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Egypt: Tebtunis (Umm el-Baragat) in Egypt


The Ancient Egyptian City of Tebtunis (Umm el-Baragat)

by Jimmy Dunn



The great lions at Tebtunis

Tebtunis (Tebtynis, Umm el-Brigat, Umm el-Baragat), a site in the Fayoum covering some five hundred thousand square meters, was occupied as early as the 12th Dynasty, and certainly by at least the fourth century BC. It was probably abandoned during the Fatimid Period. Tebtunis was a major cult center for the worship of the crocodile god, Sobek, under the guise of Soknebtunis, which can be translated as "Sobek, Lord of Tebtynis."

This was a local version of Sobek, the crocodile god of the Ombite nome, and also, since the Old Kingdom, he was also a major god in the Fayoum. Sobek had different manifestations in different Fayoum villages. Sometimes took the form of a pair of deities, though at Tebtunis he was, it seems, a single deity that was closely linked with Geb, the ancient primeval creator god of Egypt, whom the Greeks later identified with their Kronos. The temple of Soknebtunis also hosted other deities, including the important trinity consisting of of Isis, Serapis and Harpokrates. Indeed, there were a number of other gods worshipped at Tebtunis, many at other temples, as yet undiscovered, though they are referenced in the famous papyri discovered about the site.

Bernard Pyne Grenfell, one  of the original excavators at Tebtunis

The first excavations at the site, between 1899 and 1900, were those of Grenfell and Hunt. They kept few records, almost none of which survive. Their primary aim was to find papyri. In cemeteries to the west and south of the site they recovered human mummies with cartonnage, that is papier-mch wrappings of old papyrus, and crocodiles wrapped in and stuffed with papyrus rolls, all of the later Ptolemaic period. They also dug in the main temple and the town, where they found Roman-period papyri, and cleared a Coptic church to the north.

Though there are some ruins here, it is probably most well known for producing the greatest quantity and variety of documents of any site in the Fayoum, written in Greek and demotic, on papyrus and ostraka. And though sebakhin (farm laborers who harvest such ruins for fertilizer) actively worked the northern half of the site, much of it remains relatively intact. Indee today it is perhaps one of the best excavated villages in the Fayoum district, just southwest of Cairo.

The main Dromos, or  processional way, for the Temple of Soknebtunis

The temple of Soknebtunis is situated at the southwest corner of the site. The paved dromos that approaches the temple form the south dates to the Roman reign of Augustus, though it was built up over an earlier Ptolemaic dromos. Marking its beginning are the bases for a pair of lions, followed by a kiosk built of rusticated blocks (which mayhave never been finished) in a walled enclosure. Between them, another Roman dromos heads west into the desert, perhaps leading to a large, painted underground chamber which has not yet been discovered, but which may have been the funerary temple of Sobek. The pair of crouching lions beyond the kiosk mark the beginning of the older Ptolemaic dromos, and the next kiosk dates to the early Ptolemaic Period.

Ground plan of the temple  and parts of the ancient village of Tebtunis

During the Roman Period, deipneteria (dinings rooms) were built on either side of the main dromos, as well as on both sides of the secondary one leading west. The deipneteria were used for club and family feasting. A fullery was established opposite the lateral dromos. Behind the dining rooms to the west were blocks of Roman housing and merchants. The first block down terminated with four shops, open to the street, that sold food. The next block, built over a Ptolemaic portico, is known today as "the block (insula) of the papyri," because it yielded almost a thousand administrative and literary texts. South of these, closer to the temple, were a few tower houses and small granaries, while just prior to the temple stood a peristyle courtyard of fluted Ionic columns that was once plastered and painted to resemble marble built on a platform. There was a row of Doric columns to the east and a series of rooms to the north. The peristyle courtyard was built during the first century BC on the site of earlier buildings, and was modified in the first century AD, when the shrine was added. Part of it was built over a public bath house with small individual stone baths, which dated to the third or second century BC. This structure was replaced by a monumental bath house to its west, which may have been in use between the late second century BC through the first century AD. It had separate bathing rooms for men and women and a massive underground cistern.

A view inside one of the  shops at Tebtunis

A section of the bath  house at Tebtunis

The main dromos finally ends at an open-air vestibule built either by Ptolemy XII or Augustus. The stone walls of this structure are adorned with reliefs depicting the elaborate annual procession of the mummified crocodile of Soknebtunis leaving the temple. Up against the wall of the vestibule some one hundred small animals were sacrificed and buried during the Roman Period.

