, 10km south of Coptos on the east bank of the Nile. It is situated across the Nile 5km south of Nagada, and was presumably the Predynastic town site associated with the Nagada cemeteries. If so, its early prominence may have been due to its use as a starting point for expeditions to the Eastern Desert via the Wadi Hammamat, both for mining and to gain access to the Red Sea. A number of funerary monuments—ranging from the 6th Dynasty through the Heracleopolitan period (9th-10th Dynasties)—are attributed to the cemetery on the west bank. The modest status of an overseer of priests represented on one of these monuments is adduced as evidence of the secondary status of the local temple in this period. The capital of Nome V of Upper Egypt, which included Qus, is thought to have been at Coptos during the Old Kingdom.

Aside from the cemetery evidence, some pharaonic monuments have been found in the town of Qus. Among the more interesting are the red granite naos of the 8th Dynasty vizier Shemai, sandstone blocks with cartouches of the Aten (the sun-disc deity) and Nefertiti found near a sheikh’s tomb west of town, and a gray granite stela depicting

Ramesses III leading prisoners, with a text dating to year 16 of his reign. Qus is also represented in the taxation lists in the 18th Dynasty Theban tomb of Rekhmire.

The principal deity of Qus during the New Kingdom and later was Haroeris, mainly alluded to by the epithet "Horus the Elder, Lord of Qus in Upper Egypt." In earlier times, the Qusite divinity was known simply as "Lord of Upper Egypt." Gardiner posits that it was this god who, together with Seth of Ombos (a town almost opposite on the west bank of the Nile), gave rise to the emblem of the Ptolemaic "Nome of the two falcon deities." Thus, the gods of Qus and Ombos may be recognized in this pair of falcons and Qus was no longer part of the same administrative district as Coptos. During the Ptolemaic period, Qus belonged to a district separate from Coptos with an emblem which may be read as Bnbn or Brbr.

As Apollinopolis Parva, the town enjoyed a time of prosperity during the Ptolemaic period, as shown by the remains of the temple of that era. In 1898, Ahmed Kamal uncovered the lower portions of two pylons dating to Ptolemy XI. Texts from the scenes in these ruins show Ptolemy XI harpooning hippopotamus, presenting offerings to Haroeris and slaying enemies, as well as slaying gazelle on an altar. In the third century AD the town was known in Latin as Diocletianopolis. Later, in Coptic, it came to be called Kos Berbir, from which the modern name is derived.

During the Middle Ages, according to the historian Abu’l Feda (1273-1331), Qus became the center of eastern trade in Upper Egypt and, among all cities of Egypt, second only to Fostat in importance and size. Once again access to the Red Sea and the Wadi Hammamat via Higaza, some 8km to the southeast, were essential to the city’s prosperity. The discovery of new sea routes by the Europeans in the fifteenth—sixteenth centuries AD led to the city’s decline in the Ottoman period.

Quseir el-Qadim

Quseir el-Qadim (26°06′ N, 34°17′ E), a small port on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea, lies about 8km north of the modern town of Quseir. The port attracted early archaeological interest due to its location at the end of the Wadi Hammamat, the shortest route in Upper Egypt between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. The ruins lie at the head of a small bay on the northern arm of a raised coral reef. In historical times the sabkha (mud-flats) to the east and south may have been a shallow lagoon. The desert conditions (circa 4mm annual rainfall) and the distance to the nearest potable water (circa 10km inland at Bir Karim) explain the intermittent and limited settlement in this coastal region.

The site of Quseir el-Qadim is approximately 10ha in area. It was excavated by the University of Chicago in 1978-82. These excavations confirmed occupation in two historically attested periods: Roman (first-second centuries AD); and Ayyubid and Bahri Mamluk (thir-teenth and early fourteenth centuries). A break of a millennium between these two periods is indicated by an absence of Byzantine (Coptic), early Islamic and Abbasid/Fatimid materials. Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence at this site of pre-classical Egyptian occupation.

