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Survival of temple buildings from ancient Egypt

The surviving evidence - is it representative?

Most of the eighteen well preserved temples in Egypt follow a standard rectilinear pattern, with the emphasis on moving from the dark, low inner chamber to broad open courts fronted by a massive double tower (Egyptologists tend to use the Greek term pylon). However, the geographical and chronological range of these structures is rather limited, compared with the evidence for variety in the archaeological record:

New Kingdom examples in Egypt (from south to north)

Thebes, East Bank

Thebes, West Bank


Ptolemaic and Roman Period examples in Egypt (from south to north)

The temple at Philae is just south of the border of Egypt proper, and forms a link between the Egyptian series and the temples in Nubia.


What happened to the other temples of Egypt?

Nature and human hands enabled both the construction and the equally epic destruction of the temples.

NATURE The main building material of Egypt is limestone - the classic landscape of Egypt south of Cairo is the broad valley cut through limestone desert by the Nile river. South of Luxor, from the area of ancient Gebelein and Esna, the rock is sandstone. Therefore most southern monuments entirely constructed of stone were built of sandstone, whereas most stone monuments north of Thebes were of limestone. Limestone can be burnt to extract lime.

HUMAN INTERVENTION When Egypt converted to Christianity, by the fourth century AD, large limestone temples were not only closed by imperial decree, but systematically dismantled and burnt. Pottery and coins in destruction levels on limestone temple sites date this extraordinary burst of recycling to around the 5th century AD. This is not localised small-scale assault on paganism, but an operation as vast and technically challenging as the original projects of constructing the temples. Another burst accompanied industrialisation in the early 19th century AD under Mohamed Ali. Not all the stone was burnt: much was recycled as building blocks for new structures.

Of the eighteen temples listed above, only those of Hatshepsut at Thebes and Sety I and Ramesses II at Abydos are of limestone; by the time that the disused temples were being recycled, the two Abydos structures were covered by sand, and the temple of Hatshepsut buried under later occupation levels. The others are of sandstone.


See too the list of provinces of ancient Egypt with note of surviving temple structures in each.



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