Usimare Ramesses III (also written Ramses and Rameses) was the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty. He is considered to be the last monarch of the New Kingdom to wield any substantial authority over Egypt. His long reign saw the decline of Egyptian political and economic power, linked to a series of invasions and internal economic problems.
Ramesses III was the son of Setnakhte and Queen Tiy-Merenese. He was assassinated in the Harem Conspiracy led by one of his secondary wives, Tiye, her son Pentawer, and a group of high officials.
The temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu is a huge complex of stone and mudbrick ramparts on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor. Situated at the southern end of the Theban necropolis, its massive walls and towers are often overlooked by the tourists who pass close by on their way to the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. This is a pity because it was once a place of great importance, not only as the mortuary temple of Rameses III during Dynasty XX but as an earlier place of worship as well as a fortress and administrative centre for Thebes which spanned several dynasties.
Rameses III built his mortuary temple on an ancient sacred site called The Mound of Djeme and it is oriented east to west. The entrance today is through the fortified east gate, which in ancient times was reached by a canal which brought boats from the Nile to a basin and quay. The kings and god statues would probably have arrived by barge to make their entrance from this quay at festival times, although there was another fortified gate to the western side which was destroyed in antiquity. We enter the complex across what remains of the ancient quay and past two small single roomed buildings which were probably to house the gatekeepers who then, as now, controlled the admission of visitors to the temple grounds.
The eastern gateway overlooks the inside of the temple grounds. The high towers are typical of Egyptian defences from early times, but this gate is unusual in that it has broad windows which overlook the main entrance to the temple through the first pylon. The interior of the high gate is reached by a modern staircase on the south side of the tower and leads to the second storey. The floors have long gone and you can now look up at the whole extent of the inside of the tower at the scenes which show the king at leisure, surrounded by young women. One inscription tells us that these were ‘The King’s children’ but other scenes may be of the royal harem. It was to these rooms that Rameses III must have retired when in residence at Medinet Habu. The windows give a magnificent view of the temple grounds. It was also at this gate that petitioners, forbidden entry to the temple would come to address their prayers and requests to the carved images of the gods.
In the north-east corner of the temple grounds is the small temple which is a mixture of both the earliest and latest construction at Medinet Habu. This temple was already present when Rameses III began work at the site in the Dynasty XX. It was begun by Hatshepsut in the mid-Dynasty XVIII and extended by her successor Tuthmosis III.
The small temple can be entered from the Roman court which juts out from the eastern side of the main gateway, or from the main temple grounds to the south. Beneath the foundations of Hatshepsut’s temple archaeologists have found traces of an even older construction that dates back to the early Dynasty XVIII and to the Middle Kingdom, and the rites performed here were probably very ancient, so it is not surprising that they survived long after Rameses III’s mortuary cult had disappeared. Texts suggest that Amun was worshipped in association with the group of eight primeval creation gods known as the Ogdoad, as well as in his earlier form of Kematef (a serpent creator deity) also known as ‘The Ba of Osiris’, said like the Ogdoad to be buried at the Mound of Djeme.
The oldest part of the small temple is centred around the three shrines at the rear of the structure, dedicated to Amun, Mut and Khons. This cult temple was used for the weekly (a week was 10 days) Amun festivals of regeneration. Hatshepsut’s sanctuary was named ‘Holiest of Places’. Restoration and epigraphy of the three inner shrines is still being carried out by Chicago House and is not yet published, but it appears that three separate forms and statues of Amun were kept here. Restorations by Pinudjem I and Euergetes and alterations by Ptolemy X and others right through to the Emperor Antonius Pious, indicate the importance and prolonged activity of the temple, long after the Rameses III temple had fallen into disuse probably at the end of his dynasty.
