Journal: Sunday 12 October 1997
On Sunday my two friends and I spent a whole day at Medinet Habu Temple – my favourite West Bank site which was so often overlooked by tourists in favour of the Ramesseum or Deir el-Bahri. Many tour groups spend only a morning on the West Bank. Time is necessarily limited on these tours and the morning trip usually consists of a quick dash around The Valley of the Kings (and possibly Queens), Hatshepsut’s Temple and if they’re lucky, one or two nobles’ tombs. It is only those people who stay in Luxor and are able to return again and again to the West Bank that are able to see more of these wonderful monuments. Even so, Medinet Habu wasn’t well known. This was my fourth time in Luxor and I still considered that I hadn’t seen a fraction of the sites.
The temple at Medinet Habu is a huge complex of stone towers and pylons and massive mudbrick ramparts, 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.
The distinctive 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 we could 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. From the first floor windows there was a fabulous view over the whole temple.
As we were all studying together, we decided to spend the whole day at the temple and look at the reliefs in greater detail. I had developed a great interest in the ‘God’s Wives of Amun’, or ‘Divine Adoratrices’, king’s daughters of the Third Intermediate Period who were Amun’s earthly consorts and lived unmarried in ceremonial splendour. These women were representatives of royal power, visible symbols of Theban loyalty to the king who lived in the north. In the forecourt of the temple grounds there are four chapels which are both mausoleums and mortuary shrines, belonging to Amenirdis I, Nitocris, Shepenwepet II and Mehytenweskhet .
In the north-east corner of the courtyard there is a 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 20th Dynasty, having been built by Hatshepsut in the mid-18th Dynasty and extended by her successor Tuthmosis III, but archaeologists have found traces of an even older construction here. This small temple was being restored, the three shines at the rear were closed, but we could go through it into the more modern Roman parts.
Back into the forecourt we were faced with the First Pylon of the Rameses Temple, a massive structure that had the usual gigantic depictions of the king smiting his enemy captives before the gods, a symbolic representation I was now used to seeing in most Egyptian temples. There are actually three pylon gateways, the inner two with a portico and court before them, two hypostyle halls and numerous side chambers, all in an excellent state of preservation. The colour on the reliefs is still quite vivid in places, due to the fact that parts of the monument was later re-used as a Christian church and the reliefs were painted over, keeping them in good condition. The first court, which adjoins the king’s palace, mostly depicts the military exploits of the king, but also the daily temple rituals, 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, which would have been low and dark when in use. 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 which shows in great detail, the religious festivals of the gods Min and Sokar that were celebrated here at Medinet Habu. The square pillars in the second court have many depictions of gods and goddesses and because we were learning to read hieroglyphs we were able to work our way around and work out their names. The Portico leads through the third pylon and looking up to the door soffit we could see the beautifully painted cartouches of Rameses III. Once past the Portico we entered the inner parts of the temple where the resident gods and goddesses had their shrines. Only properly purified people, i.e. 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.
Going back out through the first pylon, we walked around the outside walls of the building where many large reliefs document the life of Rameses III. One especially beautiful relief on the back of the first pylon on the south side of the temple shows the king hunting in the marshes in pursuit of game. Here we could 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. Also on the southern side are the remains of the restored palace area, containing 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 – this was fascinating.
The rest of the space inside the mudbrick enclosure walls was occupied with neatly planned rows of offices and private houses which have now mostly vanished, except for one house, that of the scribe, 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.
After seven hours in the temple, working our way through the various courts and rooms we were all very tired. The guard who had followed us around for the first hour or so had given up on us long ago. We had gone out for a short lunch break at the Rameses Cafe opposite and now we decided we would stay on the West Bank and have dinner there too. This led to several hilarious games of an Egyptian form of Ludo afterwards, so it was around 10.00pm by the time we got back to the ferry to cross the river. Tonight the crossing was even scarier. It was the opening night of Aida at Deir el-Bahri and security was especially tight. We still had the police launch with its big guns to escort the ferry but there was also a police helicopter with searchlights flying overhead. We had also noticed that there were lines of soldiers camping on top of the Theban Mountain and soldiers on the ferry too. It felt like being in a war zone, but I guess they were just being cautious with the president and other bigwigs here today.