Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More About the Opet Festival in Egypt

With the current unrest in Egypt, it is indeed unfortunate that so many incredible tourist destinations have been closed and the country is losing immense amounts of income from tourist dollars. Of course, one of these destinations is Luxor, in Upper Egypt, where the ancient festival took place. One does not realize the size and geography of the country until a visit and this is the sad part. Egypt must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

As a former special event producer, I have always been interested - and quite amazed - at the complexity of organization of these ancient events. For the Opet Festival, there were tremendous challenges in the organization and execution of the event, and much of this had to do with the geography and climate of the country. Let's first take a look at the reasons for the event and then delve into the impact of geography and climate.

What Were the Reasons for the Event?

Everything in Egypt is and always has been linear and logical. The Nile, the river of life, flows consistently from south to north; the sun consistently shines all day, every day. An Egyptian friend once told me he got very depressed when there were two cloudy days in a row! In so perfect an environment, it is easy to see how this narrow strip of land became one of the first established agricultural civilizations. The ancient Egyptians depended on the consistency of the life-giving forces of the river and the sun. Without them, it was a short step to death, especially considering the expansive deserts that hugged the edges of the fertile river valley to the east and west. It is in the river, the sun, and the pharaoh that we find the reasons for the Opet Festival.

Around the consistencies of river and sun developed a complex polytheistic religion with numerous gods and goddesses reflecting the natural phenomena in unique forms. This was not unlike the religion of the hunter-gatherers of the Rhino Cave, except that the gods and goddesses had become more anthropomorphic and specific to every important aspect of life. For example, Horus was the god of the sky in the form of a falcon; Sobek was the god of water dangers in the form of a crocodile; Thoth was the god of writing and knowledge in the form of a baboon; Hathor was the goddess of motherhood portrayed as a cow or woman with a crown of thorns around the sun; and numerous others like these. There was often duplication and overlap, adding to the confusion.

Not unexpectedly, throughout the long course of Egyptian history, some gods became more important than others, especially in different regions of the country, and some morphed into new gods or combinations of gods. Amun-Re and Mut, the god and goddess of the Opet Festival, are two examples. By the time of Ramesses II, some 1,900 years after the founding of Egypt, Amun was considered the king of the gods and associated with the sun god Re, amalgamating to form Amun-Re, the most powerful god in the country. He was also considered the head or “sky-father” figure of the local “family” triad of gods in Thebes, which consisted of himself, Mut his wife who was the “queen of the goddesses” (i.e., a sort of “earth-mother”), and their son Khonsu, the god of the moon but also a deification of the royal placenta, thus a god involved with childbirth. As religious scholar E.O. James, pointed out, during the rise of agrarian societies (like Egypt), “The earth-mother became associated with the sky-father who was regarded as sending the rain to fertilize the soil through a sacred marriage with the goddess.”

For Egypt, rain equated to the floodwaters of the Nile. Prior to the completion of the first Aswan Dam in the far south of the country in 1902 and finally the high Aswan Dam in 1964, the Nile used to flood annually in what was known as “inundation.” The flooding occurred approximately between what we now know as June 21 and October 21, a season called akhet. In this season, the river overflowed its banks and covered the farms with water, thus providing the precious fertility needed for crops. Along with the floods also came hundreds of crocodiles, hence the god Sobek for the river.

Of course, nature is never fully cooperative, and years occurred in which inundation was too early, too late, too high, or too low. All of these could in their own way wreak havoc with crops or with cities and villages. Floods that were too late or too low might not provide enough water, potentially causing drought and low or no crop yields. Floods that were too early or too high might completely destroy villages or fields, causing disruption to planting and harvesting schedules. Interestingly, the collapse of what is known as the Old Kingdom of Egypt—the first period of strong centralized government and the time the pyramids were built—around 2185 BCE corresponded almost exactly with a series of catastrophically low Nile floods due to abrupt climate change. This led to starvation, disease, civic unrest, and political turnover. It was the first known example of the serious effect of sudden climate change on a civilization. Furthermore, evidence has recently been discovered that at a time after 1800 BCE, Nile floods were excessively high, rendering the Fayoum Oasis, one of the major breadbaskets of the country near present-day Cairo, unusable. Again, this corresponded almost perfectly with the end of another prosperous period in Egyptian history known as the Middle Kingdom. In subsequent years, the country became vulnerable and was invaded by a mysterious group from the Near East called the Hyksos. The Hyksos had a debilitating effect on Egypt for over a century.