Leaving the small temple by the southern entrance we are faced with the First Pylon of the temple of Rameses III called, “The Mansion of Millions of Years of King Rameses III, United with Eternity in the Estate of Amun”. The south tower is higher and better preserved than the north tower and is dominated by a giant relief of the king, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, smiting enemy captives before the gods Amun and Ptah. On the northern side the king is before Amun-Re-Horakhty. The god is presenting Rameses with the curved sword, symbolising strength in battle and beneath them are rows of small bound figures representing Egypt’s conquered enemies. The lower part of these captives are depicted with an oval shield containing their names or nationality, although this is not an accurate representation of the state of the empire in the reign of Rameses III, and includes Nubian and Asiatic names borrowed from earlier conquests of Tuthmosis III and Rameses II. In the inscribed texts above the reliefs the gods promise to strike terror into the king’s enemies and to invoke the help of other warrior deities in his defence. Isis and Nekhbet to the south and Nephthys and Wadjet to the north stand guard over the processional way into the temple in the flagpole recesses. There is a staircase to the balcony above the main doorway and the towers would have been ideal points for observing the night sky.
Going through the entrance in the first pylon, originally an immense wooden door, we enter the first court, an open space enclosed by four walls. This was the forecourt of the temple and also of the adjoining palace. The columned portico of the palace building to the south is echoed on its northern side by seven huge pillars, each supporting a colossal Osirid statue of Rameses III wearing a plumed atef crown. At the king’s sides are small unidentified figures of a prince and princess.
The reliefs in the first court mostly show the king’s war scenes and battle conquests. The east wall contains a description of the second Libyan war, with the king shown receiving prisoners and spoils after the battle. On the west wall opposite, Rameses presents captives from the Sea Peoples to Amun-Re and Mut. On the north wall the king storms a fortress in Amor and celebrates the victory in his palace. The south wall of the first court is the palace façade which includes the window of Royal Appearances, where the king presided over ceremonies held in his court. A wooden balcony was attached to the front for better visibility and exposure and the king would appear here when granting formal audiences. The festive occasions would have included contests which are explained by the accompanying texts. There were several other smaller entrances to the first court.
The first court also functioned as a vestibule to the temple. The north wall depicts episodes from the daily rites that were celebrated in the temple, with the king censing, libating and offering to the gods. It was the priests of course, who performed these rituals daily in the absence of the king. The gods had to be fed, dressed and cared for each day and after the process was completed the offerings would be distributed to the priests and temple staff. In this way the temple was able to provide divine offerings and pay its staff at the same time, a highly practical arrangement.
Following the general layout of Egyptian temples the floor slopes gradually upwards towards the sanctuary, the home of the god at the back of the temple. A ramp of shallow steps leads out of the first court and through the gate of the second pylon into the second court. This is the festival hall of the temple and its function is reflected in the relief carvings around its walls which are surrounded by colonnades.
During the period of Coptic occupation the second court housed the Church of Djeme and parts of the older building were destroyed at this time, including the Osirid statues attached to the columns. Fortunately the reliefs were only covered over with whitewash and this has helped to preserve the vivid colours we see here today.
A calendar is inscribed on the southern exterior wall of the temple and this names over 60 festival days in the Egyptian civil year as well as the Lunar festivals and some of these are depicted around the walls of the second court.
The principal god of Thebes was Amun, whose main abode was the temple of Karnak on the other side of the river, but the cult statue of Amun was brought across the Nile several times a year to visit his West Bank temples. There was a weekly festival of Amun at Medinet Habu. Although Amun is everywhere present at Medinet Habu, it is not his main festivals, the Valley Festival, or Opet, which are depicted in detail in the second court, but curiously the festivals of the gods Sokar and Min.
One of the best endowed feasts of Medinet Habu, and shown in the southern half of the second court, took place during the reign of Rameses III in mid-September. Its rites were involved with the cycle of death and resurrection in the festival of Sokar which took place over ten days. Sokar is a mysterious god associated in early times with Ptah and Osiris, a god of the City of the Dead. In the public ceremonies the barque of Sokar was carried out of the temple on the shoulders of priests and around the walls of the temple in a feast of renewal and reaffirmation, also confirming the king’s divine right to rule.
