Temples & Tombs of New Kingdom Egypt

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some of Egypt's greatest architectural wonders were buildings to house the dead. In this lesson, we're going to explore the temples and tombs of the New Kingdom and see how they reflected Egyptian life.

The New Kingdom

Egyptian history is long. Really long. Three thousand years long. To cover that much time, Egyptian history is divided into a series of periods based on common trends.

One of the most famous of those periods is the New Kingdom, which covered the 18th, 19th, and 20th Dynasties of the Egyptian pharaohs. Lasting from roughly 1570 to 1069 BCE, this era was marked by extremely powerful pharaohs who expanded the kingdom's borders, created an Egyptian Empire, and ruled with absolute authority. However, they were also obsessed with their legacies, and commissioned incredible temples and tombs, testaments to the eternal authority of some of Earth's most powerful rulers.

The Ramesseum

Our tour of New Kingdom temples begins in the reign of Ramses II, a 19th Dynasty pharaoh who ruled Egypt from around 1279 to 1213 BCE. Few pharaohs had as great an impact on Egypt as Ramses II, who expanded the borders and helped turn the kingdom into a truly mighty empire.

Like all pharaohs, Ramses II was obsessed with his immortal legacy, and had a massive temple commissioned where the people could come and worship him as a god after death. That temple is called the Ramesseum, dedicated to both Ramses II and the popular god Amun. It's located near the city of Thebes, a prominent capital of the New Kingdom pharaohs. The Ramesseum was an expansive temple, completed with rows and rows of columns and once guarded by monumental statues of Ramses himself. The largest of these was roughly 57 feet tall, making it one of the most colossal works of art in the ancient world.

Ruins of the Ramesseum

Asides from the magnificent architecture and impressive statues, the walls of the Ramesseum are also covered in reliefs (probably painted originally), which show scenes from some of Ramses' most important military victories. These carvings have provided some of the most important information we have about the time period for historians. All in all, if Ramses II's goal was to immortalize his name and legacy, the Ramesseum certainly did the job.

Medinet Habu

Next, let's skip ahead a century into the 20th Dynasty and the reign of Ramses III. Ruling from roughly 1186 to 1155 BCE, Ramses III was realistically the last of the all-powerful pharaohs of the New Kingdom before the dynasty went into decline. Like his namesake, Ramses III sought to immortalize his power and legacy through architecture.

The mortuary temple of Ramses III is known as Medinet Habu. Also built near Thebes and basically resembling the Ramesseum in size and layout, Medinet Habu is nonetheless an architectural marvel in its own right. Dedicated to various gods as well as Ramses III himself, the temple is a nexus of courtyards, columns, and chapels. It too is covered in wall reliefs, which depicts scenes of battles and festivals. Most famous are the reliefs of the war against the mysterious invaders identified by the Egyptians as the Sea Peoples, who were defeated by Ramses III.

The temple to Ramses III at Medinet Habu

Deir el-Medina

As you can probably tell, Thebes was an important place for burials in ancient Egypt. It was near here that the famous Valley of the Kings was located as well. The Valley of the Kings was where underground tombs were used to try and save the pharaohs from the humiliation of grave robbers. However, we're not going to talk about the Valley of the Kings today. We're going to talk about the people who built it.

Near Thebes, Pharaoh Tuthmosis I of the 18th dynasty founded a village to house the artisans and craftsmen who built the elaborate tombs of the kings. This village was called Deir el-Medina. It continued to grow in size and importance during the New Kingdom, as more pharaohs were buried in the sacred valley.

Apart from the roughly 70 houses that make up Deir el-Medina, the site also contains its own necropolis. Who was buried inside? Most of the tombs here were those of the artisans, foremen, and other bureaucrats who built simple but beautiful tombs for themselves.

Wall murals from the tomb of Sennedjem in Deir el-Medina

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