Roman period

Most of the site is an early Roman settlement of the first and early second centuries AD. This dating is confirmed by the excavated papyri, ostraca and coins. An impressive number of languages has been found written/inscribed on artifacts in or near this settlement, including Latin, Greek, demotic Egyptian, Tamil, Nabataean and South Arabian. The Tamil texts are the most interesting, attesting to trade with India. One Tamil personal name recorded at Quseir also occurs at Arikamedu, a Roman period site on the eastern coast of India. Other evidence for connections with India include ceramic assemblages (terra sigillata and amphorae) and coinage recovered at Quseir which precisely duplicate those at Arikamedu. The site of Quseir now seems to be identifiable as "Myos Hormos," which, according to textual evidence (Strabo and the Periplus of the Erythrian Sea), was the most important Egyptian port for the Roman trade with India. The architectural remains at Quseir include a large horreum (warehouse) identical to one excavated at Ostia, the port of Rome, and a row of shops fronting a nearby street. Nevertheless, structural details and construction techniques have close parallels at Karanis and other sites in Roman Egypt. Another building, less fully excavated, seems analogous to the castellum (fort) excavated at contemporary Mons Claudianus and, like that building, has a large stable nearby. Planned surface remains and topography at Quseir give indications of an orthogonal city plan, with a series of insulae (blocks) along a cardo, the principal north-south street. This idealized plan was soon altered as the economic fortunes of the port faltered (or failed to increase).

The harbor area is marked by an "island" created by dredging, in an ancient effort to keep the harbor clear. This was a large lagoon suggestive of a cothon-type of harbor (with an enclosed inner basin). Strabo reports a fleet of 120 ships engaged in the India trade from Myos Hormos after AD 25. He also states that this port was the principal point, from Coptos in the Nile Valley, crossing an isthmus. Strabo probably thought of this route as connecting the Indian Ocean with the Nile and Mediterranean, rather like the Corinthian isthmus which connected Asia and Italy.

Islamic period

The site of Quseir el-Qadim was abandoned for almost a millennium; there is no trace of Byzantine (Coptic, fourth-sixth centuries), Umayyad or Abbasid (seventh-tenth centuries) occupation there. Numismatic and other artifactual evidence points to the resettlement of this port in the late eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century. Fatimid occupation (tenth-twelfth centuries) is unlikely. The period of greatest prosperity was the Bahri Mamluk period, when there is evidence of traded artifacts from India, China, Syria and even Tekrur (West Africa). Numismatics and the large corpus of letters found in the excavations confirm this conclusion. The settlement of the fifteenth century may have shifted to the site of the modern port. Soundings within the town, inspection of the fort and study of the oldest shrines confirm only an Ottoman occupation (sixteenth to early twentieth centuries). The fort is not mentioned by Portuguese accounts, suggesting construction during the reign of Selim I, after 1517.

The middle Islamic settlement forms a crescent around the silted-up Roman harbor. There were a series of modular residential units and a large house in the center of this area (called the "Sheikh’s house"). These well-constructed residences lack architectural embellishments and seem similar to contemporary urban architecture of the Nile Valley. Settlement in the Eastern area, immediately above the beach, was very different. This consisted of a housing complex made of reeds and matting, with minimal foundations, not unlike contemporary villages along the Red Sea littoral. The Eastern area presents the paradox of "rich" artifacts in a "poor" architectural setting.

Both of the Islamic settlement areas at Quseir, around the Sheikh’s house and in the Eastern area, produced evidence of Indian Ocean trade, including Far Eastern ceramics (celadons and porcelains, but early blue and white Ming wares were found only in the Eastern area). Other eastern imports excavated at Quseir are the resist-dyed textiles, which, along with other organic materials, were remarkably well preserved. These brightly patterned textiles were made in India for Islamic markets; the majority were found in the Eastern area. Differences of artifacts and coinage demonstrate two distinct periods of occupation: the Sheikh’s house belongs to the thirteenth century and the Eastern area to the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The commercial patterns in the Indian Ocean have usually been characterized as the "spice trade." Records from Cairo (the Cairo Geniza) and studies of mercantile organizations, such as the Karimi, indicate that the vast majority of the wealth was tied up in spices (cinnamon, ginger and so on), aromatics (sandalwood, etc., and perfumes), drugs (medicines) and varnishing plants. The majority of these products have left no traces in the archaeological record, even at Quseir. The plant remains recovered (usually by dry sieving) present an interesting picture of imports and probably consumption. A sample of these foodstuffs includes coriander, garlic, peppercorns, coconut and fenugreek, as well as hazelnut, walnut, almond, pinenut and pistachio. Preliminary study of distribution of these products suggests that imports from India (and southeast Asia) were probably constant for both periods. On the other hand, there seems to have been a decline in imports from the Mediterranean region in the Mamluk period (during the fourteenth century).

