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Temple culture in Ptolemaic Egypt alive and kicking

Egyptian temple culture was thought to be declining in the Ptolemaic era, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Egyptologist Carina van den Hoven. Temple culture was very much alive and kicking. PhD defence 16 February.


Carina van den Hoven travelled to Eqypt every year for her PhD research, to study temples and photograph what she saw. Having studied the ritual scenes depicted on the walls of the temples and deciphering the texts written in hieroglyphics, she discovered that innovations were introduced into the contemporary temple culture that were rooted in ancient traditions. These innovations reflected the much broader context of innovations that had been taking place in Egypt over a longer period.   

The naos (the holy of holies) of the temple of Edfu

Bloody wars

After Alexander's sudden death, the region underwent a period of turbulence. His Macedonian empire stretched over 4,000 kilometres, from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. There being no capable successor, Alexander's former generals were appointed as governors of different parts of the empire, but all too soon they were waging bloody wars to annex parts of one another's territory. In 322 BC, ex-general Ptolemy (full name: Ptolemy I Soter) gained authority over Eqypt, and in 305 BC he proclaimed himself king.  After his death in 283 BC, he was succeeded by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Renewal was everywhere

Van den Hoven indicates that renewal was happening throughout society.  This process was influenced by the many Greek people who left for Alexandria, the new capital of Egypt on the north coast, to engage in trade or who settled elsewhere. The economy was flourishing. In agriculture, new crops were grown, such as different grains, and the waterwheel was introduced to irrigate fields. And it was under Ptolemy that coins were first used as a means of payment, which went some way to ending the barter system. In this climate of renewal, it is likely that there were also innovations in the local temples. 

Detail from the coronation ritual of the Living Holy Falcon in Edfu

Ritual texts modernised

‘The temples seem very traditional, as if nothing has changed since the time of the pharoahs,' says Van den Hoven, ‘but if you take a closer look, you will see innovations in their architecture and decoration. More than 2,000 new hieroglyphs were added in the Ptolemaic period. The ritual temple texts also underwent a change, and new ones were added.  Older, more traditional texts were re-used to replace some of these new compositions. The claim that Ancient Egyptian culture  was in decline in this period, is therefore misplaced.  

Statue of the falcon god Horus in the temple
of Edfu

Coronation of a living falcon

Van den Hoven examined the temples of Edfu and Dendera. These temples date from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras and have been well preserved. Using the inscriptions and decorations, Van den Hoven reconstructed the new ritual of the Coronation of the Living Holy Falcon, an annual ceremony that took place on the site of the temple. She discovered where exactly specific rituals were performed by examining the texts and the scenes depicted on the temple walls. ‘In 1954, French Egyptologist Maurice Alliot described a number of rituals from the temple at Edfu. He concluded that the scenes on the temple walls should be read from the outside inwards, and from the bottom upwards. However, my research indicates that the sequence of the scenes on the temple walls says nothing about the actual performance of the rituals, so I ignored the sequence and arrived at different findings, which led to a completely new construction of the ritual.' 

No renewal without traditions

Van den Hoven: ‘The importance of traditions is often explained as  a reaction to the marginalisation of the native Eqyptian priests in the Ptolemaic period. The priests are thought to have tried to maintain the traditions in order to preserve their cultural identity and to compensate for their loss of status. That's not my impression at all. What I found is that it was not so much a matter of maintaining their own cultural identity but rather a redefinition of Egyptian cultural identity based on tradition. This was very important for the acceptance of the changes and innovations that were taking place. It's easier to accept changes if they are anchored in tradition.' 


Special PhD

Carina van den Hoven

Van den Hoven's PhD is unusual in that it is a co-production of Leiden University and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. Van den Hoven will defend her dissertation in Leiden, but will receive both a Leiden and a Paris diploma. Her research was financed by the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, the Conseil Régional Île-de-France, the Prince Bernhard Cultural Fund, the Dr Catharine van Tussenbroek Fund and the Leiden University Fund.

16 February
The coronation ritual of the falcon at Edfu: tradition and innovation in ancient Egyptian ritual composition

On 1 March Van den Hoven will start a research fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for the Near East.

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