The Healer Priests of Ancient Egyptian Temples

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

In ancient Egypt, if one got sick, they would turn to the temple. This was because the priests were also the physicians. Theories say that a lot of medical science in Egypt came out of mummification. It is by no means a foolish theory. Egypt was famous worldwide for its physicians, whether they were from the temples or otherwise. But, the ordinary people were not even allowed into the temples. Then how did it all work?

The Deir el Bahari temples in Egypt.
In ancient Egypt, the priests of temples were also involved in healing people of their ailments. (Image: Chipdawes at English Wikipedia/Public domain)

Priests as Physicians

We know that in ancient Egypt the physicians came from the temples because of the titles they had—for example, the physician of the temple of Sekhmet or the physician of the temple of Isis. These priests/physicians were so famous or good at their jobs that kings of other nations would request their Egyptian counterparts to send them across on occasions when they were unwell.

But, where did the common people go for healing? It is very clear that these physicians did not visit homes. They were not like traveling physicians. They were basically priests. So if one wanted to be healed, they had to go to a temple; the temples in Egypt were like clinics.

And Dendera was one temple that was associated with such healing. This temple, situated in the south of Egypt, was dedicated to Hathor who was also connected with the goddess Isis. So, in case you were sick, you could go to the Dendera temple. The temple had small rooms where to sleep overnight on the sacred grounds. And the dreams you saw there would tell you that what was it that you needed to do if you wanted to get cured.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Temples Not For Ordinary People

Picture of Dendera temple.
The temple of Hathor in Dendera was associated with healing. (Image: Ijanderson977/Public domain)

Temples were very sacred in ancient Egypt. We have always been taught that we can go to the church or the synagogue on a certain day. But in Egypt, that was not the practice. Temples in Egypt were not for the common people, they were not meant for ordinary people in any way. These temples were only for the priests.

These places were secret and special. So it was a big deal if you went to a temple and slept for the night. It was in no way similar to sleeping in the back of a church. Therefore, one could hope for some great dreams. And, that’s why the practice of sleeping in the temples to hear dreams that would tell them how to get healed.

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Healing with Water

Then there was also the cure by water. And we can say that this is the origin of the concept of the holy water.

These temples in Egypt had statues that were called cippi. These statues were like stela or small stelae, something with a round top that had a carving of Horus, the infant Horus who, no doubt, eventually became very powerful. Horus was seen standing on a crocodile and holding scorpions. The idea depicted here was that Horus has everything under his control.

So in order to cure someone, what priests did was that they would pour water over the top of this little statue. This water would be collected at the bottom of the statue. It was supposed to be the holy water. One could be cured after drinking this holy water.

So, just by being associated with the statue, the water became magical. But that was the most important part of the process of healing.

Healing at the Deir el-Bahri Temple

The temple at Deir el-Bahri is an example of a place where one could go for healing. The temple was dedicated to Queen Hatshepsut. It was a beautiful temple where Queen Hatshepsut had put scenes of obelisk being moved and expedition to the Punt on the walls.

Many centuries after Queen Hatshepsut had died, in the late period of Egyptian history, this temple was being used as a clinic. One can find inscriptions by Greeks on the walls on the top of the temple which gives us an idea that these temples were indeed used for healing. For example, one such inscription says: “I came here, I asked God for help and I was cured. Farewell.”

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Famous Physician-Priests of Ancient Egypt

These temples in ancient Egypt were associated with many famous physicians.

Imhotep, who, way back in the third dynasty during the Old Kingdom, was the architect of the step pyramid of Zoser. Although Imhotep was the royal architect, he was also the royal physician. He later became a god and was named Asklepios, or the Greek god of healing. So it was the god Imhotep who was associated with this temple. Then there was another architect physician Amenhotep who was the son of Hapu.

Thus, in ancient Egypt, people visited temples not for praying, but to get healed. People would come to the temples to seek the blessings of the famous healer priests. That was the most important thing to do if they were sick, and, probably, their only hope to get cured.

Common Questions about the Healer Priests of the Ancient Egyptian Temples

Q: Were ordinary people allowed inside temples in ancient Egypt?

No. In ancient Egypt, ordinary people were not allowed inside the temples.

Q: How could one get healed in ancient Egypt?

In ancient Egypt, one had to visit a temple to get healed. They had to sleep in the temple, and their dreams would help them in getting cured.

Q: How did healing with water work in ancient Egypt?

There were statues of Horus in some temples of ancient Egypt. The priest would pour water on these statues, and the water collected at the bottom was considered to be magical and helped in curing those who were sick.

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