While houses were built of mud brick, temples were built of stone beyond the reach of the flood plane.
Each was approached by an avenue, flanked with statues.
This lead to the first pylon [‘gate’], a tapering façade with an opening, flanked by an obelisk or towering statues, with flags.
Inside was a peristyle courtyard surrounded by colonnades which may have been the public area of the temple.
Opposite the first lay the second pylon with a smaller gateway. Access to this was restricted to priests.
Inside were various rooms for equipment and offerings and the hypostyle hall with a roof supported by columns.
Deep within the temple was the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary where the god dwelt in the cult statue standing in the naos [‘inner shrine’]. From the New Kingdom onwards the shrine took the form of a boat. Only the high priest or pharaoh could enter this shrine. The floor of the temple rose towards it to reflect the primordial mound.
The primeval waters of Nun were reflected in the sacred lake where the priests purified themselves.
The pylon represented the horizon, and the columns with their papyrus and lotus tops the original marsh.
The temple was a place of learning, with the library being called ‘the House of Life’. It offered healing, kept all the public records and had workshops for the creation of perfumes and storerooms for the temple goods. Temples employed huge numbers of people; Karnak in the New Kingdom, for example, utilised over eighty thousand workers, though not all were priests. Ordinary people might spend part of the year serving the gods in the temple.
Priests had to be purified in mind and body before entering the temple, and this included shaving off body hair. The statue of the god was washed and dressed daily and offered food; the god was thought to eat ‘the essence’ of it. The lector priests chanted the hymns for the god and also magic spells, as magic was a huge part of Egyptian ritual. The sem priest [dressed in a leopard skin] was important in funerals especially the ritual of the opening of the mouth.
Priestesses were called hemet netjer or “wife of the god” and were usually married to the priests. They generally served as singers and musicians, performing ceremonial dances accompanied by rattles.
At funerals two priestesses took the roles of Isis and Nepthys.
The title ‘god’s wife of Amun’ was held by a daughter of the king and was a powerful position. By the later period the post was more important than the high priest’s and she controlled the vast wealth and estates of Amun.