The feast of Opet
EVERY YEAR ANCIENT Egyptians eagerly anticipated the coming of Akhet, the flooding season,Meaning “inundation,” Akhet was the all-important time when the Nile’s floodwaters replenished the land and restored Egypt’s fertility, This time of joyous renewal was also when ancient Egypt held one of its most spectacular and most mysterious festivals: the Feast of Opet.
Opet was celebrated in the city of Thebes, and the centerpiece of the festival was a grand procession from Karnak to Luxor. In these processions, statues of the city’s most sacred gods—Amun-Re, supreme god, his wife, Mut, and his son, Khons—were placed in special vessels called barks and were then borne from one temple to the other.
During Opet, the sacred barks with the statues of Amun, Mut, and Khons set off from the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak on the eastern side of the Nile.
Opet’s formal name is heb Nefer & Ipet, which translates to “beautiful feast of Opet.” The word Opet or Ipet is believed to have referred to the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Luxor.
So important was this festive event that the second month of Akhet, when the feast typically occurred, was named after it: pa-en-Ipet, the [month] of Opet.
During the reign of Thutmose III (1458-1426 B.C.), the festival lasted for 11 days. By the start of the rule of Ramses III in 1187 B.C., it had expanded to 24 days; by his death in 1156 B.C., it had stretched to 27.
A new kingdom rises
The beautiful feast became a major celebration in the early New Kingdom (ca 1539-1075 B.C.) when the 18th dynasty came to power, after driving out the Hyksos invaders who had occupied the northern part of the Nile Valley for 200 years.
Egypt’s new rulers wasted no time in making its capital city Thebes a vast ceremonial stage to celebrate the consolidation of power, and the Opet festival took center stage.
Egypt displayed its greatness with impressive feats of engineering in the expansion of its two great temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor on the eastern bank of the Nile.
One of the early pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, Thutmose I expanded the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. His successors continued improvements to the temple’s ceremonial spaces, constructing processional avenues, courts, and pylons.
Karnak grew to become one of the largest religious complexes, measuring nearly two square miles.
Famous for its soaring columns and statues of Ramses II, the impressive Luxor Temple was built between and during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II, circa 1400 to 1200 B.C.
Archaeologists believe a smaller temple stood there originally before Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun, and Ramses II enlarged the complex and added a large court, numerous halls, a majestic colonnade, a pylon, and obelisks.
The oldest evidence of the Opet festival dates from the reign of Hatshepsut and consists of carvings on the south side of the Red Chapel at Karnak.
Made of blocks of red quartzite and gray diorite, the chapel housed the sacred bark of Amun when not in use for Opet or other festivals.
Following the queen’s death, her chapel was broken up, and parts of it used to fill in the third pylon of Karnak, built by Amenhotep III.
Following an earthquake in the 19th century, the blocks were rediscovered. After painstaking research, and significantly aided by piecing together the scenes depicting the Feast of Opet, researchers were able to reconstruct the chapel.
Its dimensions have also helped historians estimate the size of the bark that it housed.
The processional route between the temples varied with time, sometimes traveling by foot along the Avenue of Sphinxes, a road nearly two miles long and lined with statues of the mythical beasts.
At other times, the sacred statue traveled from Karnak to Luxor in a specially made bark, known in Egyptian as the Userhat-Amun (“mighty of the prow is Amun”).
This vessel was built of Lebanon cedar covered with gold. Its prow and stern were decorated with a ram’s head, sacred to the god.