Egyptian Temples and Priests

Stone building fronted by a tall gateway, a colonnade, and another gatewayThe Egyptian temples that have survived until today tend to date back to the New Kingdom. They were known as “the houses of the gods.” Even the word for temple is ancient Egyptian, hwt-netjer, means “the god’s home.”

When approaching a temple, one starts by walking along the processional way or avenue, which are often flanked by statues. This pathway leads to the main gateway, known as the first pylon. These consist of two enormous tapering towers with an opening between them, much like the mountains and valley of Aker. Sometimes, an obelisk or two will mark the entrance of the temple. Beyond the grand entry is the peristyle court—a large open square surrounded by a colonnade. This is where the common people could gather and worship the god, as they were not permitted to enter any farther. On the other side of the court was a smaller gateway known as the second pylon, beyond which lies the hypostyle hall. This structure has a roof that is supported by rows of columns, giving the room the appearance of a forest. Gaps in the outer wall allow dappled sun light in, making it possible to just make out the painted reliefs. After this, one enters the inner chambers, where the shrine of the deity is housed. It was here that priests would conduct their daily rituals and duties to the god.

The term hem-netjer (or hemet-netjer for women) meant “servant of god.” The man who was able to interact most closely with the gods was the High Priest. In theory, the pharaoh was the high priest of every cult and the only one permitted to worship the gods. However, since he was unable to be at every temple at the same time, other priests were required to take on the temple responsibilities. Stolist Priests carried out the daily tasks of washing, dressing, and feeding the statue of the deity. Meanwhile, Lector Priests recited the words of the gods and wrote the religious treaties and copied the sacred texts. Sem Priests preformed the last rites on the deceased, and “hour priests” were the astronomers who determined lucky and unlucky days. Finally, array of singers and temple musicians were often drawn from the ranks of noblewomen.

However, very few priests held permanent positions in the temple. Ancient Egyptians had what is known as a priestly rota system, where the priests of each temple were divided into four groups. Members of each group would perform their duties for one month and then return to their normal lives for three—working in the temple for a total of three months of very year. All those working in the temple had to be considered ritually pure. They were clean shaven, circumcised, wore no wool or leather clothing, had sandals made of papyrus, and had to abstained from sexual intercourse for several days before entering the temple. They would have to cleanse twice daily and twice nightly as well as rinsed out their mouths with a solution of natron and rubbed their bodies with oil.


  • Oakes, L., and Gahlin, L. (2003). Ancient Egypt: An illustrated reference to the myths, religions, pyramids and temples of the land of the pharaohs. New York, New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  • Strudwick, H. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York, New York: Metro Books.
  • Thompson, H. (2011) Eyewitness Travel Egypt. New York, New York: DK.

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