Abstract: Popular and Profane Experiences with the Sublime: The Temple as a Social and Cultural Focus in Egypt


One’s first impression of an Egyptian temple is that it was the exclusive domain of the gods, the king, and the priests.  The distinguishing characteristic of the temple precinct is that it circumscribed and limited architecturally a site that was regarded as fundamentally unlike the mundane space into which it was set; for the temple was constructed precisely at the interface between the sacred and the profane.  This boundary was described symbolically in the consecration of the very ground on which the temple was erected, and concretely by a series of imposing, progressively more restrictive enclosure walls which surrounded and protected it.  The sanctuary was located mythologically at the exact center of the Universe, where the Primordial Event of Creation had occurred; here the earthly or temporal world and the divine celestial and infernal worlds met and were linked via a miraculous portal.  In such a cosmic setting, what role could the ordinary population possibly play?  And yet temples were formally designated as “places of supplication and hearing the petitions of gods and humans.”  The temple was not irrelevant to daily life; in fact, it was fully integrated into the life of the surrounding community.  The lecture examines human aspects of the New Kingdom temple (1570-1070 BCE).  Because of the focus that the temple provided in their lives, the people of Egypt have always been active on its peripheries.  In antiquity they even participated in public processions during annual festivals, when they were introduced into the less restricted courtyards and ceremonial halls of the temple.  In the role of “congregation,” they took part as both adorers and witnesses to the dramatic success of the important rites conducted there.  In political terms, these festivals constituted symbolic display, staged to reinforce the king’s power and position as head of society.  Finally, it will be noted that ancient Egypt is still an important component of modern Egypt, and there has been considerable cultural continuity in the past 3500 years, particularly in the realm of folklore and popular belief. 

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