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When someone talks about the Egyptian religion, chances are you think of ancient gods and pharaohs, remembered through gigantic statues and monuments. However, given the almost unthinkably long history of Egypt, the religion of the Egyptian people has gone through huge changes over the centuries.

The evolution of the Egyptian religion is fascinating, taking us on a journey from well before the Bronze Age to modern day, so let’s get started.

kom ombo ancient egyptian temple
There are many monuments still standing in Egypt which allow us to understand the religion followed by the ancient civilization

The origins of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian history started thanks to the Nile, whose fertile floodplains attracted many different small tribes of people. Evidence of settlement in the Nile valley dates back to a staggeringly early point, along with evidence of a steady increase in farming, both raising livestock and planting crops.

Over thousands of years these small tribes slowly coalesced into a larger culture, who produced other goods, traded with neighbors and started to evolve social hierarchies. The turning point came with the development of the Naqada culture, who at their height controlled a large amount of land, developed decorative techniques and styles and who began to use written symbols for this first time, which were a precursor to hieroglyphics.

Around 3000 BC the ancient Egyptians we think of today started to appear, with the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt, Memphis becoming the capital city and the first of the dynastic kings taking power with a divine right to rule.

The written history of Egypt starts at this time with the expansion and development of the hieroglyphic script, so from this point on we can trace the changes in Egyptian culture and historical events through the thousands of years of the ancient Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian religion

Well before the development of written language, the oral traditions and stories of the Egyptians gods were well established. The earliest kings had tombs known as mastabas built for them, which look like the base of later pyramids but with a flat top, and the belief in the power of the gods was intrinsically linked to daily life.

The earliest creation myth tells the story of how the god Atum brought substance to nothingness. From his place on the primordial hill (the ben-ben) Atum created air, moisture, the humans, the earth and the sky, as well as other gods who each had their own specialist area to look after.

The most popular and enduring gods were the divine ruler Osiris who took care of the Underworld and judged the dead, the mother goddess Isis who as Osiris’ sister-wife ruled over all and Horus who took care of the skies. Over the centuries other gods and goddesses came to prominence as well, reflecting the changing nature of Egyptian society.

In all things the aim was to achieve harmony and avoid chaos, both in life and death. Death was not thought of as an ending, but rather the next stage in a persons journey, so the intricate religious practices that took place when someone died were necessary to ensure a smooth transition to this next part of their experience.

Each god and goddess had temples with priests and priestesses, and there were frequent religious festivals to honor the Egyptian deities. The numerous temple rituals and formal religious practice were a huge part of daily life for all ancient Egyptians, with there being no separation of religion and secular life.

Ancient Egyptian religion during the Old Kingdom

The ancient Egyptian religion was well-established by the time of the period known as the Old Kingdom (circa 2613–2181 BC). This was a time of significant advancement in technology, art and central administration, creating some of the most iconic images of ancient Egypt still in existence today.

The first pyramid was built by King Djoser at Saqqara around 2660 BC. Literally building on the earlier large mastaba tombs, this stepped pyramid was made by adding successfully smaller mastabas on top of each other, creating a pyramid shape when complete. This was also the first time stone had been used rather than mud bricks, representing a significant shift in both the architectural capabilities and wealth of Egyptian society.

egyptian religion early pyramid at saqqara
The early pyramid at Saqqara was the first step on the journey to the later monuments

The idea behind the huge tomb was to both provide a suitable home to the king after death, and remind the people of the king’s divine association by recreating the ben-ben, the hill on which Atum created everything. At this early time, temples were relatively small structures compared to the tombs of the kings, with the king seen to be equally divine as the gods themselves.

The concept of the pyramid quickly caught on, with later kings attempting their own versions. The first true pyramid is known as the Red Pyramid due to the color of the stone used, built by King Sneferu, and then his son King Khufu went on to build the iconic Great Pyramid at Giza.

great pyramids of giza
The pyramids at Giza were all built around the same time, over 4000 years ago

This family dynasty continued with King Djedefre, who made a significant change to the Egyptian religious beliefs. He was the first king to refer to himself as the Son of Ra – Ra being the sun god – indicating that the kings were not equal to the gods, but rather their divine representation on earth, an important distinction. The kings of the Old Kingdom were also strongly associated with Horus, and the Sphinx at Giza, built either by Djedefre or his brother Khafre, is a representation of the king as Horus.