Needless to say, these two periods of unrest and chaos (isfet) would be sustained in the collective memory of the ancient Egyptians as examples of times when ma’at, or harmonious order, was not maintained. In Egyptian religion, the pharaoh was considered an earthly manifestation of the god Horus and it was his principal responsibility to maintain ma’at in the earthly world. It would thus be essential that everything be done by him to ensure chaos would not happen again. Here, then, is where the Opet Festival comes in. Thanks to the epigraphic records from the Karnak and Luxor temples, there seems to be general agreement that the reasons for the festival were distinctly religious ones of rejuvenation and rebirth. Rejuvenation ensued from Amun-Re’s gift of divine power handed over to the pharaoh when the pharaoh made offerings in the temple at Karnak to begin the festival. Rebirth ensued from a divine marriage—also known as hieros gamos—between the two principal deities of Thebes, Amun-Re and Mut, and an attendant symbolic marriage of the pharaoh and his queen, as the manifestations of these gods on earth, in the temple at Luxor.

This divine marriage—and the symbolic marriage of pharaoh and queen— was in essence a fertility rite related to the rising waters of the Nile that re-fertilized the valley. It was necessary for the successful inundation of the Nile to occur in a controlled manner in keeping with the concept of ma’at. The processions associated with this aspect of the festival took place on a north-south axis (see Figure below), corresponding with the direction of the Nile’s floodwaters. Interestingly, the return journey to the Karnak temple from Luxor three weeks later was via another paved processional path purposely built for the festival and lined with sphinxes, again on a north-south axis. It would not have been unusual to have the return processional path covered with water from the inundation at the time of the procession.

Opet Processional Routes

As with the Rhino Cave ceremony, the success of the Opet Festival depended on a humble, faith-filled populace believing with all their hearts that their gods would provide abundant crops and that their pharaoh was capable of interceding for them with these gods to “make it happen.” Therefore, the real underlying, subliminal message being conveyed in the Opet Festival by the pharaoh and the priests (i.e., together, the organizers of the festival) to their people was, “Trust in our power to maintain order and to communicate with the gods. As long as you continue to worship and to make offerings in the prescribed manner, the gods will favor us, the country will prosper, and we will receive their blessings on your behalf.” In effect, it was as much a political message as a religious one.

How Effective was the Design of the Event?

The fact that this festival endured for over 700 consecutive years is a testament to its effective design and its power to persuade the people of Egypt that their pharaoh was keeping order. However, this effectiveness rested on overcoming a number of logistical challenges, some of them of the same magnitude that we see today in large spectacles.

First of all, communication and scheduling would have been imprecise at best. At the time of Ramesses II (reign from 1279 to 1212 BCE), with the pharaoh living in Pi-Ramesse in the Nile delta, about 900 kilometers north of Thebes, timing the start of the festival and ensuring that the pharaoh arrived on schedule would be tricky. Sending messages via the river would probably be the most efficient but would still incur delays. The only way to ensure that the pharaoh would be present would be for him and his officials in Thebes to agree that the festival would begin on a specific date dictated by the first rising of Sirius, or Sopdet, the morning star. The hitch would be in the Nile’s flooding—it might not coincide with the date. If it was early, the temples and festival areas might flood. If it was late, the general populace might worry that disaster was coming, putting the divine communication abilities of the pharaoh in doubt.

A second logistical challenge would be taking care of the multitudes that arrived from the surrounding towns and countryside to celebrate the festival. Once the Nile flooded—or even at the first sign of its rising—much of the farming population would be forced to leave their low-lying houses and take refuge at higher elevations, there pitching tents or living with friends. Knowing that the most important festival of the year would be taking place, possibly within days, would no doubt encourage them to head directly for Thebes, especially when free food was available, as was the custom. Although most farmers were given work in the extensive state monument-building programs during the season of inundation, this would probably not begin until after the festival.

The population of ancient Thebes has not been recorded and can only be estimated. Considering that Thebes was the administrative and religious center of Upper Egypt at the time of Ramesses II, it would probably have been heavily populated. It is known that the Temple of Amun-Re had over 80,000 workers, including priests. The supporting city and countryside must have housed at least the same number again. Providing food, security, and sanitation for a good portion of this total number, many of them vagrants, would have been a challenge. Most likely, the army, which we know had a garrison of some 10,000 in Thebes, would have been responsible for security during the festival. We know for sure that tomb robbing was a problem long before Ramesses II, so is it is no surprise that the temple depictions in Luxor show soldiers and charioteers armed to the teeth. They were there for more than their joyous and willing participation in the festival!

The third interesting logistical challenge is the actual execution of the event. Even though the scenes carved into the Luxor Temple colonnade walls are detailed, they are not complete and have suffered damage over the centuries. Hence, there are a number of different theories as to how the event played out. Some experts think that processions went in both directions on water, some think both directions on land, and some say they went one way on land and one on water. Probably, as some have suggested, the exact routing depended on whether the floodwaters had breached the river’s banks and intruded into the festival’s processional routes or into the temples. Experts also disagree on where, when, and with whom certain rituals took place in each temple. As a result of studying the Luxor inscriptions, reading a number of related papers, and discussing the subject with Egyptologists, I have proposed a new theory for consideration as laid out in very basic form in my last post (if more detail is needed, I may be contacted directly). The water and land processions, the meaning and conduct of the rituals, and the manner in which performance was incorporated, all form this theory. However, we may never know what really took place. The event parameters and temple construction were altered with almost every reigning pharaoh over the course of the festival’s long life, complicating the debate.

