Home » The Role of the Temple in Mesopotamia and Egypt

The Role of the Temple in Mesopotamia and Egypt

The religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt have long been studied by fascinated students, scholars, and the like. The remains left behind from these civilizations have provided great insight into their culture, philosophy, and religion. For these and most ancient cultures, the temple was the center of the city, often playing many roles – religious, social economic, etc. It is important to view the religious concepts of these civilizations in light of their environment. Religion evolves in the context of the need for survival, and such needs are unique to a civilization given their environment.

People believe in what they need to believe in order to survive. The Egyptians had two types of temples – cultic and funerary. Central to their religion were the concepts of divine kingship and consubstantiality. Mesopotamian religion tended to center around lament as well as the division between the earthly and the cosmos. Although the temples of the Mesopotamia and Egypt had significant similarities, the main disparities in the roles they played for each civilization mainly stems from (1) the challenges each had to face as well as (2) the resulting differing concepts of divine kingship and human existence.

Before discussing the specifics of the role of the temple, it is important to understand the source of the conceptual disparities, beginning with Egypt. Egypt was a civilization blessed with life-giving Nile, fertile soil and consequently, an abundance of agricultural and other survival necessities. The Egyptians’ more sheltered and prosperous presence predisposed them to a sort of smugness of their own impressive existence. Their great success and stability were attributed to the ruler of the united Egypt. As mentioned earlier, the Egyptians operated on the concept that the Pharaoh was a divine entity.

The essentiality of this concept of divine kingship in Egypt can be well demonstrated by looking at what happened when the concept was in question. During the Intermediate periods, when divine kingship was in doubt, Egypt’s once stable nation was in chaos without this god-king, or Pharaoh. The belief in the divinity of the king seems to be almost essential to the success of their civilization. The Egyptian Pharaoh is referred to as the “god in residence”, and he ruled and blessed the country as he was appointed to do by his father, the chief deity of the land Amon-Re.

It seems that the concept of divine kingship was at least in part, a result of the environmental conditions in which the Egyptians lived. The Mesopotamian environment, on the other hand, was less stable. “The Tigris and the Euphrates are not like the Nile; they may rise unpredictably, breaking man’s dikes and submerging his crops. ” The Mesopotamians were faced with the harsh reality that they were powerless over whatever great forces surrounded him. There was no divine king to offer him security and shelter. Unlike Egypt, the Mesopotamians had a more direct relationship with god.

They did eventually evolve a divine king concept, but it was much later, probably borrowing it from the Egyptians. Originally, the king was not divine himself, but instead looked to the gods for guidance and release from whatever difficulties were being faced on earth. Unfortunately, even the gods were not always reliable: “The power of even the strongest gods could not prevail against the combined will of the divine assembly; and the assembly, swayed by inscrutable motives, might order death and destruction of its own. ” Mesopotamian deity worship often included lamentation of adverse conditions and prayer for divine intervention.

Once again, it is probable that the challenges the environment imposed upon the Mesopotamians greatly influenced these religious practices. To begin comparing the differing religious structures, one may start with the physical temple structure itself. The Egyptians were a people proud of their success and continuity. Egyptian architecture tended to be durable, usually “built of stone to last ‘for eternity. ‘” The great stone temples, both funerary and cultic, almost always represented the eternal (continuity of life after death as well as the embodiment of the gods).

The Mesopotamians, however, did not have access to sufficiently durable materials and were forced to build temples with mud-brick. Naturally, they did not hold up very long; temples were constantly being rebuilt or repaired. While much information on Mesopotamian culture is forever lost to us in the rubble of the remains, many ancient Egyptian structures are still standing strong. While these physicalities do not say very much about the cultures or religions of these two civilizations, it certainly is symbolic of the differences in environmental challenges they faced.

When discussing temples, one of the first things one must consider is the purpose and role of temple itself. In other words, what did the temple mean to the worshipper and what was his goal in going there? For both the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, the temple was the home of the deity and the place where divinity was accessible to all. This house of god welcomed worshippers inside from the mundane human world, almost playing the role of a sanctuary. Apart from this shared ground, the Egyptian and Mesopotamian temples differed considerably in specific purpose.

The Egyptians had two types of temples: (1) Cultic temples, which were the home of the deity and (2) Funerary temples for the worship of the dead, assuring the “eternal existence of the human soul. ” It was natural that the Egyptians, in their relatively secure existence, looked to the numinous for continuity of this “good life”. In fact, we have little evidence that the Egyptians ever conceived of an end or destruction of their world; their only myths regarding this are attempts by the gods that fail to destroy mankind.

Evidently, the purpose of the Egyptian temple and cosmos were a response to the daily situations that they faced on earth. For the Mesopotamians, the temple was a powerful “visible assurance that the god was present. ” As mentioned earlier, the relationship with god was a much more tangible one for the Mesopotamian temple-goer. Jacobsen points out that they were inclined to “experience the Numinous as immanent in some specific featurerather than as all transcendent. ” The staged towers called Ziggurats were a staple of the Mesopotamian temple complex.

