Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions(CISMOR)Doshisha University > Public Lectures > Memphis and Thebes: Gods, Kings, and Human Beings in Ancient Egyptian Society

Public Lectures

Public Lecture with The Society of Near Eastern Studies in Japan

Memphis and Thebes: Gods, Kings, and Human Beings in Ancient Egyptian Society

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Date: 2011/02/12 13:00 − 15:00
Place: Room M1, Meitoku-kan 1F, Imadegawa Campus, Doshisha University
Lecture: Tomoaki NAKANO, Associate Professor, Chubu University/ Member of The Society of Near Eastern Studies in Japan
Pyramids and temples, the gigantic buildings symbolic of the ancient Egyptian civilization, have often been considered to be mutually irrelevant. To be specific, most of the pyramids date to the period of the Old Kingdom, while a majority of the temples were constructed from the period of the Middle Kingdom to the beginning of the Christian era, when the ancient Egyptian civilization came to an end. In addition, the pyramids are located mainly around Egypt's oldest capital, Memphis, while the temples were built in many parts of the country, the most famous of which is Karnak Temple in Thebes—the capital of the Middle and New Kingdom.
Thus, the pyramids and the temples are largely different from each other in terms of dates of construction and geographical locations, but it may be of significance to look to the similarities between them to explore the view of the world held by ancient Egyptians that could have contributed to such similarities.
The three Great Pyramids of Giza refer to the two great Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure, which is smaller than the former two. As discussed by an American archaeologist, Mark Lehner, it is known that the sun sets in the middle of the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre when viewed from the Great Sphinx on the evening of the summer solstice. This can indicate that these pyramids were designed to represent akhet, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic word meaning “horizon” and “the next world.” As well, the old names of the pyramids contained many descriptions about kings, such as “King … is perfect” and “King … is the star of …”
There is no doubt that pyramids were built as tombs of kings, as clearly evidenced by the presence of funerary objects, sarcophagi, parts of mummies, and the pyramid texts inscribed on the walls of burial chambers. However, pyramids could have served for other purposes as well, considering that the two great Pyramids were designed to represent a hieroglyphic word and individual pyramids were called by the names that contained descriptions regarding kings. While conventional theories hold that the pyramids represent stairways leading to the next world or rays of the sun, the presenter also believes that the group of pyramids on the high plateau overlooking Memphis could be interpreted by people of Memphis as symbolizing the next world and the eternal rule of their kings. Today’s research interest mostly lies in the structures of pyramids and funeral objects found within them, but these elements were unknown to ancient Egyptian people. In this light, it may be reasonable to conclude that the pyramids played certain symbolic roles.
Assumedly, this reasoning also applies to the two huge temples built in Thebes, which is home to two tomb areas for kings and royal family members—the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. To pray for the soul of deceased kings, a funerary temple was built near each of these valleys, around the border of the floodplain of the Nile. Karnak Temple stands on an extension of a line drawn from the valley to the funerary temple, and so does Luxor Temple, which suggests the similarity to the combination of a pyramid, a funerary temple, and a valley temple. The similarity to pyramids is also indicated by the pylons (entrances) of the temples that are shaped like akhet.
Why, then, did ancient Egyptians build pyramids in Memphis and temples in Thebes? Of course, we can think of various reasons, such as the change in the view of kingship and the emergence of priests with power, but the main reason can be the geographical difference. While the firm and flat limestone plateau of Memphis made it possible to build pyramids, in Thebes, with its range of rocky hills, the natural hills were viewed as pyramids. For this reason, people built funerary and valley temples in Memphis, and a funerary temple and two huge temples in Luxor, as facilities attached to pyramids.
In other words, both the pyramids and temples were expected to assume the same role: to make people aware of the existence of the next world and remind them of the leadership of kings. Only through kings could people be connected to gods. As such, kings were supposed to have a highly ethical character and were to fulfill their roles with integrity. Probably, such attributes of kings enabled the Egyptian civilization to sustain its prosperity for the period of 3,000 years, though undergoing various ups and downs.
Tomoaki NAKANO
(Associate Professor, Chubu University)
*This lecture will be given in Japanese.

Hosted by: The Society of Near Eastern Studies in Japan
Co-hosted by: School of Theology, Doshisha University