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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur: Temples

The Dynasty 12 pyramid complex of Senwosret III (r. ca. 1878–1840 B.C.) included two separate temples dedicated to the cult of the king. The first structure was a small pyramid temple, which was directly attached to the center of the east side of the king’s pyramid. The construction of pyramid temples commenced with the start of pyramid building in Dynasty 4 and continued until the end of the Middle Kingdom. During Dynasty 4 and early Dynasty 5 of the Old Kingdom, the size, shape, and presumably religious ideas surrounding the structures changed considerably as the Egyptians developed their beliefs about the pharaoh’s place in society and his afterlife. In late Dynasty 5 and into Dynasty 6, pyramid temples reached their large “classic” phase, which included a long entrance room leading to a columned courtyard, multiple statue shrines, a long offering hall, and extensive storage facilities. The limestone walls of sacred spaces were covered with elaborate painted relief scenes depicting the king enacting rituals, receiving the blessings of deities, and being brought the food offerings needed for sustenance in the afterlife. After Dynasty 6, pyramid building declined; it was revived at the beginning of Dynasty 12 (Middle Kingdom), along with the characteristic large pyramid temples. However, as Dynasty 12 progressed, pyramid temples systematically shrank in size, a development that must reflect profound changes in religious belief and the conception of the king’s afterlife.

At the pyramid of Senwosret III at Dahshur, the pyramid temple became a diminutive rectangular structure that lacked a grand entrance passage, courtyard, and multiple statue chambers. Although the walls, floors, and foundations of Senwosret III’s pyramid temple were completely destroyed by ancient stone robbers, the recovery of approximately 13,000 pieces of relief decoration from the temple provides important information about the scenes that were depicted and, by extension, the interior structure of the temple. Reconstructed fragments indicate that the outside of the temple had an elaborate inscription. At the corners, rectangular panels displayed the names and titles of the king and described him as beloved of various deities, including Nekhbet, a vulture goddess, and Wadjet, a cobra goddess. Across the tops of the walls, large horizontal texts also listed the pharaoh’s names and titles. In the interior of the temple, at least one room was decorated with large-scale ritual scenes depicting the king interacting with deities. In another room, the walls were covered by processions of deities striding toward large images of the king. Along with human-headed male and female deities, those that combined jackal, lioness, falcon, ram, or crocodile heads with human bodies were also included. The innermost room of Senwosret III’s pyramid temple was an offering chamber. Here the walls were covered with depictions of human offering bearers bringing foodstuffs to the enthroned king. Above the figures were piles of edibles, including fruits, vegetables, meat, and fowl. At the short end of the room, against the pyramid, was a false door that enabled the deceased king to partake of the actual food offerings placed in the room by priests.

Later in the reign of Senwosret III, an enormous temple, designated the South Temple by the present excavators, was built to the south of the original pyramid complex. The building was 47 x 76 meters, making it one of the largest temples of the Middle Kingdom. In plan, the temple consists of a large rectangle with a square projection at the east end of the south side. This arrangement is similar to royal mortuary temples of the New Kingdom and may indicate that the temple type begins earlier than was previously thought. Unfortunately, as was the case with the pyramid temple, all the walls, floors, and foundations of the South Temple were completely destroyed by ancient stone robbers; since the parallels for this type of temple are much later in date, it is difficult to deduce the interior arrangement of the building. Remains of papyrus-bundle columns in two sizes suggest that the temple had two courts or hypostyle halls. Fragments of relief decoration show that the temple included important scenes of the Sed festival, a series of rituals intended to renew the king’s powers that ideally took place after he had completed thirty years on the throne. Other scenes included the king dominating foreign captives, nature scenes, and personifications of the seasons of the year. In addition, the temple included scenes of presentation of food offerings and rituals that duplicate those found in the pyramid temple.