Luxor Temple

Photograph of the remaining Roman murals painted over the Ancient Egyptian reliefs in the vestibule to the Offering Hall that served as the Emperor's chambers at Luxor Temple. Luke Hollis, 2022.


Within the temple at Luxor, there is a section that has obviously been modified since the era of Ramesses II. In this section there are frescoes painted on plaster, intentionally covering the hieroglyphic carvings.

A fresco is a work of art painted on fresh plaster, usually on a wall. The floor of the space has been raised, and it is obvious that a door has been enclosed to create a five foot deep niche with a curved and painted section over the top. Many archaeologists have studied these changes.

There has been some speculation that this area was created to serve as a Christian church in the late 5th or 6th centuries, and the fresco paintings were created to honor saints. Some of the figures appeared to be depicted with halos, which seemed to indicate Christian themes. Egyptologists of the late 19th century elected to remove a portion of the frescoes, with the intention of studying the original hieroglyphic accounts underneath the plaster. In the mid 20th century, after studying newly discovered sketches of the frescoes which had been done in the mid 1800s by Sir John Gardener Wilkinson, Monneret de Villiard determined that this area was instead altered during the Roman era. This room has subsequently come to be known as the Imperial Chamber.

Rome ruled over Egypt from 30 BC until 641 AD. Roman dominance over Egypt came about following Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, in the War of Actium. Octavian was subsequently given the honorary title of Augustus and became the first Roman Emperor. He brought peace and stability to the region, following many years of civil war.

After many years, Diocletian was serving as the Roman Emperor. He was the ruler in Rome from 284 - 305 AD. He was born in a family of low social status, but he rose through the ranks as a military man, eventually becoming a cavalry commander. Once proclaimed emperor, Diocletian proved to be a capable leader, organizing and enlarging the military and civil organization of the Roman Empire, and encouraging construction projects. Creating a strong empire required extra income to pay for these improvements, and Diocletian worked to improve imperial taxation. At the end of the second century, rebellion arose in Egypt regarding taxation and a desire for independence. Diocletian quelled the rebellion forcefully in 296/297 and then proceeded to reorganize and reform the government bureaucracy. He also directed the military to secure the borders of Egypt against barbarian invaders.

At this time a garrison of Roman soldiers was stationed at Luxor Temple. They were a part of the Legio III Diocletiana, whose function was to guard Alexandria. While in Thebes, they had enclosed the Luxor Temple with a fortress wall. Other changes were made inside the temple as well. Eight columns were taken down and their drums separated and used to support a raised floor in an interior room behind the hall of columns, in an area that had been built by Amenhotep III. The hieroglyphics there were plastered over, first with coarse plaster, to cover over the carved surfaces, and then with a fine plaster, to create a smooth surface. Painted frescoes were created on this plaster that included figures dressed in the Roman style. A large doorway was blocked up, and a five-foot deep niche (a decorative recess in the wall) was created, with a rounded, domed top. In the outer court, some walls were added between the columns to create a direct, central passage into this elevated room. Two columns of reddish-pink syenite, a granite-like stone, were added in front of the niche. Later archaeologists identified two additional columns of the syenite, and it was determined that there were originally four columns in total, potentially supporting a domed roof canopy called a ciborium. This ciborium would probably have been crafted from wood, overlaid with plaster. The sketches of J. G. Wilkinson that had been discovered were researched carefully as well as the existing frescoes that remained.

Historically it is known that Diocletian had appointed fellow military officer, Maximian, as co-emperor in 286. Subsequently in 293, Diocletian appointed Galerius and Constantius as junior co-emperors. It is thought that the four figures on the fresco in the domed top of the niche area are depictions of these four Roman leaders. In the frescoes around the room, the figures are wearing white clothing which seems to indicate an event called an “adventus”. An adventus is the festive processional welcome for a visitor of importance. Diocletian remained in Egypt for just under a year following the rebellion, reorganizing and improving governmental structure, and it is logical to assume that he would have spent time in this secure garrison. There is speculation that this was his throne room for receiving guests and handling governmental responsibilities. It is also possible that he merely directed that this area be built for an anticipated return visit, but he did not actually visit.

It is not immediately obvious why Diocletian and the military officers chose to create a fortress in this location at Thebes. It does not appear to offer any specific tactical advantage. Archaeologists speculate that the Romans wanted to capitalize politically on the fact that the local Egyptians associated this temple with the deified Egyptian King. By creating their own seat of power here, the Romans were aligning themselves in the context of the previous rulers in this area. This was the temple of the chief Egyptian god, Amun, whom the Romans associated with their chief god, Jupiter. In Greek, this god was known as Zeus. Whatever their reasoning, frescoes of this quantity and quality have not been found in any other Roman military installations. This makes the temple of Luxor a unique and important location.

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The Imperial Chamber at Luxor Author(s): Ioli Kalavrezou-Maxeiner Source: Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 29 (1975), pp. 225-251 Published by: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University.

The Art of Empire: The Roman Frescos and Imperial Cult Chamber in Luxor Temple. Eds. Michael Jones and Susanna McFadden. ARCE/Yale University Press.