In theology, as in all important things in ancient Egypt, architecture is the key to understanding. Ancient Egypt’s great temples typically have large courtyards connected through an axis to different halls overlooking a sacred lake behind which is the sanctum sanctorum, the place of secrets, barred to all but a select few.
The temples were portrayed to the masses as the houses of the gods. In reality, they were houses of life. Nothing houses more vibrant life than human beings, which is why ancient Egypt’s temples were in reality representations of humanity, both metaphorically and literally.
Viewed correctly, the temple designs followed that of the human form, something many other architects applied centuries later in constructing the grand Christian cathedrals in Europe.
Metaphorically, the focus was on what forms a human, rather than on what makes the human form function. This followed how religion was designed and practised in ancient Egypt. The functioning was the exterior of the religion, the rituals presented to the masses to follow. The form, however, referred to the interior of the religion, the essence of the human.
The ancient Egyptians believed humans to be the greatest living creature in existence, not out of a hubristic sense of superiority to other living things, but because humans were believed to be a representation of the divine. This was the origin of the idea of man being created in the image of God – that a human being contained within himself or herself a divine spark making them a representation of the divine core.
This representation meant a link between the inner divinity and the outer form that lives life, makes choices, and experiences the world. The inner divinity was part of the divine whole, omnipresent throughout the universe and pervading all existence, including in every human. But, in this view, it was through choices and actions that each human represented the divine differently – uniquely actually.
This view catapulted humans to divinity and was some sort of apotheosis. It also put a colossal responsibility on every human being.
The apotheosis came in endowing every human being with a divine self, an inner-dwelling spark from (and of) God that by its mere existence connected every human directly to the essence of the divine. This veneration and spiritual elevation of mankind was a step-change in human history. Some of the most refined philosophical teachings that came later followed in the same direction.
The colossal responsibility was the result of a cause-and-effect relationship between human actions and representing the divine. Here, human choices were not the causes of rewards and punishments in the way that many later religions taught. Ancient Egyptian theology reserved rewards and punishments for the masses who, the guardians of ancient Egyptian religion believed, were not able to conceive of the true conception of the divine.
For the keepers of secrets, the reality was that each human being through his or her actions was creating the life that the divine self in him or her experienced. In this way, human actions determined not just the worth of individual lives, but crucially also the merit – or the quality – with which they represented the divine.
This idea extolled goodness, but also achievement. Goodness in ancient Egyptian theology was a route to human refinement. And refinement was crucial for truly representing the divine.
Achievement carried equal weight, for if human lives were routes for the divine to experience existence, then self-achievement was the fulfilment of divine purpose, meaning that the divine realised the purpose of being in the human if the human realised his or her maximum potential. This is one understanding of the notion that achieving the maximum one can do or can be is the narrow gate to entering the kingdom of heaven within.
In this understanding, the inner divine spark, the divine self within, and the kingdom of heaven that is inside humans were almost synonymous.
Ancient Egypt emphasised that this road to the inner divine spark, the gate leading to self-fulfilment, was narrow. It is the idea of self-jihad, or fighting one’s tendencies to excess, that Sufi Muslims invoke as the key to any “path towards knowing.”
Knowing was important in ancient Egypt. Knowledge was protected; the meanings of the temple designs were hidden; the ideas at the core of the civilisation’s understanding of divinity and humanity were veiled.
For those truths to be unveiled, the person receiving them would need to be a seeker and would need to pass the narrow gate and walk the difficult road. The more the discipline, the more the self-control, the more achieving the most that a person can do and can be, the more the unveiling will be up to the point where knowledge and faith merge and ascend into knowing.
Ancient Egyptian mythology at the apex of its refinement presented a subtle image of this journey through combining the notions of Amun and Ra.
Amun was presented to the masses as the chief of the gods, akin later on to Zeus in ancient Greek mythology. For the select, however, Amun was the undefined, not because he was undefined, but because human rationality cannot perceive true infinity. Amun was the unlimited, because the human mind always thinks in terms of the relative. This is why Amun denoted that which is beyond conception, the absolute.
Ra was essentially light. He fought darkness every day and roamed the sky protecting his realm from powers that fight the dawn and limit growth.
Through their attempts to understand Amun, human beings could connect with their inner divinity, though they could never fully comprehend the essence of divinity. Through their attempts to emulate Ra, human beings could fight their inner demons, pursue self-control, be on the road to illumination, even if they could never truly achieve it. From here came the repetition of the cycle of night and day and of death and birth.
Together, Amun and Ra connected man’s intellect and searched for his or her essence with the divine that resides at the core of that essence. Together, they connected man’s daily struggles, primarily against his or her self, with his potential apotheosis to be a marvelous representation of his or her creator.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.