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 )