The excavations at Quseir have produced a corpus of documents similar to those of the Cairo Geniza. Like the Geniza, this is a random preservation rather than an archive; the Quseir letters were not gathered together for storage, but were found as a random part of normal trash accumulation. These letters, about 200 of which are fairly complete, provide details of the daily life of the community, ranging from discussion of crops and trade to love letters. A comprehensive analysis of these documents, however, has yet to be done.

Conclusion

The port of Myos Hormos has been traditionally associated with a foundation under Ptolemy II Philadelphus. While Quseir el-Qadim produced no artifacts of this period, four blocks with hieroglyphic inscriptions from a Ptolemaic temple were discovered by Arthur Weigall in the modern town of Quseir. One inscription was thought to contain the name of the town, Duau, a reading now consistently rejected by Egyptologists. However, the inscriptions do seem to indicate the existence of a temple to Hathor, a goddess who was identified with Aphrodite. This association strengthens the tradition of Aphrodite’s harbor and may suggest that modern Quseir overlies the Ptolemaic harbor. Clearly, further archaeological investigation will be necessary to complete the history of ancient ports in this region.

Reisner, George Andrew

Born in Indianapolis on November 5, 1867 to a German-American family, Reisner made his way east to Harvard University for his BA, MA and Ph.D. degrees. In 1893, one year after his marriage to Mary Bronson, he became a Traveling Fellow of Harvard and left for Berlin to study first Semitics and then ancient Egypt. After his years in Germany, Reisner returned to Harvard, where he obtained a post as Instructor in Semitics. He served as Assistant Professor of Semitic Archaeology at Harvard from 1905 to 1910. Research and fieldwork, however, appealed to him more than classroom teaching. He obtained funding for excavation in 1899 from the California-based Mrs Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

Reisner concentrated on the great cemeteries of Naga ed-Deir, as well as the sites of Quft and Deir el-Ballas. He applied a methodical approach far ahead of his time in his excavation techniques, and began to develop a unique working system. He delegated different aspects of the excavation, and emphasized field photography as a fundamental element of the archaeological process. In addition, he maintained a variety of expedition record books and numbering systems.

Reisner attained his most important site concession in 1905, the Old Kingdom cemeteries surrounding the three great pyramids of Giza. His expedition was now supported by Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reisner became curator of the Boston Museum’s Egyptian Department soon thereafter. He was in succession Archaeological Director of the Nubian Archaeological Survey by the Egyptian Government (1907-9), Director of the Harvard Excavations at Samaria, Palestine (190910), Director of the Harvard-Boston Egyptian Expedition, Professor of Egyptology, and Curator of the Egyptian Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1910-42).

Some of Reisner’s most spectacular Old Kingdom discoveries at Giza include the subterranean burial chamber of Queen Hetepheres, wife of King Seneferu and mother of King Khufu; the painted tomb chapel of Queen Meresankh III, granddaughter of King Khufu; the excavation of the third Giza pyramid and funerary temples of King Menkaure; and important inscriptional material on a range of subjects.

Reisner’s second towering achievement in archaeology was the opening of an entirely new topic in ancient African history. After directing the Archaeological Survey of Nubia (1907-9), intended to record sites prior to construction of the original Aswan High Dam, Reisner explored the cultures of Nubia (modern Sudan) to the south of Egypt more extensively. His work at sites along the upper Nile such as Gebel Barkal, Kerma, el-Kurru, Nuri and Meroe opened up a new field of Nubian studies.

Reisner died at Giza in the Harvard Camp on June 6, 1942. In his final years, despite near total blindness, he continued working, dictating manuscripts to a secretary. By the end of his career, he had explored the most famous archaeological site in the world (the Giza pyramids), discovered hundreds of artistic masterpieces, rewritten the history of Nubia and three millennia of Egypto-Nubian relations, and permanently altered the course of modern archaeology. He was buried in the Christian cemetery in Cairo.

Religion, state

In the earliest communities of Predynastic Egypt (circa 4,500-3,050 BC), local tribal gods were probably worshipped. This resulted in an apparent multiplicity of deities throughout the country, and as the unified state emerged at the end of the fourth millennium BC, the gods were also amalgamated into a confusing pantheon, with identities and characteristics that sometimes overlapped. During the Old Kingdom, there was a clear attempt by the priests of the various gods to rationalize and centralize these cults, and in certain cities, great religious centers were established where the deities were grouped into families, ogdoads (groups of eight gods), or enneads (groups of nine gods).