Ancient Egyptian religion during the Middle Kingdom

At the end of the Old Kingdom period the shift in thinking meant that the priests and temples of the gods, especially the ones being closely associated with the kings, became more powerful and influential. Combined with a slow collapse of central administration Egypt was no longer a united state. This changed when Thebes in Upper Egypt took control of the whole country around 2040 BC, and started the period known as the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BC).

The powerful and stable Theban dynasties allowed Egypt to consolidate its power and wealth, with large building projects completed such as the great temple of Karnak.

Art and literature took a step forward in being more concerned about the realities of life, for people beyond the royal families, with a wider sense of insecurity and worries about the afterlife. These concerns led people to turn back to the god Osiris, with him becoming more universally popular than he had been for centuries. His followers sought to embody the spiritual characteristics needed to ensure Osiris looked kindly on them when they died.

Another god who Egyptians believed would help them achieve harmony in life was Amun, who was also becoming more influential at this time. Amun was a combination of the sun god Ra and the creator god Atum, and his priesthood would go on to become the power behind the throne.

The focus on realism and daily life extended to death rituals, with elaborately decorated sarcophagi and early coffins carved to look like people rather than standard rectangular ones coming into regular use, many of which we can see in modern museums today.

Ancient Egyptian religion during the New Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom, just like the Old Kingdom, ended due to a weak ruling dynasty. A foreign people known as the Hyksos gained control of Lower Egypt, forcing the Theban dynasty back to Upper Egypt. For around 200 years Egypt remained divided, until the Theban prince Ahmose I unified the country and began what is known as the New Kingdom (circa 1570-1069 BC).

During the New Kingdom ancient Egypt reached its peak, with far-reaching power and influence. The title of Pharaoh started to be used instead of king, there was a significant expansion in literacy and many of the great monuments that survive today date from this period. The Great Sphinx in Giza was restored, the Temple of Karnak and Valley of the Kings were expanded and the rock-cut temples of Abu Simbel were built.

egyptian religion temple of abu simbel
The gigantic temple of Abu Simbel was created at the peak of ancient Egypt’s power and influence

While Amun had always been one of the major deities of the ancient Egyptian religion, as the New Kingdom progressed the priesthood of Amun became more and more powerful, with worship of the god becoming the primary popular religious practice. The priests were exceptionally wealthy, owning vast amounts of land, and eventually they started to challenge the power of the pharaoh.

Pharaoh Amenhotep III sought to combat the influence of the Amun priesthood and tried to raise the status of one of the minor deities, Aten, a sun god. His son took this attempt one step further and implemented a revolutionary change a few years into his own reign.

He changed his name to Akhenaten in reverence, moved the capital from Thebes (where the cult of Amun was based) to a new city, built lots of new temples dedicated to the Aten and banned the worship of any god except the Aten, making Egypt a monotheistic nation for the first time. Ancient Egyptians believed in a wide range of patron gods who carried out multiple mythological roles so this was a huge shift in religious practices.

This shift was not to last long. Akhenaten’s son with his wife Nefertiti was named Tutankhaten, but when he inherited the throne at a very young age, this was swiftly changed to Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun reinstated the formal religious practice centered on Amun as well as the ability to worship any of the gods in Egyptian mythology.

Tutankhamun tomb egypt
The discovery of Tutankhamun‘s tomb caused a sensation, for good reason!

The fabulous wealth on display when the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922, as well as the quality and quantity of items left for deceased pharaohs to take with them into eternal life, demonstrates the passion with which the ancient Egyptians believed in their gods.

This passion was also evident with the complete destruction of anything associated with Akhenaten that took place after Tutankhamun’s death, which marked the end of the Ahmose family line. The following pharaohs sought to remove every trace of the Aten, changing inscriptions, pulling down temples and changing official dynasty records to pretend Akhenaten and his successors never existed and the great cult of Amun regained its powe.

The beginning of the end for the ancient Egyptians

At the end of the New Kingdom a series of powerful pharaohs ruled, including Seti I and his son Ramesses II (the Great) who fought a number of wars to secure Egypt’s lands and wealth and truly left their mark on the country.