Ruins of the Tower House  and Peristyle Court

Leading off to the east from the vestibule is a third, broad dromos. One document suggests that it terminated at a temple dedicated to Min or Osiris, which has yet to be discovered. On the corner made up by the main dromos and the east dromo is a small temple dedicated to Isis-Thermouthis. It was built during the third century BC of mudbrick with limestone doorways, paneling and paving. Later, during Augustan times, it was heavily remodeled. The large adjacent building with a columned porch, and the house to its east which had niches adorned with mythological wall paintings, also date to the Augustan period. To the south of the eastern dromos are more blocks of housing, along with some second century BC bakeries and a large walled complex with a substantial mudbrick tower. Texts discovered at this site identify it as the headquarters of the desert guards. South of this location is an area that was used to dump rubbish between the second century BC and the third century AD, where thousands of papyri in hieratic, demotic and Greek were dumped, together with ostraka and wine jars with painted labels.

Buildings belonging to  the Desert Guards at Tebtunis

The partically restored  main temple of Soknebtunis at Tebtunis

Beyond the vestibule, to the south, the main Soknebtunis temple complex, including its enclosure and dromos, was a completely new construction initiated by Ptolemy I. The entrance into the massive mudbrick enclosure of the temple was through a stone pylon, which in turn led into the first courtyard. Within the courtyard were a number of structures, including two cellars that were filled with papyri inscribed with religious, scientific, literary, administrative and private texts. Written in hieratic, demotic and Greek, and mostly related to the temple and its priests, the papyri mostly date to the second century AD.

A block at Tebtunis,  depicting the local version of Sobek and an unknown Ptolemaic King,  probably in an offering scene.

On the inside right wall of the second pylon the base of a relief is visible that proba bly depicted a Ptolemaic king making offerings. Inside this pylon is the inner cour, where surface fragments of the ancient temple indicate that it was made of stone and decorated with painted reliefs. However, only the mudbrick foundations of the temple survive. Along the enclosure are rows of annex building made of mudbrick which were used to house priests and for storage.

A closer view of the  temple ruins showing many columns

Various texts indicate that the temple prospered through the Roman Period and at least into the third century. However, after that, during the Byzantine period, the temple and its gateways of stone were harvested to provide building material for churches.

Restored ruins west of the temple complex

The houses in the southwest corner of Tebtunis indicate various building phases in which the structures were built, abandoned and rebuilt on different plans, from the fourth century BC through the first part of the third century AD, when the area, including the temple, was abandoned and covered by sand. The irregular grid of streets and houses visible in the central area of Tebtunis formed the Roman Period center of the village, when it reached its greatest extent. Here, early excavations unearthed thousands of private and public documents, mostly dating to the Roman era. Traces of Roman Period buildings extend right to the north edge of the site, but most of what is visible there dates to the Byzantine and Arab eras, when the occupied area shrank northwards.

South and southwest of the temple in the desert lie the village cemeteries, one of which contained over 2,000 mummified crocodiles. Some of them had been wrapped in Ptolemaic administrative documents, including the Menches Archive, that richly documented the nearby village of Kerkeosiris.

The monastic church, photographed in 1933

By the fifty century AD, the village of Tebtunis had become a regional capital called Theodosiopolis, but after the Arab invasion of Egypt its name reverted to Tutun. Coptic religious texts discovered elsewhere in Egypt attest to a flourishing school of scribes at Tutun in the ninth and tenth centuries AD. There were also at least four large churches, built of reused material from older buildings, but with fine new wall paintings. The most impressive of these belonged to a monastic complex, of which some walls remain visible. It had a columned nave and in the tenth century was adorned with striking painting of biblical scenes, two of which, depicting Adam and Eve before and after the Fall, survive in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

The mudbrick walls of the  9th Century Arab house

There are also two recently excavated Arab period houses at the site, one dating to the ninth century and the other to the seventh or ninth century. Also, in the northeast corner of the site are the remains of a massive mudbrick tower on foundations of reused stone. In the northern sector of the site are the remains of millstones and press parts, but these are of late date and represent the remains of an abandoned site for processing agricultural products.

The ancient site of Tebtunis was completely abandoned by the eleventh century AD, when the name of the town was transferred to a new village to the north of the ancient one.

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