False Doors: The Gateways to the Egyptian Underworld
As the name would suggest, a false door is an imitation door usually found in mortuary temples and tombs across ancient Egypt. Facing west, these doors served as an imaginary passage between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and were believed to allow the Ka (an element of the soul) to pass through them. The deity or the deceased could interact with the world of the living either by passing through the door or by receiving offerings though it. The false door is one of the most common elements found within Egyptian tomb complexes, and is also one of the most important architectural features found in royal and non-royal tombs, beginning with Egypt's Old Kingdom.
Egyptian false door, c 2400 BC ( Sharron Mollerus / Flickr )
False doors were a common element within Egyptian temples of the New Kingdom dedicated to their ancient gods, as well as much earlier mortuary temples dedicated to the deceased and within the tombs themselves. Its typical form evolved out of the so-called “palace façade” external architecture of the Mastaba tombs of the elite in the Early Dynastic period (3100 - 2156 BC). The false door was first used in the Mastabas of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and became nearly universal in tombs during the fourth through sixth dynasties. In the nearly one hundred and fifty years spanning the reigns of the sixth dynasty pharaohs Pepi I, Merenre, and Pepi II, the false door motif went through a sequential series of changes affecting the layout of the panels, allowing historians to date tombs based on which style was used. After the First Intermediate Period the popularity of the false doors diminished, being replaced by stelae as the primary surface for writing funerary inscriptions. The earlier three dimensional execution of these doors gave way to a simpler painted form during the New Kingdom.
False doors evolved from the facades of Mastaba tombs, like this Mastaba Tomb of Perneb ( public domain )
False doors were not copies of real doors, but a combination of an offering niche and a stela with hieroglyphic inscriptions. They are given the name because spiritual entities of the deceased were believed to have the ability to pass through the door. They were placed on the west wall of the main room in the chapel, known as an offering chamber. The narrow panel and molding were set inside a rectangular frame, often topped by a rectangular panel decorated with an image of the deceased sitting in front of an offering table. It was not uncommon to find false doors depicted on the sides of coffins or for a tomb to contain two false doors, one for the owner of the tomb and the other for his wife. There are also a few examples where each member of an extended family was given their own.
A typical false door has a long, narrow recessed panel which represented the actual doorway. Above this, a semi-cylindrical molding represented the reed mat generally used to close a real door. False doors were frequently made of a monolithic piece of fine limestone that were then often painted red with black spots. An example of this is found in the tomb of Sean khui ptah in the Teti cemetery at Saqqara. However, in the tomb of Hesire and in other rare instances, they might also be made of wood, or simply painted on the flat surface of a wall. Interestingly, though false doors were almost always completely fixed, in a few rare, early examples, they could have been furnished with moveable wooden panels.
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Relief of Hesy-Ra (Hesire) from his Mastaba. Photo by James Edward Quibell, 2011. ( Wikimedia Commons )
The false door began as a small west-facing niche, which then developed to include a square or rectangular panel on which the owner was shown receiving the offerings. By adding door jambs below or beside the panel, the niche developed into a 'false door'. The Egyptians soon realized that the jambs and lintels of a stone door were excellent places to inscribe texts, and many examples show a doubling or trebling of the number of these elements. However, the concept of a door was not forgotten and numerous examples show carved bolts across the center of the 'opening'.
False door with depiction of tomb owner sitting in front of an offering table (rectangular section in top half of door). ( Wikimedia Commons )
Often a table was placed in front of the door on which offerings of food and drink were left for the deceased. The nourishment offered to the dead, could be real food on a slab or symbolic food carved into stela. The tables were usually made of stone and decorated with depictions of typical offerings (bread, beer, fowl, ox), with depressions to receive the gifts. The offering table took the form of the "hotep" hieroglyph (representing a loaf on a mat) and the formula was generally inscribed around him or her.
In general, false doors were highly decorated and marked with the names and titles of the grave's owner. The doorway could hold vertical line of hieroglyphs and often, lavish inscriptions on them could refer to countless offerings to the deceased. Along with these decorations, there could include a curse to those who would harm the deceased and a blessing to those who made offerings. For example, the false door in the tomb of Redi-ness at Giza (G 5032) has the following text inscribed which read:
Never did (I) do any evil thing against people. (As for) those who will do something against this, it shall be protected from them". (I) have constructed this my (tomb) with my own means. It is the god who will judge (my) case along with him who does anything against it.
People could also be represented on the lower parts of the decoration, facing inward, as if progressing towards the door. A representation of the deceased is frequently found on the doors and a few surviving false ones incorporate a life-size relief figure of the deceased stepping out of the niche. In some cases, there is also a statue of the owner in the central niche. For example, in the tomb of Nefer seshem ptah in the Teti cemetery at Saqqara, there was an engaged, standing statue in each of its outer jams and a bust statue in the central panel instead of the more typical offering table scene. Such raised relief statuary depicted the deceased emerging from the false door.
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False door with life-sized representation of the deceased stepping through it. Tomb of Mereruka ( Wikmedia Commons )
To the Ancient Egyptians, these doors were viewed as real gateways to the underworld and must have undoubtedly played an important role within their cult of the dead. Where present, false doors are some of the most beautiful elements within tomb complexes, and many survive, some in their original positions, while others have been removed and now exist in various museums throughout the world. Egypt is not the only place where such strange doors can be found. Other examples of similar structures are seen in South America. The mysterious “Gate of the Gods” door is located in the Hayu Marca mountain region of Peru and the natives there haves a legend that speaks of "a gateway to the lands of the Gods". In that legend, it was said that a time long ago, great heroes had gone to join their gods, and passed through the gate for a glorious new life of immortality. On rare occasions those men returned for a short time with their gods to "inspect all the lands in the kingdom".
Featured Image: False door at the tomb of Ka-Gmni. In Saqqara, outskirts of Cairo City. Photo by: Carlos Affonso. 2008. ( flickr.com)
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