Ramesses the Great was incredibly long-lived, he was 96 when he died, and the confusion that followed his death was the beginning of the end for the ancient Egyptian state, although not for the Egyptian gods.

egyptian religion ramesses the great statue at karnak
There are many examples of Ramesses the Great’s long life in Egypt, like this large statue at Karnak

Ramesses III, who came to power a few decades after Ramesses the Great’s death, sought to reinstate order but the successive pharaohs were edged out by the ever-powerful presence of the cult of Amun at Thebes. Amun had come to be known as the King of the Gods, and his priests could speak with him directly, giving them a particularly special status. This culminated in the priesthood taking control of Thebes and the whole of Upper Egypt, while Lower Egypt was ruled by a series of kings.

Egypt’s prestigious status as the most influential empire was changing at the same time as other empires were developing, with the country’s wealth, resources and land appearing very attractive. First the Assyrians, and then later the Persians, conquered Egypt and installed their own pharaohs, but throughout these periods the ancient Egyptian beliefs continued to be followed.

The position of pharaoh was now viewed as the son of a god rather than being seen as that god’s image on Earth, and so the triad of gods Osiris, Isis and their son Horus became particularly popular at this time. The Egyptian myths about certain gods were still told, people still chose a patron god to follow and burial practices continued largely unchanged.

This was to be the downfall of the ancient Egyptians when the Persian king Cambyses II was looking for a new battle tactic during his attempt to conquer Egypt. He had his soldiers paint images of Bastet (the goddess of cats) onto their shields, as well as collecting live cats along with other animals, before forcing the Egyptians to confront these literal images of their gods on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians were terrified of hurting the animals and offending their gods and surrendered.

The Persians would hold onto control of Egypt until Alexander the Great, and while they attempted to add their own pantheon of gods to the Egyptian people, the customs and practices of the ancient religion of Egypt continued to be followed.

Join us on an adventure in Egypt!

Egypt needs almost no introduction – you have likely dreamed about seeing the icons of Egypt such as the Pyraminds and King Tut. On this tour we will see those sights but also expand your understanding of the Ancient Egyptian past. You’ll soar above the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon, watch the banks of the Nile pass from your stateroom on a Nile cruiser, and taste the life of Indiana Jones as you wander the markets of Cairo (no whip necessary). Besides the classic Egyptian travel experiences, we will also introduce you to contemporary Egyptian culture, the Islamic religion, and wrap it up with a day aboard a yacht enjoying the natural beauty of the Red Sea.

Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies

In 332 BC the famous Macedonian king Alexander the Great reached Egypt. He had been on a long campaign to fight the Persian empire, winning battle after battle. When he got to Egypt, the people welcomed him as a liberator and the Persian pharaoh gave in without much fight.

While Alexander didn’t stay long in Egypt, he left his mark. He designed the plans for a brand new city on the banks of the Nile called Alexandria which was the home of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world, as well as the legendary library. He paid for repairs to neglected temples and built new monuments to the Egyptians gods, as well as personally sacrificing to them at Memphis before being crowned pharaoh.

Alexander the Great died young, at a time when his huge empire was in its early stages. This empire collapsed into smaller sections in the confusion after his death, and in 323 BC his great friend and lead general Ptolemy took control of Egypt. Ptolemy I founded a dynasty that only ended in 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra.

Being Greek in origin, the Ptolemies introduced some new customs while still calling themselves pharaohs, building traditional temples and supporting the Egyptian religious structure. They tried to bring Greek gods to Egypt, but ended up combining them with Egyptian ones to create something new, such as Serapis, who was a composite deity of Osiris, Apis and Zeus.

egyptian religion ptolemy temple at edfu horus statue
The temple at Edfu dates from the time of the Ptolemies, where you can see this magnificent statue of Horus in his eagle form

The ancient Romans in Egypt

At the same time as the Ptolemy dynasty, ancient Rome was going from strength to strength. The Roman Republic had conquered most of Italy and Greece and defeated the great civilization of Carthage. However, the rise of a series of enigmatic leaders would set Rome and Egypt on a very different path.

The most famous of these leaders was Julius Caesar, the brilliant Roman general who started a civil war when he crossed the Rubicon in northern Italy in 49 BC. One of Caesar’s main opponents was a man named Pompey who fled to Egypt after a loss in battle to try and get the support of the young pharaoh Ptolemy VIII. The pharaoh instead murdered Pompey immediately, which greatly upset Caesar as he viewed this treachery as being disrepectful to Rome.