The details of the Sokar and Min festivals are supplemented by information on the exterior of the south wall in a list of festivals. The ‘Khoiak’ celebrations were similar to those at Abydos, involving the preparations of ‘Osiris Beds’ – wooden frames in the shape of the god, containing Nile silt and grain. The illustration of the ‘Henu-Barque’ (Sokar’s portable shrine) and the ‘Mejekh’ sledge which was originally hauled but in this case carried around the precincts. There is a Sokar chapel in the west part of the complex where the image, barque and sledge would have been stored.
The festival of Min is depicted on the walls of the northern half of the second court. This feast was celebrated for one day only as opposed to the ten days of the Sokar feast. It was tied to the first day of the Lunar month at the beginning of the harvest season, in mid-February during the time of Rameses III. Min is the potent primal god who is the spirit of procreation and fertility and his cult can be traced back to the beginning of Egyptian history.
Mimed hymns were a part of Min’s festival and the reliefs show the lector priest reading the texts for the festival, performed by priests, singers and dancers. The king is shown cutting emmer (a grain crop) putting it to his nose and placing it before Min. Later in the ritual the king liberated four groups of geese which are depicted in Medinet Habu as doves. It is suggested that the rites of Sokar and Min depicted here in the second court may represent the dual role of the king as both a mortal and a god.
The west wall of the second court is comprised of the Portico, a pillared colonnade which is raised above the level of the rest of the court. The scenes on this wall are ritualistic and still show a lot of colour. Here the king offers flowers, incense and cloth and performs ceremonies before various gods. At either side of the doorway the reliefs show coronation scenes in which Rameses is purified by Horus and Thoth, presented with kingship by Atum and other deities, and the events are recorded by the goddess Seshat. On a lower register is a procession of the king’s children, though whether they are actually sons and daughters of Rameses III is a question under debate.
From the Portico we go through the third pylon and looking up to the door soffit we see the beautifully painted cartouches of Rameses III. Once past the Portico we enter the inner parts of the temple where the resident gods and goddesses had their shrines.
Only properly purified people, that is the king or certain members of the priesthood, were allowed access to the temple proper. When it was in use the temple and its hypostyle halls would have been very dark and lit only from the roof or high windows. Today there is little left of the main temple apart from the surrounding suites of rooms and the stumpy bases of the hypostyle columns.
Along the north wall in the first hypostyle hall are five chapels devoted mostly to deities who shared the temple with its principal gods. At the entrance to the fourth chapel is a headless statue of Ptah, which is dated earlier, during the reign of Amenhotep III in Dynasty XVIII. Inside this chapel the ancient Henu barque of Sokar is depicted and so it is presumed that it was in this room that the hidden parts of his festival were performed, and from here that the barque was carried out in the procession.
In the next of the northern chambers there are scenes of butchering, but it is unlikely to have been used as a slaughterhouse but was probably a symbolic reminder of the significance of ritual slaughter on a magical level. The seventh room is dedicated to Montu, the ancient warrior god of the Theban Nome, and Amun-Re, and is probably a store for the cult objects for these gods. The last of the suites on the northern side is oriented east to west and the wide doorway and inscriptions show that it was again used to house a barque.
Going to the opposite corner in the south-east of the first hypostyle hall, there are more suites of rooms. Here we find the temple treasury where cult objects and precious metals would have been kept, to be brought out for use during the feast days. The king’s role as donor of these precious objects is stressed in the decoration of the treasury rooms. There is also a room here dedicated to the king’s ancestor, Rameses II.
In the second hypostyle hall the complex of Re-Horakhty is entered through a vestibule on the northern side. Here is stressed the king’s rulership over “what the sun disk encircles”. In these chambers the gods of earth and sky utter spells confirming the king’s effectiveness and duration as ruler. There are steps up to the roof from here, or we can turn left into the solar suite where the room is open to the sky and a sun altar was found during excavations. On a door lintel the king worships the barque on which Re completes his daily journey. Behind the king are groups of baboons which, because they greeted the rising sun with their howling, were thought of as the god’s heralds. The east wall contains a hymn to the rising sun.
