Journal: Thursday 19 March 1998
Robin and I decided to spend another day at the Temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu. The sky was clearer today and there would be a good light for photographing the beautiful colourful reliefs in the temple. We took an arabeya up to the ticket office and bought our tickets for the temple. The ticket clerk this morning was a friendly man who we had got to know over the past couple of weeks and he always had time for a chat, so we stopped for a while to pass the time of day with him before taking the back road to Medinet Habu, past the sites of several long-gone temples, alongside the massive mudbrick walls and through the impressive towers of the temple gateway.
The West Bank temples are usually referred to as mortuary temples, dedicated to the funerary cult of the deceased pharaoh and usually carried on their rites after the death of the king, at least until the next big mortuary temple was established. But Medinet Habu was more than a mortuary temple or a cult temple, it was a town and administrative centre in use throughout most of the new Kingdom and into the Graeco-Roman Period. At times when Egypt was rocked by the threat of marauding Libyans or torn by civil war, the town became a fortress and much of the local population lived within its protective walls. Later the Coptic Christians took it over and built their church and dwellings within the courts of Rameses. Its ancient Egyptian title, the ‘Mansion of Millions of Years of Rameses III’, evokes the spirit of this important temple complex. Of all the temples in Egypt, it is at Medinet Habu that I can most easily peel away the dusty layers of the centuries and imagine the rites and festivals that once took place here, the gods who lived here and the people who worked in and cared for the place.
Having concentrated on tombs so far on this visit, I wanted to have a look at the Osiris suite in the south wing, to see how the images of the god here related to Osiris as god of the dead in the tombs. I had seen in the royal tombs how the king passed with the sun god on his long hazardous journey to be reborn in the Afterlife, to dwell forever with the gods. Here in the temple we see Osiris in a slightly different aspect, as ‘Ruler of Eternity’. There are a whole series of rooms which are loosely called the Osiris Complex, though several other deities are portrayed here too. In an outer chamber Rameses III is shown sitting inside the sacred ished tree, receiving his jubilees from Amun-Re, while Thoth writes his name on the leaves of the tree. I love this image, which can also be seen on the front of the first pylon. I was particularly interested in two small rooms towards the rear of the suite which seemed to depict the king’s reception into the Netherworld and to portray his expectations of eternal life there. One scene, a cameo from the ‘Book of the Dead’ shows the King arriving in the ‘Fields of Iaru’, which is his final destination in the Afterlife, once he has passed through the trials of death depicted in his tomb. In ‘Iaru’ the deceased must work the land, which is always plentiful, just like an idealised picture of Egypt itself. I would imagine that the King would have many servants to do the actual labouring (his ushabtis), but the symbolism on the walls is self-explanatory. He can be seen ploughing the fields with oxen, cutting and harvesting grain and appealing to the Nile god Hapy for a good inundation. On the opposite wall the King brings offerings and recites prayers to Osiris asking to be rewarded for his trials in arriving in this celestial land of plenty. In the inner room there are several small but complicated scenes from the ‘Book of the Dead’ which represent the King’s eventual success in his transformation into ‘an Osiris’. Many of the chambers are very dark, the walls blackened with age.
What we know about Osiris as god of the dead, comes from the funerary texts. I had seen many portrayals of Osiris in the king’s tombs, as well as the nobles tombs. He is always shown in tombs as a mummified figure, sometimes seated on a throne. To begin with, from the Old Kingdom, Osiris was probably known as a fertility god, but in later times his renown was as a god of the Afterlife who has denied death to live an everlasting life in eternity. As a resurrected deity he is ruler of the Afterlife and it is with Osiris that the deceased king becomes merged in Egyptian theology. Osiris was also considered an aspect of the sun god, or the sun god’s counterpart in the Afterlife, at least in the New Kingdom, and he represented for the king, a salvation and a resurrection for his everlasting life. Here in the Osiris Complex at Medinet Habu I could see the continuation of the Osiris mythology beyond the tomb.
I spent a long time here making notes to follow up later and taking what photographs I could of the beautiful scenes, though it was quite dark and the small rooms were unlit. Of course I didn’t really know very much about what I was looking at before going away and doing a lot of reading. But this Osiris suite has become one of my favourite parts of Habu Temple and I always make a point of visiting these chambers since then.