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Festivals of ancient Egypt

Despite the enormous power wielded by the Egyptian king, it was felt that these needed constant renewal. Particular aspects of the king's potency were renewed regularly, but the main occasion was known as the sed festival. Images of this festival, or jubilee, appear on monuments as far back as the Early Dynastic period (about 3100-2613 BC). The first sed festival of the king's reign normally took place in his thirtieth year, although sometimes it was earlier; it is quite possible that in these cases, for reasons not known to us, the king's powers needed to be specially enhanced. Thereafter, the festival could take place at three-yearly intervals.

Two elements of the ritual are depicted on an ivory label of the First Dynasty (about 3100 BC-2890 BC). The king appeared dressed in a special garment and seated in a kiosk. He was presented first dressed as the king of Upper Egypt and then as the king of Lower Egypt, thus stressing his power over both lands. He also ran round a prescribed course, either to confirm his strength or to ritually claim his territory, or both. In the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, a special court seems to have been built for the sed festival, with dummy chapels for various rituals.

There were many other festivals observed throughout the year, and every temple must have had a full programme of celebrations. Some, such as the New Year festival, must have been national in nature, but the majority, even major ones like the Opet festival in Thebes, were local.

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