Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

What Happened to Grand Temple Building in Ancient Egypt after the Death of Alexander the Great?

What Happened to Grand Temple Building in Ancient Egypt after the Death of Alexander the Great?

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Egyptian temple culture was thought to be declining in the Ptolemaic era, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Egyptologist Carina van den Hoven. Temple culture was very much alive and kicking. PhD defense 16 February.


Carina van den Hoven travelled to Egypt every year for her PhD research, to study temples and photograph what she saw. Having studied the ritual scenes depicted on the walls of the temples and deciphering the texts written in hieroglyphics, she discovered that innovations were introduced into the contemporary temple culture that were rooted in ancient traditions. These innovations reflected the much broader context of innovations that had been taking place in Egypt over a longer period.

Reconstruction work on a pylon at Karnak

Reconstruction work on a pylon at Karnak. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bloody Wars

After Alexander's sudden death, the region underwent a period of turbulence. His Macedonian empire stretched over 4,000 kilometers, from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. There being no capable successor, Alexander's former generals were appointed as governors of different parts of the empire, but all too soon they were waging bloody wars to annex parts of one another's territory.

In 322 BC, ex-general Ptolemy (full name: Ptolemy I Soter) gained authority over Eqypt, and in 305 BC he proclaimed himself king. After his death in 283 BC, he was succeeded by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

A bust depicting King Ptolemy II Philadelphus 309–246 BC.

A bust depicting King Ptolemy II Philadelphus 309–246 BC. (CC BY 2.5)

Renewal was Everywhere

Van den Hoven indicates that renewal was happening throughout society. This process was influenced by the many Greek people who left for Alexandria, the new capital of Egypt on the north coast, to engage in trade or who settled elsewhere. The economy was flourishing. In agriculture, new crops were grown, such as different grains, and the waterwheel was introduced to irrigate fields. And it was under Ptolemy that coins were first used as a means of payment, which went some way to ending the barter system. In this climate of renewal, it is likely that there were also innovations in the local temples.

The flourishing city of Alexandria

The flourishing city of Alexandria (public domain)

Ritual Texts Modernized

'The temples seem very traditional, as if nothing has changed since the time of the pharaohs,' says Van den Hoven, 'but if you take a closer look, you will see innovations in their architecture and decoration. More than 2,000 new hieroglyphs were added in the Ptolemaic period. The ritual temple texts also underwent a change, and new ones were added. Older, more traditional texts were re-used to replace some of these new compositions. The claim that Ancient Egyptian culture was in decline in this period, is therefore misplaced.

Coronation of a Living Falcon

Van den Hoven examined the temples of Edfu and Dendera. These temples date from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras and have been well preserved. Using the inscriptions and decorations, Van den Hoven reconstructed the new ritual of the Coronation of the Living Holy Falcon, an annual ceremony that took place on the site of the temple. She discovered where exactly specific rituals were performed by examining the texts and the scenes depicted on the temple walls. 'In 1954, French Egyptologist Maurice Alliot described a number of rituals from the temple at Edfu.

The front of the Temple of Edfu.

The front of the Temple of Edfu. (CC BY 1.0)

He concluded that the scenes on the temple walls should be read from the outside inwards, and from the bottom upwards. However, my research indicates that the sequence of the scenes on the temple walls says nothing about the actual performance of the rituals, so I ignored the sequence and arrived at different findings, which led to a completely new construction of the ritual.'

No Renewal without Traditions

Van den Hoven: 'The importance of traditions is often explained as a reaction to the marginalization of the native Egyptian priests in the Ptolemaic period. The priests are thought to have tried to maintain the traditions in order to preserve their cultural identity and to compensate for their loss of status. That's not my impression at all. What I found is that it was not so much a matter of maintaining their own cultural identity but rather a redefinition of Egyptian cultural identity based on tradition. This was very important for the acceptance of the changes and innovations that were taking place. It's easier to accept changes if they are anchored in tradition.'

Top image: Dendera Temple (kairoinfo4u / flickr)

The article ‘Temple Culture in Ptolemaic Egypt Alive and Kicking’ was originally published on Science Daily.

Source: University of Leiden. "Temple culture in Ptolemaic Egypt alive and kicking." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 February 2017.

ancient-origins's picture


This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article