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The Opet Festival

Ancient Egyptian Year

Where: Thebes

When: Day 15 of Month 2 of the Egyptian Lunar Calendar, approximately August

            Celebrated annually during the New Kingdom period and later

            Celebrated when the lands were flooded so the people could not labour in them

How long: 11-day Festival at the time of Pharaoh Thutmose III, recorded at Elephantine Temple

                    but rose to a 27-day Festival at the time of Pharaoh Ramesses III, recorded at Medinet Habu

Why: The magic of royalty and rejuvenation throughout the Festival stitched a seamless religious connection
           between the Egyptian people and their royal family, especially their Pharaoh

What happened at the Festival?

The New Kingdom version

Preparation
The priests would wash and dress the Statues of God Amun, his wife the Goddess Mut and their son, the God Khonsu – the Theban Triad. The Representations were then placed in their Sacred Barques.

Procession
The Priests then raised the Sacred Barques to their shoulders and carry the deities in a joyful parade from the Chapel of Amun at Karnak Temple, down the Avenue of Sphinx to the Chapel of Mut at Ipet Resyt/Luxor Temple, in order to revive the marriage between Amun and Mut.

The Avenue of the Sphinx

 

The Sacred Barques, with their entourages which may have included the Pharaoh, would stop at ease of the 6 Chapels that the Pharaoh Hatshepsut had built which intersected the Avenue of Sphinx.

Each Chapel was dedicated to the God Amun and each Chapel had an exacting purpose: “to cool the oar of Amun” or “to receive the beauty of Amun”. Each Chapel was filled with food and drink for the God and the Priests carrying the Sacred Barques to partake.

The people mark the event by playing sistrum rattles whilst the Priests and Priestesses would sing songs (the song’s lyrics were inscribed in hieroglyphics at Luxor Temple) and so the procession would have been a wonderful affair.

Entering Ipet Resyt

 

When the procession arrived at the Ipet Resyt/Temple of Luxor, the Sacred Barques would be taken into the Sacred Precinct where Ceremonies were conducted in the outer courts. The Sacred Barques were then placed in the Inner Sanctum of the Temple where they would remain for the duration of the Festival.

Immediately following them, the Pharaoh would enter the presence of the God in the Inner Sanctum of the Temple.

The Pharaoh would then emerge forgiven of sins and rejuvenated to continue his reign. The Pharaoh, being distinguished with the Royal Ka and divine kingship was reborn and the Pharaoh’s right to rule was proven and accepted for another year. 

The Festival for the Locals 

The local population enjoyed the generosity of the deities throughout the Festival, with one Festival having been recorded as distributing 11,341 loaves of bread and 385 jars of beer, among other food stuffs.

The Return of the Gods

Once the revival of their marriage had been successfully completed, after 11 days, and later 27 days, the procession was reversed by boat, and the Sacred Barques were returned to their usual homes within Karnak Temple.

Once inside, the Priests would wash the Gods, dressed them in colourful clothing and adorned them with their specific jewellery from the Temple’s Treasury. The Gods were placed back into their shrines with their own Ceremonial Barques.

At this climax, the God Amun’s powers were transferred to the Pharaoh.

The Festival was then complete.

Why did the Festival happen?

What did the Priest’s believe?

It was believed that the Gods became tired as the yearly inundation of the Nile ran its course. The Ceremonies carried out within the Opet Festival gave the Gods the rebirth and reinvigoration they needed for the coming year. Rebirth was one of the major themes of Opet and there would often be a re-crowning of the Pharaoh.

 

What else happened?

Pharaoh Horemheb’s coronation took place during Opet, a return to Egyptian tradition that may have granted him legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the gods. If the ceremony identified him as the son of Amun-Re, then his claim to the throne would be strengthened even though he was no blood relation to the previous rulers of Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his father Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Centuries Later

After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C., the conqueror’s agents in Thebes observed how the festival’s symbolic power could be adapted to confer divine legitimacy upon Alexander’s control of the region. Alexander built his own chapel in the Temple of Luxor and decorated the walls with his likeness in the presence of Amun-Re.

 

When was the first recorded Festival?

It dates from the reign of Pharaoh Hatshepsut. These details are carved on the south side of the Red Chapel at Karnak. Pharaoh Hatshepsut commissioned this Chapel which was made of blocks of red quartzite and grey diorite. The Chapel was the home for the Sacred Barque of Amun.

 

Why did the Festival not continue?

Opet celebrations are believed to have continued until Roman times. The feast and its divine parade finally fell out of favour after the rise of Christianity in Egypt when the old gods and the old ways were cast aside.

How do we know so much about the Festival?

After Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s death, her Red Chapel at Karnak Temple was dismantled.

Following an earthquake in the 19th century, the blocks were rediscovered.

After exacting and diligent research, aided by the scenes depicting the Festival of Opet, researchers managed to reconstruct the Red Chapel.

Some of these blocks had been  used by Amenhotep III’s builders to fill in the 3rd Pylon of Karnak, which gives a hint as to how they felt about a female Pharaoh.

The home for the Sacred Barque of Amun was back in its rightful home in Karnak Temple, with its size meaning that estimations of the size of the Sacred Barque of Amun that it housed were possible for the first time.