Valley temples were not just the entrance point to pyramid complexes, they were the connection to the Nile River–the eternal source of life for Egypt. Architectural genius, incredible feats of engineering, and a huge workforce whose actions were as choreographed as any ballet were all required to assure that the Boats of the Gods had access to Khafre’s pyramid complex. For the Ancient Egyptians, preparation for the afterlife was serious business.
Valley temples served a number of functions, some of which are better understood than others. Primarily, the valley vemple was the main entrance to the pyramid complex. The standard layout of a pyramid complex included the pyramid itself, a smaller cult pyramid, cemeteries for family and favored servants, and a mortuary temple at the base of the pyramid, with a causeway leading down to a valley temple. The entire complex would be surrounded by an enclosure wall, with the valley temple being the entrance point.
Valley temples were typically connected to the Nile River via canal, with a harbor and a quay constructed at the base of the temple’s forecourt. The quay was large enough to accommodate everything from barges carrying construction materials to the funeral boat carrying the deceased pharaoh. But the most important ships to berth at the valley temple were the celestial barques that brought the gods themselves to the temple.
Visiting gods would be greeted by statues of the pharaoh whose temple they were calling upon, both in the forecourt and within the temple itself. There were numerous chambers within valley temples, some which may have been dedicated to certain deities, and others which would have been involved in the embalming and sanctifying of the king’s body. The king himself was not worshipped in the valley temple—that function was served by the mortuary temple.
Khafre’s Valley Temple
Pharaoh Khafre’s valley temple was built in the mid- to late twenty-sixth century BC. Due to being buried in sand until the 19th century AD, it is the best preserved structure from the Fourth Dynasty. Khafre’s temple is austere by the standards of later valley temples, particularly those of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, which are richly decorated.
There are two causeways leading from the quay to the forecourt, with an entrance opposite each causeway in the temple’s eastern side. Each entrance opens into its own antechamber, and the antechambers connect in a central vestibule. The northernmost entrance is dedicated to the goddess Bastet, the southernmost to the goddess Hathor.
The vestibule is connected to a large T-shaped hall, usually referred to as the Sixteen-Pillared Chamber due to the presence of sixteen large unadorned square pillars made of pink Aswan granite. The pillars once supported a roof of which only the primary granite beams remain. There are six pillars in the north-south segment of the chamber, and two rows of five pillars in the east-west segment.
At the southern end of the north-south hall a short entryway leads to a storage chamber. The two-story chamber is laid out in three parallel storerooms, each situated over another storeroom, for a total of six rooms.
Above the storerooms, the terraced roof is fitted with alabaster-lined channels which connect with similar channels throughout the temple, and are believed to have served a ceremonial rather than literal function. It was previously thought that the king’s body was embalmed under a tent on the terrace, however, it is now considered more likely that cleansing rituals were carried out there.
At the north end of the north-south hall a short passageway leads to the causeway to Khafre’s mortuary temple and pyramid.
The temple is constructed of a limestone core of huge blocks, many weighing between 100 to 150 tons. The blocks were quarried from the plateau surrounding the Great Sphinx, which along with its temple lies adjacent to Khafre’s valley temple. The floors throughout the temple are paved with alabaster.
The limestone core of the walls is dressed with the same pink Nubian granite used to make the pillars. The wall facing is cut and fitted with extreme precision, with odd shapes that give the appearance of a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Some of the facing stones are shaped so intricately as to have three or more exposed surfaces and multiple corners and angles.
Around the perimeter of the T-shaped chamber are 23 impressions in the floor where life-sized statues of Khafre once stood. The statues would have been illuminated from above via narrow slits in the ceiling, creating an effect in the shadowy temple that would have been comparable to the lighting used in modern museums and galleries.
Several of these statues were discovered, broken and headless, in a shaft in the vestibule. Only one of the diorite statues that once lined the temple has been found intact. It currently resides in the Cairo Museum.
Being concealed within the desert sands spared Khafre’s valley temple from having its alabaster flooring and granite facing being stripped away for other uses, allowing us a glimpse of the artistry and engineering of the mighty builders of the Fourth Dynasty. Although it may lack the cosmetic flourishes of the temples of later dynasties, its construction is vastly superior to later Old Kingdom structures. With the wonders of the Great Sphinx and the pyramids beyond, one may be tempted to rush through the valley temple. But this is the place where the gods themselves came to linger with the king’s memory. We should do no less.
Photograph “Pharaoh Khafre” was originally titled “Ägyptisches Museum Leipzig 035.jpg” by Einsamer Schütze, and photograph “Diorite statue of Khafre in the Cairo museum” was originally titled “Khafre statue.jpg” by Jon Bodsworth, are both provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of the file under the conditions that you appropriately attribute it, and that you distribute it only under a license identical to this one. Official license
ALL OTHER photographs and text are copyright by Keith Payne, 2009, all rights reserved.