The exact function is unclear to us, but they may have represented the thrones of the gods or the tomb of a dying/resurrected god. Despite this prayer and glorification, the gods did not always provide the city protection from famine, flood, invasion and the like. When their cities were plundered, the temples left in ruins, the Mesopotamians were left with “the terrible reality of being abandoned by their gods. ” For the Mesopotamian, the temple was a place to lament. Lament was central to a religion of a people constantly being faced with outside forces against which they seemed to be helpless.

The Egyptian temples symbolized continuity, while the Mesopotamians went to temple to lament. What does this mean in terms of how they viewed their world? Jacobsen has proposed that the Egyptians thought and experienced life at the human level more so than the Mesopotamians. Faced with the incredible powers of nature around him, the Mesopotamian man saw his human weakness and vulnerability. The Egyptians, on the other hand, more secure from nature’s sometimes relentless hand of fate, had more of a grip on their surroundings.

They did not see themselves as helpless and subordinate humans but instead as self-reliant, without the need for constant intervention by the distant gods. The Egyptian conception of the cosmos “was eminently reliable and comforting. ” Even death was not something to be feared; it was but a passage into another life in another world. Jacobsen goes on to suggest that Mesopotamians had a somewhat opposite perspective to the notion of the Egyptian human self-reliance. The Mesopotamian sought the numinous to save him in some way. To him, the cosmos were a whole other level than the mundane human world.

The temple was the embodiment of whatever patron god guarded the city. By tending to the temple’s grounds and worshipping one’s deity, man could seek to serve and please the god in the hopes of divine intervention. They saw that they had no control over the powers that be; they could not seek to control the floods or the storms. They were faced with their own limited and unprotected humanness. The Mesopotamian concept of death was not quite as optimistic as the Egyptian, as an awareness of human vulnerability also suggests an awareness of the inevitability of death.

All of this suggests that Mesopotamians felt more aware of their fleeting and mediocre human existence on earth, and that it was a far cry from the great cosmos in which the gods resided. The notion of divine kingship comes in when we consider these two differing perspectives of human existence. If the Egyptians were more inclined towards human self-reliance, it is reasonable that their Pharaoh would be a divine entity although living on earth. In fact, the principle of consubstantiality puts forth the idea that man, gods, and all things natural and supernatural are of but one substance.

Between god and man there was no point at which one could erect a boundary line. ” The Egyptian culture is well-known for its views on death and the afterlife. Death was simply a passage to the next world, and material goods were just as able to pass to the next world as human life. Consequently, in Egyptian funerary temples, many offerings and letters were left to the dead, perhaps to coax them into intervention. Unlike the Mesopotamians who were well aware of their mediocrity, the Egyptians sought almost to deny their mortality.

With a mentality such as this, divine kingship seems to cement the importance of human life to the Egyptians. One last point about Egyptian consubstantiality involves the origins of the concept of divine kingship. The Egyptian Pharaoh was originally considered to be a servant of god, appointed by god to be the caretaker of the earth. Eventually, the Pharaoh came to be looked upon as a divine entity. In fact, the operating words for “servant” and for “majesty” were the same. How did this change evolve? It would not have been possible without the Egyptian concept of consubstantiality.

The Mesopotamians, however, did not evolve such ideas of divine kingship until after the Egyptians. As the time of conquest and urbanization dawned, the Lugals (at first, only temporary appointments) gained the power of rulers over the land. There is a limit to the amount we know about the earliest temples of Mesopotamia and Egypt. There first of the Mesopotamian shrines were made of short-lived materials, so it is unlikely that any will be found.

However, what little information we do have about the temples of this time period (the earliest dating back to the Ubaid period, or early 5th millenium, B. C. E. s mostly architectural, and the function of such structures is hard to determine. In fact, there is much debate over whether or not they functioned as temples at all. However, it is worth mentioning that the structure of the Ubaid temple found at Eridu suggests cultic function, according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. The developing temple eventually came to “comprise a central rectangular sanctuary with wall niche (presumably for the god’s statue or symbol) and central ‘offering table. ‘” The early temples of Egypt in the Archaic periods analogously had architecture suggesting cultic function as well.

The tiny early funerary temples also had such niches and places for offerings and prayer. Both Egyptian and Mesopotamian temples were open to the public, the point at which the divine was tangible. The temples had many roles beyond the aforementioned funerary and various other religious functions. One important economic function was the employment of the workers needed to maintain the temple. As urbanization dawned on Egypt, some of the larger temples employed up to thousands to care for the fields, animals, upkeep of land, storehouses, and written records all housed in the temple.