Opposite this on the south side of the second hypostyle hall is a series of seven rooms known as the Osiris suite, devoted to the king’s survival in the hereafter, the Land of Osiris. The first room depicts the first stages in the king’s resurrection and his coronation in the Netherworld, as well as the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony. The king is shown seated under the sacred Ished tree, receiving jubilees from Amun-Re while Thoth writes the king’s name on it’s leaves. The second chamber shows the king before the gods. There is an offering hall with three niches. The king’s final triumph is shown in the inner room which depicts his arrival in the land of the dead. Rameses is seen rowing a boat on his journey towards the primeval gods of the Ennead, and in the register below he is at his destination, the fields of Iaru, where he is seen content to be labouring like a peasant, ploughing the ground with oxen, cutting grain and appearing before a seated Nile god. Another room in this complex is the chapel of Osiris, which has a partially restored astronomical ceiling, similar to one at the Ramesseum.
Going further into the back of the temple we come to its most important part, the home of the principal gods. The innermost chambers are unfortunately the most ruined part of the building, but remains show that here were the sanctuaries of the Theban Triad, the chapels of Amun, with his consort Mut and son Khons on either side. There is a third small hypostyle hall before these chapels with suites of rooms leading from it which are dedicated to other deities.
The rooms behind these three barque shrines of the Theban Triad appear to have been dedicated to Amun in his different forms. A permanent cult statue of Amun would probably have been housed in the room behind the barque shrine. The rear rooms were probably magazines for the storage of valuable ritual objects.
On the north-west side a suite is dedicated to a form of Amun who headed the group of nine gods known as the Ennead, nine primordial beings who came into existence at the beginning of time. We can only guess at the rites which took place here, but it is likely that it functioned as a hall of offerings. Here at the focus of the temple many pieces of statuary were discovered, some of which have been reassembled.
On leaving the temple, going back out through the first pylon, we can walk around the outside walls of the building where many large reliefs remain to document the life of Rameses III. One large interesting relief which is on the back of the first pylon on the south side depicts the king hunting in the marshes in pursuit of game. Here we see the bull hunt, with the king balancing himself in his chariot and wielding a long spear. Below him his escorts march with bow and arrows towards the birds and fish in the lake in front of them.
The area south of the temple between the first and second pylons is occupied by the palace area, which were actually two distinct palaces, both built by Rameses III. Originally they were built with mudbrick, but the remains today are only to be seen as low walls and doorways. The later palace has been restored so that visitors can see how it was laid out, the throne room with the dais still in situ and parts of the king’s living quarters which include a bathroom and stone bath, or shower, complete with drains. The rooms in the palace are small and it is thought that the king would not have used it for more than a flying visit to attend the festivals. Also the service units, such as kitchens and stables were not attached to the palace but were located in other parts of the temple complex. It was more of a dummy palace, intended to serve the king’s spirit throughout eternity. The second palace also had an upper storey.
The rest of the space inside the mudbrick enclosure walls was occupied with neatly planned rows of offices and private houses which have mostly vanished today, except for one house, that of Butehamun, but remains show that Medinet Habu was more than just a temple, it was a whole town which survived long after the reign of Rameses III.
The area in front of the First Pylon seems to have been the stables and quarters of the king’s bodyguard to the south, and groves and pens for cattle to the north, as well as an area which was once a large garden with a pool. Coming back to the forecourt of the temple grounds we pass four chapels which are both mausoleums and mortuary shrines. The earliest one was built during the reign of Osorkon III, c.754 BC. These shrines were built for the ‘God’s Wife of Amun’, or ‘Divine Adoratrce’, titles held by the kings’ daughters of the Third Intermediate Period who were Amun’s living consorts and lived unmarried in ceremonial splendour. They were representatives of royal power, visible symbols of Theban loyalty to the king who lived in the north. The chapels belonged to Shepenwepet I, Amenirdis I (built by her adopted daughter Shepenwepet II), Shepenwepet II (built by Nitocris) with another burial chamber here for Nitocris herself. There was also a western extension for Nitocris’s birth mother Mehytenweskhet. A fourth chapel, now vanished, was apparently assigned to Ankhnesneferibre, the last holder, at least from this period, of the Divine Votress title.
A small sacred lake which still contains water lies in the north-east corner of the temple complex.