Eventually, two main religious systems emerged in Egypt. First, the state cults were organized, with temples and priesthood, to ensure the survival of the gods, Egypt and the king. These included "local gods" whose cults were limited to particular geographical districts, and the great "state gods," who were frequently elevated from the ranks of the local gods to have national importance and influence. When a family of rulers succeeded in gaining the throne, they would often raise the deity whom they had worshipped in their own locality to become the supreme state god and royal patron. Some of the state gods, however, had never had simply local origins; rather, as firmly established members of the supreme league of deities, they had always been regarded as universal.

The term "household gods" is applied today to the second category of deities. They were worshipped at small, domestic shrines, and had neither temples, divine cults, nor priesthood, but were approached by people at all levels of society for help and guidance in everyday matters. The state gods probably had only a remote effect on people’s lives, since their contact with these deities was minimal, whereas household gods were always approachable.

During the Old Kingdom, the most important priesthoods associated with the foremost religious centers developed separate theologies. These included mythologies about the lives of the gods, some of the most important of which centered around the creation of the universe and of other gods and mankind. In these cosmogonies (creation myths), each priesthood sought to advance the claims of its own god and to assert his or her primary role in creation. The most famous and influential cosmogony grew up at Heliopolis, where the sun god Re had taken over the cult of an earlier god, Atum. This myth underlines Re’s association with nature deities—the sky, earth, wind, moon and stars— and with other gods, and is mainly preserved in the Pyramid Texts, which decorated interior walls in some of the later pyramids. It tells how Re-Atum, the first god of Heliopolis, emerged from a great primeval ocean, Nun, and created a mound on which to stand (his priesthood claimed that their temple was built on this "Island of Creation"). Dispeling the gloom by bringing light, he then took the form of the mythical bennu bird and alighted on the benben (the pillar associated with Re’s cult at Heliopolis). He brought into existence the god of air and the goddess of moisture, who in turn produced the earth and sky deities, who became the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. This family was known as the Great Ennead. Other Old Kingdom priesthoods attempted to rival Heliopolis; the greatest threat came from Memphis where the priests of Ptah, the creator-god and patron of craftsmen, sought to prove that Ptah had preceded Re-Atum. They claimed that Ptah was in fact Nun (the primeval ocean) and that he had produced a daughter, Naunet; together they became the parents of Re-Atum, the Heliopolitan creator. Another center developed at Hermopolis (Khnumu). Here, the mythology centered around an ogdoad, consisting of four male and four female gods. They created the world and then ruled on earth for a time before they died and continued to exist in the underworld, where they ensured that the Nile flowed and the sun rose each day, so that life would flourish on earth.

Other myths emerged, including the later cosmogony at Thebes, which established the supremacy of Amen, the god of air, as the great state god and universal deity, ruler of all lands, when Thebes became capital of Egypt and its empire during the New Kingdom. In Amen’s temple at Karnak, temple architecture can be seen at its greatest and the influence of the priesthood on the state and the community can be most clearly appreciated. This temple, like the tombs, was intended to endure for eternity and was therefore built of stone.

Cult and mortuary temples had distinct uses, but their architecture and rituals were closely associated. The cult temple housed the god’s statue and provided a location where the king or priest could approach the god through regular rituals and establish a mutually beneficial relationship. The mortuary temple, originally attached to the pyramid, was the place where the burial ceremonies were performed, and where offerings continued to be brought to ensure the king’s survival after death. In the New Kingdom, the kings were no longer buried in pyramids but had rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Here there was no space to build attached mortuary temples or chapels, so these kings built separate temples, mostly situated on the flat plain between the Valley and the river. Such temples were also dedicated to the cults of the gods and had provision for the rituals of both the dead king and the deity.

Cult temples and mortuary temples all had the same basic architectural plan, with only minor variations, although they were dedicated to different gods and kings. The shape and arrangement of the building were dictated by the mythology of the temple and its ritual requirements. A series of inscriptions at the temple of Horus at Edfu (known as the "Building Texts") give a full account of the mythological explanation of the temple and relate how each temple was regarded as the "Island of Creation" on which the first bird-god had alighted and found refuge, and where the creation of the universe and of society had occurred. The architectural features of the stone temples—the ceiling painted to resemble the sky, the plant-form columns and capitals, and the plants carved on the bases of the walls—all recreated the physical environment of the Island of Creation and provided a place of great spiritual sanctity and potency where mankind could approach the gods. The temple was also the "Mansion of the God," where the resident deity was given shelter, protection and worship, in the same way as the bird-god had found refuge on the Island of Creation. The temple was regarded as the deity’s residence, in the way that the tomb was the "house" for a dead person’s spirit, and provision was made for the dead and the gods which followed the pattern of accommodation for the living.