I have been intrigued by the disposition of the statues of the gods carried in procession as a factor in the execution of the event—what I deem to be a fourth serious logistical challenge. It has been suggested that these statues were made of either solid gold or electrum, both heavy metals, and that the sizes varied up to almost life-size. Nobody seems to have taken into account the weight of these statues, a not inconsiderable oversight, since the priests had to carry the statues in their barques over fairly long distances. Here’s the problem. If just one of these statues were made of solid electrum (a mixture of approximately 70 percent gold and 30 percent silver) and were no more than, say, 45 centimeters (18 inches) wide by 45 centimeters deep by 60 centimeters (24 inches) high (i.e., about the size that would fit into one of the processional barque shrines), it would weigh over 2,000 kilograms, or more than 4,400 pounds. If, as seen in many of the processional carvings, it was carried by 30 or so priests, each priest would have had to carry on his shoulders almost 70 kilograms (155 pounds). It is no wonder they built “way stations” or rest stops along the processional routes. The inescapable humidity at that time of year would have added to the “welcome misery” of carrying their god.

Furthermore, some scholars imply that the statues and their shrines “moved” in oracular response to questions posed to the gods by the people attending the festival. If this was true, I doubt that it would have been any more than some poor fatigued priest having trouble managing the weight! Not only that, but explanations of temple rituals often mention that priests single-handedly moved these statues each day. That could not have happened! In fact, there is the greatest probability that the statues remained permanently ensconced in their barque shrines—probably heavily reinforced—and that the handles to carry them were added when they had to be moved in procession. A more likely possibility is that there was a second less-heavy replica of the god used only for processions, which some scholars suggest. However, no statues of any size have ever been found. Perhaps this is not astonishing considering the degree of looting even as far back as the Old Kingdom. What a find it would be if one were unearthed! At today’s value of gold of more than $1000 per ounce, a solid-gold statue of the above size would be worth over $70 million! Perhaps it’s an Indiana Jones mystery waiting to be solved.

Another problem of credibility is the festival scenes from the Luxor Temple that show gangs of citizens (or perhaps slaves?) hauling the barge holding the barque shrines and their statues along what some scholars have thought to be the banks of the Nile upstream to Luxor from Karnak—and even downstream at the end of the festival. Again, this would be highly unlikely or, if it was done, a major logistical challenge. First, there would have been at least one or two heavy statues aboard. Second, the barge itself, at the time of a later pharaoh, Ramesses III, was known to have been over 60 meters (200 feet) in length and partially encrusted with gold and electrum—but with no rowers. It would have been exceptionally heavy. Perhaps the willing citizens helped to guide it out of the temple canal to the river, as I personally postulate. After that, it would have been extremely dangerous—a disaster waiting to happen (e.g., running aground)—to attempt to do this near the shore. From temple inscriptions we know that there were actual towboats with rowers and sails on the river. In all likelihood, the human haulers—if they were used for the river procession—were probably symbolic only, vying for the privilege of being as close to their gods as possible. Think front row seats at a concert.

Still more to come in my next post.

  • Bell, L. (1997). The New Kingdom “Divine” Temple: The Example of Luxor. In B.E. Shafer (Ed.), Temples of Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 127-184.
  • Ellis, N. (1999). Feasts of Light: Celebrations for the Seasons of Life Based on the Egyptian Goddess Mysteries. Quest Books. p. 16.
  • Epigraphic Survey. (1994). Reliefs and Inscriptions at Luxor Temple, Vol. 1: The Festival Procession of Opet in the Colonnade Hall, OIP 112. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.
  • James, E.O. (1961). Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. Norwich: Jarrold and Sons Limited. p. 37.
  • Hassan, F. (1997). The Gift of the Nile. In Silverman, D.P. (Ed.) Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. p 13.
  • Hassan, F.A. (April 2005). A River Runs Through Egypt: Nile Floods and Civilization. Geotimes. Retrieved November 6, 2008, from
  • Kitchen, K.A. (1982). Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II. Cairo: Cairo University Press.
  • Lauffray, J. (1979). Karnak d’Egypte: Domain du divin. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. p. 69.
  • Shafer, B.E. (1997). Temples, Priests, and Rituals: An Overview. In B.E. Shafer (Ed.), Temples of Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 16.
  • Teeter, E. (1997). The Life of Ritual. In Silverman, D.P. (Ed.) Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. p. 159.
  • Wilkinson, R.H. (2000). The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. p. 171.


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