This aerial photo by Grethe.Denmark – flickr.
One of the best preserved of the many west bank temples at Luxor is the famous Medinet Habu. The temple has been studied and published in great detail and if one has access to a good Egyptology library one can study the plans. Very many of the coloured reliefs and carvings have been published as postcards and watercolours.
I took the little ferry across the river. On the previous night I’d had dinner with my friends Dr John Ward & Maria Nilsson. They’d recommended a local bicycle hire. The young manager walked me down to the ferry port late that night, I think he was walking beside me to gauge what size bicycle to prepare. He would have to raise the saddle up to the max as I am very tall. In the morning it was there all ready. It a great way to get about as the roads are well metalled, wide and flat and the few miles to the colossus of Memnon and then ticket office for Habu flew by.
There’s a lot to see at Habu and I was glad I’d allowed the whole morning. Even so I will need to return as there is much that I missed. The sacred space of all Egyptian temples is almost invariable delineated by a mud brick curtain wall or temenos.
Habu temple was built by Ramses III who was not one of Egypt most popular kings. This unpopularity is also evidenced in the fortress like nature of the temple. One is greeted by a forbidding fortified gatehouse, which also apparently housed the harim. Not that it was that big a harim, indeed elsewhere to the south of the temple are the royal living quarters, which are substantial stone built structures but quite modest in scale, small bedrooms with en suite latrines. Presumable Ramses III’s massive mortuary temple also offered some living space.
Images of Ramses III offering to various gods, the execrated image is Seth with Hathor. (for background to this relationship see Mogg Morgan “The Bull of Ombos”.)
The Harim / gatehouse is reputed to be the place where one of the royal wives successfully plotted to murder Ramses III. This is the infamous Harim Conspiracy which is well documented in surviving papyrus trial records. These court records show it was an extensive conspiracy involving aristocrats, military types and even priests who used manuscripts in the Temple House of Life to weave spells that made Ramses’s guards fall into a deep sleep. One can wonder at these guards, several of whom shared the grizzly fate of the comspirators, perhaps lying prone in some hypnotic stupor, unable to call out as the horific events unfold. Or perhaps they disliked their master and turned a blind eye, claiming magick made it so.
There is something existentially strange about this fortress temple, built to celebrate Ramses III mortuary cult but becoming his de facto prison and even dungeon from which he embraced his own fate. Some of the Hieroglyphic inscriptions are the deepest I have ever seen. Brings to mind that line from the epic “The Ten Commandments” “the Pharoahs like their images cut deep.” These are so deep (see picture) birds make their nests in the signs, a problem for conservators. Ramses III obviously feared that his name would be erased as soon as someone had the opportunity.
Before entering the temple proper one must pay respects to the four intact shrines of the divine votresses, “God’s Wife of Amun”, royal princesses of the late period who held that office and are buried in small crypts beneath. One is admonished to make offerings on their behalf before entering the temple. A voice offering will do – “hotep di nesew, neteret Aa, etc.” Whereas the gatehouse/barbican is the mundane entrance to the site, these chapels are the spiritual, threshold guardians of the entire site.
. . . The site is a lot more complex theologically than one might at first suppose. There is an 18th dynasty temple to the right of the main gate (cordoned off for conservation/investigation when i was there). There are also three Nilometers, and a small sacred lake. The guardian took me down a deep litter strewn passageway and threw something into a deep pool of water to confirm that it was indeed there . Which is confirms that the Nile does indeed still flow through the shale layer of its bed – and even though we are several kilometers from the main stream this ancient instrument is still working.
Ramsese III temple is of course magnificent and the prospect under the lowering, arid cliffs of the Theban Hills is stunningly beautiful. Even so I dodn’t like the vibe of the main temple. In the constructions of Ramses II, one gets this similar power archetecture but it is confined to the outer courtyards and gives way to the mpre clearly numinous as one progresses further westwards into the temple. I didn’t ge tthat sense here – this is a real power building and rarely deviates from that purpose.
The best magick here is inside the temenos but outside the temple wall in small structures such as the Nilometers, still the focus of local cult, within living memory used to ask for the boon of children and to lustrate newborns when they come. The outer walls of the temple are scared with thousands of scaping marks, where the folk have ground some of the stone away to consume its “baraka” in there potions. The books say this activity of concentrated in Roman times, and indeed such marks are often seen high up on pillars in Luxor temples, indicating it was done before the pillars were re-erected. But my friends believe it is a practice from earlier times also.