On his arrival in Egypt Caesar met Ptolemy VIII’s older sister Cleopatra and helped her take the throne, bringing Egypt directly into the conflicts of Rome, in part for revenge for Ptolemy’s murder of Pompey. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cleopatra sided with Mark Antony against Caesar’s heir Octavian in the ensuing unrest, but she chose the wrong side and in 30 BC Octavian successfully conquered Egypt.

Cleopatra’s death marked the end of the pharaohs, with Egypt becoming a Roman province. Octavian, later known as Augustus, was the first Roman emperor and took Egypt as his personal property to exert maximum control over the country. He imposed Roman law on the Egyptians, installed Romans and Greeks as local leaders and Roman legions were a common sight.

Despite this, worship of the ancient Egyptian gods was allowed to continue (although the priests were not allowed to become as rich as they had in the past). This was on the basis that the Egyptians also accepted the Roman gods, which replaced the Greek gods introduced with the Ptolemies.

The god Serapis created by Ptolemy I became the pre-eminent god, with the cult spreading beyond Egypt to the rest of the Roman world, along with the worship of Isis who became extremely popular. Ancient Romans were fascinated by Egypt, and there was an explosion of Egyptian-themed ideas, art and architecture in Rome, they even transported ancient obelisks to be re-erected in the Eternal City.

lateran obelisk rome
The ancient Egyptian obelisks brought back to Rome centuries ago still stand in the Eternal City, like this one at the Lateran Palace

Egypt and Christianity

While the Roman empire was becoming ever larger and more powerful, even with the widespread popularity of the Egyptian and Roman gods the new religion of Christianity was growing extremely fast.

Egypt was no exception, and in the 200’s Alexandria became a major center for Christian thinking. The Roman emperors tried hard to stop Christianity as their belief in the one true god meant that their religion could not simply be added to the existing collection of deities, but these attempts were unsuccessful. In 313 emperor Constantine made Christianity legal, which led to an even more rapid expansion of the faith.

In Egypt the Christian church grew fast but with their long history of religious discourse some unique ideas and practices developed here. The concept of monasticism, with people rejecting the world and and living a life of poverty, arose in Egypt before spreading to the rest of the Christian world, along with different interpretations of Christianity.

While initially Christianity was worshipped alongside the ancient gods, slowly they were overtaken. The main temple of Serapis was destroyed in the 4th century and was not rebuilt, and in 435 an official edict against paganism was issued. The shift to Christianity was accelerated by the invention of the Coptic language which was a way to write the Egyptian language with the Greek alphabet. This was used to share the gospel with those Egyptians who did not speak Greek or Latin, but fast became used far more.

As the worship of the ancient gods started to fade away, and with the spreading of Coptic, the ability to read and understand the hieroglyphs of the ancient texts also faded away. It would not be until the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 and the subsequent work done to understand the ancient language and alphabet in the 1800’s that people were able to translate it again.

Egypt and Islam

Egypt remained part of the Christian Roman empire for centuries, as it was in the eastern half of the empire ruled from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). This all changed in the 600’s when the empire was invaded by the Middle Eastern caliphate who were rapidly expanding, bringing the new religion of Islam with them.

Initially the new Muslim rulers allowed their subjects to practice their own choice of religion, but later the caliphate made Arabic the main language in Egypt and put significant pressure on the population to convert to Islam.

Cairo was founded, with a new mosque and library built as well as a huge palace complex for the caliphs to live in. It became a center for Islamic learning and was second only to Baghdad in importance within the Islamic world.

The pressure on Egyptian Christians to convert was ultimately successful. Today the Egyptian state religion is Islam, and approximately 85-90% of the population identify as Muslim. Only around 5-15% of Egyptians identify as Christian, but of those, the majority are Coptic and follow the ancient faith established in the 1st century.

cairo mosque
Cairo’s main mosque is testament to the fast adoption of Islam after Egypt was conquered by the Caliphate

Today the overlap between the ancient Egyptian religion and modern day beliefs is just as evident as it was nearly 2000 years ago. Walking down Cairo’s streets you’ll hear the call to prayer while glimpsing the great pyramids of Giza in the distance. Understanding the long history of Egypt helps us appreciate the wonders on display – join us on our next Egyptian adventure to see them for yourselves.





AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.

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