Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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Religion, death and burial

4.3 Festivals: Opet, Beautiful Feast of the Valley, Heb-Sed Festival

See also Madeleine's presentation for this topic

For each of the festivals, answer the following questions:
  • When and where was the festival held?
  • What was the purpose of the festival?
  • What happened as part of the festival?
  • What evidence is there for the festival?

Festivals dedicated to Amun

The Opet and Valley festivals, dedicated to Amun and held annually at Thebes, reinforced the dominance of the temple and its priesthood. The pharaoh and his court travelled upriver from the capitals of Memphis (Eighteenth Dynasty) and Pi‑Ramesse (Nineteenth dynasty) to Thebes to play a vital role in these festivals.

The Opet festival

In the second month of the season of inundation, the images of the gods Amun, his wife Mut and son Khonsu, were taken from their sanc­tuaries at Karnak to begin a processional journey to the Temple of Luxor (southern Opet) three kilometres to the south. Amenhotep III had built the Temple of Luxor on the site of a small Thirteenth Dynasty temple as a 'monumental setting for the culmination of the rites of Opet.

The god's statues, housed within portable barques, left the temple of Karnak on the shoulders of the priests. They were accompanied by ka statues of the king.

During the reign of Hatshepsut, the journey to Luxor was via one of the sphinx‑lined processional ways with the return journey by river. By the late Eighteenth Dynasty both legs of the journey were by water.

The great golden barge (Userhat) of Amun was accompanied by members of his family, the king's flagship (rowed by officials), and a flotilla of smaller craft. The barges and boats were towed by ropes hauled by gangs of officials, soldiers and peasants on the river banks.

Accompanying the glittering flotilla were priests, musicians, singers and crowds of ordinary Egyptians from all classes of society. It is likely that many of the people who celebrated this festive holiday came from areas beyond Thebes. It was one of the few occasions when they might catch ­a glimpse of the gods' barques and for some it was an opportunity to present pleas before them.

When the barques of Amun, Mut and Khonsu reached Luxor Temple, the images of the gods were placed together in the sanctuary. Some scholars believe that the rites conducted during this time renewed the sacred marriage of Amun and Mut, who like their human counterparts then celebrated a divine honeymoon.

The presence of ka statues of the king and an inscription from the time of Amenhotep III, seem to suggest that the rituals conducted in the darkened, incense‑filled chambers in the presence of Amun, focused on the transformation of the king. Amenhotep described Luxor Temple as:
His place of justification in which he is rejuvenated. The palace from which he sets out in joy at the moment of his Appearance, his trans­formation visible to all.

During the mid‑Eighteenth Dynasty, the festival lasted about ten or 11 days but by the time of Ramesses II, the celebrations went on for more than three weeks. At the end of this period the gods returned to their homes at Karnak. Once again the procession was an occasion of great festivity for the ordinary people.

The Valley festival

In the tenth month at the time of the full moon, Amun crossed the river in his golden barge, accompanied by the king and the high priest to celebrate the Beautiful Feast of the Valley. Although less opulent and of shorter duration than the Opet, the Valley festival was of great signifi­cance to those who had family members buried in western Thebes.

The god's destination was the bay of cliffs at Deir el‑Bahri, the site of the mortuary temples of Mentuhotep (Eleventh Dynasty) and Hatshepsut (Eighteenth Dynasty). Deir el‑Bahri lay in a direct line from Karnak. After crossing the Nile, the god's barque and its priestly bearers, accompanied by soldiers, musicians and dancers, proceeded by canal to the edge or the desert and then via one of the temple causeways to Deir el‑Bahri.

The original route was later extended to allow Amun to visit the mortuary temples of previous kings and finally to rest for the night at the temple of the reigning pharaoh. An inscription on the wall of the Ramesseum, describes it as the 'resting place of the Lord of the Gods in his beautiful Feast of the Valley'.

During the festivities, lavish offerings were made to Amun, and gifts, such as fine linen garments, were presented to those who participated.

In the evening, families wound their way in a torch-lit procession to the Theban necropolis. In the tomb chapels, cut into the desert cliffs, they honoured their ancestors and gave thanks to Amun. The celebrations and singing continued throughout the night. On the following day Amun returned to Karnak.

The Heb-Sed festival

The jubilee or Sed festival (heb-sed) was a great moment in the life of the king and his subjects. It was usually held for the first time when the king had been on the throne for 30 years. Thereafter, it was held every three years. The chief purpose of the celebration was to ritually renew the powers of the reigning king so he could continue to reign effectively. It also commemorated the king’s accession to the throne by recreating the coronation ceremony.

Like the coronation, the Sed festival was usually held in Memphis. However, Ramesses II celebrated his jubilees at the delta capital of Pi-Ramesse. Ramesses II, who ruled for 67 years, is believed to have celebrated 14 jubilees.

New Kingdom evidence for the heb-sed festivals is fragmentary. Although there are numerous scattered references to these celebrations, there is no source which describes the ceremonies in full. The most informative sources relate to Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs.