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Temple of Khnum at Esna, Egypt


The Temple of Khnum at Esna

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

Facade of the Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Khnum at Esna

The modern Egyptian village of Esna, which was ancient Iunyt or Ta-senet (from which the Coptic Sne and Arabic Isna derive), was built in the area of ancient Latopolis and is the site of a major temple dedicated to the god Khnum. Under the Greeks and Romans, the city became the capital of the Third Nome of Upper Egypt. Besides Khnum, the temple was dedicated to several other deities, the most prominent of whom were Neith and Heka. This was the ram god that was worshipped through out this area and who fashioned mankind from mud of the Nile on his potter's wheel.


Esna is located about fifty kilometers south of Luxor. The temple now stands in the middle of the modern town at a level about nine meters below that of the surrounding grounds. However, texts mentions that it was built on the site of a temple that may have been constructed as early as the reign of Tuthmosis III. Some blocks of the earlier 18th Dynasty structure are preserved. The present structure dates to the Greek and Roman periods and is one of the latest temples to have been built by the ancient Egyptians.

Picture showing the pit in which the temple is situated

Though only the hypostyle hall was excavated by Auguste Mariette, it is well preserved. Other remains of the temple lie buried beneath the surrounding buildings of the modern town. The back wall of the hypostyle hall is the oldest part of this construct, having been the facade of the old Ptolemaic (Greek) temple. It has depictions of both Ptolemy VI Philometer and VIII. The remainder of the building was built by the Romans (Claudius through Decius) and some of its decorations date as to as late as the third century AD.

Offerings being made in the Temple of Khnum at Esna (Isna)

Offerings being made in the Temple of Khnum at Esna (Isna)

The roof of the hall, which is still intact, is supported by four rows of six tall (twelve meters high) columns with composite floral capitals of varying design that retain some of their original painted color. They are adorned with texts describing the religious festivals of the town and several Roman emperors before the gods. One of the columns shows the Emperor Trajan dancing before the goddess Menheyet. The facade of the hall is in the form of an intercolumnar screen wall similar to those of the temples at Dendera and Edfu. This structure, prior to its ruin, may have resembled those temples. The whole, remaining structure at Esna is extremely regular in design and symmetrical except for a small engaged chamber on the southern side of the entrance, perhaps serving as a robe room for priests. This feature is also found at Edfu. The facade of this structure measures some forty meters wide by seventeen meters high.

One of the fine column capitals within the Temple of Khnum

The decorations and inscriptions in the Temple of Khnum are frequently well executed and some are of special interest. There is a scene depicting the king netting wild fowl, said to represent inimical spirits, on the north wall that continues very ancient Egyptian themes. However, other depictions such as the king offering a laurel wreath to the gods, represented on a column at the rear of the hall, are decidedly new motifs. Decoration of the south wall was carved for Septimus Servus and his sons, Geta and Caracalla, depicting them before several divinities. The ceiling of the hypostyle shows Egyptian astronomical figures on the northern half and Roman signs of the zodiac on the southern half.

A Ba (soul) depicted on the walls of the temple Statue of Menheyet

There is also interesting text within the temple, including a pair of cyptographic hymns to Khnum, one written almost entirely with hieroglyphs of rams and other other written with crocodiles. These are located inside the front corners of the hypostyle hall, next to the small doors used by the priests to enter and exit the temple. Other texts records four smaller temples in the region that probably had cultic connections with this temple, though none of these have survived . One of the smaller temples, dedicated to Isis and built by Ptolemy IX Soter II and Cleopatra Cocce on the East Bank of the Nile near el-Hilla (Contralatopolis), was recorded during Napoleon's expedition. It fell victim to the construction of an administrative building in 1828. Another temple mentioned in this text has been excavated at Kom Mer, south of Esna.

In the courtyard in front of the temple there is a statue of the goddess Menheyet or Menhyt who was a little known lion-headed goddess named as the consort of Khnum at Esna. Here, there are also blocks from an early Christian church. There is also an inscription found on the back of a block from Emperor Decius decreeing that Christians will suffer death if they do not sacrifice to the pagan gods.

Ground Plan of the Temple of Khnum

Originally, the temple was linked by a ceremonial way to the Nile, where its ancient quay, adorned with the cartouches of Marcus Aurelius, is still discernable.

Several examples of column capitals in the Temple of Khnum at Esna

Several examples of column capitals in the Temple of Khnum at Esna

Several examples of column capitals in the Temple of Khnum at Esna

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle)

Reeves, Nicholas

2000

Thmes & Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05105-4

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France

None Stated

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.

2000

Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

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