False Doors In Ancient Egyptian Tombs Could Have Been A Gateway To Visit Gods After Death?

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One of the most common elements one would find while visiting ancient Egyptian tombs is the “false doors,” also known as “Ka doors.” As the name suggests itself, the doors lead to nowhere. They are imaginary passages for the Ka (an element of the “soul”) between the world of the living and the spirits and deities. The deity or the deceased could interact with the world of the living either by passing through the door or receiving offerings through it. That is why it is very common to find these false passages on the side of coffins in royal and non-royal tombs, beginning with Egypt’s the Old Kingdom.

False doors are believed to have been created in the fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia and later adapted by the builders of ancient Egypt. They were the common elements within the temples of Egypt during the new kingdom. Besides, they were often associated with a chapel known as “the hearing ear” which was generally located in the outer wall near the back of the temple close to the sanctuary. Interestingly, it is said that these chapels allowed those outside the temple to directly communicate with gods that could hear them through the false door.

typical false door
A typical false door to an Egyptian tomb. The deceased is shown above the central niche in front of a table of offerings, and inscriptions listing offerings for the deceased are carved along the side panels.

However, the majority of false doors are found in tombs and mortuary temples to allow the deceased to access the living world and receive offerings. Before the appearance of the first pyramid, the Egyptians built mastabas (tombs) for the deceased. From the outside, they are shaped like pyramids and the inside contains underground burial chambers with several other rooms. Mostly these chambers could have only been afforded by the rich and noble.

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Even before the construction of the first pyramids, the Egyptians built tombs called mastabas for their dead. Outside, they were truncated pyramids, and inside there were several rooms with underground burial chambers. In addition to the mummy, the embalmed body, one or more statues depicting the deceased were placed in them. The first false doors began to appear in Egyptian tombs during the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.

false door
The newfound tomb of Shendwa includes a false door inscribed with his name and titles, a standard ancient Egyptian prayer, and a picture of the deceased at an offering table. Image credit: Egypt Supreme Council Of Antiquities

“A typical false door has a long, narrow recessed panel which represented the actual doorway. Above this, a semi-cylindrical molding represented the reed mat generally used to close a real door. False doors were frequently made of a monolithic piece of fine limestone that were then often painted red with black spots.”

In general, the false door was placed on the west wall of the offering chamber at the back of the tomb as the west was associated with death and the afterlife. The tomb contained two false doors, one for the owner and another for his spouse (or partner, for example, the false door in the tomb of Seankhuiptah at Saqqara

).

Each and every architectural element in ancient Egypt has a specific reason that was associated with a system of beliefs in the structure of the world, both of mortal and dead. Ancient Egyptians strongly believed that death is not the end of human existence. The systematic organizing of the tomb of the deceased depicts the process of the afterlife.

For example, the false door of Ankhires reads:

“The scribe of the house of the god’s documents, the stolist of Anubis, follower of the great one, follower of Tjentet, Ankhires.”

The lintel reads:

“His eldest son it was, the lector priest Medunefer, who made this for him.”

And the left and right outer jambs read:

“An offering which the king and which Anubis,
who dwells in the divine tent-shrine, give for burial in the west,
having grown old most perfectly.
His eldest son it was, the lector priest Medunefer,
who acted on his behalf when he was buried in the necropolis.
The scribe of the house of the god’s documents, Ankhires.”

The false door was composed of a single piece of fine limestone painted red with black speckles to resemble granite. Sometimes, they looked like a flat rectangular image on the wall but they were often created to reminiscent the real door that is closed tightly. Occasionally, the false door was made of wood (e.g. the tomb of Hesire) or was simply a design painted on the flat surface of an internal wall.

Interestingly, sometimes, in ancient Egyptian tombs, a small, concealed chamber known as “Serdab” was built in which the Ka statue of the deceased was placed. This chamber did not have passages and only holes were left for Ka’s eyes so that he could watch how the relatives of the deceased made offerings to him.

The tradition of false doors was not just limited to ancient Egyptians, it was also borrowed by other ancient civilizations. They were also found in the tombs of the island of Sardinia. The Etruscans also practiced decorating burial rooms with false doors.

Tomb of Mereruka.
False door with the life-sized representation of the deceased stepping through it. Tomb of Mereruka. Image credit Wikimedia Commons

Another example of false doors outside Egypt is the mysterious “Gate of the Gods” door, located in the Hayu Marca mountain region of Peru. There is a legend behind it that says “a time long ago, great heroes had gone to join their gods, and passed through the gate for a glorious new life of immortality.” On rare occasions, those men returned for a short time with their gods to “inspect all the lands in the kingdom.”

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