The gods and the dead were believed to have the same physical needs as the living: food, drink, washing, clothing, rest and recreation. Food was supplied for the dead by means of the funerary cult, and the gods’ needs were met by the performance of the divine rituals. In the cult temple, there were two main types of ritual. The most important ritual (known as the "Daily Temple Ritual") was carried out three times a day for the resident god in every temple, and dramatized the commonplace events of everyday existence, providing food, clothing, washing and regular attendance for the god’s cult-statue in his sanctuary. The second type of ritual, the festivals, varied in content from one temple to another, each being based on the mythology of the particular resident deity. They were celebrated at regular, often yearly, intervals and marked special events in the god’s life, such as marriage, death and resurrection. A main feature of most festivals was the procession of the god’s statue outside the temple, giving the crowds their only opportunity to see the deity and to participate in his worship.


In the mortuary temples, from the New Kingdom onward, provision was made for the daily food offerings to revert from the god’s table and to be presented to all the legitimate former kings of Egypt (represented in the temple in the form of a king list). In this way, the king who had built the temple could gain their support for his reign and their acceptance of him after his death. This was known as the "Ritual of the Royal Ancestors," and was performed by the king during his own lifetime and by the high priest after his death. As in the cult temple, the food eventually reverted to the priests as their daily payment, once the ritual was completed.

The rituals once performed in the temples are still preserved in scenes, carved and painted on many of the walls in the enclosed areas of the buildings. In the same way that tomb scenes could be "brought to life" by means of magic, following the performance of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, the temple scenes were believed to be similarly activated and charged so that the rituals depicted on the walls would become eternally effective.

These scenes all show the king performing the rituals for the gods. As the incarnation of Horus and the son of Re, and as the divine heir, the king alone could act as representative of mankind in approaching the gods. In return for his performance of the rituals, he asked the gods for eternal life, victory over his enemies, an abundance of crops for Egypt, and the well-being of his subjects. However, in reality, although he may have performed the daily rituals in the main temple of the chief state god, in all other temples his duties would have been delegated to the high priest.

Each sizable town possessed a temple, and there would have been a number of temples in the capital city and in the other great religious centers. Each temple had its own priesthood; some of the priests were permanent temple personnel, but most held their posts secondary to their main professions, such as doctors and scribes. They pursued these duties in the community for nine months of each year, only entering the temple for three months, on a rotating basis, where they were engaged in religious, liturgical and sometimes teaching commitments. They were not required to be celibate, and indeed, access to the priesthood was often on a hereditary basis, although there were other means of entry by selection.

The main function of the priests was to act as "god’s servants," ministering to the deity’s ritual needs, They were expected to understand the divine liturgy, and to study and teach their specializations in the temple, but they were not required to give counseling or religious instruction to the community at large and the temple never became a center of community worship. Nevertheless, the temple’s role was essential in society. Not only did it ensure that the gods continued their beneficence toward Egypt, but every temple also owned estates where the food was produced for the god’s altar; some also had mines and workshops to provide the materials and labor to manufacture the cultic and divine possessions. Revenue was collected in kind from many parts of the country, sometimes in the temple’s own fleet of ships, and was kept in storehouses in the temple precinct, where it was recorded and redistributed as payment to the temple personnel. The temples were the largest employers in Egypt, since they required an extensive work force to administer and operate the vast estates. Although the religious duties were reserved for the priests, a wealthy and elite group drawn mainly from the privileged sections of society, many of the temple employees were menials, engaged in a variety of mundane tasks. The temples had further influence on the community at large because they were places of teaching and learning, and some acquired reputations as centers for medical knowledge and healing.

The role of the god-king was crucial in terms of the state religion. Deemed to be the physical son of the country’s chief god through his union with the previous king’s "Great Royal Wife," each ruler had a unique relationship with the gods and with mankind. However, the supposed absolute powers of the king were controlled by the dictates of Ma’at, the goddess who personified the divine order and the equilibrium of the universe, and his actions were largely limited by precedents set by former rulers. Nevertheless, when a king wished to revolutionize religious concepts, to some extent he could achieve his aims. The so-called Amarna period, when Akhenaten (circa 1360 BC) attempted to introduce and impose an exclusive sun cult based on the worship of the god Aten, was a short-lived experiment when the king was able to demonstrate this ability.

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