The temple households of Mesopotamia also performed such administrative duties. In both these cultures, the temples of later years had vast estates, the produce of which played an important part in the city’s economic life. The temple was not only the place for religious activity, but served administrative, educational, and many other functions as well. In Egypt, the economic realm of the temple was the most important non-cultic function the temple had. There were, of course, the products of the temple including agriculture, textiles and others that contributed to the economy.

However, it is suggested that the temple did not stop here, but was directly involved in the administration of the redistribution of resources under a subsistence level economy. The temples were at the center of this process – collecting, storing and redistributing the surplus. As Egypt began to conquer foreign lands and urbanization dawned, the temples seem to have grown. There are records that indicate temple wealth regularly increasing after the 18th dynasty. Donating to temples to assist with renovations and other maintenance was a common practice for a Pharaoh, due in part to the reputation it created for him.

Interestingly enough, another temple function evolved – housing of archives and records to boast of the king’s achievements to the gods. ) The Egyptian temple, it seems, played a vital role in the economic affairs of the state. Likewise, Mesopotamian temples had various economic functions, including employment. Tending to the great estates provided those in the temple households security in ownership. They were able to reap the profits from the crops and in doing so, provide a living for themselves. Jacobsen puts it best:

The vast expanses of temple fields and orchards were unspoken testimony that his ties were the strong ties of a landowner to his land, and the numerous ways in which man served him as house servant and worker in the fields gave man status: needed by the god, belonging to him as a servant belongs to his master, bound to absolute obedience in unquestioning loyalty, unprotected against arbitrary moods and unjust punishment but always belonging, never under any circumstances to be abandoned. It is suggested that the limited economic security the temple and the “gods” provided to the Mesopotamian gave him a sense of belonging.

In an unstable environment such as his, any amount of security was valued. However, this notion that belonging to or being needed by the gods did not guarantee being spared of their wrath seems somewhat harsh. Perhaps for the Mesopotamian, it was necessary to explain the ways of god in a way that was acceptable for continued faith in the gods. Although to the people, the temple was the means for the gods to provide some security (through profits from its lands), the unkind forces of nature that beset the land still warranted a sort of explanation. Egypt, as we have seen, had fertile lands and fairly reliable environmental conditions.

Rarely did they experience the “wrath” of their gods. There was no need to make rationalizations about their gods’ neglect of humans. Their relative security afforded them their trust in the cosmos. In Mesopotamia, which was unfortunately “unprotected against arbitrary moods”, and consequently had the potential to suffer economically, the temple was needed to reassure the people of the holy presence of the numinous in their lives. In addition to the separate cultic and economic aspects of temple discussed, both Egyptian and Mesopotamian temples were the nucleus of the city.

Not only did it house the important administrative headquarters, but it was essential to the city in so many other ways, as is evident by its location. Carolyn Routledge proposes a theory on urbanism that suggests that the first cities in Egypt were planned around the nucleus of the temple, and that this constituted the ideal model of the Egyptian city. We see that many cities were arranged roughly in four sectors comprising a square, with processional pathways connecting the sectors and central temples. The pathways were meant for processional routes as part of a cultic ritual or for royal processions.

However, Akhenaten changed these routes when planning the city of Amarna. In attempting to uncover why he created such an unconventional layout, Routledge concludes that “the placement of temples and palaceswas an integral elementproviding through royal processions a concrete, physical representation of the conceptual relationship between society, king and divinity. ” Even the layout of the temples was of the utmost significance to the Egyptians in terms of what it represented. In addition to the functions discussed here, there are also mentions of other miscellaneous non-cultic aspects of the temple.

Although the main purpose of a Mesopotamian temple was to provide appropriate residence and luxury for the patron god, the temple had other community functions. For example, it was a storehouse for surplus produce that may sustain the city in harder times. The temple also regulated standards such as measurements and interest rates. It provided education and training for those people that required literacy (priests, kings, etc. ) The temple was the source of social programs to protect the disadvantaged (homeless, poor, etc. ) and even provided small interest-free loans. The Egyptians has similar various social functions of the temple.

Since education was offered solely through the temple, educated men were considered to be somewhat priestly. The archives mentioned earlier housed much more than just records, but all types of literature present in the day. Temples were responsible for medical education as well as a few that went so far as to house the clinics where the sick sought remedies from the healing deities. There is also mention of Oracles sought in the temple to answer problems and convey messages from the gods. In some later periods, some cities that were prone to attack built their temples like fortresses to provide safety during an attack.

The great temples played a vital role in the lives of the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian, as is evident through the location, grandiose structure, and expressive decoration that characterizes them. We have seen many similarities and differences in the function and nature of the temples of these two cultures. “How the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian civilizations came to acquire these very different moods – one trusting, the other distrusting, man’s power and ultimate significance” may not be clear, but it seems to be a great factor in the differences in religious structure of the two.

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